4G, satellite or good ol’ fashioned cash - can anything fix the digital divide in the UK? Broadbandchoices.co.uk takes a look at the problems facing rural broadband and examines the viability of some of the proposed solutions.
People often say that the best thing about the countryside is the slow pace of life. The thing is, for many people living in rural parts of Britain, that isn't really their choice - particularly when it comes to broadband.
While providers make a big song and dance about the ever-increasing speed of their broadband, with some now offering speeds of 100Mb and above, many people in rural areas are unable to get speeds of more than 2Mb and often have to cope with considerably less than 0.5Mb. That's barely enough to watch a hilarious video of a talking dog.
So what's the problem?
A common challenge facing people living in the countryside is the distance they live from the nearest telephone exchange - standard broadband speeds delivered through a phone line drop considerably the further away you are, which is why broadband providers advertise their speeds as "up to" - some customers will not be able to get that speed.
Unfortunately, in rural areas where people are spread out, it can be a long way to the nearest exchange and so getting the desired connection speeds can seem a long way off as a result. Recent data from communications regulator Ofcom highlights how variable the speeds can be - the typical speed range of an up to 24Mb connection, for example, is only 3-10Mb.
You can get much faster, more reliable speeds through fibre optic cable connections, which provide superfast broadband, offering speeds of more than 24Mb. Fibre broadband is increasingly important as more of us embrace multiple web-connected devices and start streaming more media, like music and catch-up TV.
However, it isn't available to many rural homes at present, meaning countryside communities are often forced to rely on ADSL, or copper wire, broadband and sub-par speeds. In fact, a map recently published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sports shows that huge chunks of the UK are unable to get superfast broadband at all.
Get on my land!
What's stopping a fibre optic broadband providers like Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com) or BT (www.BT.com) offering cable services in the heart of the country? Why can't you just pick up the phone and ask Richard Branson to lay some cable in your area?
Well, like most things, it partly comes down to cost. Broadband providers are reluctant to roll-out cable or other major infrastructure upgrades if it doesn't make financial sense to do so. Even if there is profit to be had in a rural area, there's likely to be more available in larger towns and cities, so rural projects drop down the priority list, along with the needs of the people they would benefit.
The difficulty in getting decent broadband is undeniably a source of anger in many rural communities, and things aren't helped when upgrade projects stall or face delays. In those cases, the angry finger of blame gets pointed at local councils, but many claim they don't have the experience to get these projects up and running.
That's because broadband upgrades are complicated, expensive things. Before any work can get underway, the local authority has to select a company to build the network. The bidding process alone can be incredibly pricey and time-consuming for the council and broadband providers involved. As a result, many providers ultimately feel it isn't really worth their time and effort.
What can be done?
All this paints a very bleak picture of broadband in the rural parts of Britain, but here's the thing: the urban-rural divide in Britain isn't an invisible problem - the providers know about it, the government knows about it, and both are showing increased commitment to making things better.
The government, for instance, has declared that it wants Britain to have "the best broadband in Europe" by 2015. To that end, it allocated £530million specifically to stimulate broadband growth - particularly in remote or sparsely populated rural areas where it wouldn't normally be economically viable for broadband providers to invest.
The responsibility for coming up with broadband upgrade plans has been handed to the local authorities in each area. That might set off warning bells for some people, because, as mentioned earlier, some councils have little or no experience when it comes to getting broadband upgrade projects going.
However, Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, whose department is responsible for overseeing broadband policy and delivery, has made it clear that dilly-dallying won't be tolerated - plans had to be in place by the end of last month if councils wanted an allocation of the funds. In his own words he "put the fire up everyone's backsides".
4G for you and me
If setting councillor's posteriors aflame isn't enough, there's another potential solution on the horizon - 4G.
It's the next generation of mobile broadband, and while it's not here yet, it will arrive soon - as early as this year if some reports are to be believed.
4G speeds are much faster than 3G. In fact, they're comparable with a decent fixed-line broadband connection, so for areas that can't get good speeds through traditional means, it's a very attractive prospect.
For many, including the government, 4G represents A New Hope for getting people out in the sticks connected. Part of the government's funding is committed to extending mobile coverage, and its possible 4G projects could be allocated some of those funds.
Providers seem to sense that 4G is the solution too - many have been conducting 4G trials in rural areas in the last few months. Both BT and Everything Everywhere - the company that operates the Orange and T-Mobile (www.T-Mobile.co.uk) mobile networks in the UK - has been running trials down in Cornwall, for example.
Of course, 4G is only a viable solution for areas that can get it. Many people have expressed concern that next-generation mobile broadband won't be available in some areas - just as 3G isn't at the moment.
And there's a more immediate problem - 4G isn't here yet. A series of unfortunate events, including infighting and legal threats from some 3G providers over reallocation of spare radio spectrum that will be used to transmit 4G, mean that Ofcom has not yet been able to auction off the spectrum.
However, we will see progress soon - the auction is taking place at the end of the year, and some providers even believe they might be able to offer 4G services before then.
Satellite broadband - out of this world or set to crash and burn?
One technology that is available right now, is satellite broadband. It's a relatively recent development, and one a lot of people forget about. It's definitely one possible solution to broadband issues in the most isolated parts of the country, albeit one that currently has a lot of drawbacks.
The big advantage is that anyone can get it, provided they have a satellite dish. Unlike fibre optic cables, copper wire, or 4G, you're not limited by what infrastructure is in place in your area. Satellites can cover massive areas - the whole of the UK certainly - so the only way you could fail to get a connection is if you lived underground, in which case you're just being difficult.
It's currently an imperfect system though. Although download speeds are decent - between 6Mb and 10Mb - upload speeds can be quite slow. What's more, most providers, such as ToowayDirect manage usage carefully, imposing tight download limits on users.
There's also the problem of price. Satellite broadband is currently quite expensive to set-up. You'll typically have a monthly charge, but you'll also have to pay for installation and the equipment itself, and that will run into hundreds of pounds.
So right now, it's hard to see the benefit over standard broadband, save for those few areas of the UK that get no standard broadband coverage at all. However, give it a few years, and maybe things will be different.
A positive outlook
All things considered, those of us who live in neglected areas can look to the future with tentative optimism. The government seems pretty serious about addressing the disparity between rural and urban areas when it comes to broadband, and new technology like 4G could potentially hold the key to getting people in the countryside up to speed.
That's the long-term view. However, the much needed improvements to rural broadband are happening "soon", but haven't happened yet. For now, many of us are stuck with slow broadband and limited services. Even so, people in areas with slow internet access should hold fast, because things can only get better.