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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.

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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.

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If a company offers ‘up to’ a certain speed broadband there is a very good case for a lower charge if that speed is not delivered.

My ISP used to offer ‘up to 24 Mbps’ but responded to the criticism and now gives a speed range that I can expect. That is currently 8 – 11.9 Mbps. I can achieve 8 Mbps if I plug the computer into the router or use it near the wireless router. I have stopped grumbling because the marketing is more honest.

I knew that fibre broadband was coming to where I live and apparently I can get a speed of ‘up to 100 Mbps’. I will be contacting them soon, not to order high speed broadband but to tell them what I think about going back to this ‘up to’ nonsense.

It’s high time that we moved away from copper cables, which allow bandwidth to deteriorate over distance, and instead use fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), which is so unaffected by distance that it is used for cables thousands of miles long across the world’s oceans. I have FTTP at home, and my scenario should become the norm rather than the exception.

Andrew Ferguson says:
22 March 2015


The median speeds which we publish, along with the mean (which is what most mean when they say average) are published every month, so pretty easy to track the performance overall these days without having to chase providers.

“up to” means what it says. Why do we pretend not to understand it? If you want a good estimate of what you will get from a potential provider, ask them first, giving your phone number. I live in the sticks and would like a faster speed than my current one delivered through copper. Would I pay for fibre? Doubt it – mine is adequate.

No it does not. How would you like to be told that your pension would be up to xxx and only receive a fraction of the amount.

Ofcom asked ISPs to give prospective customers a realistic estimate of what speed they could expect to receive. My ISP has done this but others continue to use the term ‘up to’.

If you want to know what annuity you will get you would not rely on generalised published data – you’d ask a potential provider. Same with your state pension – ask DWP. I know what “up to” means – no more than this value but can be less. Just what it is. ask your potential broadband provider. Then if they don’t give you what they say you have a reasonable case to pursue.

So I’m wrong, all the people who have complained about ‘up to’ broadband speeds were wrong, and Ofcom was wrong to issue guidance.

I think that up to is a proper use of the language. The problem is that not everyone is rightly suspicious of “up to”. Either we educate the public to realise “up to” is a warning for a con OR we restrict advertisers ability to use the English language to protect the gullible.

Whilst the former makes most sense the latter route may be more effective. [Perhaps Which? could devots an entire issue to the most blatant examples in all spheres and the weaselly responses : )]

I think it not unreasonable that the requirements of “up to” in relation to Broadband needs to shown at all times against a 50% of subscribers banner. Of course the logical effect would be for a smart provider to drop all rural subscribers : )

“Up to” should be replaced with something along the lines of “maximum theoretical speed irrespective of distance”. It is useful to know, for example, that one provider uses a 24Mbps maximum theoretical speed technology whereas another uses an 8Mbps maximum theoretical speed technology.

wavechange, of course you are not wrong :-). I have posted a reply from my ISP which I regard as sensibly informative.

Ofcom do not, I believe, condemn “up to” but simply recommend adjusting the value to which it applies. There will no doubt still be 50% of subscribers left wanting.

In April Which? the article about broadband speed makes no mention of how to check what you are likely to get before you buy. I regard this as an omission on Which?’s part andif I was a cynic I might suggest it was omitted to bias opinion in favour of its campaign. I would suggest Which? should present all the relevant facts to us consumers so that we can make a considered judgement on an issue. I do not want Which? to be economical with the facts and do my thinking for me. I have enough of that with politicians.

On the subject of rural speeds and the 10Mbs minima suggested I note that in the April Which? magazine it has a review of 4K TV’s with a side panel mentioning Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video can provide the content. Perhaps it would have been very helpful to tell subscribers slightly more than ” you’ll need fast broadband”.

Effectively even if you have the necessary speed you will be getting a de-rated version of 4K and this really should be pointed out.


” With Netflix already encoding 4K content at 15.6Mbps today, and with the expertise they have in encoding and the money they spend on bandwidth, they will get the bitrate lower over time. Some observers think it might go down to 10-12Mbps, but that would only be possible down the road and at 24/30 fps, not 60 fps. If you want 60 fps, it’s going to be even higher. But even if we use the 10-12Mbps number, no ISP can sustain it, at scale. So while everyone wants to talk about compression rates, and bitrates, no one is talking about what the last mile can support or how content owners are going to pay to deliver all the additional bits. The bottom line is that for the next few years at least, 4K streaming will be near impossible to deliver at scale, even at 10-12Mbps, via the cloud with guaranteed QoS.”

“Up to” can only ever mean “no more than”; the problem is that it never seems to have a counterpart “no less than” so the service range is excessively wide. Surely there should be a non-negotiable, viable, threshold broadband speed available to every part of the UK. By “viable” I mean suitable for general domestic use, not business, academic or advanced requirements. This entry-level needs to support multiple simultaneous users with unbroken uploading and downloading, movie streaming, gaming, catch-up TV, and other common applications. I realise that achieving a ‘standard’ service level will depend on many infrastructural factors and the service delivered will be location-specific so service providers will need to aim beyond the target. Personally I should like to see the phrase “up to” phased out; I can’t think of any other area of service provision or the supply of goods where it would be acceptable: even motor cars and sofas have a bottom price and the word “from” is used to indicate that higher prices apply to additional features. With broadband, the vagueness and uncertainty of “up to” makes it virtually meaningless and contractually it it is uncontestable [for obvious reasons that are against consumers’ interests]. I can’t understand why a claim against a broadband service provider that consistently failed to achieve 60% of the promised “up to” speed at any premises on demand should not succeed – although I am realistic enough to know that it probably wouldn’t.

From the Budget:
” The government is committed to ensuring that every single household in the UK has access to the basic broadband needed to live and work in the modern world. So we will look to raise the Universal Service Obligation (USO) – the legal entitlement to a basic service – from dial up speeds to 5Mbps broadband. This commitment to all goes further than any other country in Europe. Once in place, a USO would mean that consumers gain a legal right to request installation of 5Mbps capable services at an affordable price.”

Perhaps instead of “up to Y”, a provider should state “between X and Y”. Similarly, when quoting prices, retailers should, instead of saying “from £x”, say “between £x and £y”. Quoting only one limit of a range is misleading. Consumers need to see both ends of the range.

Thank you Diesel for giving us that quote from the budget. Now all we need is the timeframe . . . ! The ‘affordable price’ [is that for installation or ongoing service do you suppose?] will be determined by the regulator I hope [as a maximum], but as with everything else I expect it will be lost in the bundling.

NFH – Yes: I think that is the only way to make any sense out of fluctuations in the broadband speed [for cars and furniture it is not so straightforward to avoid the open-ended “from” price point since the customer has so much choice of specification].

NFH and Diesel – I agree with your views that a better way of giving broadband speed would, if it were possible, to give a range. Even then I imagine there will be subscribers in more remote places where the minimum will not be achieved. The best way surely is for the ISP to give you an expected speed for your particular premises – by asking them, or them telling you when you apply. But you will never please everybody.

As for rolling out higher-speed broadband, someone has to pay for it. I do not see why it should all come out of my taxes, particularly for people who choose to live in remote locations. A contribution should be made through the broadband fees. Tax should be for essentials, like the NHS, until we return to excess wealth by discovering oodles of oil.

I asked John Lewis Broadband for their approach to speed information. They rep[lied:
“we do always give an estimate of speed other than the “up-to” speed, which is based on a the publicly accessible website here: http://www.dslchecker.bt.com/adsl/adslchecker.welcome. Since your connection goes over the BT network, along with many other ISPs, these are the expected speeds on your line, I would assume that other BT infrastructure based ISPs use the same site for their speed estimates. Please note that using a phone number gives a pretty accurate estimate, but the address and postcode versions are less accurate. I personally think it is fine for an ISP to say “we offer up-to x speeds” in the advertising, as long as we then tell you your personal estimate when you try to sign-up, since the “up-to” speed isn’t based on the individual person until the ISP has got your details to be able to check.”

This seems an honest and reasonable response.

rep[lied was a finger slip! Their rep didn’t lie.

‘We agree with the government that broadband is increasingly important to people. That is why we are working with them to extend superfast broadband coverage to 95 per cent of the UK.
The last five per cent will be the most challenging and expensive to reach but technology is improving and it is important that people aren’t left behind.
We are keen to sit down with the government and Ofcom to discuss their proposals for a new broadband USO and how it can best be implemented and paid for.’
BT statement on new USO

The cost is a very interesting concept as there are people anxious to get away from it all who buy the remote lighthouse or croft but would like the luxury of a broadband subsidised to their door , even if they are only there for holidays.

It should be noted for the quotes I am channeling the thinkbroadband site which is curiously useful when discussing these matters.

Perhaps it is worth comparing supply of broadband to rural areas with provision of gas, which is available to some but not everyone. Obviously the cost per household of providing gas and broadband is significantly greater in rural areas. Compromises are made with who gets gas and I expect the same will apply with high speed broadband.

I wonder if improving mobile network coverage might be a more cost effective way of providing both phone and mobile broadband.

Yes – we’ve never had a Prime Minister promising to put every home on the gas grid! Luckily, for heating, there are alternatives, albeit more expensive – although wind power and solar energy in rural areas might assist. Viable and economical alternatives to broadband by cable do exist and perhaps that is what the PM had in mind [subject to the state of affairs on 8th May]. Thanks to massive investment by the GPO during and after the Second World War, most parts of the country are within easy reach of a copper telephone line and it might be possible for a microwave link to connect the remotest premises to the closest point on the fibre network [the recovery of the copper cable might contribute to the cost].

There are lots of services for which rural households pay more for less, e.g. Mobile networks, access to public transport even access to TV channels.
Its all part of the unfairness of life !!

Speed is only one factor in determining whether a broadband service is satisfactory. Because of where I live, my broadband speed has always been modest but that speed is maintained even at peak times. It has always been reliable, with only one major disruption. If there is a temporary interruption, it is usually at the weekend and I’m back online in about the same time as it takes to reset the router.

That has changed recently following the installation and commissioning of fibre broadband in my locality. For several weeks my service has been interrupted, albeit briefly, several times every day. I hope this will cease soon, but I am suspicious that it might be being done deliberately to encourage users to switch to fibre broadband.

When my area was fibred up (early in 2012), I noticed regular interruptions to the service. Eventually I found it coincided with the regular visits to the local cabinet to transfer people to the fibre service.

When it happened one day, I cycled straight to the cabinet (about 2 minutes) and explained to the engineer what was happening. He asked for my phone number and traced my connection. He used his tablet to call my number whilst he opened and closed the hinged wiring frames. The phone became disconnected as he opened the frame. He replaced the jumper for my phone and the problem never recurred.

We’ve only had one service break since I switched to fibre and that was due to a major failure at the main BT exchange.

Thanks Terfar. I will look out and see if there is anyone working nearby next time there is an interruption. Since the interruptions are during normal working hours, I suspect that you are right.

Provided that I get back to a reliable service soon, I may not bother with fibre broadband. I rarely watch TV or films and I cannot see any any real benefit in having fast broadband at present.

patrick Mcelhatton says:
27 March 2015

We live in a rural area in Co Tyrone, we respobnded to BT advertising to upgrade broadband speed. I paid the additional fee later received the hub 5 , however we had no connection. An engineer told us we were too far from the exchange. It then took 2 weeks for BT to restore us back to our slow speed broadband. Very poor service for rural customers. Customer service awful.

The bottom line is that commercial outfits will not be fit for purpose when it comes to future proofing internet services simply because there is not enough profit. For hard to reach areas it has to be a different approach which has already been achieved by many across the country – dispensing with BT’s services (which I would just love). Here in the Scottish Highlands we have poor and erratic internet with an ever decreasing number of engineers who are leaving their employment! All is not lost however and this link really does show the way forward for many remote areas. http://www.communitylandscotland.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/FINAL-Community-Land-Scotland-Economic-Data-Report-140414-For-Release.pdf

I don’t believe that this is the right approach. The ISPs install their infrastructure equipment and charge everyone the same price for the same service. Currently, those in rural areas get poor bandwidth because of the distances they are from the main infrastructure and distances from the local exchange.

If the ISPs are to invest in providing the same speed to everyone, costs go up almost exponentially with distance from the backbone infrastructure and distance from the closest telephone exchange. Basically, every little village will need a local exchange with a fibre link to the main backbone. That means the ISP would have to lay fibre links to every rural community and for some premises in remoter locations, fibre to the premises. Would you be willing to pay £150 a month for fast broadband or pay the thousands of pounds that it cost to get fast broadband to your premises? Or do you think that the rest of us should pay for your privelige?

David Partridge says:
13 June 2015

Broadband users in rural areas aren’t paying the same for slower speeds – we’re actually paying more! I get 5.5 mbps from PlusNet which is probably the fastest in my village. But when I originally phoned them about their “From £2.50 a month” deal I was told they couldn’t offer it to me because I was in” the wrong area”. It’s also clear that advertised deals are achieved in part by simply manipulating the line rental cost ever upwards. As for any new legislation, it will depend on ISPs guaranteeing a minimum speed in the contract. I’m not holding my breath.

The lower price isn’t dependent on whether you live in a big city or in a small community: it is down to the local exchange facilities.

Where the exchanges are roomy, BT hire out rack space for ISPs to install their own equipment. That allows the ISPs to offer a lower price.

Where exchanges are too small for additional equipment, the ISPs have to utilise and pay to use BT’s equipment and pay for the maintenance, so they have to apply extra charges.

But I agree that charging should be proportional to speed obtainable. This would be an incentive for BT to expand its fibre network. Some local exchanges still don’t have connection to the fibre backbone, relying on old copper trunks. It would also be an incentive to install more street cabinets, so that users were closer to the FTTC services. But all this costs money: who is going to pay?