Is the problem with rural broadband as bad as it seems?
Yes, it is. Consider this; the very minimum speed expected by modern users when they connect to the internet is 10 megabits per second (Mbps)- that is in most urban areas. Compare this speed to the speed that most users in rural areas experience of 2 megabits per second, and that is if they are lucky for some areas to get speeds that are even lower than this! In a study done in 2016 by Ofcom, 1.5 million premises cannot get the necessary speed one needs to watch a video online let alone support multiple devices such as phones and tablets.
This does a lot of people and small businesses injustice as it makes the day-to-day use of the internet a frustrating, and sometimes impossible task. Compared to other countries, though, the UK is not doing too bad- for now.
Well, for one thing, the old copper wires used by standard ADSL broadband slows down your connection to the internet the further you are from the telephone exchange. This is a problem in rural areas where some homes are so far from the local exchange that their speeds are so slow they are sometimes confused with old-fashioned dial-up connections!
BT, which owns all telephone exchanges, is currently in the process of replacing these copper cables with fibre optic cables which deliver speeds of up to 50 times the standard broadband speed in some areas. This, of course, is a breath of fresh air to a lot of consumers. However, not everyone will be as lucky as BT has classed some rural areas as 'non-commercially viable’ since the area is not big enough to provide a return on its investments and as such will be left out of the upgrade.
Well, the good news is that the government is aware of the problem and is committed to solving the problem. The Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project, rolled out in 2011 by the government aims to bring superfast broadband (internet connection of 24Mbps and above) to 95% of the country by 2017. Since it was set up, there has been a significant improvement in slow speeds as the total number of slow internet users has fallen to below 25% across all rural areas. But that is still not enough as only 68% of small and medium businesses had superfast broadband by the end of last year. This leaves an excess of 400,000 still waiting for an upgrade.
Now if you are among many in the rural areas tired of just waiting for BT to eventually get to your area with the much-needed upgrade, worry not, there are a number of alternatives at your disposal.
This is a very good option for those who live where traditional fixed-line based broadband is unavailable. It works very much in the same way satellite TV does. A satellite is placed in orbit above the equator, and from where it orbits at the same pace earth does thereby enabling your home satellite dish and the orbiting satellite to remain in contact. In very simple terms, it creates a two-way access using satellites between the customer premises and a satellite ISP hub. The beauty of satellite broadband, you can connect to the internet even if your area is not covered by UK’s telephone or fibre network. Anywhere, anytime, you can get connected. You won’t need even need a landline just a dish and a receiver.
Speeds used to be as low as 256 Kilobits per second (kbps) but following the launch of new Ka-band satellites this speed has increased to up to 6Mbps upload speed and a maximum of 20Mbps download speeds. Unfortunately, these speeds come at a cost. It is expensive to build and launch a satellite, and these costs are passed down into the charges the customers have to shoulder.
First, the setup cost tends to run into hundreds of pounds since you will need to purchase or rent most of the equipment and also pay for the installation. Compared to the other home broadband solutions, running cost will be higher and as such this tends to discourage people away. However, there are cheap and fast satellite broadband providers. Depending on the amount of data you want to use, the cost can vary from £30 per month up to over £100.
There is one problem often associated with satellite, though- high latency. This is caused by the long distance that the broadband has to travel and as a result, one may experience second long delays especially when online gaming, video conferencing and VoIP.
Verdict: While it is the fastest of the home broadband solutions, it is also the most expensive overall and as such one should consider it if all other options are not viable.
Mobile broadband was a sorely, disappointing experience not so long ago but as technology advances in both 3G and 4G, it has become a very fast, very reliable way of connecting to the internet. It works by utilising your mobile phone network to connect to the internet and is usually used to connect laptops and tablets. Just like satellite broadband, this is a solution that can be used almost anywhere as almost all of residential homes have some sort of mobile network coverage that can be used to enable the connection.
While it doesn’t quite much up in speed with satellite broadband, it is quite fast in its own right depending on the type of connection you have. The latest and fastest in its connection types is the fourth generation broadband type also known as 4G (and sometimes known as LTE) currently being rolled out all over the UK. It has top speed average of 14Mbps. However, EE, UK’s first 4G provider offers a 4G plan that can provide a download speed of up to 30Mbps. Its predecessor, HSPA+ has greater coverage than the 4G network and has speeds of up to 6Mbps. Then there is the 3G network that gives you up to 7.2Mbps. With these speeds, you can get a lot done no matter the area you are in. If you happen to be in the rural area and it doesn’t have 4G coverage, the network will automatically drop to HSPA+ or 3G which will enable you to continue with your work albeit with a marginally slower connection.
In terms of cost, it is certainly a whole lot cheaper than satellite broadband. How much you pay does depend on whether you use the pay as you go (PAYG) option or sign up for a contract. The price per gigabyte is typically lower when in a contract than when using PAYG. Another benefit of getting into contract is that it has higher data allowances where as in PAYG you will need to top-up severally to get the same allowances. The prices for mobile broadband however typically range from £5 to £50 per month.
Another of the great benefits of this broadband type is that there’s almost no set up cost. You don’t need to be a professional to set it up but just to have a basic knowledge of how to operate your phone and you are good to go. Unlike other broadband, this one is also portable so you can use it on the go.
However as good as it is, it does have some drawbacks. For one thing, the speed tends to vary depending with where you are. As 4G isn’t fully rolled out, some areas have little or no 4G coverage, and as such you will have to depend on the slower speeds of HSPA+ or 3G. It is also not suitable for heavy internet use such as prolonged Skype calls or streaming TV services, as it will make its cost higher. If you are using it lightly, such as for emails and video streaming, it is quite effective.
Verdict: It is the clear option if you are planning for light internet use or occasional use as it is both cheap and available. However, if you are a heavy internet user, it will be best looking for another option.
This is a simple solution that a community can take as a whole to fix their internet issues. A fixed wireless broadband is installed and then sold to the people of that area. A transmitter is placed somewhere central, and it then transmits to receivers installed in each property. To understand how fixed wireless works, it is simply like this; radio transmitters are used to send broadband signals from where the fixed –line fibre optic network ends.
This broadband has two major advantages. One; the speeds are very good from as low as 17Mbps to as much as 100Mbps. With speeds like this is possible to carry out a whole lot in terms of personal or business use. Two; one does not require a phone line to get connected. This shaves off the expense that comes with lines. Just like satellite broadband, fixed wireless comes with set up costs that cannot be avoided as one needs to have a transmitter to be able to receive the signal. Another drawback is the fact that fixed wireless is offered primarily by regional providers who may not have spread to every region and as such, it limits its reach.
Verdict: Before committing make sure you have researched the prices and installation costs of the providers in your area, but it is a sound choice if it is available in your community.
This broadband, also known as the asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), is another proper solution for the slow internet speed challenge in rural areas. It works by allowing data to be sent via the existing copper lines but at a faster rate. What makes ADSL different from a dial-up is that it works alongside the same frequencies that allow you to make a phone call. This means that you can make a call while downloading data at the same time. The name asymmetric comes from the fact that the download speeds are far much greater than the upload speeds.
Since BT owns UK’s landline infrastructure, ADSL is largely available in the UK with availability to 99% of the population. Through a process known as local loop unbundling, a secondary provider installs their software line and exchange space with BT. When the broadband is installed, a micro-filter is plugged into the phone that separates the frequency of the phone line and the connection to the broadband thus allowing you to talk on the phone while using the internet.
In terms of speed, ADSL is almost at par with mobile broadband with downstream speeds of up to 9Mbps and upstream speeds of up to 832Mbps. This makes it more suitable for light casual internet use. However, it is important to note that since this broadband uses copper cables, its speed is directly affected by the how far you are from the telephone exchange. And even if you were near the telephone exchange, the speed might be slower than you expect as not all rural exchanges have been upgraded. It is a gamble most take however as most households can get a BT line and it also is the cheapest broadband available.
Verdict: It is by far the cheapest option with the most number of deals available. However before committing you should take into account the fact that the speeds won’t be what you expect. Also, it is sufficient for light internet use such as email and will sorely disappoint if you are planning on heavy use.
All these alternatives have their own setbacks and limitations, however. They are subject to climate conditions and distance factors. This makes fibre-optic cables the best long term solution for the problem. Whereas I previously mentioned that BT has classed some areas as non-commercially viable, this view is not shared by all. Some smaller independent providers are on the case trying to improve the situation in the rural areas. Companies such as Fleur Telecom and B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) are working on ultrafast fibre products for rural communities. The only problem is that they have limited coverage and as such not every area is covered or will be covered very soon.
But yes, there is hope.