Perhaps facing slightly fewer challenges than Cornwall – in part due to the presence of the two major cities of Plymouth and Exeter, where much of the population is concentrated – the rollout of fast broadband access across the whole of largely rural Devon has still proved to be a demanding process. It’s England’s fourth largest county, largely rural and with a population significantly higher than either adjoining county, meaning that while residents of some urban areas have been enjoying the benefits of high speed broadband for years, there are still many isolated pockets where connections can be unreliable or even practically nonexistent.
The county has hundreds of small villages and settlements connected physically by the largest network of country lanes in the UK, and nestled in the kind of ‘crinkly’ landscape which can make broadband connections, both fixed-line and mobile, difficult to install. As recently as 2020 questions were raised in Parliament as to the effectiveness of the tens of millions by then invested in bringing the internet to those communities. And research by Ofcom, the telecommunications watchdog, showed that in 2022 the percentage of properties unable to access superfast broadband speeds was still close to 20% in half of Devon’’s eight districts.
By its very nature, a county with such varied landscapes – from sprawling modern cities such as Plymouth to the tiniest hamlets of Dartmoor – are served by a wide variety of services. Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS), an initiative run by both Devon and Somerset county councils to promote the rollout of superfast broadband as part of the national Building Digital UK (BDUK) project has helped over 300,000 local homes and businesses get properly connected via a combination of FTTP broadband (that’s fibre to the premises, so no old fashioned copper phone lines are involved) and also wireless broadband provided by companies such as Airband (which despite the name provides both fixed line and wireless), and, until recently Bath-based Truespeed.
Previous generation FTTC services (which, in part, still use those old phone lines) with speeds over 30Mbps are of course still available, and in some towns such as Totnes, they’re still the best available option. But that’s usually enough for most essential uses.
Mobile broadband (as supplied by the main mobile phone providers) can be a useful alternative, but of course we all know how patchy mobile signals can be, and that’s only made worse in those tucked away places. Satellite broadband remains a last resort, often requiring a sizable investment for individual households, although Elon Musk’s futuristic Starlink network of laser-connected satellites may well start to change all that (despite some recent reports of data limits being introduced).
As you’d expect, such a wide range of solutions means there are lots of companies offering their services. Conventional fixed-line solutions, usually using the national Openreach network, are offered by the likes of Sky, BT, Vodafone, NOW Broadband, TalkTalk and a few relative newcomers such as Shell Energy Broadband.
As always, there’s the option of Virgin Media Broadband – if you’re fortunate enough to be in their catchment area. They run their own network, completely independent of Openreach, and usually offer over 1Gbps, alongside a host of accompanying digital TV options. In fact they’re likely to be offering double that within a few years, if the rumours are to be believed. Devon has been an area they’ve focussed on in recent years, so you may well find that you’re lucky enough to be in one of their areas.
Aside from the big players, there’s an ever changing array of smaller providers who are often grouped under the umbrella of ‘alternative networks’, or alt-nets. These are usually independently owned, usually locally based and in Devon they include the likes of Jurassic Fibre, Skylight Broadband, Airband (actually headquartered in Worcester) and Cornwall-based Wildanet. Usually, they offer either fixed line broadband via their own smaller FTTP networks, a wireless solution (which requires a receiver to be fitted to the property), or, in some cases, both.
Credit is due to local campaigns such as B4RDS (Broadband for Rural Devon & Somerset) who have been pushing for a number of years for better and faster broadband in the Devon area, with some success.
It’d be impossible to list every individual town and village here, but we’ll try to give a brief outline.
It’ll come as no surprise to hear that the two main cities are relatively well served. Most residents of Exeter, for example, can take advantage of what’s known as ‘full fibre’, meaning they can access FTTP broadband. This means broadband speeds of up to 1000Mbps, which is more than enough for any reasonable users' demands today – or tomorrow. Unfortunately it’s not quite the same story for Plymouth, although even there almost all properties can access speeds over 300Mbps, which is probably still enough for all but the most demanding households. Generally speaking the picture isn’t too bad, as you’d expect from two major cities, both with world-class universities.
Many larger towns such as Torquay, Okehampton, Tavistock, Exmouth, Barnstaple and Brixham have areas where truly fast connections, (sometimes up to 1Gbps!) are available. But, perhaps surprisingly, others such as Teignmouth, Bideford, Newton Abbot, Bovey Tracey, Sidmouth have very limited (if any) access to the fastest FTTP services – although previous generation FTTC is widely available there.
Sadly, there are still many examples of areas where speeds are still very low. It’s no surprise that some isolated parts of Dartmoor can be very patchy, but steps have been made via the Connecting Dartmoor and Exmoor project, working alongside CDS. Also, and no doubt due to the presence of the iconic Princetown mast, which is visible for miles around, the phone signal over Dartmoor is surprisingly good, meaning mobile broadband can act as a decent, if slightly pricey last option.
As in neighbouring Cornwall, the story is very mixed, but definitely improving. Whilst there seems to have been some controversy regarding the rollout of the latest superfast broadband in Devon (and perhaps that’s inevitable), and it does remain a challenging area, the quality of broadband access is steadily improving.
According to our broadband speed test data, the average download speed across Devon is 80Mbps.