Rural broadband guide
By Dan Howdle | Monday, December 19th 2022
Living in the countryside is bliss for many, but if you live very remotely there are drawbacks that come with the territory, including the fact that, unfortunately, your broadband speed is likely to be poor.
Whether you are thinking of moving to the countryside, or already live rurally and have slow broadband, in this guide we will tell you what your options are for getting a good broadband connection, and explain why countryside broadband is often so much slower than it is for those living in towns and cities.
Why is rural broadband often slow?
To be fair, the situation has got 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 properties 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 any 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 – Standard 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, with some places barely receiving 1Mbps
- 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 should check with your provider to find out the speed you're actually going to get rather than the average speed it advertises before you sign up
- 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 offer a faster alternative, as long as you don't have weak mobile coverage as well as poor broadband 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, here’s a quick overview of the best options for broadband if you live in the countryside in the UK that might or might not be available to you so you can get a handle on all the options.
- ADSL broadband – Sometimes referred to as 'standard broadband', it is delivered entirely over copper telephone 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 your nearest street cabinet 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 telephone 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 final distance
- 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 and 5G broadband remains one of the best broadband solutions for rural areas
- Satellite broadband – This is broadband transmitted to your home 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 broadband received via a wireless, line-of-sight transmitter installed somewhere high up and central (often on a church spire) in a rural area. 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 for the whole community
- 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 large 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 (Broadband for the Rural North) is just one example of this. If there is something like this where you live, chances are you already know about it
- Local gigabit networks – Virgin Media and Openreach are not the only networks in the UK - there is an increasing number of local ultrafast networks being built across the country, focussing on areas that cannot otherwise access high broadband speeds. One example of this is Wessex Broadband
Rural ADSL and fibre broadband
If you're on ADSL and it's very slow where you live and you are considering upgrading to fibre, be warned – if you're suffering much slower speeds than those advertised already, fibre may not solve your problems. Just check with your provider and it will be able to tell you the speeds you can expect if you upgrade to fibre.
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).
Most 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. When they do, you can then look around to see if that is the fastest service on offer. You can use our rural postcode checker to see what else is available.
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.
- 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
- 3G/4G/5G home broadband – Only a few 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. Many providers now offer unlimited data too, making it an idea alternative to a cabled broadband connection
- 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 network 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
- 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 only, without a phone number, or a calls and texts bundle. Quite a lot of newer laptops and tablets 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, subject to signing up for a SIM-only data deal
- 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 your 'mobile hotspot'. This essentially temporarily turns your phone into a mobile broadband router. If you can do this reliably, it can be ideal as an additional means to get other devices online. Just bear in mind it will eat up a lot of data (and battery power) so we’d recommend only tethering regularly with an unlimited data plan
Satellite broadband for rural homes
The good news about satellite broadband is anyone can get it, and you can get speedsranging from 30Mbps up to 200Mbps. And while it remains the best option for broadband access in rural areas, there are some significant downsides. Primarily expense.
Comparatively very expensive – Both for installation and monthly cost, satellite broadband deals are significantly more expensive than comparable fixed-line broadband connections.
Slower than fibre – Although 200Mbps is the top speed, the average of 30-50Mbps is slower than a top fibre package, and many times slower than a connection via cable from Virgin Media broadband or a full fibre package from the likes of BT, EE or Vodafone.
You need a dish on your home – This may not bother many people, but if you have a particularly picturesque home, you may not want a dish installed on it.
Usually limited – Satellite broadband deals will usually limit you to a certain amount of data per month, which most people will find very restrictive. However, at the time of writing Starlink still offers unlimited satellite broadband, although discussions are underway to limit usage to 1000GB (1TB) – still plenty for most average online activities.
High latency – While this isn’t a problem 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 will struggle to play Call Of Duty or other fast reaction-focused online games.
The exception to this is Starlink, which has an impressively low average latency of just 20ms. (Good latency is regarded as anything between 40-60ms or lower).
Fixed wireless, bonded, and community broadband
We've bundled these together because the chances are you either 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 a decent fibre broadband connection, that should be your first choice. Alternatively, if you have a good mobile signal, 4G or 5G home broadband is a good option. Or you may even be lucky and find yourself in an area covered by a local pure fibre network. Failing all that, satellite broadband is your only option.
How can I improve my internet speed if I live in a rural location?
You can look at other options. If fixed fibre broadband is hopelessly slow and there are no pure fibre services available, you should look into 4G or 5G home broadband, or even satellite broadband.
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 telephone wire that runs from the cabinet to your home. A long stretch of copper will make things slow down significantly, which is why rural homes in particular often have this issue as they are less likely to have a local exchange or street cabinet close by.
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 fibre. Very small clusters of homes or a single, isolated home are more likely to suffer from painfully slow broadband.
When will rural broadband get faster/better?
The ultimate aim is 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. However, with the slow phasing out of copper wires as pure fibre is rolled out across the country by Openreach, ultrafast fibre should eventually be available to everyone.