Rural internet: a slower pace of life, but not in a good way
Part of the joy of living in the countryside is remaining a few steps out of sync with the modern world, in splendid isolation. While they whizz busily head, we’re usually content to trot along at a slower pace, enjoying time-honoured traditions and basking in the glory of nature.
But there are times when being disjointed with the modern world can be a definite disadvantage, particularly when it means having to make do with sub-standard technology. For many people living in rural Britain, they experience this annoyance with their internet connections, as rural broadband speeds are notoriously slow.
‘Horse riding in Richmond Park‘ by Heather Smithers CC SA-BY 2.0
While many in the country do enjoy fast broadband speeds, and the problem is not as bad as it once was, some brute economic and technological facts remain conspired against rapid rural internet.
Relative to urban areas, the countryside is, obviously, much more sparsely populated – we like to give ourselves room to luxuriate. But this creates a problem for our internet connections, because broadband infrastructure uses technology which performs best in densely-populated areas.
The basic idea with the now-ubiquitous fibre broadband is that, in a city or town, a central exchange is connected to the national network, and from there connections fan out to cabinets in different neighbourhoods, from which further connections fan out once more to individual households. Where the connections up to the cabinet may be fibre-optic, the connection from the cabinet to the household tends to be copper, which is much slower. But because these connections are typically short, this doesn’t really disadvantage urban customers.
However, in the countryside, the same number of people who are normally served by a single street cabinet are typically spread out over a much wider area, meaning that their broadband is transmitted across the slow copper wires for much longer distances, seriously impinging upon the speed with which information can be sent and received. This is still a serious improvement on the pre-fibre era when all the connections were along old copper telephone wires, and rural internet was often so slow as to be unusable by modern standards.
“Fibre optic lamp macro” by Peter Corbett (CC BY 2.0)
To make matters worse, Openreach, the UK’s semi-nationalised broadband infrastructure management company, often determine that upgrading the exchange technology in rural areas would not be commercially viable due to low demand. This means your internet connection may be running on old, superseded fibre technology, like the ADSL standard with speeds up to 2Mb/sec rather than ADSL2+ which can reach 17Mb/sec. Hopefully, gradual upgrades may improve this situation over the coming years.
One of the saving graces of recent years has been mobile internet connections. With 4G having been rolled out a few years ago, and 5G now entering the UK market, soon country-dwellers should be able to access faster and more robust internet connections via their smartphones from pretty much all except the most remote locations. This should support the expansion of rural businesses and the wider economy, but it’s also important for modern entertainment. Many people choose to let off steam by watching shows and that involves streaming, through a service such as Netflix or BBC iPlayer, for example. Another popular entertainment sector is the ever-growing online gambling industry and, with live casino games, players can enjoy table games baccarat, blackjack or even sic-bo at home or on the go – provided they have a decent internet connection. In time, these demands – relatively recent to emerge – may create a virtuous circle, with more rural internet-usage leading Openreach to realise that people would pay a pretty penny for ultra-fast broadband connections in the countryside.
Not everyone in the countryside suffers with poor internet – but let’s hope it is even fewer in the future.