Telecommunications in the United Kingdom

Telecommunications in the United Kingdom

Until 1982, the main civil telecommunications system in the UK was a state monopoly known (since reorganisation in 1969) as Post Office Telecommunications. Broadcasting of radio and television was a duopoly of the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA): these two organisations controlled all broadcast services, and directly owned and operated the broadcast transmitter sites. Mobile phone and Internet services did not then exist.

The civil telecomms monopoly ended when Mercury Communications arrived in 1983. The Post Office system evolved into British Telecom and was privatised in 1984.

Broadcast transmitters, which belonged to the BBC and IBA, were privatised during the 1990s and now belong to National Grid Wireless, VT Communications and Arqiva.

Regulation of communications has changed many times during the same period, and most of the bodies have been merged into Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries [3].



Communications in the United Kingdom
Radio broadcast stations (1998) 663
Telephone lines (2002) 35m
Internet access
Percent household access (total), 2004 52% of households (12.6 million)
Percent broadband household access Half of internet connections
Internet Service Providers (1999) 364
country code top-level domain .uk

Domestic Trunk Infrastructure

All communications trunks are now digital. Most are carried via national optical fibre networks. There are several companies with national fibre networks, including BT, Virgin Media, Cable & Wireless, Easynet and Thus. Microwave links are used up to the 155 Mbit/s level, but are seldom cost-effective at higher bit rates.

International Trunks

The UK is a focal point for many of the world's submarine communications cables, which are now mostly digital optical fibre cables. There are many satellite links too, but these now provide a relatively small part of the international bandwidth.

Broadcast Transmission

Most broadcasting organisations, BBC and commercial, lease transmission facilities from one or more of the transmission companies. The main exception is the smaller local radio stations, some of which find it more cost-effective to provide their own.

Fixed Phone Lines

BT is still the main provider of fixed telephones lines, both POTS and ISDN, and it has a universal service obligation, although companies can now contract Openreach to install a phoneline on their behalf, rather than telling the customer to get BT to install it, then transfer over.

Virgin Media is the second biggest player in the residential telephone line market.

Other companies provide fixed telephone lines too, but mainly to large companies in the major cities.

There are many other providers who sell fixed telephone services carried over BT lines. They have no network infrastructure of their own.

Mobile Phone Networks

First Generation Networks

  • Cellnet: A company originally jointly owned by British Telecom and Securicor. BT eventually bought out Securicor's stake. The network became BT Cellnet and was then demerged to become O2.
  • Vodafone

Both companies ran ETACS analogue mobile phone networks.

First and Second Generation Networks

  • O2: now owned by Telefonica. Runs a GSM-900 network
  • Vodafone: Runs a GSM-900 network.
  • Orange: runs a GSM-1800 network
  • T-Mobile: originally called One-2-One, this network is also GSM-1800

Third Generation Networks

The four 2G companies all won 3G licences in a competitive auction, as did a new entrant known as 3. They have now rolled out their networks. 3 does not operate a 2G network, but has an agreement with Orange whereby customers who lose a 3G signal roam with Orange. They previously had an agreement with O2 to provide the same service.

The 3rd generation stems from technological improvements and is in essence an improvement of the available bandwidth, enabling new services to be provided to customers.

Such services include streaming of live radio or video, video calls and live TV.

Orange have biggest 3G coverage, currently standing at 93.2% (Q3 2009). However Vodafone and Orange have a good amount of coverage. T-Mobile has fairly good coverage as does O2 but generally only in major cities and less so in smaller towns, however T-Mobile and 3 have recently struck a deal whereby they can use each others 3G coverage but 3 customers cannot use T-Mobile 2G coverage.[citation needed] Three also have an additional agreement with Orange until 2010 in which Orange 2G coverage is available to three subscribers where no 3G signal exists. It is unknown whether this agreement will continue if the merger between Orange and T-Mobile is approved.

O2 will be trialling LTE technology within the next few years. It is expected other networks will follow.



Fixed Telephones

In the United Kingdom, there are 35 million (2002) main line telephones.

The telephone service in the United Kingdom was originally provided by private companies and local city councils, but by 1912,–13 [1] all except the telephone service of Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire and Guernsey had been bought out by the Post Office. Post Office Telephones also operated telephone services in Jersey and the Isle of Man until 1969 when the islands took over responsibility for their own postal and telephone services.

Post Office Telephones was reorganised in 1980–81 [4] as British Telecommunications (British Telecom, or BT), and was the first nationalised industry to be privatised by the Conservative government. The Hull Telephone Department was itself sold by Hull City Council as Kingston Communications in the late 1990s and celebrated its centenary in 2004.

Mobile Telephones

A graph showing the growth of UK mobile phone subscriptions over time.

As of January 2005, there are now more mobile phones than people - over 55 million - in the UK. However, this does not compare with Luxembourg, which has achieved 133% market penetration.[2]

Each of the five network operators (see Infrastructure above) sells mobile phone services to the public. In addition, companies such as Virgin Media and Tesco operate "virtual" networks on the infrastructure of other companies.


There is a set numbering plan for phone numbers within the United Kingdom, which is regulated by the Office of Communications (Ofcom), which replaced the Office of Telecommunications (Oftel) in 2003. Each number consists of an area code—one for each of the large towns and cities and their surroundings—and a subscriber number—the individual number.

Television and Radio Broadcasting


In 1998, there are 663 radio broadcast stations: 219 on AM, 431 on FM and 3 on shortwave. There are 84.5 million radio receiver sets (1997).


As of 1997, there are 30.5 million households with television sets.

There are five major analogue networks - BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Other networks include BSkyB, who are the main provider of satellite television in the UK and UKTV. The major cable television company is Virgin Media, and the digital terrestrial television company Freeview.


The country code top-level domain for United Kingdom web pages is .uk. Nominet UK is the .uk. Network Information Centre and second-level domains must be used.[jargon]

At the end of 2004, 52% of households (12.6 million) were reported to have access to the internet (Source: Office for National Statistics Omnibus Survey). broadband connections accounted for 50.7% of all internet connections in July 2005,[3] with one broadband connection being created every ten seconds.[4] Broadband connections grew by nearly 80% in 2004. In 1999, there were 364 Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Public libraries also provide access to the internet, sometimes for a fee.

Broadband Internet access

See also



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