Rural broadband: what are the options?

rural broadband

Around 166,000 people in the UK are stuck in rural broadband 'not spots' and a further two million in rural areas have inadequate broadband.

In this guide, we look at the options for those struggling to get things done online, or even get online at all, because they live away from a town or city.

Rural broadband: the options

The problem with rural broadband isn't always that there's a lack of ways but that so many are inadequate.

In rural communities, broadband deals through a phone line, 3G/4G or satellite are usually slower and more restrictive than their equivalents in towns and cities, and they're almost always more expensive.

It is possible to bypass the system and many communities are choosing to do just that, often ending up with some of the UK's fastest connections.

We'll take a look at some of those projects in the last section but they take time, money and serious dedication so first let's take a look at the options available for most homes.

Fixed-line broadband: ADSL and fibre

If you can get a BT telephone line, you can get ADSL broadband and, increasingly, rural areas are covered by BT's fibre network.

The best way to tell is by doing a postcode and phone number search, you can then read the section most relevant to you below.

Phone number:
Postcode:
Enter your phone number and / or postcode above to check availability in your area.

'Real rural' deals: non-LLU

If your search returned deals like Sky Connect, Plusnet 'high cost area' and , it's because you are part of the 11.7% of premises (business and households) in the UK served by a non-LLU exchange.

In LLU or unbundled exchanges, companies put their own money and technical gear into a BT exchange, releasing them from relying on BT to administer their broadband and phone lines. This boosts competition: increasing quality and, ultimately, decreases prices.

At non LLU exchanges, all the ISPs are offering BT wholesale. They all (except BT and John Lewis) charge more than they would for standard deals and, because the connections are poor (in broadband vs pigeon races in these areas, the pigeons win) often impose monthly data limits.

So although there are differences between the providers, the options are not great and many homes in this situation adopt some of the other options below.

'Standard' (but slow) broadband

Most rural users are served by an unbundled exchange, but will still face slow speeds.

Rural households are very likely to be physically far from the exchange and, since signal attenuates, this distance affects speeds drastically.

However, unlike with non-LLU, the provider does make a difference to speeds. Take a look at our speed guide to learn more, it is often worth shopping around.

Rural fibre

BT FTTC is increasingly available in the countryside, and not just in Race to Infinity villages, mostly because BT won a lot of local Government contracts.

Fibre is much better at covering long distances without signal attenuation so it does offer a good option for rural users, although since part of the signal is carried on a copper line speeds are slower.

Ofcom report that fibre connections in urban areas are, on average, 17.3Mb faster than rural areas, 46.3Mb compared to 29Mb.

Openreach have a map that includes 'coming soon' fibre areas here.

Mobile broadband: 3G and 4G

For those that can't get a BT phone line or find ADSL inadequate, mobile broadband is increasingly becoming a viable options.

4G speeds are better than the fixed line performance most rural users can expect and trials and expanded coverage means that the service is increasingly available outside of town and cities.

As you might expect, the big problem for rural areas is signal quality.

Checking coverage maps from individual providers before signing up is a must or take a look at a site like OpenSignal for a rough point of comparison between providers.

Femtocells, basically a modem that routes 3G through a home broadband line to boost signal, can help. Vodafone have Sure Signal and Three also have a booster option, though both require a 1Mb home broadband connection to work.

3G and 4G are more expensive per GB than home broadband, though the good news is that unlimited and high usage deals (EE now offer up to 50GB a month) are increasingly available.

For more in depth information on mobile broadband: check out our full guide here.

Satellite broadband

Satellite broadband has been floating around the edges of the UK broadband market for a few years now, held back from becoming more popular because of its high start-up costs and fairly low speeds and download allowances.

However, it is a potential shot in the arm for rural broadband since, unlike the options above, it provides coverage equally to rural and urban areas.

In addition, over the past few years prices have come down and speeds have improved.

For example, Tooway satellite broadband (reviewed here) starts at £15 a month with a 2GB usage allowance and goes up to £79.50 a month for 100GB of usage a month (with unlimited usage at night). Speeds go up to 22Mb downstream and 6Mb for uploads, which is much better than the speeds very rural households can expect from a fixed line.

Installation is up to £130 although it seems possible to split that across several months.

Some local areas offer grants to cover this upfront cost. For example, the Welsh Government offers a satellite subsidy called the Access Broadband Cymru.

Applicants must live in Wales and have only a basic (less than 2Mb) broadband connection currently. They can get up to £1,000 to cover their connection costs.

Community broadband projects

So far we've concentrated solely on the options for individual households in rural areas can improve their broadband.

But community broadband projects are working with small ISPs (altnets) to bypass the system rather than working within it or lobbying established providers for access in order to bring better internet access to whole villages.

Some projects - such as the village of Wray's fibre which is provided by researchers from the University of Lancashire - are easier to replicate than others but let's look at a few examples.

Demanding FTTC and FTTP

From the end of March 2013, it'll be possible to order Fibre to the Premises (FTTP), cables which can offer up to 300Mb speeds, on demand.

The local exchange will already need to be FTTC enabled and prices are based on the distance from the properties to the local fibre point, which in an rural area could be some way.

Current wholesale prices are about £1,500 for a property about 500m from the local fibre point but we'll have to wait for the real, consumer side prices.

Providers will be keen for fibre to 'catch on' and go to many households once it's at one in a local area, so demonstrating strong local community demand could help.

Similarly, in March 2010, residents of Iwade in Kent noticed that a local BT exchange was about to be upgraded to a FTTC (fibre-to-the-cabinet) service but their more rural exchange wasn't.

Village residents nabbed £13,000 from Kent council's broadband fund which persuaded BT to upgrade their exchange. To increase take up they even offered up to £75 for each household to cover the cost of installing a fibre service like BT Infinity.

Other villages have done a similar thing by using very local ISPs to, essentially, unbundle their local exchange and install new equipment.

In April 2010, for example, local investors raised £37,000 to bring fibre broadband to Lyddington, Rutland in this way.

Three's Rural Broadband Working Group also provided 11 communities with free 3G access in August 2011.

Using an altnet to get connected

Other villages have chosen to bypass BT altogether and ask a private company to install a local network.

That can take the form of a high-speed wi-fi network - so the company will lay a fibre line to a transmitter on a high point like a public building and then subscribers in the local area buy their own aerials to pick up the signal - or a fixed line fibre network.

In Ashby de la Launde, Lincolnshire, for example, wi-fi has provided up to 70Mb broadband speeds and the Broadband for Rural North (B4RN) fibre project has bought 1Gb speeds to several villages in rural Lancashire.

For a more detailed look at five of the UK's superfast villages and how they did it see this full guide.

Comments

1
7 August 2014
Noeleen

Hi, I live in a not so remove area of Scotland (6 miles from the nearest village) and just over an hour from Edinburgh and Glasgow. We recently got the phone line installed and tried to get the internet through BT. We have been unsuccessful as we are in the middle of 2 exchanges but 11 miles from each and apparently they just reach up to 10 miles, very frustrating! All the providers tell us that they can provide it but realistically they can't. Does anybody have any recommendations regarding Satellite and if it is worth the money? Are there any grants in Scotland? Like others this is seriously effecting our jobs as I had to give up on a working from home contract and my partner is self employed who really needs to use the Internet to advertise. Many thanks, Noeleen.

2
30 September 2013
Ralph

When I moved to a rural location in March I had to agree to a new BT contract where they offered min 1Mbps - guess what, it was! Barely 1Mbps at router, significantly less at wireless devices, constantly dropping the connection etc, so frustrating and basically not fit for purpose. In their wisdom to win my loyalty I am being held hostage to pay the contract payments until next March as I agreed to it.

I installed the Tooway satellite broadband system in the summer, not too difficult to set up with the kit. Has been great so far - receiving min 12Mbps. Would definitely recommend it to anyone else in a rural location. It is a bit more expensive but after spending one hour trying to use 1Mbps you would pay anything, just a shame the receiver is coloured bright white.

30 December 2013
Jim

Hi - regarding Tooway - is there any lag, or is it just like using cabled broadband? Thanks.

3
26 June 2013
chris Wright

Just outside Penrith in Cumbria. Three give me 13-18Mbs speeds. Absolutely no complaints and it isn't even 4G! No landline, killed that two years ago, free mobile calls using Is Apps to anywhere in the world and costs less than Sky and so much faster.

4
19 June 2013
Steve Morris

We built a house in a small village, (Barnby in the willows, near Newark. Notts) and have had BT broadband for almost 2 years. Not a great speed at 0.5Mb but at least it is broadband. Something's gone wrong in the last week and after 4 hours of being on hold and engineers investigating the problem, BT have just turned round and said that they can no longer provide us with broadband! What's that all about? Even though we use their landline. They even said that we won't incur a penalty for cancelling before our contract is up! Any ideas please? Thanks.

22 August 2014
mrwirez

.5 Mb/s is not broadband. It's Dial-up Plus.

10 May 2014
Jinnie Stride

Hi Steve, I am going to be moving to Barnby in the willows in the very near future, and I have investigated broadband... total no go at less than 1Mb on a landline. Could I ask if you use mobile broadband and if so which provider please? Also which mobile phone providers give a good signal? I am on O2.

Kind regards
Jinnie

5
7 April 2013
john inglis

Why do you have different prices for different areas of the country for broadband?

7 April 2013
Choose team

Some ISPs use geographical pricing, which means they pass on the savings they make from providing broadband in the most competitive areas. People living in well served areas can then be offered cheaper prices with the same ISP than people living in areas where only BT is operating in the local exchange.

6
15 March 2013
Gaz

We live in a newly renovated old pub property within a newly developed complex in which the developer failed to install any phone lines and has since washed his hands of the site completely. We bought the house whilst the site was still under development and despite reassurances from the conniving developer at the time we have been left without.

BT are asking for roughly £4k to install a line to our property.

Unfortunately for us, 3G is next to useless as we live in an old stone pub which more or less blocks signal completely and satellite is too expensive.

Does anyone know if we can challenge this in anyway? I'm an I.T engineer and I really need a reliable connection at home to do my job properly. I found this statement on Wiki:

"The right to Internet access, also known as the right to broadband, is the view that all people must be able to access the Internet in order to exercise and enjoy their rights to Freedom of expression and opinion and other fundamental human rights, that states have a responsibility to ensure that Internet access is broadly available, and that states may not unreasonably restrict an individuals access to the Internet. Internet access is recognized as a right by the laws of several countries.[1]"

Roughly translated, does this mean we are entitled to a phone line for broadband at our property or is that wishful thinking. Is this ever likely to be a law in the future? i.e as necessary as gas, water and electric?

This is also bothering me from a resale point of view... how much value has my property lost because of this... (rhetorical question)

The biggest frustration is we are literally feet away from other properties that have phone lines/cable etc...

26 September 2013
MJC

I had a similar situation a long time back, BT quoted £7.5k for a line. At that time I discovered they had an obligation to do 100 hours work within the standard connection charge, and could then bill the hours per line on top at £75 per hour. I ordered 10 lines and got 1000 free hours work, then cancelled the lines I didn't need.

15 March 2013
Choose team

Unfortunately, I think even if that was the case, which we're not sure it is - BT aren't refusing you a telephone line, they're just passing on the cost of the installation for it.

It does sound incredibly expensive though - normally BT charge a flat rate for new lines for everyone. Although it's hard to say if there aren't other factors involved.

Satellite broadband may be an option, and installation is dearer than standard broadband - but much less than £4,000 - at the time of writing Tooway direct are currently charging £129.90 setup + £49.99 for self installation. For an idea of the costs see our Tooway packages page here.

7
10 January 2013
G Cox

This article is way off on rural tethering.

All the negative vibes around stopped me trying.

Today I jumped from 1Mb on BT ADSL to 5Mb on mobile broadband to my astonishment.

10 January 2013
Choose team

Hi,

We apologise if we've been a little pessimistic about mobile broadband speeds in rural areas. We'll certainly consider our wording when we next update this article.

We do appreciate mobile broadband is an option for people in rural areas though and that's why we've included it in the article above. However, we think it's still fair to say for the majority of people living away from major cities, like mobile phone signals, mobile broadband signals just aren't going to be that strong.

A good rule of thumb is if mobile phone signals tend be weak or patchy in an area, it's unlikely mobile broadband will be any different, as it uses the mobile phone network. However, it does depend on the provider - different networks offer different levels of coverage in different areas. Where one provider may have a weak signal, another provider may offer a stronger signal.

Clearly, as you've highlighted, poor mobile broadband coverage is not the case for everyone living in the countryside and we certainly think mobile broadband is an avenue worth looking into.

As we mention above, it's always worth checking out mobile broadband signal in your area using a coverage site such as OpenSignal maps, or the coverage maps of each provider themselves. It's the best way to get an idea without spending money to find out.

Equally, a member of the Choose team has personal experience of using O2 mobile broadband in the countryside, and when purchasing the dongle the O2 staff checked coverage and advised against buying it due to low signal, but desperate to get online they tried anyway and it did provide a slow but just-about usable connection.

8
4 November 2012
Tony Gill

Bempton in East Yorkshire we are on the Flamborough exchange and BT are letting us down badly by not upgrading the exchange and Bridlington which is only 4 miles away has super fast broadband and we only get between 1 to 2Mb if we are very lucky. Still have to pay the same price for the privilege, we don't want to pay less just get us better connection speeds. PLEASE.

9
24 September 2012
Alex

Had 300Kbps broadband since 2003. Tried satellite broadband which was rubbish. Too expensive and a tiny data allowance. The best solution for us was a mobile phone contract on the one plan including tethering and all you can eat data. It's on the Three network.

We get a good HSPA+ signal using a signal booster aerial.

Like the above comment said, why all the wasted money on cables everywhere. The future surely is wireless with 4G round the corner. We get 10Mbps now.

23 January 2014
Tgirl4me

Hi Alex, I contacted Three today and asked for a signal booster but they wouldn't give it to me except I install a wireless broadband in my house as they said it feeds off the broadband. But I have an all in one plan and unlimited internet with 3 network, like yourself? What do I need to say to them to give me the 'signal booster'? Wireless networks are rubbish where I live (in the rural area) as well. Cheers.

10
1 September 2012
Anthony Ballisat

People living in the sticks will never have a good broadband service if we have to wait for BT to provide it. It would have been far quicker and fairer if the pre-digital TV transmitters had been used it would give both city and country an equal service. The Belmont transmitter prior to its decapitation would have covered a large area, saving the need for miles of trenches and cables.

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