Why are there problems with getting broadband in rural areas?
The main issue with providing broadband services in rural and remote areas concerns is the limited, and sometimes complete lack of, infrastructure.
As a consequence of this, rural broadband services are frequently considerably slower than you get in urban areas, and far slower than the advertised ‘up to’ speeds. And in some cases, particular services are not available at all.
Technically, standard broadband is available anywhere you can get a BT phone line — more than 98% of UK households. However, there are some so-called ‘not spot’ areas where the lines are so slow that it isn’t possible to get a useable standard broadband connection. If you’re in one of these areas you will have to look at alternative internet services, such as wireless or satellite broadband.
For most users who do get their broadband via the telephone network, the actual speed you achieve is related to how much of your connection is going over copper phone lines. The further a signal has to travel over these lines, the weaker it becomes. So, where you live is an important factor in how much of the advertised 'up to' speed is possible. And there are other infrastructure-related issues at play, too.
Let’s take a look in more detail.
Slow standard broadband
Slow speeds on standard broadband services can be grouped into three main issues:
- your distance from the phone exchange
- exchanges using older technology
- lack of competition from LLU providers
For standard broadband your entire connection is provided over telephone lines, so the distance you are from the nearest telephone exchange will determine what speeds you can achieve. Exchanges are usually located in built up areas, most often in town centres. If you're on the edge of a town, or somewhere in the countryside with miles between you and the exchange, then you'll be getting a much slower speed. This could potentially be under one megabit per second on a connection where the advertised speed might be up to 7.5Mb or 17Mb.
To compound the problem, many rural exchanges are still using older, slower technology. While Openreach (the BT Group company that maintains exchanges and street cabinets) has upgraded the majority of the network to the ADSL2+ standard with speeds of up to 17Mb, rural exchanges are often stuck on the older ADSL Max system, with speeds of up to 7.5Mb. A few unlucky areas are even worse off, using the relatively ancient ADSL spec topping out at 2Mb. Even at equivalent distances from their nearest exchange, rural homes are likely to get slower speeds than urban ones.
And finally, there’s a lack of competition in rural areas. Providers (known as LLU providers) are able to install their own equipment in exchanges — to offer potentially faster speeds or more reliable performance — but will only do so where it is economically viable. So while towns and cities might have several LLU providers competing with their own equipment, rural areas right only have one or two, and the most remote areas none.
Slow fibre broadband
Rural fibre broadband services are not immune to issues, either. The two main concerns here are:
- slow speeds caused by the distance from your nearest street cabinet
- lack of infrastructure
The most common type of fibre broadband is actually only part-fibre. The fibre optic cables run up to your nearest street cabinet, and copper lines complete the connection between the cabinet and your home. Your speeds are directly influenced by how far you are from the fibre enabled street cabinet.
In rural areas homes aren’t as densely packed as they are in towns and cities, so a single street cabinet can cover a much larger geographic area despite having the same number of telephone lines attached to it. This means the line length to street cabinets tends to be much longer in rural and remote areas, so you're more likely to have a slower fibre broadband speed than if you lived in an urban area. In some cases fibre-to-the-cabinet speeds on a cabinet's longest lines can be slower than standard broadband, or even so slow (under 2Mb) that fibre isn't offered at all.
A further complicating factor for rural broadband is that Openreach doesn't usually upgrade all the lines at an exchange to support fibreoptic — another financial decision. If the cabinet serves a rural area with a lot of long lines, the decision might be taken that there won't be enough demand to cover the costs of performing the upgrade. This may lead to rural customers being connected to a fibre enabled exchange but having no option to actually sign up for fibre broadband.
What broadband services are available in rural areas?
There are six main options for getting broadband in the country, but not all are available in all areas.
- Fibre broadband. Broadband that is delivered by fibre optic cables is the fastest option on paper.
- Standard broadband. Broadband over standard copper phone wires and has the most widespread availability.
- Mobile broadband. Broadband that runs on the 4G mobile phone data network, and is accessed either via a wireless router, a dongle, or a SIM card inserted directly into a tablet or laptop.
- Satellite broadband. Broadband supplied via the installation of a satellite dish in your home.
- Fixed wireless broadband. A broadband service installed in a village or community, and delivered wirelessly to homes via a mast and receiver.
- Bonded broadband. Broadband that combines two or more standard phone lines to create a single, faster one.
To find what packages are available in your area, visit our coverage checker.
What are the pros and cons of fibre broadband?
The rollout of fibre broadband is continuing, and is now available to around 90% of households in the UK. The remaining 10% is predominantly in rural areas where there is no fibre service.
If it's available, then fibre broadband is normally the best option for anyone who needs fast and — usually — unlimited broadband. It is priced at a higher rate than standard broadband, but it's becoming more competitive all the time.
Fibre broadband in the country is often not as fast as the equivalent service in urban areas. Most fibre products are classified as 'fibre-to-the-cabinet' (FTTC), which uses copper wires between your nearest street cabinet and your home. In many rural areas this distance can be so great that it cancels out the speed benefits of using fibre for the rest of the connection.
In extreme cases, speeds may be so slow that providers won't even sell the service despite the household being located within a coverage area.
If you can get it, it's worth investigating. But check what speeds you will get, and don't assume it will be as fast as in towns and cities.
What are the pros and cons of standard broadband?
Standard broadband, sometimes also referred to as ADSL, has by far the most widespread coverage. Only a very small minority of households are excluded.
Most households that are able to get a BT phone line should be able to get broadband through providers that use the Openreach network. This is available to all but the most remote areas. It's also the cheapest type of broadband, and has the widest number of deals available.
Some providers have installed their own equipment at telephone exchanges, and may be able to deliver more than double the speed of a non-LLU provider. As always, this is subject to the usual factors that can affect broadband speeds.
The speed you will get from a standard broadband connection is directly affected by the distance from your home to the nearest telephone exchange. The further away you are, the slower your connection will be.
Also, many rural exchanges have not been upgraded to offer the fastest ‘up to 17Mb’ speeds available in cities. Even if you’re relatively near an exchange your speed could be be much slower than you would expect.
Our coverage checker will show what speeds are available in your area — look for "Faster Phoneline Broadband" for the latest ADSL2+ services.
The default choice for many, and often the most affordable option (some providers do charge more in rural areas). However, speeds can vary wildly, and in many remote areas can be considerably slower than you'd hope.
What are the pros and cons of mobile broadband?
Around 95% of the UK population can now access the 4G network, although outdoors coverage is better than indoors, and the missing 5% broadly located outside urban areas.
If you are in an area with good 4G indoor coverage, then mobile broadband is very fast and reliable. You also don't need a phone line and the associated line rental charges.
Coverage remains extremely patchy and inconsistent: even if your neighbour gets a good indoor signal there's no guarantee you will. In reality, the signal will fall back to slower 3G connections in many rural areas, while a few will get no signal at all.
Mobile broadband is also very expensive, comparatively, and comes with usage limits of up to around 50GB and often much less. Excess usage is charged very heavily.
Mobile broadband is an option for only the lightest internet usage. If you download large files, watch streaming TV services like iPlayer, or make video calls, you should look elsewhere.
What are the pros and cons of satellite broadband?
Satellite broadband is available everywhere, so long as your home has a clear view of the sky. It's offered by niche providers.
Availability isn't an issue with satellite broadband, and the speeds it can offer are equivalent to a decent standard broadband service. You also don't need a phone line.
It's expensive, both in terms of the initial installation — you will have to rent or buy the specialist equipment needed — and the ongoing monthly costs. Packages also tend to come with tight limits on the amount of data you can download each month. A typical unlimited service comes out as much as three times more expensive than an equivalent standard broadband deal.
In addition, due to way the service works — sending and receiving signals from a satellite orbiting the earth — ping rates are high. This means it's no good for things like gaming. Traffic shaping, where speeds are reduced during peak hours, may also be used.
We're into last resort territory, here. You should only really consider satellite broadband if all other options are off the table.
What are the pros and cons of fixed wireless broadband?
Fixed wireless broadband can be installed in villages, and then sold to local residents. A centrally placed transmitter — such as on a church spire — will beam internet access to receivers installed on each property.
Speeds can be very good, but vary significantly from one provider to another. They can range from the equivalent of a slow standard broadband connection, to a fast fibre one. No phone line is needed. Prices are often in line with a typical standard broadband service.
FWB is primarily offered by regional providers, who will not have deployed their technology in every community. And where it is available there's no guarantee you can use the service. The receiver installed on each property needs to have line-of-sight access to the local transmitter, and even if it does the engineers may still decide your signal won't be good enough and not allow you to sign up. Installation can also be more expensive than other forms of broadband.
FWB can be a good choice if it's available in your community. However with no single standard, make sure you check things like price, installation costs, speed and usage limits before you sign up.
What are the pros and cons of bonded broadband?
Bonded broadband combines multiple ADSL lines to create a single, faster one. For example, if you combine two lines you will double your internet speed.
Available from specialist providers throughout the UK, bonded broadband is able to double or even potentially quadruple internet speeds where faster services are not available.
These services are aimed primarily at businesses, rather than home users. It's a very expensive option, both in terms of monthly costs and often an initial setup fee. Plus, speeds are still affected by the usual issues that affect standard broadband — if you're in a very slow area then doubling the speed may not make all that much difference.
Worth considering only once all other options have been exhausted.
Will rural broadband improve any time soon?
The Government-funded Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) aims to make superfast broadband available to 95% of the UK by the end of 2017. Ofcom has previously said the remaining 5% may not get it, but smaller independent providers are working to improve the picture for rural users.
Fleur Telecom specialises in serving remote areas with a focus on dependability rather than pricing. Users that would normally achieve slow speeds from mainstream providers might find Fleur's offerings helpful.
There are other companies targeting rural communities with ultrafast fibre products, including Gigaclear and the non-profit B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North). Their full-fibre services offer speeds of up to 1Gb, rivalling those in urban areas. The only downside is that coverage is very limited — Gigaclear expects to be available to 50,000 homes in 15 counties by the end of the year, while B4RN is focussed on parts of the North West.