/ Technology

Is it fair rural areas pay the same amount for slower broadband?

There’s a big divide in urban and rural broadband speeds. It only seems fair that broadband customers in rural areas shouldn’t have to pay more for a terrible service that never reaches advertised speeds

Picture this: you’ve paid £50 for six bottles of wine to be delivered to your home, and your friend two miles away has done the same. Your delivery arrives: it’s half a bottle rolling around in the box, while your friend has received six bottles.

The supplier argues that it specified ‘up to six’ and that it’s your fault for living too far from the depot. You feel cheated – you paid the same price as your friend, but got vastly different goods.

Rural vs urban

This is broadband every day, for those who live in the countryside. A typical home needs a minimum connection speed of 10 Mbps, according to the telecoms watchdog; but while 70% of UK urban customers enjoy this speed, only 20% of their country cousins have it. The rest must endure snails delivering data. This affects many areas of life – from damaging your business to being unable to watch catch-up TV because you’re waiting for your screen to catch up with itself.

One Which? Computing reader from Gwynedd, Wales, says she pays £34 a month for broadband and line rental and gets 0.7Mbps. Many things are virtually impossible for her, such as using Skype to talk to her grandchildren. She’s understandably frustrated to be paying more than some who have ‘superfast’ download speeds of 43Mbps – while she gets a shoddy service. Personally, I think companies should put just as much effort into giving people in rural areas a decent speed as they do into giving city dwellers superfast speeds that often exceed their needs.

For many, broadband feels almost as essential as electricity. People in rural areas not only feel duped by ads that promise ‘up to…’ speeds they never get, they’re also over a barrel because it seems that their only choice is to carry on paying the normal price for a terrible service.

Fed up with those ‘up to’ ads?

But there’s something to be done about the ads, at least. The absurd rules that allow broadband companies to advertise ‘up to…’ speeds if at least 10% of their customers can receive them should change, so that companies can only quote a speed that more than 50% of customers will be able to get. Which? is campaigning for this.

One of our researchers asked the four major broadband companies – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media – what proportion of their customers actually get the maximum advertised ‘up to…’ speed. All four declined to answer. I suspect it would be too embarrassing.

Do live in a rural area and struggle with your broadband speed? Were you aware that the ‘up to’ ads only applied to 10% of customers?

[UPDATE: JUNE 11 2015] Read how the new Ofcom boss says she’ll improve services for you.


It would be possible to charge according to the bandwidth received by each consumer only if BT Openreach’s wholesale charge to the ISPs similarly varied according to the consumer’s ADSL line sync speed. It would be unreasonable to expect ISPs to bear reduced revenue in respect of reduced bandwidth when it is BT Openreach, and not the ISPs, that is responsible for the reduced bandwidth. Therefore this issue must be addressed at a wholesale level and not at a retail level.



Agreed that variable charging seems unfair to ISPs – but is it?

They have a fixed overheads (network equipment and cabinet space). If all the customers were on a 76Mbps service, they are not actually capable of handling that bandwidth because they rely on users only having intermittent demand. Coupled with the loss induced by the copper tails from exchanges or street cabinets to premises, the actual bandwidth the ISPs needs to provide is actually relatively low.

The whole internet infrastructure is set up for time sharing of the bandwidth. If we all started to simultaneously download a huge file at 76 Mbps, the Internet would grind to a halt. So I think that BT and the ISPs should share the reduction in bandwidth costs pro rata to the speed actually received.

The ultimate solution (and it will have to come eventually) is for copper to be replaced with FTTP. Only then will we get what we pay for.


Terfar – you make good points. I maintain that the root of the problem needs to be tackled at the wholesale level. However, it would be up to individual ISPs as to what retail price they charge to end-customers, and whether they wish to extend any variation beyond the raw difference in the wholesale charge. The chances are that ISPs would mark up the wholesale charge by a percentage rather than by a fixed amount.

It’s a bit like a service charge in a restaurant. If you order a bottle of wine of £10 or £200, a restaurant will typically add a percentage service charge, even though the service time and effort are fixed and not related to the price of the bottle. ISPs could take a similar approach.


Of course, other important factors I omitted: the indoor wiring and router at the premises. Even if you get a good signal delivered by the providers, poor internal wiring, unfiltered phones or poor router (configuration or out-of-date firmware) are all in a conspiracy to reduce your bandwidth.

And if you use wireless connection, you can suffer spectrum congestion local to your neighbourhood. (I had problems with my neighbour’s WiFi changing channels regularly because he keeps switching it off and effecting my signal: he had no idea how to set it up to a fixed channel, so I went to the 5 GHz band to avoid him.)

So there is heck of a lot of factors that can cause low bandwidth, not just the ISP or local copper tail.


In my own case I have Infinity 2 ,if the speed dropped below a certain level the contract with BT would be ruled in legal terms ” non performance of contract ” there already has been a case of a UK resident getting his rental reduced. Up to doesnt mean you accept 1 or 2 Mbps if you are paying for a much higher speed the implication of the wording along with the name Infinity for example implies in law that you are getting a “superior ” service (because you are paying for it) If my speed dropped sharply I would insist that my contract with BT is broken by “non performance ” and therefore insist on a reduction in rental .BT already know they cant fault my internal wiring as it goes straight to a UG joint in other words there is no internal wiring running round the house to ANY other jack points as they dont exist . BT,s own engineer verified this .


Is it fair that rural dwellers have more peace and quiet, and live longer? Yet only pay the same taxes!

I love this line of discussion : )

“It’s official: move to the countryside and you live longer. Men in rural areas on average can expect to celebrate their 78th birthday – two years longer than those in the city – while women will pass 82, almost a year and a half more than their urban peers, new figures show.
The Office for National Statistics, which looked at Britain in the seven years until 2007, examined whether a “rural idyll” populated by older, wealthy migrants from the cities had demonstrable health benefits compared with the life of their urban peers, living in more crowded, less green spaces and served by more pressured public services.
The result was unequivocal. Life expectancy at birth, according to the research, “improved with increasing ‘rurality’ and those born in village and dispersed areas could expect to live longer than those in town and fringe areas. Even the poorest people fared better in the countryside. Rural poor men lived for a year longer than their urban peers.”

So waiting longer to upload and download may even up with the longer life expectancy.


On a more technical note this is a fine report:

And one of the respondents points out that the increase in quality of streaming items and general increase in visuals, Which? being no exception, means that content takes longer to download.

Could it be that the rural experience could be improved by sites offering a default bare version for people concerned on bandwidth considerations.?

The number of BBC items where they think video is actually needed is another example of redundant use of bandwidth.


I think the major broadband suppliers are suppressing ordinary service speeds so they can sell ‘superfast’, ‘ultrafast’, and ‘infiity’ services. The reason that the question is so vital in rural areas is that residents are now so dependent on internet access to essential services for their daily lives; this is actually a by-product of the internet’s own success which has led to the closure of local facilities. The population pressures are also making things more difficult. Most villages are having to accept more houses and each new connexion reduces the overall quality of service. The water companies are under a statutory obligation to supply universally a continuus adequate pressure of potable water, which they reliably do whatever the distance. The same principle should apply to broadband.