Why is rural broadband so crummy, and what can I do about it?

Countryside

I just moved to a charming village in the Derbyshire countryside, and broadband here is so slow! Apparently it’s the same in most rural areas - is this true? Why is my broadband so bad?

Nina B, via email

You're not imagining it, Nina - broadband is definitely slower out in the countryside and in rural areas.

In fact, stats from Ofcom showed that while broadband in urban areas of England has an average speed of 35.3Mb, in rural areas that speed is just 17.5Mb. That's half the speed… and a lot of households aren't even getting that.

It's even worse in Wales, where it's 34.8Mb in urban areas but a dawdling 13.2Mb out in the country.

Why's rural broadband so slow?

You can get broadband anywhere that you can get a phone line, but for broadband that can reach fast speeds - including fibre optic connections - you need a slightly more advanced infrastructure.

Rolling out fibre in urban and residential areas is fairly easy: roads can easily be dug up to install cables, and a single fibre-connected street cabinet can connect loads of homes. However, that's not the case in rural areas. (And it's not always the case in city centres either.)

  • Houses tend to be further apart in the countryside, so a single street cabinet can't connect as many homes.
  • As well as that, you're probably further away from the cabinet than you would be in a more urban area. That means longer cables, which slow down your speeds - especially for standard ADSL broadband.
  • In fact, some properties are on 'exchange only' lines - you're connected directly to the exchange, bypassing the street cabinet altogether. And that means you're not included in a fibre rollout. Boo.
  • It's also physically difficult to lay fibre cables. Rural areas tend to have farmland, streams and lakes, hills, and even mountains, which aren't very cable-friendly.
  • The infrastructure that's already there tends to be older with less up-to-date tech - making it difficult to carry faster speeds.
  • And it's expensive to improve that infrastructure - and it isn't always economically viable for broadband companies to lay such costly lines for so few customers. Boo again.
Thatched cottage

So what can you do?

Well, if you've got the cash to spare (and you'll need a lot of it), you can pay out to get a fibre line installed. BT is often willing to connect your property up if you're willing to pay for it - same goes for Virgin Media if it operates in your general area - but it can cost well over £1,000. It's even more than that for full FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) fibre.

If you'd rather not squander your savings, however, you do have some options:

  • See if you can get fibre broadband - use our postcode checker here. Even if your speeds turn out to be slower than advertised (and they definitely will be), it'll still be faster than a miserably slow ADSL connection.
Best buy deals
  • Superfast 2
    £100 Voucher and Free Amazon Echo Dot
    • Online Exclusive
    • Average speed* 63Mbps
    • Pay As You Go phone
    • Offer ends
    • £23.00 per month
    18 month contract
  • Unlimited Broadband
    £75 Cashback
    • Online Exclusive
    • Average speed* 10Mbps
    • Pay as you go phone
    • Offer ends
    • £18.99 per month
    12 month contract
  • Fast Broadband
    £50 Voucher redeemable at Amazon.co.uk, Tesco, Argos or a Prepaid Mastercard (New customers only)
    • Online Exclusive
    • Average speed* 11Mbps
    • Pay as you go calls
    • Offer ends
    • £17.95 per month
    18 month contract
  • M50 Fibre Broadband + Phone
    Exclusive Offer: £75 Bill Credit
    • Online Exclusive
    • Average speed* 54Mbps
    • Weekend calls inc.
    • Offer ends
    • £26.00 per month
    12 month contract
  • Superfast 1
    £100 Voucher and Free Amazon Echo Dot
    • Online Exclusive
    • Average speed* 35Mbps
    • Pay As You Go phone
    • Offer ends
    • £23.00 per month
    18 month contract
  • Unlimited Broadband & Unlimited UK & Mobile Calls
    £75 Cashback
    • Online Exclusive
    • Average speed* 10Mbps
    • Anytime calls inc.
    • Offer ends
    • £26.99 per month
    12 month contract

*Average speeds are based on the download speeds of at least 50% of customers at peak time (8pm to 10pm). Speed can be affected by a range of technical and environmental factors. The speed you receive where you live may be lower than that listed above. You can check the estimated speed to your property prior to purchasing.

  • Work with what you've got. Do everything you can to boost your internet speed using the tips in our guide.
  • Check out wireless broadband - a kind of broadband delivered through the air using science, such as mobile broadband or a community wireless scheme. It's not ideal - you'll need decent signal, and download limits can be pretty low - but it's something.
  • Specifically, check out satellite broadband, a kind of wireless broadband that involves even more science. If speeds on the ground are regularly below 2Mb, you may even be able to snag some free vouchers from your local council to put towards setup costs.
  • Check the Openreach website to find out whether fibre is already on its way to your neighbourhood, and register your interest in a rollout if not. You can do that on Virgin Media's website too - the provider's currently in the midst of an ambitious rollout project.
  • Band together with some neighbours, and raise the funds to get some proper fibre lines installed. Loads of local broadband schemes have found success here, from regional ones like Connecting Cheshire to major projects like B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North).

Good luck, Nina - we hope your internet speeds up soon.

  • Broadband contracts: The small print

  • Where can I get free broadband?

  • Why get a static IP address?

  • How to set up a home office in 5 steps

  • Broadband and moving home

  • TalkTalk broadband review

  • Where can I get free broadband?

  • Which broadband has the fastest upload speeds?

  • Can distance from the exchange affect broadband speed?

  • Ask our expert: What can I do to improve my wireless broadband?

  • BT Complete Wi-Fi - is it any good?

  • Can I get Virgin Media in my area?