/ 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?


The emphasis should be on coverage , those who live in rural communities with no broadband or <2 Mbps broadband are severely disadvantaged especially if they have children who almost require internet access for schoolwork. These households are also likely to have few local amenities, no public transport and probably high electric or oil heating bills.

I’m on 20Mb (speedtest rates it at 20.53 download and 1.15 upload) which was upgraded from 10Mb for “free”, although there were 3 price hikes between being told of the doubling and actually getting it.

Speed isn’t as important as reliability for me, I just wish it was 24/7 365 days a year. Unfortunately its not, I don’t think I’ve ever had a whole year free of issues. The last issue being just over a week ago and no internet for best part of day.

I’ve been “online” for almost 25 years now, yet my parents still aren’t and they have no desire to be so “enabled”

I can’t understand why it should be a matter of astonishment that 17% of homes are not connected to the internet. While the internet is useful, it is not indispensable and I don’t think there should be too much pressure to get everybody connected, although I agree that it is absolutely essential that every household should be able to access fast broadband if it wants to. Using a computer at home represents a considerable expense, taking into account the cost of paper, ink, ISP subscription, and electricity. People who have plenty of time and not much money can manage very well without one – for the time being at least, but increasingly there are penalties for paper transactions which for utilities should be outlawed in my opinion. People without broadband shouldn’t have to pay more to receive paper bills for a telephone service! I agree with Rarrar that access to fast broadband in rural areas should be a priority because of the disadvantages already experienced in remote locations. I predict that many people will actually withdraw from the internet as time goes by and their circumstances change.

John Ward writes: “I can’t understand why it should be a matter of astonishment that 17% of homes are not connected to the internet. While the internet is useful, it is not indispensable..”

It becomes more indispensable with time, however. Unfortunately, not everything advances with the same pace. Today, for example, I find that the “new” Which? web site has become unusable for me, serving blanks pages when I click on certain, *indispensable* links… Why should Which?, of all organisations, leave some of their members behind?

Katharine says:
12 August 2013

I’m on 1.3MB (if I’m lucky). Appallingly slow, and I’m 10 miles from Bristol! Hardly in the middle of nowhere.

cyberdoyle says:
13 August 2013

The scandal is that councils are giving the incumbent the funding to make the divide even wider. The money is going to patch up openreach cabinets, they call it ‘fibre broadband’ but it isn’t, they are making it go through the old phone lines to keep us tied to this monopoly for another decade. Those who don’t live near a cab will still get very slow speeds and many will remain on dial up. Lots of people only have a landline for broadband, they use mobiles for calls, and this is what BT intend us to carry on paying for. Its all a scam. Its time we had some fibre, moral and optic.

Harriet – You quote ONS data but your link is to a BBC article apparently quoting ONS data. They also do not provide a link to the original work by the ONS or the date when the research was carried out and how derived. I expect better from Which? and the BBC.

“Researchers said the advent of 4G mobile speeds had helped boost the number of us getting online. ” Seems a statement hanging in mid-air and one is left with the impressio of more data collected by a “survey” to boost a particular aim. In case anyone has doubts about the medias use of “surveys” I recommend Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Medicine” where he illustrates at length the bogusness of many surveys and how the media is only too happy to fill space with them..

However there appears to be a possible fundamental flaw in trying to link the measurement of households on-line to people using mobile phones to access the Internet. My children and my nephews and nieces I suspect have their bill sent to their old home address whilst living somewhere else in short-term accommodation.

Thanks Harriet for the link. It makes it much more interesting to know that you are looking at the original data even if the actual question[s] asked is [are] missing. It is also regrettable that time spent does not form any part of the information gathered which might have been very interesting.

The figure of 83% household is apparently an estimate: ” UK estimates from 1998 to 2004. GB estimates from 2005 to 2013″. In any event it is not crystal clear if either of our views is explicitly ruled out but I think you are probably right!

I take an interest in surveys as even the most innocuous of questions can be misleading. I have seen surveys referring to last year when they actually mean the last 12 months. Which? tends to do surveys such as have you had problems with your vacuum cleaner without asking about amount of usage of the device. They also do not allow for people who have two vacuum cleaners.

Surveys can be rigged and can be flawed : ) Especially inside a business. Look at Microsoft at their gift for anticipating what the market does not want and then producing it.

I will see if the ONS can provide the source of the data, when and what the questions were asked and the size of the sample.

>>> Which? tends to do surveys such as have you had problems with your vacuum cleaner without asking about amount of usage of the device. They also do not allow for people who have two vacuum cleaners. <<<

The latest Which? survey I've completed asked about my experiences in a chain hotel, but then made a fundamental blunder (in my view) in not asking how much I paid for the stay. I used free Avios miles. If I had paid hard cash I would have given quite a different response! And paying rack rate doesn't bear thinking about.


Thank you for raising these very interesting comments as its great to know that member’s are thinking about the questions we’re asking in surveys and feeding backing suggestions for possible improvements. I’ve tried to address all of your concerns below and I hope this is helpful.

In surveys that focus on member’s experiences with a service we often ask people to think about their most recent experience in (for example, a hotel, or with a holiday company) or we’d ask them about the product they use most often (and even in this case, where appropriate, we’d ask about usage as we take how long people have owned a product for, is taken into account when we weight the data). We also use what’s called loops in the design of our surveys so if someone owns a product we know is quite niche, we’ll often ask them questions relating to this particular niche product firstly, before we ask them questions relating to any other products they might own. This enables us to get a better overall spread of products/services to report on.

The reason why we didn’t ask about the cost of staying at a hotel in our recent UK hotels chains survey is because the price can vary significantly depending on when you booked the hotel (i.e. whether this was months in advance, last minute, whether you walked in off the street or booked it via a special offer online). But I absolutely do take your point that price can affect your experience which is why we included a new question this year which asked “How well did your experience of staying at… match your expectations?” We also asked about value for money which takes into account price and this year was the first year we asked about whether customers staying at the Premier Inn had a good nights sleep under the premier Inn’s ‘good nights sleep guarantee’ so we did address the issue of price in this survey. We didn’t address the issue of using Avios miles because its a fairly niche topic and different reward schemes have different terms and conditions and we wouldn’t be able to verify these results unless we asked another set of questions which would affect the response rates to other questions we’d posed in the survey.

I hope this answers your query but as I said before, its always really useful to get feedback and please do get in touch if you ever wish to raise an issue.

Ciara – on the 8th August I sent Nikki an e-mail regarding the hotel survey and she said she would send it on for a response – which I have not received yet. The gist of my concern was that it was labeled a survey on hotels but in fact was solely about chain hotels so wasting my time even opening it up and trying to answer.

> Please enter a response for question ‘Which, if any, of the following UK hotel chains have you stayed in during the last 12 months? Please do not include independent hotels or B&Bs.
> Please select all that apply.’

The first question was have you stayed in a UK hotel in the last 12 months …… which leads me to wonder why not head up the survey request e-mail as “Chain Hotel Experiences over the last 12 months”. Save some membership time which may not be of much account to Which? but I resent having my time wasted because someone does not think of the user experience.

Hi Ciara,

Thanks for your response on the hotel survey. I did of course provide this feedback as part of the survey itself, but was really just backing up dieseltaylor’s observation with another example where the results of a survey can never be better than the questions asked.

You also make a very interesting point about how the answer to the question: “How well did your experience of staying at… match your expectations?” might be assumed to have some correlation with the amount paid.

In my case, I didn’t take the price paid into account at all when awarding the hotel a high score. I simply expected to have the usual grotty corporate hotel experience of tired furnishings, fixtures and fittings, dripping taps and hair under the bed, plus an unimaginative cooked breakfast … and I wasn’t the slightest bit disappointed by the experience! 🙂

Susanne Jones says:
13 August 2013

I recently moved half a mile away from my previous home. I had been getting a decent broadband service but now !! – it is very poor, probably about 30% of what it was previously. It is so irritating.

There must be millions of people who live near the furthest point from an exchange so it doesn’t matter if you are rural or urban.

We get 4.5ish Mb/s if we are lucky. It is acceptable most of the time but not fast.

I am not surprised that a substantial number of homes do not have Internet access. As John has said, there is the cost factor and that includes the expense of sorting out problems if you don’t have the expertise or patience to do this yourself. Using a computer online presents various risks, including phishing and many dodgy online traders. For most of us, the benefits of using the Internet greatly outweigh the disadvantages.

It is scandalous that urban and rural broadband speeds should vary so much. However it is equally outrageous that we have to pay 1 price no matter how slow (or fast) our broadband speed is. Should there be a sliding scale depending on how fast your broadband speed is?

Gerald says:
14 August 2013

As a physicist, and an experienced computer hack (since 1976) I despair that UK Gov can’t admit the obvious: there is a big rural-urban divide, and there always will be. We live two miles outside the M25, but it counts as a country road. Why? No cable, no mains sewerage, no bars (on mobile phone), no gas (until recently by chance) and only ADSL broadband. We’re lucky. Our local exchange serves our local hospital which is well-connected. So we can get nearly 8 Mbps via our 3km of copper telephone wire. Is it ever likely to run faster? No. It’s just physics. Is anyone going to dig up our five miles of road to lay cable or fibre for the fifty country addresses it serves? No, not till hell freezes over. It’s just economics. Is radio or mobile phone the answer? Doubt it, that’s both physics and economics. What about a direct line-of-sight laser link? Not with all these trees. The truth is simple: in many rural locations, adsl over telephone lines is as good as it gets for the next zillion years. I manage two other country locations for relatives. One gets 2.5 Mbps. The other gets about 1 Mbps, dropping to half that in wet weather. So it goes. National Government can’t solve this. Local Government can’t solve this. Comms companies can’t solve this. Rural communities need to accept that the national comms system is forever two-tier, and in the countryside you’re on the bottom rung. Forever. Cloud computing? Not down a country lane. Not up a hillside. Not in an isolated valley. We have to accept this as certainty, cease grumbling about it, and now work out how to live with that, which is a whole other story.

Thank you for applying reason and commercial logic to the divide Gerald.

Perhaps like cars huge top speeds are irrelevant for the vast majority of users; if they are incredibly important than perhaps you need to move.

I agree with Gerald. It is about time that someone should point out the practical and economic issues. Nevertheless it must be incredibly frustrating for anyone who is still dependent on dial-up, like a farmer I know. In his spare time, he does valuable work on countryside management but is unable to handle email attachments that present no problems for the rest of us.

Dr Emmett Brown says:
14 August 2013

I’m lucky to get 1.5Mb/s here in Hill Valley. I foolishly tried to download the high-definition release of one of my favourite films, only to find it still downloading more than three days later (about 88 hours if I remember correctly). It’s not on.

Alan Granger says:
14 August 2013

I agree with Gerald’s comments to a degree. But we are a victim of the BT monopoly of old. Having recently been to Costa Rica most if not all is covered by proper mobile coverage which we don’t have in UK. It’s fine to say 98% coverage but that is population not ground area. Far too many areas have no phone signal let alone 3G. As for getting 4G anytime soon, forget it.
It is all very frustrating. I live 2.5 miles from a big exchange but have a direct link. 2.5 Mbps on a good day, often nothing. The new fibre to cabinet will not help at all as there is no cabinet. Mobile coverage is poor and so you just live with it.
I asked the open reach engineer what I could do and he said ‘move house!’

Very admirable country Costa Rica. I am not sure it is a good example for telecommunications as with no real legacy of a fixed telephone system the economics of putting in a good mobile network were inescapable. The country also benefited [until 2011] from a central organisation unlike the UK.

I also suspect that with nimbyism due to a heavily populated country the UK has not made it easy to plant transmitters willynilly across the landscape. And I believe that with high density of users more masts are needed.

When I worked in the early days of broadband our little company was offering groundbased line of sight transmissions as an alternative to satellites and perhaps those options remain but the Government seems intent on establishing it as a right for everyone everywhere to have what they want.

Shared access for a village being an option.

Gerald says:
15 August 2013

As a rule of thumb, there’s a more-or-less inverse relationship between copper cable-length and network speed. A basic copper pair (like a telephone wire) can reliably carry 100 Mb/s over 100m. It might work up to about 150m, but it ain’t guaranteed. While it is possible to get faster speeds over copper networks within buildings, it needs multiple pairs in specially formed cables, carefully joined and carefully installed without sharp bends and kinks – all sorts of things you can’t expect from an old telephone wire running along a roadside. Lengthen the cable to 1km (1000m) and the speed drops to about 10Mb/s. Lengthen it further to 10km and it drops to about 1 Mb/s. This is just a rule of thumb, but matches what we find in rural locations. So if you measure the length of wire between your location and your local telephone exchange (or “green cabinet”, if your area enjoys such luxuries) – a car’s odometer will do nicely for this – you can make a reasonable guess about how fast ADSL broadband will run between those two points. And plan your life accordingly. I wish politicians and telecomms providers would just acknowledge this as a fact of life…

Katharine says:
15 August 2013

I’ve read the above comments with great interest.

As I said before, I’m 10 miles from Bristol and my average speed is about 1.3, if I’m lucky.

We recently had a council survey to complete, asking if we’d be prepared to pay extra for 20MB speed. What planet are they on? Even 2 would be great! Can’t the councils try and boost those areas where the speed is very slow, rather than giving faster and faster speeds to areas whose broadband is already fast?

The idea of charging people according to the speed they get is excellent – that would give the providers and incentive to increase speeds for those whose connection is slow.


Are your neighbours getting the same speed? When I switched to broadband I was getting no more than 0.8 Mbps within 5 miles of a city centre. I complained to no avail but when I found I could get four times the speed in a tiny village in the highlands of Scotland I complained again and suddenly the speed increased five fold. Problems with phone wiring can cause problems too, so it’s best to start by seeing what speed your neighbours achieve.

We really need to know how far you are from your exchange to know if 1.3MB (I assume you mean 1.3 Mbit/s) is reasonable or not. What does BT estimate your line speed to be, as opposed to actual?

I also worked for BT a couple of decades ago and I know that there is/was some ropey old copper lines and switching around connections in the cabinet would make an appreciable difference to connection speeds.

You could well be right, but it is not always external factors. I’d put my deteriorating Internet speed down to ageing copper / water / wind, but it turned out to be a faulty ADSL modem. With a replacement installed and stable for a couple of months, I’m now connecting at 7 Mbit/s.

The problem is, unless you have a spare ADSL modem or are prepared speculate and fork out for a new one, you might never find this out.

It has been remarkably warm and dry these last couple of months ………
: )

I am sure you will be fine and it does go to show how easy it is to get things wrong. I have just completed removing the thick layer of dust from my main computers fans which I suspect strongly will sort out the various recent problems of erratic freezing and loss of Internet as a driver was “missing”.

Actually the fault was a dying PSU. Apparently they can give a raft of nasty intermitten symptoms which do not relate obviously to power.

Fortunately easily replaced once I had watched a video and read some guides. And cheaply too as father-in-law had a spare.

Katharine says:
15 August 2013

We all get the same rubbish speed (we’re a hamlet of about 20 houses).

To add insult to injury, my “BT desktop help” keeps on popping up, telling me my speed is too slow, offers to investigate/improve it and of course nothing happens.

Sorry to hear this, Katherine, but I know people who have been able to improve their speed by sorting out problems in their home and others like me who have had their ISP do something at their end.

As Em says, a lot depends on the distance from the exchange.