Rolling green hills, busy meadows alive with butterflies and wildflowers, the sound of rumbling rapids in the distance – there’s a lot to be said for life in rural Britain. Unless, that is, you want to make a video call, or play an online video game, or wind down with Netflix at the end of a busy day. Broadband speeds in rural areas can be painfully, prohibitively slow, if you are able to connect at all. Many areas, known as “slow spots”, receive speeds of less than 2Mbps, others face speeds of less than 0.144Mbps (“not spots”), and still others are unable to get land-based broadband at all. Such slow speeds can be an annoyance for people visiting relatives in these areas, or for those taking a short break in the countryside – but what about those who live in rural areas all year round?
Increasingly, access to the internet is seen as a basic human right, intrinsically linked to a person’s freedom of expression and opinion – a view which is beginning to be reflected in resolutions and constitutional amendments throughout the developed world. As early as 2000, the Estonian government launched a program to expand internet access to rural areas, arguing that the internet is essential in the 21st century. France’s highest court declared internet access to be a human right in 2009. In Greece, the right to participate in the “information society” is enshrined in the constitution, and the state is obliged to facilitate the production, exchange, diffusion of and access to electronically transmitted information.
It’s safe to assume that this trend will continue; but while we wait for our own laws, government and service providers to catch up, those who live in rural areas do have some alternatives to slow (or no) broadband.
Mobile Broadband: 3G and 4G
One option that many people have turned to is mobile broadband, which is becoming a viable option for rural customers -though checking providers’ coverage maps is a necessity. Three, for example, boasts a 98% coverage rate across the UK. It is possible to use most smartphones as a “hotspot” these days, but this tends to be fairly heavy on battery usage.
A better option for rural users looking to get online using mobile broadband is the mobile Wi-Fi router. These routers come in various models and with differing functionality, much like routers for land-based broadband. This means that users can tailor their router to their needs, choosing one that allows for enough devices to be connected in their home.
It’s also possible to use a dongle to connect to mobile broadband, but these only work for devices that have USB ports, meaning they’re only really viable for laptop and desktop computers.
4G mobile broadband is faster than 3G, but 3G currently has much more coverage. If you’re in a slow spot, though, even 3G is likely to be significantly faster than the speeds available through conventional broadband. Speeds begin from up to 7Mbps and peak at promises of up to 60Mbps, prices range from £10 per month up to £50 or more, and acquiring mobile broadband service usually involves locking yourself into a contract of anything up to 24 months. While mobile broadband speeds can beat land-based broadband in rural areas, it is usually more expensive and subject to (often strict) data limits. All-you-can-eat data is currently only available on smartphone plans in the UK.
Satellite broadband has been available in the UK for several years, and provides a viable option for people in slow spots or not-spots who fall outside mobile broadband coverage. Satellite broadband speeds are the same whether you are in an urban or rural area, and speeds tend to max out at around 22Mbps. Thanks to falling prices and increasing speeds, satellite may soon become the broadband option of choice in the rural market.
Prices for satellite broadband start at around £15 a month with a strict (2GB) data allowance., and rise to £80 or more per month for plans with more lenient caps (100GB with unlimited night time usage, for example). Satellite broadband does come with a setup cost which can be anything up to £500 depending on the provider, and requires that a satellite receiver dish be attached to the outside of your house.
If you decide that satellite broadband might be right for you, it’s possible that you could benefit from one of the central or local government schemes periodically set up to get people online, such as the connection voucher scheme run by Broadband Delivery UK – part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – which ran from 2013 to 2015. A call to your council, or even to the Internet service provider you’re considering, might yield some savings.
DIY and Community Broadband
As reliable, fast internet becomes increasingly essential to daily life, being used for everything from banking to business to keeping in touch with friends and relatives, more and more people in not-spots and slow spots are taking it upon themselves to find ingenious solutions to their connectivity issues – solutions that don’t involve waiting months or years for internet service providers to upgrade their village’s connection, or paying through the nose for equipment, or contending with tight download limits.
One such solution was thought up by Christine Condor. In 2009, sick of her flaky rural internet connection and unable to find a viable alternative, she bought a kilometre of fibre-optic cable and laid it herself using her tractor. From there, she connected a neighbouring farm – then another, and another. What began as a DIY project born of frustration gradually turned into a business.
Christine now runs Broadband for Rural North (B4RN) as an internet service provider and provides fibre-optic cable right to the property for every customer, resulting in many people who were formerly in not spots now having speeds of 1Gbps.
Small companies like this are popping up all over rural Britain as people weigh the pros and cons of rural broadband. Maybe the next one will be yours?
Into The Future
With internet access increasingly recognised by governments and international bodies as a necessity in the 21st century, more akin to a basic utility like running water or electricity than a luxury, it is likely that improving rural broadband access will increasing become a priority.
Most communications advancements – early postal services, the telegraph and telephone – have taken longer to reach those in rural communities than those in cities. High speed broadband is no different in that regard, but with new technologies forcing competition into the rural broadband market, and with customers beginning to have viable choices when it comes to picking their providers, it is likely that the current trend of increasing speeds and more attractive services for ever-lowering prices will continue. As someone whose family lives deep within a very not-spot, I for one look forward to the day when the choice between visiting relatives and having reliable access to my online life no longer applies.