Why do rural areas get such a lousy broadband service?

18 November 2010

Broadband providers may be promising super-fast next-generation services to urban areas, but they’re ignoring the fact that high-speed broadband is also a basic requirement for rural Britain.

Southam, a village of around 1,000 people just four miles north-east of Cheltenham, typifies the digital divide in the UK. While nearby urban dwellers enjoy generally fast and efficient broadband, Southam residents are suffering a service little better than dial-up.

Bernard Weekes, 64, who runs a small property business, pays £20 a month for an 8 MBPS (megabytes per second) service from Demon, but while the service comes out of the Cheltenham exchange at a speed of 8.7 MBPS, by the time it reaches him it is only 0.7 MBPS.

"My service has always been bad, and these appalling speeds were confirmed by a BT engineer," Bernard says. "I find it outrageous that I’m getting less than 10% of the service I’m paying for."

In Southam, as in many other rural communities, complaints relate to DSL (also called xDSL) broadband, which uses the copper wire phone lines. These lines connect homes and businesses to their local BT exchange but are being stretched to the limits of their capacity to support high-speed internet access.

With DSL broadband technology, customers need to be within four kilometres of their local exchange to get a service of 2 MBPS or more, and speeds vary depending on the number of users online. By contrast, cable - or fibre optic – broadband services tend to get much closer to headline speeds.

However, these networks are being built largely in urban areas, excluding many rural homes and small businesses.

"The whole area suffers from a poor service as we are still on BT’s copper wire network," adds Bernard. "These lines were laid decades ago, and have deteriorated considerably since then. But BT has basically said there’s nothing it can do."

A BT spokesperson points out that every customer’s line can be affected by a variety of factors, including distance from the exchange, internal wiring and interference from electrical appliances.

Supply not meeting demand

Since the telecoms market was deregulated, broadband providers have been able to put their own equipment in local exchanges under a system known as "local loop unbundling" (LLU).

This means more advanced broadband technology can be installed to provide faster speeds. However, there needs to be a high density of potential broadband customers to merit investment in LLU, something rural exchanges can't offer.

Bernard has tried taking his complaint to communications regulator Ofcom – but to no avail. "The reply from Ofcom was that it has a requirement to ensure that a broadband service is available, but plays no role in the quality of that service," he says.

The same story is repeated throughout the village, with users receiving painfully slow speeds. Brian and Edna Smith, both in their seventies, get around 0.3 MBPS, despite paying £25 a month for a BT bundled package. Brian has complained to BT, but there has been no improvement.

"We are told the plan is to deliver high-speed broadband to rural areas, but as yet, we’ve seen no evidence of this in Southam," says Brian.

Ofcom published data in July this year showing that on average, broadband users receive just 45% of the advertised "up to" speed. The regulator insists it is pushing for tighter controls on selling broadband in the UK, and points out that it has introduced a strengthened Code of Practice.

But this is of little help to those Southam residents who need fast broadband in their professional lives.

"There are many occasions where working from home would make life a lot easier," says Paul Nurden, an investment manager who pays around £14.99 a month for broadband with AOL. "But there’s absolutely no way I can use the broadband in Southam to do so."

Paul’s records of his broadband speed at home show that, since May this year, the service has rarely edged above 0.4 MBPS. He has complained to his provider, which has resulted in a line check but no change to his actual service. "AOL told me it is only providing the service and the speed is not its problem," he adds. "It then tried to persuade me to sign up to an 18-month contract."

Keeping up with the times

The younger members of Southam are also affected. Paul’s 11-year-old daughter Kate has just started secondary school and needs to access the internet in order to do her homework.

"I have a brand new laptop, but I find it really hard to do my work because it takes so long to load a single web page," she says. "I can’t watch BBC iPlayer either, as it won’t play continuously and stops every few seconds. I really wish I could get the same fast broadband service that my friends get."

Charlie Ponsonby, chief executive of comparison service SimplifyDigital, says: "If you want to view video content or your family has multiple users who are downloading lots of content, you need faster speeds."

The Workman family say their broadband connection is far too slow for the household’s usage – and completely unreliable. "We get broadband as part of a bundled package from Sky, but my children miss out because they lack the fast speeds required to watch TV and socialise online," says Carol Workman.

Kevin Wilcox, 43, a consultant engineer, agrees. The speed of the service severely limits his family’s internet usage. "I commute to work, and would like to be able to do more work from home, but this just isn’t possible," he says. "You can’t do more than one thing at a time on the computer, and everything takes longer than it should. This means I can’t do any research, my wife can’t send emails, and the children can’t do their homework."

After spending years as customers of BT, the Wilcox family now get their broadband from Orange as part of Kevin’s mobile package. "But, unfortunately, we’ve noticed no improvement in speed or service," he adds.

Kevin is also the chairman of Southam Parish Council, and at the beginning of September chaired a well-attended public meeting on the state of the village’s broadband service.

"The lack of a fast internet connection is a form of social exclusion, as residents can’t access basic public services," he says. "We’ve also heard from lots of businesses that want to remain here but say the broadband service may force them to move away."

The residents of Southam are also completely baffled as to why they have such a slow connection, given that a fibre optic cable services the neighbouring village of Winchcombe, with residents there getting speeds of 3 to 4 MBPS. "We pay the same amount for our broadband and simply don’t get the same service," says Kevin.

A committee of the parish council has now been formed, with plans for a survey of all residents to ascertain the average speed each household is getting, and when their service is going to be updated. "The government is pledging to provide a 2 MBPS service to all homes by 2015," says Kevin. "But we can’t help wondering who is going to be left until last."

Our mission statement

We call on providers, Ofcom and the government to stop dragging their feet and to start making improvements now. Moneywise demands:

• An end to customers being charged for services they don’t receive;
• The scrapping of contract lock-ins where a provider’s service is shown to be below par;
• Broadband access for all, from London to the Scottish Highlands;
• Clear and mandatory rules on switching between providers;
• Transparency on actual speeds and a ban on the use of the phrase "up to" in advertising. The term "average speed" should be used instead.

Sign up to our petition now at moneywise.co.uk/broadbandpetition

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