Staying connected: broadband and Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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The Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and resulting restrictions mean that the vast majority of Scotland’s population are now spending increased periods of time inside their homes.

This has resulted in increased broadband and mobile connectivity needs with many individuals now working from home, using online educational resources, streaming music and films, gaming online, and most importantly trying to stay connected with family and friends, via calls and social media. Furthermore, those essential services that are continuing to operate will need extra capacity in their networks, such as GPs moving to video-consultations where possible.

A surge in demand?

The push to stay at home has seen internet and mobile network providers reporting increased network usage. Openreach, which maintains the telephone cables and cabinets across the country used by most broadband providers, noted 

“we’ve seen a circa 20% increase in daytime usage over our fibre network, but that’s in line with what we expected and not as high as the usage levels we see during evening peak times”.

Vodafone reported that internet usage has surged by up to 50% in some European countries.  Virgin Media, which covers 45% of premises in Scotland, reported that usage had increased significantly during daytime hours and was up more than 150% on the previous month.

However, Virgin Media highlighted that daytime traffic levels are still below those experienced in their regular evening peak (this is when the vast majority of the population returns to their homes and start using a range of devices and streaming services). Demand during this evening peak period is broadly in line with traffic levels typically seen before the lockdown period despite more people staying at home. One reason for this is that many streaming providers have reduced video streaming quality, which has helped to offset the increased number of people streaming content.

Will Scotland’s broadband and mobile networks cope with this surge?

The data and feedback to date would suggest there have been no significant issues (see ISPReview, ThinkBroadband) caused by the surge in demand. ISPReview highlight that most networks are built to cope with significant peaks in usage that can go many times above their normal levels, and people need not worry about broadband providers running into too much difficulty. However, this does not mean that all households will not be having problems or seeing congestion.

And depending on where you live, some will struggle to stay connected. Across Scotland there are regional disparities in access to broadband services, and this COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of broadband as an infrastructure utility and the need to level up disparities in connectivity across Scotland. The Scottish Government’s delayed R100 Programme is aiming to achieve this parity across Scotland (see our previous blog R100: Moving (slowly) towards superfast broadband). However, current restrictions will likely further impact R100’s roll-out, as those building the networks may have slowed down or delayed work to adhere to Coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions and there may also be supply chain challenges.

Connectivity disparities across Scotland

In Scotland, superfast broadband is defined as a service which delivers a minimum download speed of at least 30 megabits per second (Mbps). Approximately 94% of premises have access to superfast broadband in Scotland and just over 4% do not meet Universal Service Obligation (USO) requirements. The USO is a UK-wide measure to deliver access to a decent and affordable connection. A decent connection is defined as one that can deliver 10 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed.

The USO provides a legal right to request a decent broadband connection, up to a cost threshold of £3,400. Despite the Scotland level figures, there is significant variation across local authority areas. The table below shows the 12 local authority areas with the largest proportion of premises that fall below the USO. Obviously as would be expected, this list is dominated by the islands and Scotland’s most rural regions. In these areas there will be people that will struggle to have enough connectivity to be able to work from home, use online educational resources, stream, etc.

% premises below legal USO

Orkney Islands


Shetland Islands






Na h-Eileanan Siar


Argyll and Bute


Dumfries and Galloway


Perth and Kinross


Scottish Borders








ThinkBroadband data correct as of 30 March 2020. Full data on superfast broadband coverage and USO for all local authorities can be accessed from this spreadsheet. 

Connectivity impact on 70+ population

People aged 70 years and over are among those most at risk of severe illness from Coronavirus (COVID-19) and because of this many will be adhering to strict isolation guidance. The below chart shows a positive correlation between those areas with high levels of 70+ population and higher levels of broadband deprivation (using the percentage of premises under USO as a proxy). This illustrates elements of our older population don’t have access to decent broadband to stay connected, and even for those that do, digital skills could prove a barrier, amplifying the negative effects of isolation.

202003_SPICe_Broadband_Access for over 70s


Wider points of note around Coronavirus (COVID-19) and connectivity

In terms of Scottish Government connectivity obligations, it is important to note that under the Scotland Act 1998, the legal and regulatory responsibility for telecoms in the UK rests solely with the UK Parliament and UK Ministers. The Scottish Government is using economic development powers to deliver the R100 programme.

On 29 March a joint statement was issued from the UK Government, Ofcom and the telecommunications industry. According to the statement all stakeholders have agreed a set of commitments to support and protect vulnerable consumers and those who may become vulnerable due to circumstances arising from Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Commitments include working with customers that now find it difficult to pay bills, remove all data allowance caps on all current fixed broadband services, provide more generous minute allowances in call packages, and that vulnerable customers or those self-isolating receive alternative methods of communication wherever possible if priority repairs to fixed broadband and landlines cannot be carried out.

Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, has published a list of tips to help people stay connected during the current situation.

Across the UK, some mobile network providers are currently offering customers increased data and unlimited access to NHS sites during this period of mass self-isolation.

Alison O’Connor, Senior Analyst, Financial Scrutiny Unit