Why is it hard to get new cable services in established areas?

Millions of consumers would benefit from the faster internet speeds offered by cable services, yet these are often unavailable, even in urban areas

Saturday, 19 June, 2021

There are three main ways of obtaining internet access.

There are wireless connections across mobile phone networks – historically 4G, though 5G’s launch is bringing high-speed wireless connectivity to some urban parts of the UK.

Broadband traditionally relies on the landline installed into your property by BT or Openreach (though KCOM has a monopoly on telecommunications in Hull and East Riding).

Then there are cable services.

Older readers will remember the days of ntl and Telewest, when teams of workmen would dig up pavements and install cables below ground level.

For millions of people, this provided their first taste of cable services – initially television, but latterly internet as well.

However, the cost of developing cable networks meant Telewest and ntl were both running at a loss. They merged, and subsequently became part of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire.

Today, Virgin Media has an estimated 5.2 million customers. It aims to offer its services to 60 per cent of UK dwellings by the end of next year.

While Virgin has expanded the legacy infrastructure begun by ntl and Telewest, newer firms have also entered the market.

These include Community Fibre, Hyperoptic and Gigaclear – all enthusiastically installing subterranean cable networks beneath the nation’s pavements and streets.

Tapping into one of these networks involves branching a connection from the nearest exchange or junction box into your home.

(That’s often a surprisingly low-tech process involving pieces of rope and lots of tugging.)

And yet for millions of people, even this relatively crude method of installation isn’t available. Because much of the UK has no cable infrastructure at all.

Cable and wireless

If you live in a modern housing estate, you’re very likely to have cable providers on your doorstep.

That’s because cable companies tend to work with house builders at the groundwork stages of new developments, laying their fibre optic cables alongside water, sewage and power cables.

This is far easier, cheaper and less disruptive than having to dig up residential streets, with all the council forms and manpower involved.

Pavements have to be roped off, parking has to be suspended, and there’s always someone who complains about vibrations from pneumatic drills knocking pictures off their walls.

As such, companies like Virgin often shy away from installing cable in established residential areas – or sparsely-populated regions, where uptake is likely to be low.

If you live in one of these areas, your options for expediting cable’s arrival are limited.

You can ask for services to be introduced to your neighbourhood, though there’s rarely a way to do this beyond emailing individual companies.

Nevertheless, the more enquiries a cable provider receives from a particular town or suburb, the more likely they are to prioritise it.

Collective community action may be the quickest path to bringing cable services to an area currently reliant on Openreach-based landline internet, or wireless 4G/5G connectivity.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!