Late last year, we commissioned some research into how British households buy broadband.
We wanted to understand to what extent people were able to find broadband deals that met their speed needs. Were people overpaying for more speed than they needed, or were they unable to get a fast enough plan for their household?
We found that a significant number of households had a broadband plan that was significantly slower than what they needed, given their internet usage. There were a number of reasons behind this – including a lack of knowledge of what speed was needed, affordability concerns, or a lack of availability of faster broadband.
In the months after publishing the survey, we spoke to a number of people who are struggling with slow broadband, and began to notice an interesting trend.
Many of those we spoke to in rural areas were being let down by Ofcom’s Universal Service Obligation. BT was quoting people hundreds of thousands of pounds to upgrade their fixed-line connection, or asking them to sign up for a 24 month BT 4G router contract – even if they had already proven with another service that 4G wasn’t viable at their address.
The rural broadband survey
We wanted to find out more about the digital divide facing the UK. Just how unaffordable is British broadband, and how much slower are the speeds seen by people in areas with poor infrastructure? And if there are fixed-line infrastructure issues, to what extent is 4G technology helping to fix the problem?
While network coverage maps help to give an indication of the theoretical service available at different postcodes, they fail to tell you what speeds people are actually receiving, and what types of broadband service people are actually using – such as mobile and satellite broadband. They also fail to show how affordable (or otherwise) broadband is in different postcodes.
In April 2021, we worked with OnePoll to investigate broadband speeds in urban, suburban, and rural areas across the UK. We surveyed 2000 people who were solely or jointly responsible for purchasing their home broadband.
We asked people to report on what speeds they typically saw, relative to what they were paying for.
The survey found:
- Rural households pay 76 percent more for broadband than those living in urban areas.
- Suburban households pay 22 percent more for broadband than those living in urban areas.
- The extent to which households receive slower speeds than what they pay for varies massively depending on where you live. Urban households receive speeds 3 percent slower than what they pay for on average, while suburban neighbourhoods typically receive speeds 19 percent slower than what they signed up for. Those living in the rural UK receive speeds 28 percent slower than the advertised typical download speed.
The price of broadband was assessed on a cost-per-megabit basis. We found that urban households pay £0.30 on average per megabit of download speed received, while rural households pay £0.52 on average – hence the 76 percent cost difference.
We used this method of analysis because if you pay £30 per month for broadband, the level of service you receive is going to be vastly different if you live on a farm that only gets ADSL service, rather than in a city centre that gets ultrafast fibre.
- The North East, Northern Ireland, and Scotland have the UK’s most expensive broadband, paying £0.58, £0.51, and £0.46 respectively per megabit of download speed received.
- London, Wales, and the South East have the UK’s cheapest broadband, at £0.23, £0.28, and £0.35 respectively per megabit of download speed received.
The reason why there is such a digital divide with broadband performance in this country boils down to infrastructure failings.
The copper cabling that the countryside relies on isn’t just slow – it’s also inconsistent. This is why rural households are so much more likely to experience slower speeds than what their provider promises them.
But what about 4G or 5G? Can rural households use alternate technologies to improve their speeds?
We found that across the country, those using a 4G or 5G router received speeds 61 percent faster on average than those using a fixed-line connection. So for many people, it’s definitely possible to use these technologies to get better speeds.
However, while 17 percent of urban households use 4G or 5G technology as their main way of getting online at home, only 7 percent of rural households are able to do the same.
The truth is that 4G congestion and coverage issues are making it so that mobile broadband isn’t a viable alternative for many rural households. This is why this technology isn’t as popular in the countryside compared to the rest of the UK.
Rural households are being let down by the government when it comes to broadband infrastructure.
While gigabit broadband is being rolled out in suburban and urban areas that already get superfast speeds, much of the countryside still relies on extremely slow ADSL broadband to get online. And the truth is that 4G coverage isn’t good enough in the countryside to make it a viable alternative for many households – despite BT pushing people to use it under the Universal Service Obligation.
In the short term, the government needs to immediately invest in fixing 4G congestion and coverage issues in rural areas. This is the fastest way to ensure that those stuck on ADSL broadband can get decent speeds – without having to wait years for Openreach to come along and install fixed fibre on their street.
And in the long term, fixed-line broadband infrastructure investments need to be massively accelerated. The rural-urban broadband digital divide and the associated failure of the Universal Service Obligation are national embarrassments – not just from a social perspective, but from an economic perspective as well. In 2021, peoples’ jobs and livelihood depend on having fast, stable broadband at home – and it’s about time the government gave this issue the attention it deserves.
About the author
Tom is the founder of Broadband Savvy. When he’s not writing about broadband, you’ll find him walking his dog (Rex) or playing agar.io.