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Rural Broadband Options

Today, following the government’s Broadband Delivery UK initiative (BDUK), 95% of premises in the UK have access to superfast broadband, with speeds exceeding 24 Megabits/sec. But many of the remaining 5% live in rural areas where speeds of 24 Mbit/sec, or even half that, are a distant dream. According to Ofcom data, average broadband speeds in urban areas were 40 Mbit/sec in November 2016 while average speeds in rural areas were just a third of that: 12 Mbit/sec.

For many rural residents the situation is far grimmer, and involves much more buffering. According to Ofcom statistics, 1.1 million households and offices in the UK—4% of total premises—are stuck with broadband with inadequate speeds, defined as download speeds
below 10 Mbit/sec and upload speeds below 1 Mbit/sec. With speeds that like that, it can take you nearly a minute to load an HD YouTube clip, 1 minute 40 seconds to download an album, 11 minutes 40 seconds to download a film. Most of these inadequate, slow, and “not” spots are in rural areas: 17% of rural premises cannot get decent broadband while only 2% of urban premises are frozen out.

Under 10 Mb/sec and your internet is inadequate; under 2 Mbit/sec, you’re in a “slow spot.” Under 0.144Mb/sec and you’re in a “not spot”— a place traditional land-based, fixed line broadband solutions are so slow as to be unusable.

If you’re used to zippy internet and instantaneous downloads, these speeds can seem glacial, even prehistoric (harkening back to the dark days of the early 2000s). They’re frustrating and isolating rural dwellers but also hampering rural businesses. According to Ofcom, 230,000 small businesses in the UK (7% of the total) are unable to access decent broadband. And with Virgin cable and FTTP bringing speeds of over 300 Mbit/sec to some UK cities, the divide between urban and rural connectivity is sharpening.

The government is responding with a Universal Service Obligation (USO) that will give British homes and businesses a legal right to broadband with download speeds over 10 Mb/sec by 2020. However, even a legal right may not ensure speedy delivery, especially given the infrastructure improvements that need to be undertaken.

Higher speeds are likely coming but even if you live well off the beaten track you have options that could improve your broadband connectivity and speeds today. To understand those options, it’s helpful to first understand why rural broadband is so sluggish.

Why is rural broadband so sluggish?

It comes down to network infrastructure, which is often limited, ageing, or even completely absent in rural areas, and ultimately to money. It’s expensive to extend broadband infrastructure to remote areas, particularly when contending with the geographic features that make rural living so appealing for many: the acres of farmland, the rivers, lakes, hills, and even mountains.

With comparatively few customers living over the mountain, it’s often not economically viable for internet providers to expand or improve service in these places. Add the loss on speed over distance on copper phone lines and you can see why homes and businesses in far-flung areas often struggle with broadband speeds of 2 Mbit/sec or even slower. In some cases, speeds obtained through fixed line, land based broadband are so slow (in “not spots”) that customers will need to consider alternative ways of accessing the internet, including mobile, wireless, and satellite broadband.

But first let’s take a closer look the factors limiting the rural speeds and reliability of the two main forms of broadband: ADSL and fibre.

Why is rural ADSL broadband so slow?

Technically, everyone who has a BT phone line—99% of the population—can receive ADSL broadband, which delivers internet over copper phone lines at theoretical maximum speeds of 8 Mbit/sec (ADSL) and 24 Mbit/sec (ADSL 2+). In practice, the long distances of rural homes from phone exchanges, which are typically located in town centres, can make speeds so slow as to not be usable. Download speeds on ADSL 2+ broadband dwindle to 1.5 Mbit/sec at 5.2 km from the phone exchange, at which point it would take 49 seconds to download a standard MP3 file. Furthermore, many rural exchanges are still using older ADSL technologies with even slower maximum and actual speeds.

Providers upgrade technology to compete for your monthly internet bill. With few potential customers in rural areas, there are fewer internet providers vying for your contract, with less incentive to bring the newest, fastest technology to your local phone exchange and your doorstep. But even if a provider has traversed meadows and mountains to bring fibre optic broadband to your farm, cottage, or exburb, speeds may still suffer. Read on.

Why is rural fibre optic broadband so slow?

Fibre optic cables don’t lose signal strength and speed over long distances but most fibre optic broadband systems are only part fibre. They rely on standard copper phone lines for the last leg of their journey: from your street cabinet to your home. In rural areas houses are more widely dispersed so street cabinets cover a larger geographic area. That means the lengths of copper lines running to houses will be longer, with all the attendant slowdown in speeds. Sometimes the distances from cabinet to home are so long they cancel out any speed benefits you’d get from fibre.

What Can You Do

You don’t have to settle for plodding downloads and spotty service. You won’t even have to dig the ditch for the broadband cables yourself, although you may have to pay for it. Both BT and Virgin will connect your property to fibre lines if you foot the bill but be aware it can cost well over £1,000—sometimes much more. Before you blow your savings, check out these other options for improving broadband in remote areas.

1. Check the health of your connection

Are you getting the maximum speeds your local broadband infrastructure is capable of or are you losing precious megabits per sec to interference from other devices in your home, like your phone or alarm system; cable faults; or a defective or ageing router? BT has an online troubleshooter that can help you diagnose and fix some problems. It will cost you £129.99 to have a BT engineer assess and fix your installation so it’s worth seeing if you can remedy the problem yourself first. However, if you call out an engineer and the fault is found outside of your premises, upstream of your home at the street cabinet or phone exchange or the cabling between them, you won’t have to pay.

2. See if other providers are offering services in your area

Use a coverage checker to see if switching to another provider could improve your speeds.

3. Track future developments

You can use the Rural Broadband Partnership website to track the progress of the superfast roll-out project to see if fibre or cable options are coming to your area.

4. Consider smaller internet providers

There are firms working to deliver high-speed, reliable internet to rural areas underserved by the national providers. Fleur Telecom specifically targets remote areas, with emphasis on coverage and reliability, while Gigaclear offers full-fibre 1 gigabit/sec connections that outpace most urban speeds. Access is limited however: Gigaclear has only reached 50,000 homes, although they have plans to reach another 100,000 by 2020, and other programmes are highly localised. Speaking of which…

5. Get involved in a community broadband project—or start your own

Some communities left behind by the telecoms giants are taking matters into their own hands, forming community initiatives and partnering directly with installation companies to bring fibre and its lightning fast speeds to their homes. Tove Valley Broadband is bringing 30 Mbit/sec internet to customers in Northamptonshire, for a £100 joining fee, a £75 installation fee, then a £120 yearly subscription. Meanwhile, Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) is delivering 1 gigabit/sec speeds to homes in rural Lancashire, for a £150 connection fee and then a very reasonable £30 a month.

6. Ditch land-based broadband entirely and explore alternative options

A satellite dish? A mobile broadband deal? What about a wireless transmitter on the church spire in your village? If you can’t obtain the speeds you want using fixed-line broadband options, it may be time to explore alternatives, some of which are harnessing the latest technology and affixing them to Britain’s oldest and most revered buildings.

Alternative Solutions for Rural Broadband

Mobile Broadband

How it works: Mobile broadband delivers the internet over the mobile phone network so if your 4G coverage at home is good and your in-ground broadband infrastructure poor, you might want to consider a mobile broadband contract, offered through a mobile phone company. You can opt for a dongle that plugs into one computer or a mobile WiFi hotspot, also known as a MiFi, which can support multiple devices.

Speeds: While 4G broadband supports speeds that rival ADSL broadband (usually 20 Mbit/sec download and 10 Mbit/sec upload), 3G speeds are generally five times slower. With many rural areas falling into 4G dead zones, you might be stuck using 3G for your internet, and that’s unlikely to be faster than most fixed-line options: usually just 3 Mbit/sec download and 0.4 Mbit/sec upload. Be sure you’re getting adequate phone signal, and 4G, in your home before signing up to a mobile broadband package. Remember too that thick walls will impact mobile signal in your house; this could especially be a problem if you live in a traditional stone cottage.

Cost: Mobile broadband is more expensive than fixed line broadband and often comes with strict data allowances—and costly surcharges if you exceed them. The highest caps, on the most expensive packages, are 50 GB/month while standard allowances are 10GB/month.That means mobile broadband is best for light internet users and should be avoided if you’re looking to stream video content or download large files.

Providers: Mobile phone providers: EE, O2, Three, Virgin Mobile, and Vodafone.

Ideal for: light or occasional internet users, homes with good 4G coverage

Satellite Broadband

How it works: You may live across several mountains and miles away from town, too far for broadband cables to creep, but as long as you can see the sky—usually to the south—you can get satellite broadband. Satellite broadband uses a satellite dish to snag data relayed by your ISP’s satellite hub to a satellite orbiting the Earth.

Speeds: Download speeds range from 2 Mbit/sec to 30 Mbsit/sec in the most expensive. packages. Upload speeds used to lag at 128 or 256 kilobits/sec but new Ka-band satellites have raised these to “up to” 6 Mbit/sec.

Costs: Satellite broadband was once prohibitively expensive but new technologies and a growing costumer base have brought prices down to Earth. Prices start around £20 a month but these packages will have the most restrictive data allowances, some as low as 2GB. Expect to pay more than £100 a month for larger data packages. Unlimited packages are available but will be extremely costly. You’ll also have to pay installation fees which can range between £300 and £600. You may save money upfront by “renting” the satellite dish and other equipment from your provider rather than purchasing it outright but you then will be responsible for any damage.

Other considerations: Like satellite TV, satellite broadband is dependent upon the weather. If your satellite dish loses its line of sight to the orbiting satellite, say due to a storm, your connection could go down. And even under the best conditions satellite broadband experiences latency—the lag caused by the time it takes from the signal to be relayed to and from the satellite. Latency can make satellite broadband unsuitable for online gaming and somewhat annoying to use for video calling.

Providers: Astra2Connect, Avanti, Tooway, providers that resell these services.

Ideal for: light internet users, people who live very remotely, people with limited in-ground options and poor mobile coverage

Bonded Broadband

How it works: Bonded broadband combines multiple ADSL lines to double or even quadruple internet speeds. It sounds deceptively simple (two aggregated ADSL lines = double internet speeds, four = quadruple speeds) but in practice bonded broadband requires the complicated—and thus expensive—splitting and recombination of these aggregated data streams.

Speeds: Double or even quadruple the speed you’re currently getting with your ADSL line. But if your broadband is currently lagging at less than 2 Mbit/sec, doubling or even quadrupling may not help much.

Costs: Steep, both in installation and monthly subscription. Bonded broadband is so expensive it’s primarily aimed at business customers.

Ideal: businesses, rural dwellers with no other options and reasonable existing ADSL speeds

Fixed Wireless Broadband

How it works: A wireless transmitter installed in a central and lofty location in a village—often a church spire, as agreed by the Church of England—beams internet to receivers on each home. Your property will need a direct sight line to the local transmitter and to be within a certain range so fixed wireless works well for people who live in isolated villages but not for more far-flung properties miles from the nearest settlement.

Speeds: Vary dramatically, from matching typical ADSL speeds to rivalling those achieved by fibre.

Price: Often similar to standard broadband packages, perhaps with more costly installation fees.

Providers: Regional providers, which won’t have reached every community.

Ideal for: people who live in villages where a wireless transmitter has already been installed.