As the dust starts to settle from all this economic upheaval and focuses have turned to how the UK economy will recover from COVID-19, have we forgotten some of the people and businesses that need dependable connectivity the most?
Rural areas have been patiently waiting for high-speed internet services for years already, and with limits to travel and engineer availability, will our green belt homes and businesses be left behind?
Effects of COVID
While this blog is based on published facts & figures from November 2019, Ofcom also looked into network performance through March this year. Specifically, the weeks before and after the Lockdown was initiated.
The good news is that for 99% of us, there was little change. Average download and upload speeds only fell by 2% and 1% respectively. In comparison, latency was 2% higher; meaning that while bandwidth remained steady, there were only slightly longer delays in getting information from A to B, even in rural areas.
Oh, and bear in mind that we’re talking milliseconds here. So, for the most part, consumer and business connections have performed as well as could be hoped for.
The dips in bandwidth you can see in the graph above are for largely external factors. For example, the sharpest drop you can see (10/03) for instance, was actually caused by a massive 50 Gb update to a popular game, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, hogging bandwidth up and down the country, though it did seem to affect some ISPs more than others.
Obviously, the Lockdown has scuppered other aspects of connectivity services too. The National Lockdown in India caused many operations, BT’s included, to operate skeleton crews on customer service and provisioning lines, meaning long delays for issues or number porting. Social distancing rules will have also prevented new infrastructure from being installed until businesses could source PPE and implement safe working practices at all times.
Is there really much of a difference between rural and urban internet?
In a word, yes.
Comparing the average download speeds couldn’t make it any clearer. The average urban peak-time speed (74.6Mbit/s) is almost double its rural counterpart (38.5Mbit/s). Plus, nearly a quarter of rural connections average under 10 Mbit/s, which is Ofcom’s absolute minimum definition of a ‘decent’ internet connection. But what’s the cause? Primarily, the types of technology used in those areas.
When copper signals, like those in a typical Broadband connection, have to travel over long distances, the clarity of the 1’s and 0’s starts to attenuate or in other words, degrade. While non-degrading alternatives like fibre are available, they can be prohibitively expensive to install for ISPs without known, pre-existing demand. Or in the case of 4G for example, both operators and users are still having to rely on existing infrastructure where historically, investment has been lacking in rural areas.
What can be done for the time being?
The good news is that the gap is narrowing and as the availability and popularity of superfast broadband & fibre services increases in rural areas, those average will increase too.
“Superfast broadband services were available to 98% of urban premises in January 2020, compared to 80% in rural area. But this is expected to increase following the UK Government and four mobile network operators’ agreement to develop a shared rural network.”
While this may address issues in years to come, there is a need for high-performance connectivity now, and COVID will have delayed infrastructure work that was already in progress or at the planning stage in March. The shared rural network mentioned in the quote above will have a significant effect too, combining all operators into a single network ideal for rural users and the emergency services. But, not until the finer points are ironed out, and a plan (that is yet to be formed) is put into action.
For the time being, homes and businesses that need high-speed connectivity could look to 4G, depending on coverage in their area. If anything, this scenario is better for rural areas as it means less mess, installing cables in and outside the home and can be set-up very quickly. Depending on the agreement, SIMs may also be carrier agnostic, like in Vaioni’s 4G service, meaning that whichever network has the most robust connection will be used for the service. Plus, if weather changes or outages affect the signal strength, the SIM can move on to a different service, if required.
Right now, and not costing much – if any money at all – users can optimise their current connection by testing their router and its placement. Older routers may be working off ageing Wi-Fi standards like 802.11n, for example, and are therefore unable to provide the quickest connection between device and router.
Also, the router’s location can have a significant effect on signal strength. Try moving your hub away from any broadcast interference – microwaves, cordless phones, other Wi-Fi devices – so that it can broadcast a clearer signal. Also, limit the number of walls or obstacles the signal has to pass through to reach your devices.
*all statistics gathered from Ofcom: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0038/194897/uk-home-broadband-performance.pdf