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Rural broadband: The key issues and potential solutions

By Hannah Langston
Monday, October 10th 2016

People living in rural areas are struggling to get fast broadband, some unable to receive broadband at all, others lumbered with less than 2Mbps, making a lot of the ways most of us use the internet day-to-day a frustrating, even impossible proposition.

There are several issues affecting the delivery of fast broadband in rural parts of the UK. Here is the situation as it is currently, what’s being done to improve it, and what you can do if fast broadband isn’t coming to you any time soon.

Key issues affecting rural broadband

Long distances over old, copper-wire infrastructure

The copper wires that are used to carry standard (ADSL) broadband slow your internet connection down the further they have to travel from the telephone exchange to your home. The further you live from the exchange, the slower your broadband will be.

This is not so much of a problem in urban areas where exchanges serve so many properties as you tend not to be far from your nearest one, but in remote rural areas some homes are several miles from their local exchange. As a result, broadband speed tests have revealed speeds so slow they are easily confused with old-fashioned dial-up connections.

Bundled telephone exchanges

All telephone exchanges are owned by BT, but other providers are allowed to put their own technical equipment into exchanges so they can supply standard broadband connections independently. This allows them to offer both improved speeds and lower their prices. These exchanges are known as Local Loop Unbundled (LLU), or 'unbundled' exchanges.

Over 14% of businesses and homes in the UK are connected to a non-LLU or 'bundled' exchange, and these are mostly in rural areas. In these cases, other providers use BT’s wholesale equipment, meaning there’s little to differentiate them in terms of speed and cost.

Some providers impose download limits or fair use policies to customers on non-LLU exchanges. Non-LLU broadband packages are both more expensive, and far less available.

Fibre broadband availability

BT is currently replacing copper cables with fibre optic cables, which can deliver speeds up to 50 times faster than standard broadband in some areas. However, BT has classed some areas as ‘non-commercially viable’. This means that the area is not big enough to ensure BT gets a return on its investment.

Rural broadband availability checker

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Our rural broadband availability checker will estimate your maximum speed over your currently installed infrastructure, display the distance from your home to the exchange, and reveal whether BT Openreach and/or Virgin Media fibre are available to you.

What’s being done to resolve these problems?

The government is rolling out ‘superfast broadband’

In 2011 the government set up the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project, with the aim of bringing superfast broadband to 95% of the country by 2017. Superfast broadband is defined as an internet connection of 24Mbps or above.

For the remaining 5% of the country, the government aims to provide broadband with a speed of at least 2Mbps. You can find out if your county is included in the BDUK rollout by checking the list of links to BDUK rural broadband projects further down the page.

Huge investment has been injected into the project

The government originally invested £1.2 billion in rural broadband, and has since handed an extra £250 million to local councils to ensure superfast broadband is available to the majority of homes. Up to £20 million has been set aside to help rural community projects achieve speeds faster than 2Mbps.

BT is installing fibre connections

All 41 local authorities have chosen BT to bring superfast broadband to their areas. BT is using fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technology to deliver the speeds required to hit the government's target. This involves running fibre cables from a local telephone exchange to a local, green street cabinet.

You can find out if your home is already in a fibre area by putting your postcode into our checker.

You can find out if fibre is coming to your area by checking the list of local BDUK projects further down this page. Just bear in mind that the installation of FTTC does not equate to fibre to your home. The distance from the cabinet to your house is covered by copper wires, meaning the speed you get will still depend on how far from the cabinet you are.

Community initiatives are filling in the gaps

Not all properties are connected to a roadside cabinet and are therefore excluded from the government’s superfast broadband rollout. You can check if your property is on an ‘exchange only’ line here

In some communities where residents are experiencing slow standard broadband and aren’t eligible for FTTC broadband, groups of residents have decided take matters into their own hands and install their own fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) networks.

FTTH can deliver up to 1Gbps broadband (over 50 times faster than the UK average) straight into a customer’s home, without the need for a street cabinet.

Independent networks are providing alternatives to BT

Independent networks such as Hyperoptic and Gigaclear are also delivering high-speed fibre broadband to housing developments and business parks in rural areas.

Once the connection is installed, some of these companies act as internet service providers (ISPs) themselves, while others offer customers the option to take a broadband service from a bigger provider such as BT or Sky.

As speeds can be ten times faster than FTTC broadband, FTTH is a pricey option. Community networks and small broadband companies usually charge a minimum of £95 for installation, with the cost rising substantially for businesses.

Find your local rural broadband project

What other options are there?

Satellite broadband offers a viable solution, but it’s both limited and expensive

If your property isn’t covered by the superfast broadband rollout and FTTH broadband is not an option, then satellite broadband may be worth consideration. You will need a dish and receiver, and Ofcom approval, but you won’t need a landline so you can take line rental off the cost.

Satellite broadband delivers a maximum download speed of 20Mb and a maximum upload speed of 6Mb. While this is enough to surf the net, watch movies and stream music, if you have a big family using the internet at the same time you may find that your connection lags.

4G mobile broadband is fairly fast but only with a strong mobile signal

The fourth generation of mobile broadband, known as 4G, is the fastest so far and is currently being rolled out across the UK. Although it can’t compete with the fastest fixed broadband speeds, it can offer a significant boost for those who can’t get a strong connection through their home broadband.

The UK’s first 4G provider, EE, says its 4G plans can provide download speeds of up to 30Mbps. Its ‘double speed’ tariff gives speeds of up to 60Mbps.

Mobile broadband can be more expensive than traditional broadband. To get 4G you’ll need to live in an area with sufficient coverage – if your mobile phone signal is weak then it’s likely your broadband will be the same. You’ll also need either a dongle (a USB device that you plug into your laptop or computer), or a 4G tablet.

Wireless local broadband can offer good speeds but may be unreliable

Some rural villages have opted for a high-speed wi-fi connection. Wireless networks are installed by private companies who connect a fibre line to access points on rooftops around a village or town. Subscribers to the network then use their own aerials to pick up the signal. Some villages report speeds of up to 70Mb through their wireless network.

Wi-fi is generally viewed as a short to medium-term solution for communities waiting to be upgraded to fibre broadband. A wi-fi signal can be weakened by bad weather and interference, which means it may not be as reliable as fixed or mobile broadband.

However, in some cases, wireless broadband is the only way to get a connection in areas that are a fair distance away from the exchange and that struggle to get a strong mobile signal.

Rural broadband availability checker

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Case studies

Fountain Head, West Yorkshire

Steve and Lindsay Baumeister live in the exclusive Fountain Head village development in Halifax but have been suffering with slow broadband since they moved in.

"Broadband is the fourth utility nowadays and in a housing estate we would expect it to be a lot faster. I think we would have thought twice about buying the house if we’d known," Lindsay told us.

Lindsay’s father recently moved to Bulgaria but she finds it difficult to keep in touch with him on Skype due to her poor connection.

“We used to play darts every Sunday before he moved and we said we’d play over Skype but we haven’t been able to do it.”

Thankfully they have been upgraded to superfast broadband as part of the Superfast West Yorkshire project: a partnership between local authorities and BT to bring faster broadband to 97% of the county.

The couple said they were ‘excited’ to try out their new 60Mbps fibre optic connection.

“Before it was like having gas but just on one ring or a little camping stove, now we’re getting a six ring burner!" Steve added.

Fountain Head Village was the first to have been upgraded under Superfast West Yorkshire’s fibre broadband roll-out which commenced in April 2014.

Thorpe Market, rural Norfolk

Residents in the Norfolk village of Thorpe Market currently receive download speeds of up to 2Mpbs and upload speeds almost too low to quantify. This means small tasks such as using social media or watching a YouTube video – things most of us take for granted – can be a frustrating experience.

Despite such low speeds, the 125 properties in Thorpe Market will not be upgraded to fibre broadband, as Norfolk County Council and BT has excluded the area from their rollout plans.

Local parish councillor Ben Woodcock is running a petition to encourage the council to include Thorpe Market in the rollout. The council has said it's trying to find extra funds to upgrade the village’s local cabinet to fibre. However, many villagers believe they have already paid for the broadband rollout, yet not received the service.

Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN)

Some of the smallest communities in the UK are now receiving the fastest speeds thanks to resident-led broadband projects.

Take the community of Wray in rural Lancashire - prior to 2011 villagers were paying more for ADSL than those in nearby cities and couldn't upgrade to fibre because BT said it would be uneconomic to install a fibre network there. Among the residents farmers (who are legally required to submit DEFRA forms online), local schools and online businesses based in the village, were suffering with slow broadband speeds. Locals decided enough was enough and banded together to install and run the first community-led broadband network - Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN)

Fast forward two years and after plenty of trench-digging, cable-laying and fibre-splicing by local volunteers the 229 homes in Wray and over 100 premises in the surrounding area, were able to plug into an up to 1Gbps broadband connection. For the first time, local businesses could upload files within seconds and residents could stream movies and games uninterrupted.

B4RN has funded itself through selling shares in the business and also received donations from local businesses and organisations. B4RN customers pay an installation fee of £150 and then £30 a month for the broadband service. Like any other ISP B4RN provide an after care service, but in this case it usually involves popping round to a neighbours house rather than being on the end of a phone.

Many communities have adopted the B4RN model and there are now 25 sub-projects around the UK.

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