/ Technology

Rural vs urban broadband speeds – the divide widens

Woman in field using laptop with cows

Three-quarters of Brits use the internet every day. However, 17% of homes still aren’t connected at all. And one problem is that the divide between urban and rural broadband speeds is widening…

Ofcom recently reported that the average broadband speed increased by 64% between May 2012 and 2013, and yet the average speed between urban and rural broadband has widened.

There are also a substantial amount of people who remain disconnected.

According to the Office of National Statistics, four million British homes still aren’t connected to the net.

Just not interested in the internet?

As it gets easier and more secure to use the internet for routine tasks, I’m surprised to see that the majority (59%) of those four million Brits say that they just don’t see the need to get online. Will the government’s plans to educate people on the benefits of the internet improve this?

The good news is that speeds are up according to Ofcom, which is partly due to more households using a fibre optic or cable connection (up 12%). In May 2013 the average UK speed was 14.7Mbit/s – 64% faster than at the same point in 2012.

However, the availability of superfast connections remains limited in rural areas and this looks to be accentuating the rural divide.

The rural divide has widened

The gap between average broadband speeds in rural and urban areas has almost doubled over the last year – from 9.5Mbit/s to 16.5Mbit/s.

And it isn’t just the lack of fibre optic or cable that’s slowing our countryside down – your good old ADSL connections are also slower. This is because the nearest telephone exchange is often further away from homes in rural areas compared to people who live in cities. However, it is worth noting that average rural speeds, which now sit at 9.9Mbit/s, are increasing at a faster rate than urban speeds.

Do we really need superfast speeds?

The government has plans to improve broadband in rural areas, with the goal of giving 95% of UK households access to superfast speeds by 2017, with a minimum service of 2Mbit/s available to all.

The question is whether internet providers will continue to concentrate on speed rather than coverage. Will faster internet get more people online? Do we all need to be using (and paying for!) superfast connections? Surely what most internet users want is a reliable connection, offering a decent speed and at a fair price?

Do you suffer from super-slow download speeds? Are you tempted by superfast broadband?

T Dempster says:
16 August 2013

Rural broadband upgrade to superfast fibre is worryingly patchy with some exchanges being updated but not all cabinets being replaced which means that some rural areas will have superfast and superslow on the same exchange or even on opposite sides of a small village.
Getting any meaningful update from BT is a joke as they have developed an inprenetrable communications system such that talking to a knowledgeable manager proves impossible – not bad for a communications company!

I live in Suffolk where BT is using government grants to extend faster broadband to parts of the county that would otherwise be uneconomic to reach. In deepest darkest Suffolk my village is scheduled to get ‘up to 24 mbits’ by 2015 but we are part of the ‘final phase’ i.e. the lowest priority.

It’s my understanding that the total grant should cover all the work required but if expenditure estimates for 2013 and 2014 are exceeded, and there must be a reasonable chance of that, then we will slip out of the picture and be back to square one.

As far as I can see from other comments, nobody has mentioned the possible alternatives of satellite or a fixed 4G system (not part of the existing mobile network) for rural areas.

The Norwegians have installed a 4G system in Svalbard giving humans, and any polar bears on the internet, a whopping 100 mbits!

You can currently buy a 2 way satellite system called Tooway that will give 20 mbit download and 6 mbit upload. A local official from the Federation of Small Business has this system and assures me he’s very happy with it. He showed me the printed results of a speed test confirming Tooway’s claims.

It’s not cheap but if you have a small business or a pressing need for anything faster than my current 1.75 mbit download and 0.1 mbit upload, or even still have to use dial up, I would have thought it was worth looking into.

If Which? is not currently testing the Tooway system could I suggest that it does so asap as wired High Speed Broadband looks like being a pipe dream for millions of rural dwellers for years to come.

I wonder if the Norwegians have the equivalent of freeview which is affected by 4G transmitters over here and that for a cost can be “fixed”.

I’m not a techie but my understanding is that Freeview in Britain transmits on the 800mhz frequency and there are many alternative frequencies available for 4G.

Katharine says:
16 August 2013

There’s a Govt grant being awarded round here too, to boost broadband speeds, but our village is too small to qualify for that help. We’re firmly outside the grant zone.

Mark says:
16 August 2013

Some other considerations:
Number of users in the household. Parents and 3 teenagers in the household will mean an increased demand on bandwidth. More occupiers the more demand so a need for gretaer bandwidth just like a busy office.
The increasing need for upload speed. Telcos should be proving synchronous connections.
Rural areas cannot support one Telco let alone competition. OFCOM have divided up the UK into 3 types of areas. Areas with market competition = metropolitan. Areas without market competition i.e true rurality and areas in between these.
I wish the HS2 rail money was used to provide FTTH Fibre to the home. It would create far more economic wealth than making Birmingham a suburb of London and a greater divide between north and south.
I have come to the conclusion that mostly elderly greying or balding politicians make bad decisions on broadband because they do not understand it and and are badly informed.

To whom it may concern: I am not a ‘techie’ either but as I have been discovering lately:

1) Most properties are connected to the exchange via a cabinet

2) Fibre to to Cabinet (FTTC) actually bypasses the exchange and goes to a new cabinet that is installed alongside the existing copper cabinet. The fibre cabinet will then be connected to the copper cabinet

3) A ‘prototype’ ducting for fibre to the premises is underway in Cumbria using agricultural mole-draining style technology. Once the ‘hole’ is created ducting is fed through the tunnel and the fibre threaded through the ducting. This ‘ancient and rural’ technology looks set to rescue the lack of spread of the technical age to ‘isolated’ communities at a more modest price than say satellite (at risk of space debris of course). The good thing is that when installed rural sppeds will leapfrog urban speeds by some margin!

4) You can check for your cabinet at http://www.btwholesale.com/includes/adsl/main.html then you just have to find it to discover the distance from it. Google Street view can help as well.

5) For BB speedtesting try http://speedtest.btwholesale.com or for those who can get it http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/diagnostics#results

6) I have heard that ASDL is being closed down. In my rural exchange it is wef 1st April 2014. It is being replaced with 21CN WBC ASDL2+ which was enabled on 24th June 2013.

I hope some of this helps those who need it.

Must post before my connection drops out. It has tried it a few times whilst writing this!

Mark says:
17 August 2013

Thanks. The best site for BB informatio, in my opinion is Sam Knows –


Further to BBS’s post above, I can recommend both of these speed testing sites, over some of the trash that pops up if you Google “broadband speed” or similar, so bookmark them now or create shortcuts on your desktop.

If you are on a BT supplied copper link (which includes many 3rd party ISPs), it is important that you complete BOTH of the tests available on speedtest-dot-btwholesale-dot-com. In other words, do not ignore the “Further Diagnostics” button after completing the basic speed test.

Click it and enter your phone number in the relevant box “Telephone Number of the broadband circuit:” Then click “Run Diagnostic Test”. You should see: “Sending results to the server…” This test doesn’t always complete, but persist until you get back something like:

Additional Information:
Your DSL Connection Rate :7.07 Mbps(DOWN-STREAM), 0.45 Mbps(UP-STREAM)
IP Profile for your line is – 6 Mbps

(This is the profile for my ADSL modem that is 2.6km from the exchange, in a rural area – all copper overhead cables)

Your DSL Connection Rate is the speed your ADSL modem connects to the exchange. There is a close correlation between this value, the distance to the exchange, the quality of the copper, the noise on the line and the capabilities of your ADSL modem to sync up (or “train”) with the signal from the exchange.

What is most important here is the IP Profile for your line. This is a “throttle” on the speed that the exchange determines to avoid data loss. So in theory, for my connection, I could receive data at 7Mbps but, if the line slows down for any reason, I would start to lose data. So data is never sent at more than 6Mpbs to avoid this scenario.

Your line speed cannot and will not exceed the current IP Profile speed.

It is this mysterious “IP Profile” that is the stuff of legend and myth – “Don’t switch your modem off” – “It could take up to 10 days for your line to recover” – etc. All possibly true, but with the above information, you can monitor the IP Profile and see whether your line is behaving according to expectation and past experience.

After a car crashed into a telegraph pole, taking out our broadband for several days while BT Openreach “investigated” the cause (!!!), the repaired line speed was awful. But, because I was able to monitor the IP Profile speed and watch it recover and eventually restore itself to full health, I wasn’t immediately back on the phone to complain. In fact, the final improvement to nearly a month as the exchange gradually reduced the SNR it was happy with. (SNR is a value you can get from your ADSL modem, if you know where to look and what it means.)

So make a note of the IP Profile value while you are satisfied with broadband performance. If your broadband connection slows down in future, check it again and compare. If your IP Profile value has dropped off, you or BT need to investigate – it is not your ISP’s fault or someone else using too much bandwidth.

One other point to mention is that at higher DSL Connection Speeds, the IP Profile goes up in big jumps of about 0.5Mbps. So a tiny change to your setup – a better ADSL modem, a shorter wire to the wall plate, changing or eliminating the filter, can have a dramactic effect on your broadband speed limit, if you can cross the next 0.5Mpbs threshold.

Em, many thanks for adding this additional insight.

I didn’t appreciate the signifigance of the IP Profile in the test result. I will be following your monitoring tips.

Tried the diagnostic test just now – my speed according the Thinkbroadband (an excellent information site with very helpful staff http://www.thinkbroadband.com) monitor that I run, is up and down rather this afternoon – but it wouldn’t run. Must have caught an ‘off’ moment in the speed fluctuations I enjoy!

Robbie says:
18 August 2013

Several years ago I bought an internet radio because where I live in the country I am in a black spot for radio reception. At first it was really good but now after several years the service has deteriorated to a point where the radio has to stop and buffer at least once an hour, this is particularly bad early evening.
I suspect but have no way of proving that BT has sold download services like Homeview etc. into a system that does not have the capacity to support it properly, there is just not enough band width.
I think Which should investigate this dumbing down as a consumer I feel cheated here by the theft of something that I had and no longer have.
If this is the case then a complaint should be made to Ofcom to see what they can do.
I would encourage any other Which readers who have seen this same problem to also write in to get things moving on this.

Anon the Mouse says:
19 August 2013

My work is in a rural location, we have broadband. For years it has been at the magnificent speed of 0.04Mbps. It’s recently become more usable at the blisteringly fast speed of 0.36Mbps.

Which is a complete contrast to my home in a nearby city where I get and sustain 120Mbps.

Katharine says:
19 August 2013

My connection was flaky over the weekend, and I now find it’s jumped from 1.3 to 12!!! Amazing. I hope it lasts.

Gerald says:
21 August 2013

To elaborate, for DIY diagnosers living down country roads: Various websites (like Samknows) can identify from your BT phone number which exchange you’re connected to, and via which “green cabinet”. In my case, as a worked example, I’m told I’m on XXX exchange, via cabinet Y. Cab Y is at a country road junction, near where I live. The BT wiring here runs through their ducts along the roadside. You can see the occasional manhole cover marked BT, or British Telecom, or Post Office, depending on its vintage. There’s usually one at the foot of each telegraph pole used for taking off wires to connect to houses.Tracking the route from house via cab to exchange (car, or google maps) tells me that’s about 1.6 miles, or about 2.5 km of copper telephone cable. This allows us to get over 6 Mb/s – we’re quite lucky as things stand.
But what of the future? XXX exchange runs vanilla ADSL (8Mb/s max). Will an upgrade to ADSL2 (24 Mb/s max) help me? Not a chance. The 2.5km of phone line between me and XXX is the limiting factor. No amount of new kit in the exchange will change what can get down our phone-line. But upgrade our cab Y – only 200m away from us – with Fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) and we could get a stonking 40 Mb/s plus. But to do that ain’t trivial. Green cabinets are basically just big passive junction boxes sitting on the pavement. Replacing cab Y with a fibre cabinet requires (a) pulling a mile-and-a-half of fibre-optic link through the existing ducting without calamity, and (b) supplying enough electrical power to the cabinet for the fibre switch gubbins inside it from no very obvious source. (Maybe the phantom-powering system used for telephones can do this – telephone lines are powered from an exchange.) Now think of the other practicalities. The cabs near the XXX exchange, in the village centre, have much shorter cable lengths, more connected subscribers, and are closer to sources of power. It pays to convert those first. BT can then remove the fat cable looms which serve those cabs, sell the copper for scrap, and make more space in the ducting for pulling through fibre links to the more remote cabs like ours. So, while in theory it’s possible to transform the broadband speed to our house just using BT’s infrastructure, by any practical measure we must be last in the queue. What’s true here will be true for many rural locations outside village centres. So it goes. We should not hold our breath.

[Edited by moderators: For your own safety, we do not allow users to give out or solicit any kind of personal contact information or anything that would enable another forum user to find out who/where you are]

Gerald says:
21 August 2013

Oops: typo. Should be LSOTT not LCOTT…

Another good informative post. The quality of information is getting reassuringly factual. : )

PS On Virginmedia 20mbps download and 1.1 uploading. Not really luck as good connections – travel to work countryside and BB were all considerations in buying. The need to be over say 4mbps for me is limited as I do not stream movies etc. Downloading Wikipedia was probably the biggest D/l I have ever done.

Gerald says:
21 August 2013

A note for pole users: BT’s cabling has largely disappeared into holes in the ground – except mostly for rural areas. In my country area, the phone lines pop up now and again, to run up a pole, from which they are swung out to connect a handful of properties. The more pre-war the houses, the more likely they are to be connected via poles. Nothing wrong with that, except: BT’s cable infrastructure is now owned by its spun-off subsidiary, BT Openreach. For wires slung from telephone poles, Openreach has a policy to fix, not to maintain. (Believe me on this; I’ve quizzed Openreach about it.) In other words, the business does not think it cost-effective to clear over-hanging branches (and such-like) from phone-lines. Instead, the policy is to wait for branches to bring the lines down during winter gales, then fix whatever’s broken once you’ve reported a fault to your service provider. Using your mobile phone, presumably. If you have bars, that is. For Openreach, this might be a cost-effective business policy short-term, but it’s sure storing up trouble long-term. Trees just grow. And grow, and grow, and grow. We no longer maintain roadsides, hedgerows and ditches as we once did. What’s good for butterflies is, alas, not good for rural phone-lines. Who will keep the lines clear in future? Not Openreach – not their policy. Not councils – no money. As the problem grows (ha!) I guess it will fall to rural dwellers and communities themselves to maintain their own bits of infrastructure. Just don’t tell the HSE about who’s up the ladder with the chainsaw…

Gerald says:
24 August 2013

Yesterday, I met my first fibre cabinet (in Richmond, Surrey). It was humming away, and had a warning sticker (Danger, 230v) on the side. This suggests it’s mains-powered, not powered from the exchange using the same DC system which powers telephones. This matters, because of power-cuts. Down our country lane we get power-cuts several times per year. (It goes with having overhead power-lines as part of the local power network.) Some winter days power can be off for many hours – but, luckily, the phones still work, being powered from the telephone battery backup system in the local exchange. Vital in case of emergency. But if our nearby rural cab gets converted to fibre, and runs off the same mains as we do, what will happen in a power-cut in future? I accept that we may lose our broadband connection in a blackout, but if we also lose our phone line I’m most concerned. Need to find out if this is the downside of FTTC.

I am told by my County BB installaion authority who are working in league with BT on the rural roll out programme that is already underway, that the Fibre Cabinets have full battery back-up.

So I guess it will only be very serious black out problems (heaven and government ‘green’ policies allowing) that will cause disruption. Such extreme events will probably be addressed by the employment of generators to charge the batteries as necessary.

David Heatherington says:
21 September 2013

I refer to your excellent article “Broadband divide leaves rural communities behind” in the October 2013 issue but the situation is even much bleaker than you paint it. As you rightly quote “the government plans to improve broadband in rural areas with the goal of giving 95% of UK households access to superfast speeds by 2017 with a minimum service of 2Mps available to all”.
It creates the impression that 95% of rural broadband users will have this service but in fact it will be more like 50% . Official statistics from the World Bank report of 2010 calculated the urban population of the United Kingdom to be 90% of the total population so the government is only committing to provide this service to half of the remaining rural population. Your report states an average rural speed of 9.9Mb but where I live in County Durham the average speed is more like 2Mb and this is regarded as quite good compared with others around me some of whom can’t raise 1Mb.
Rural communities are certainly being left behind as the private sector is not going to lay miles and miles of fibre optic cable through countryside where the population is scattered. The world wide web was once heralded as the panacea for rural businesses which would be able to operate on a par with their urban counterparts. People would relocate from the cities to the countryside where they would be able to work from their own homes. In reality it will soon be impossible to set up a business in some parts ofthe countryside because of the broadband divide. As the internet becomes the default way of communicating daily business and systems are created with an expectation of ever-increasing broadband speeds it will impact on everybody and the minimum 2mbps will be no use at all.

David Heatherington
County Durham

Mike Miall says:
23 September 2013

Reference rural broadband speeds. Iam connected by fibre optic to the nearest box, in the village and thence by copper wire to the house. My provider is Supanet and we can rarely achieve 2mps download and 1mbs upload. BT engineers say that it would not matter who the provider was as the route would be the same!
I notice Supanet is rarely if ever included in your surveys.

Gerallt Huws says:
27 September 2013

‘Average speed of just 9.9Mbps’ in rural households’ – what planet are you living on?

Gerald says:
1 November 2013

Yesterday, I met my local OpenReach engineer down my country lane. I thought he was restoring phone lines torn down by recent storms, but he explained he was preparing for FTTC installation in our village. Gobsmacked. He was most helpful about the process:
1. They construct an extra pipe (a plastic conduit) within the large conduit running from exchange to cab.
2. They can then feed the fibre cable from exchange to cab using air pressure to push it along (“Blown fibre”). I’ve only met this before within buildings, so I didn’t know you could do the same aong a few miles of underground pipe.
3. They then power the cab from mains by tapping into the nearest mains grid cable – usually in the road somewhere.
4. They can then reposition the fibre internet kit from the exchange into the new or upgraded cabinet. Hey Presto: FTTC…
According to my engineer, the old telephone lines, with phantom-powering for emergencies, stay in place. However, this does imply that while the phone will continue to work during power-cuts, the FTTC system will fail in a power-cut; whereas our current ADSL connection continues to work during power-cuts (provided we keep our end live from battery-backup).

This would make FTTC a mixed blessing in areas which are very prone to power-outages.

It’s not just the distances in the rural community that cause slow broadband speeds. I’m just 0.5Km from my local BT exchange but my maximim download speed is 7 Mbps. The main reason is that BT only offer ADSL MAX from this exchange with a theoretical max speed of 8 Mbps.

BT keep saying they are going to upgrade to thier 21 CN network and will then offer ADSL 2 but the date keeps slipping. It should have been available now based on thier previous dates. There are NO plans for BT to install fibre at this exchange and there are no LLU operators at the exchange so I’m stuck with a BT based service (from another ISP)

With only about 1200 customers in total connected to this exchange (not all have broadband) there is little commercial incentive for BT to offer high speed broadband in this area. Mobile is not an option as we can bearly get a 2G service, let alone 3 or 4G