Rural broadband refers to broadband connections linking the countryside with the national network.
But as rural internet services utilise the same technology and the same networks as urban areas, why do we need to differentiate them? It's mainly because of the speed and coverage issues that can plague rural homes and businesses.
Ask anyone who lives in the country what the number one downside is, and there's a good chance it will be slow broadband. Of all the fantastic benefits of country living, it is slow broadband that could stop many more people from moving out of our crowded cities.
Rural broadband: the key points
Why is rural broadband so slow?
The reason rural broadband is much slower is mainly technical, but naturally, money comes into it too.
The connection on your wall connects to a street cabinet; this, in turn, links to your local exchange. The type of services on offer at the exchange, and sometimes the distance between that wall socket and the exchange, determine how fast your broadband is.
Broadband signals degrade the further they have to travel. So the further your house is from the local exchange, the slower your broadband becomes - a problem in rural areas.
Faster broadband is made possible through new technology. But installing an internet network is an incredibly expensive business. ISPs can make their money back more easily in urban areas where there is a greater number of potential subscribers than in rural areas with fewer potential customers.
It can cost a relative pittance to connect a row of urban houses, making it well worth the ISPs while to do it. That same connection could cost many thousands of pounds to link just one or two rural properties, and that is often just too expensive.
What are the options for rural broadband?
Rural broadband users can choose from a variety of connection technology to get online. This can include the same options as urban areas, but there are some alternatives to the regular services available elsewhere, so if connectivity is poor you do have options.
ADSL is broadband provided using the Openreach (BT) network telephone line. It is slower than fibre but uses existing infrastructure, so it's cheap and just about anyone can get it.
Depending on the distance from your local exchange, it can provide modest broadband speeds. BT and the many Openreach resellers (such as Sky, TalkTalk, EE, and Plusnet) offer ADSL connections all around the country.
Pros of ADSL:
- Utilises existing copper telephone wire.
- Most rural properties already have a phone line.
- Relatively cheap.
Cons of ADSL:
- Not the fastest broadband around.
- Susceptible to contention (slow down from having too many users at once).
- Gets slower the further you are from the exchange.
Bonded DSL combines two or more ADSL lines to provide faster connections. It can be a viable option if your ADSL speed on a single line is not fast enough. BT and a few resellers offer bonded ADSL in some locations, but it is relatively rare.
Pros of bonded DSL:
- Faster speeds than standard ADSL.
- Utilises some existing infrastructure.
- Available in many areas that can use ADSL.
Cons of bonded DSL:
- It can be expensive.
- Not everywhere has the processing power in the exchange to power it.
- Not all broadband providers offer this service.
FTTC fibre optic
Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) is a type of fibre broadband where the fibre lines only run then street cabinet, and then a telephone line carries the signal into your property. This is the most common type of fibre broadband in the UK at present, and many homes already have access. Virgin Media also uses similar technology, though its rural reach is minimal.
Pros of FTTC:
- Much faster than ADSL.
- Relatively cheap.
- Widely available.
Cons of FTTC:
- Not available everywhere.
- Still uses the old telephone lines, so not as fast as full-fibre.
- Not available if you’re very far from the exchange.
FTTP fibre optic
Fibre to the Premises is a high-speed broadband service. This is full-fibre technology, with fibre optic cables running all the way into your home. It is rarer than FTTC and ADSL, but in the long term the plan is for this to replace ADSL and FTTC. However, the major ISPs and smaller operators like Gigaclear do offer FTTP to some rural locations.
Pros of FTTP:
- Very fast broadband connection to your home.
- Very reliable.
- Relatively affordable deals.
Cons of FTTP:
- Coverage is sparse and growing slowly.
- Limited ISPs offering this service.
- Can be very expensive to install.
Mobile broadband offers a ray of hope for rural areas. It uses the mobile phone network to provide broadband for phones and computers and requires no expensive cabling. RuralBroadband.co.uk, Three, EE, Vodafone and other networks offer mobile broadband for home use.
Pros of mobile broadband:
- Can be faster than some fixed-line connections.
- More flexible than fixed-line broadband.
- Available with a much wider reach than fixed-line broadband.
Cons of mobile broadband:
- Coverage depends entirely on the mobile network signal.
- Contracts often have data usage limits.
Satellite broadband uses a satellite dish to send and receive a broadband signal much like satellite TV. It works anywhere, so is the last resort if there's no other option.
Pros of satellite broadband:
- Offers connections anywhere in the UK, only need line of sight to a satellite.
- Provides decent connection speeds where you would otherwise have none.
- Modest installation requirements.
Cons of satellite broadband:
- Expensive installation and running costs
- Dishes are unsightly.
- Significant latency due to how far the signals have to travel.
Fixed Wireless Access
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is a way of linking your property to a network wirelessly and then using a fibre backbone network connected to the wireless station to complete the journey. It’s the same principle as home Wi-Fi; a wireless device is placed in a central position and customers can connect to it. It then joins the provider network as usual. Providers such as Kijoma offer FWA in Britain, though it's fairly uncommon.
Pros of Fixed Wireless Access:
- Much cheaper to use and install than fixed-line.
- Faster than 4G and ADSL connections in some locations.
- Fairly reliable.
Cons of Fixed Wireless Access:
- Limited availability
- Wireless is susceptible to interference from weather.
What is the best broadband for rural areas?
There is no one broadband that's best for rural locations. Too much depends on your location, the geography, how close you are to a local telephone exchange and what services are offered in your region. Research is essential to identify which is available at your postcode, how fast the speeds can go and what your needs are.
Ideally, you'll have some kind of fixed-line broadband as this will deliver the best speed and reliability at a reasonable cost. But exactly what type of broadband you can get depends on your location.
The Broadband Genie availability checker is an excellent place to start as you can quickly see what — if any — fixed-line broadband is in your area.
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For locations with a good mobile phone signal, mobile broadband is likely cheaper and easier to set up than other options such as satellite. You just need an account, a wireless dongle or 4G/5G home router and you’re ready to go.
If you have the option for FTTC, FTTP, or FWA it may be worth exploring those to overcome the data caps that often come with mobile broadband contracts. You can find out more on our fibre (FTTC) broadband or FTTP deals pages.
Satellite broadband’s cost makes it only worth considering if nothing else will work. For more information about the advantages and drawbacks see our guide to satellite internet.
What is fibre availability like for rural broadband?
The headlines typically say that fibre broadband is available 95%+ of UK households. What they don’t say is that the remaining 5% are almost entirely rural. The fibre rollout is continuing, but progress is slow.
If the leading ISPs aren’t moving fast enough, you could always try drumming up interest in a community fibre partnership such as B4RN or Gigaclear. These have installed very fast FTTP broadband to rural areas, though they aren’t suitable for individual homes in very remote locations.
Getting FTTP to a single home is possible, but can be very expensive.
When will rural broadband get better?
Unfortunately, we cannot answer this with any degree of accuracy. Network operators are installing cables and improving rural reach, but progress is slow. The government has various incentives out there to encourage this but, again, progress is slow.
The government says it plans to deliver gigabit-capable broadband nationwide by 2030, however, these targets should always be taken with a pinch of salt. And there is a cost threshold so some homes in the most remote areas will have to either pay for the remaining installation fees or turn to alternatives.
How to get faster broadband in a rural area
While you’re waiting for ISPs, the government, 5G or something else, there are a few things you can do to make sure your existing line is working to the best of its ability.
If you can achieve decent broadband speeds occasionally, but then it drops, that is worth investigating as it may indicate a problem with your line. Contact your provider’s technical support team and ask them to run checks.
If you have a good 4G phone signal outside your property but not indoors, you can buy signal repeaters that can fix that. Repeaters make mobile broadband accessible to anyone within range and could plug the broadband gap until your area is connected to fibre. Three, EE, Vodafone and other mobile broadband providers offer repeaters that work on their own networks.
Mobile broadband performance can also be significantly improved with an externally mounted aerial to provide better reception.
Rural broadband is a slowly evolving picture but is steadily getting better. Even if you don’t yet have the option for fibre or superfast connections, the range of connectivity options is now larger than ever. Hopefully, there should be one technology out there to get you connected!