Rural broadband guide
By Dan Howdle | Wednesday, September 9th 2020
Living in the countryside is bliss for many. Which is why so many aspire to it despite the rural premium on house prices. Peace and quiet. Birdsong. Fresh air. But if you live very remotely there are drawbacks that come with the territory. For one thing, you'll be leaning heavily on your car to get about. For another, there's a good chance your broadband is rubbish.
We're guessing that you live rurally or are thinking of living rurally, have slow broadband, and want to find out what your options are. And there are more options than simply fibre or ADSL. Here we will talk through those as well as establishing why countryside broadband is often so much slower than it is for those living in towns and cities. And of course how to get a good internet connection in rural areas.
Why is rural broadband often slow?
To be fair the situation has gotten a lot better in recent years, with most village locations in the UK having access to fast fibre. However, those living in smaller villages, hamlets or completely isolated residences may still be suffering with speed issues. The reason for this is that broadband slows down the further you are from the nearest cabinet or exchange. Hamlets and isolated residences, or small villages sprawling over a wide area are likely to be further from the nearest cabinet or exchange than houses in a town or city.
There are three main technologies that can suffer slower speeds when it comes to countryside internet. There are more that can provide effective alternatives to these, which we will cover further down, but here are the primary technologies most of us use and why they might be slow where you live.
- Slow ADSL broadband – ADSL broadband is where the signal is sent over copper phone lines. Generally speaking, if you're somewhere with a good connection, you'll be getting up to 17Mbps (average around 10-11Mbps) on ADSL, but if you're living rurally and you are quite remote speeds can be truly dire
- Slow fibre broadband – Sadly, since most fibre broadband still uses copper wiring to cover the final distance between the cabinet and your home, it can be just as susceptible to the aforementioned slowdown. If you live very remotely, upgrading to fibre, even if you can get it on paper, may not achieve very much. You can check with your provider to find out the speed you're actually going to get rather than the average speed it advertises
- Slow mobile broadband – Mobile broadband covers a lot of different gadgets and types, which we talk about further down. But in essence it is the wireless internet signal you get via your mobile phone, or some other device containing a SIM. In remote, rural locations, mobile data signals can be weak or non-existent. However, if you are suffering poor broadband speeds, mobile broadband can in many instances provide a faster alternative, provided you don't suffer slow broadband and weak mobile coverage where you live
Types of broadband available in rural locations
We will cover the best internet for rural areas in greater detail, each in its own section further down the page. First, though, her's a quick overview of the best broadband for rural areas in the UK that might or might not be available to you so you can get a handle on all of the options.
- ADSL broadband – Sometimes referred to as 'standard broadband', it is delivered entirely over copper wires and averages 10-11Mbps in locations where there aren't any significant issues. In remote locations, this speed can be a lot slower
- Fibre broadband – Is where the signal from the exchange to the cabinet in the street arrives via a high-speed fibre-optic cable, but where the remainder – the span between the cabinet and your home, often referred to as the 'last mile' – is covered by a copper wire. For this reason, if you're suffering very slow ADSL speeds, a fibre connection may not help very much as it also has to cover this same problem span
- 3G/4G/5G mobile broadband – Is internet access via a mobile network through any device containing a SIM. This can be your mobile phone, a dedicated mobile broadband home router, a dongle you can plug into your PC, a MiFi hotspot and more. We will detail these further down. 4G broadband remains one of the best broadband solutions for rural areas
- Satellite broadband – This is where you receive your broadband signal from space, via a satellite dish attached to your home. There are some significant drawbacks to satellite broadband which we will detail in its own section a bit further down, but if you cannot get anything else it's still the best internet for remote areas
- Fixed wireless broadband – This is where your village or settlement has had a wireless, line-of-sight transmitter installed somewhere high up and central (often on a church spire). This emitter relays a signal to another device mounted facing towards it on the side or top of your home. Obviously, this is not something you can choose to get as an individual – the infrastructure must already be in place
- Bonded broadband – This is where you pay for two or more lines to be connected to your home, which multiplies the speed of the incoming signal. It is very expensive and primarily aimed at businesses. Also, you will need to find a specialist provider, and if the best you can get is 2Mbps, say, one might argue that 4Mbps at an egregious cost to the householder isn't going to make as much difference as some of the alternatives
- Community broadband (FTTP) – This is where your local community has banded together to dig their own trenches and install their own broadband network. B4RN would be a good example of this. If there is something like this where you live, chances are you already know about it
Rural ADSL and fibre broadband
If you're on ADSL and it's very slow where you live and are considering upgrading to fibre, be warned – if you're suffering much slower speeds than those advertised already, fibre may not solve your problems. Still, you may find you get a little extra gas from the upgrade. Just check with your provider and they will be able to tell you the speeds you can expect from the upgrade on your specific line.
It's worth noting, too, that not all providers offer the same speed to your specific household. Some have their own equipment installed at the exchange and in the nearest cabinet, and this can affect the speed you get, even on very slow lines. Don't expect miracles, though. Virgin Media is the only operator not on Openreach (if you can get Virgin Media, your worries are over as it is very, very fast no matter where you are).
All other operators are on the Openreach network, so while speeds may vary a little, they won't vary a lot. If you're switching broadband or getting a new connection in a new home, your new provider will have to give you a speed estimate for your line during sign-up. Ensure they do, and if necessary back off and shop around for the fastest estimate for your rural wifi. You can use our rural postcode checker to begin that journey.
Mobile broadband for rural locations
Whichever of the following types of mobile broadband you think might work as a viable alternative to a fixed line internet connection, they all share one thing in common: They all arrive via a mobile network and a SIM card, with the primary difference being the device it arrives at and what sort of need that serves.
- Dongles – Usually come in the form of a USB 'stick' that looks a lot like those USB memory sticks you also barely see anymore. A dongle plugs into a single device – usually a laptop – and uses a mobile data network (like a smartphone) to provide internet access to that device only. They're hard to come by these days, but one or two providers do still offer them. They are a niche within a niche – ideal only for those who travel everywhere with their laptop, and require constant internet access
- MiFi devices – These can also be USB devices, but will often only use USB to charge their batteries. MiFi devices are small, pocket-sized boxes that act exactly like a home broadband router, with the obvious difference that they are battery powered and you can take them anywhere. You won't get the same sort of range on one of these that you will on a home router, but they are a good way for lots of people to access the internet if they are all sat relatively close to it
- Data only SIMs – The most common use for these is to put one in a tablet. They're often referred to as 'tablet SIMs' in fact. They provide mobile data, but without a phone number, or call and text bundles. Quite a lot of newer laptops have a SIM slot for one of these. So, if your laptop can accept one, you could have internet access wherever you go without the need for a dongle.
- Mobile hotspots/tethering – If you have a smartphone, chances are you can do something called 'tethering'. This is where you go into your wifi and connectivity options and switch on something called 'mobile hotspot'. When you do this your mobile will temporarily become a mobile broadband router. If you can do this reliably and it doesn't eat too much into your data allowance, there's a good argument to be made for taking this option over investing in some other, additional means of mobile connectivity
- 3G/4G/5G home broadband – Only a couple of providers offer this, but this is essentially the same as a MiFi device, only this one plugs into the mains and is designed to act as your full-time home broadband router. As with MiFi, it won't need a fixed line, but instead uses mobile network data. The main drawback with it is you will be limited in the amount of data you can use each month, but it's a good solution for those who cannot get any workable internet
- Public wifi – Depending on where you find yourself without internet and how much bandwidth (speed) you need to do what you need to do, free public wifi can be a good solution. And it won't cost you a bean. Well, maybe a coffee bean
Satellite broadband for rural homes
The good news about satellite broadband is anyone can get it, and you'll get speeds of up to 33Mbps. And while it remains the best option for broadband access in rural areas, there are some significant downsides.
Comparatively expensive – Both for installation and monthly cost, for what you get, satellite broadband deals are significantly more expensive than similarly specced traditional broadband connections
Slower than fibre – With 30Mbps being the top speed, it is somewhat slower than a top fibre package, and many times slower than a connection via cable from Virgin Media
You need a dish on your home – Country homes are often beautiful to look at, and many would argue somewhat less so with a satellite dish bolted onto the side
Usually limited – Satellite broadband deals will usually limit you to a certain amount of data per month, similarly to your mobile data deal. The more you pay, the more higher this monthly limit will be
High latency – While fine for anything that doesn't require an instant response from the server such as streaming movies or browsing the internet, the latency (or delay) caused by the signal having to go to space and back means you won't be playing Call Of Duty or other fast reaction-focused online games
Having said all that, satellite broadband still remains a far preferable option if you cannot get more than a handful of Mbps by any other means and you can afford the monthly cost.
Fixed wireless, bonded, and community broadband
We've bundled these together because the chances are you cannot get them or cannot afford them. Both fixed wireless and community broadband projects require buy-in from the entire community. Bonded lines, on the other hand, are prohibitively expensive and do not offer substantial gains.
Frequently asked questions
What is the best broadband for rural areas?
It depends on what you can get where you live, but generally if you can get an ADSL or fibre broadband connection that suits your needs, that should be your first choice. Failing that, some form of 4G or 5G mobile broadband, and failing both, satellite broadband is your only remaining option for getting good wifi in rural areas.
How can I improve my internet speed if I live in a rural location?
You can look at other options. If both ADSL and fibre are suffering severe slowdown due to your location, you should look into a 4G or 5G home broadband connection, and failing that a satellite broadband connection.
Why is rural broadband so slow?
When it comes to fixed line broadband connections (ADSL or fibre), both rely to a lesser or greater extent on the copper wire that runs from the cabinet to your home. A long span of copper will make things slow down significantly, which is why rural homes in particular often have this issue.
What is fibre availability like in rural locations?
Provided the settlement you live in comprises a few hundred or more homes, you should be able to get both ADSL and fibre. Smaller locations such as a small collection of homes, or a single, isolated home are more likely to suffer from slow broadband connections.
When will rural broadband get faster/better?
The ultimate aim is of course to ensure every home in Britain has a decent broadband connection. But when it comes to faster technologies, areas with a higher population come first, and areas with a low population come last. Rural internet connectivity is improving, but there is still some way to go, and one could argue that it may never fully catch up with the speed of connectivity you tend to find in towns and cities.