Farmers Weekly’s ultimate guide to faster rural broadband

If there’s one thing that makes farmers grit their teeth, roll their eyes and gently start to hyperventilate, it’s the pathetic state of broadband in the countryside.

Ten years ago, BT could quite reasonably have argued that rural broadband was a work in progress.

However, for many farmers, things don’t seem to have improved much.  

But there may be options that you haven’t considered, like fixed wireless, satellite, 4G or community broadband schemes.

There are pros and cons of all these types of system, of course, but the providers claim that the not-spots are gradually shrinking.

We’ve investigated the options out there currently for you to see which solution would work best for you.

Rural broadband

© Mood Board/REX Shutterstock

Broadband in rural locations

Living in the countryside has all sorts of benefits.

There’s more space, less traffic (generally), cleaner air, cosier pubs and you know the first names of all your neighbours.

Time wasted

A survey this August by satellite provider Europasat suggested, on average, UK rural workers waste 16 minutes a day waiting for the internet. That’s nine days a year.

But when it comes to getting decent broadband in the countryside, you might as well be living in equatorial Africa.

As, with farms and rural houses spread thinly across the countryside, it’s relatively expensive to bring broadband to them compared with the large number of potential subscribers in towns and cities.

The poorest-served areas are the Scottish Highlands (and most of Scotland), Yorkshire, Humberside, much of Wales and the South West. East Anglia isn’t brilliant either.

Download speeds

© Jeff Blackler/REX Shutterstock

Will it ever get sorted?

At the moment 85% of broadband users in the UK get download speeds of 4Mbps or more (up from 83% at the end of 2014).

Community projects

For many rural areas, getting together has been the only way to get a decent broadband.

If your village is far from a BT exchange, ringed by hills and has a low population, you may have a problem.

The answer for many has been to get together with everyone in the village, paying for either wired or wireless broadband.

It can be costly, but once the signal has got to the area, the extra cost of bouncing it to each house may not be too expensive.

Meanwhile, 41% can receive 10Mbps or more (up from 38%).

Those lucky people who can get 15Mbps or more account for 24% of the UK population (up from 22%).

For many rural users, even those comparatively low 4Mbps speeds will look enticing.

If you take 2Mbps as the rock-bottom level at which you can still do basic stuff on your computer, 97% of the UK population can get that.

But only 22% of rural dwellers can get that speed.

The UK government says it is committed to delivering broadband speeds of 24Mbps or faster for 95% of the UK by December 2017.

Given that the UK population is 65 million, that means 3 million or more people will still be without it.

BT says that it has wired up 3.3m more homes and premises for broadband in the period July-September 2015, so things are gradually improving.

Internet service providers in rural areas are doing their bit, too.

Wireless internet provider Onlincolnshire says it will be able to provide 24Mbps in much of Lincolnshire.

It also has an interesting app-based set-up called Boosty that uses your mobile phone’s 4G signal (if you have 4G) to top up your home internet if its weedier than 4Mbps.

What speed do I need?

The figure widely taken as superfast broadband is 24Mbps. That allows you to whizz a 3MB picture to someone in seconds, use a Voip service such as Skype, which uses the internet rather than a phone line, or access on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer.

For most purposes 10Mbps is believed to be the point at which it’s a usable . That sounds speedy compared with the 2Mbps that people in towns and cities were using 10 years ago. 

Can I get a grant to cut the cost of faster broadband?

Some farmers were able to get grants from the Broadband Connection Voucher Scheme, for instance, though that has now closed. Some 55,000 small companies got grants of up to £3,000.

New regional schemes do pop up but you need to be alert to get them. In West Sussex, for example, the Digital Connectivity Grant Programme gives grants of up to 40% for getting superfast broadband installed, but there’s only £225,000 of funding.

How do we compare with other European countries?

If you look at average connection speeds in megabits per second (Mbps) as opposed to peak connection speeds, you see some slightly unsurprising figures.

The UK comes 21st with 11.6Mbps average speed. France is 8.9Mbps, Germany is 10.2Mbps, Russia is 9.4Mbps and Italy a steady 6.1Mbps.

Top 10 countries for speedy broadband

  • South Korea 23.6Mbps
  • lreland 17.4Mbps
  • Hong Kong 16.7Mbps
  • Sweden 15.8Mbps
  • Netherlands 15.3Mbps
  • Japan 15.2Mbps
  • Switzerland 14.9Mbps
  • Norway 14.1Mbps
  • Latvia 13.8Mbps
  • Finland 13.7Mbps

Figures come from global content delivery network Akamai

Incidentally, the average broadband speed across the world is 5Mbps.

Benin in sub-Saharan Africa brings up the rear with a national average speed of 1.08Mbps, not too different from many parts of rural Britain.

What are the options?

If you are relatively near to a BT exchange you’ve probably got over the first hurdle, but don’t assume anything.

If you’re not, and your broadband is as feeble as a politician’s excuse, you have to use one of the other options:

  • 4G mobile, where your broadband is provided by mobile phone operators such as EE, O2 or Vodafone via fixed masts round the UK
  • Satellite broadband, where an orbiting satellite sends the broadband to you
  •  Wireless broadband, where the broadband signal is beamed from a nearby mast
  • Cable: Tap into a BT line

Read more about each option and see information on where to find out more:

Mobile 4G

After years of putting up with an achingly slow broadband signal at his farm on the Salisbury Plains, Richard Guy decided enough was enough.

4G mastHe had already tried numerous times to get BT to sort the problem and even dabbled with a £600 satellite system, but he seemed to be getting nowhere.

Then, when sitting in his brother’s kitchen in London earlier this year, he hit on an idea.

He had got up early to do some work on his laptop and, not knowing his brother’s internet password, he decided to work off a 4G hotspot generated by his phone.

“The connection was so quick that I almost forgot I was working off the phone,” he says.

“That is when I hit on the idea of trying to get 4G broadband to the farm.”

Back at base in Heytesbury, Wiltshire, he set about looking for a spot where he could pick up a 4G signal.

To start the search he bought a cheap-and-cheerful portable wi-fi unit and began wandering around with it to see if it would pick up a signal.

Eventually he found a signal at the top of a hill about 1km from the farmhouse.

The next challenges were to get the signal back to base and find a power source to run the router.

After weighing up the options, he decided to clip an internet cable along the fence line that runs from the house to the spot on the hill.

Power then came from a 12V leisure battery hooked to a pair of small solar panels to make it last a bit longer.

To keep the router and battery out of harm’s way, he placed them in a couple of plastic toolboxes and mounted them on a mast fashioned out of a railway sleeper and a couple of lengths of 4×2 timber.

With the set-up completed, Mr Guy plugged in his laptop and his connection speed shot up from a lacklustre 1Mbps or 2Mbps to an average of about 50Mbps.

Richard Guy

Richard Guy

Shortly after his success he contacted Farmers Weekly and Radio 4’s Farming Today programme so that he could tell other farmers about his system.

“The next thing I knew I was being interviewed on the Jeremy Vine Show and I had Sky News and BBC News coming to the farm to film,” he says.

After that he had more than 1,000 people contact him and ask for help. That is when he decided to set up his own consultancy – Agri-Broadband – to help others do the same as him.

Agri-Broadband

After setting up Agri-Broadband in May 2015, Mr Guy has helped more than 70 people get a faster internet connection at their house or office.

How to check your 4G signal

For those interested in finding out if there is a 4G signal on their farm, it is worth checking Ofcom’s mobile network coverage website.

Just type in your postcode, select the network you are interested in and it will show you if there is any coverage in your area. If there is a signal at any point on your farm, there is a good chance you will be able to get the signal back to your house or office.

You can also check the quality of the phone network in your area, so it is also a handy tool to use before switching to a new provider.

Rather than spend his time travelling the country and setting the systems up by hand, he has come up with a complete kit that he can send out for people.

“Farmers are used to doing things for themselves and it’s pretty straightforward when you are given the right kit and a few instructions,” he says.

Before this is sent out, he uses Ofcom’s mobile network mast website to find out if there is a 4G signal at any point on the farm.

Then to check it actually exists he recommends someone goes to the spot with a phone hooked to his preferred network – EE.

If the phone picks up a strong signal and web pages load quickly it should be up to the job, he says.

The Agri-Broadband kit includes all the parts needed to set up the network.

This varies from farm to farm, but includes an industrial-grade 4G router, parts to set up a power supply and either cables or a radar system to get the signal where it is needed.

Then all the buyer needs to do is to sign up to a 4G broadband package and insert the SIM card into the router.

Mr Guy recommends EE as it has good national coverage as well as some of the better tariffs. A 30GB package should be suitable for most households and costs about £45/month.

Of the people he has helped so far, speeds averaged about 1Mbps before switching to 4G and about 50Mbps afterwards.

But the most successful so far is about 80Mbps.

The price to set up a network varies depending on the distances the signal needs to travel, but usually comes in between £546-£2,000 including VAT.

Satellite

If, like many of our readers, you live and work out in the sticks with poor mobile phone signal and no access to fixed-line broadband services, then satellites are the only way of accessing the internet.

Satellite services can be reached pretty much anywhere in the world provided you have a clear line of sight between the dish at home and the satellite drifting 22,000 miles away in space, without the need for any phone lines or cables.

Hill farmer Tony Davies was one of the first in Wales to try out the system when he fitted a dish to the farmhouse back in 2005.

The farm has no mains power and, after the nearby EE phone mast was decommissioned, very little phone signal to call on either, so satellite broadband remains the only option for local farmers.

Satelite dish

© Design Pics Inc/REX Shutterstock

How does it work?

As the name suggests, it uses a satellite dish fitted to the office or house to provide two-way services.

Early-generation satellite internet used a one-way system that involved downloading information via the dish but then sending uploads through the telephone line, but this severely strangled bandwidths.

Requests are sent from the computer to the dish via a wireless router and modem in the house.

From there it’s fired through the air to a satellite from where it communicates with the internet.

How quick is it?

Speeds are variable, but can get up to 20Mbps download and 6Mbps upload on a good day.

At its worst things can be closer to 4Mbps download and 0.4Mbps upload, which makes internet browsing a seriously patience-testing experience.

However, it is the latency, or ping rate, that can really affect speeds of satellite connections.

Put simply, it is the time it takes for a piece of information to make the trip to the earth-orbiting satellite and back.

It doesn’t affect the actual download/upload speed of the internet, but instead dictates how quickly the router gets a call back from the internet server and reacts to requests.

We are talking a few seconds’ lag at most, but if you are bidding on eBay it may take longer to register your bid and make the difference between winning the item or not.

Catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer can also be hard to watch via satellite.

Is it easy to install?

Installation involves fitting a satellite dish and modem.

There are engineers dotted across the country capable of fitting them, but if you’re a keen DIYer you should be able to do the job yourself.

The dish just needs a clear view to the south and takes about three hours to fit.

What is the start-up cost?

The combination of dish and modem will cost anything from £200 to beyond £600, but there are often grants available to cover the bill, so it is worth checking before you pay out. If you are on one of the more expensive tariffs, there’s also a good chance you will get the bulk of the start-up kit free.

Tony Davies

Tony Davies

How much does it cost?

Costs vary depending on the amount of data you think you will use. Basic packages kick off at about £25/month, but things can climb to £100/month for all-you-can-eat levels of data.

Usage allowances often end up lower than most fixed-line equivalents, so if you are downloading large files or photos, or trying to watch catch-up television services, you will get through your data pretty quickly.

Download time is also wasted on complicated websites that might automatically play a video or moving banner.

Mr Davies’ £50/month tariff gets him 20GB, split 17GB download and 3GB upload. Once that is used up, internet speeds slow right down, so it is not worth scrimping on the tariff you choose.

Is it reliable?

Speeds can vary massively. Lots of people surfing the web at the same time will slow things down for everyone. There are now 20-odd farms in Mr Davies’ local area using satellite internet, and with every new addition it makes the internet speed just a bit slower.

Weather can also affect things and the dish will need to be repositioned annually.

A few millimetres of movement can seriously affect the quality of the signal, and even heavy rain can slow things down.

Who provides it?

There are loads of companies out there offering satellite services.

The bigger names include Satellite Internet, Tooway and Avon, so it is worth shopping around for the best deal.

Wireless

Those of you that farm somewhere wonderfully remote, such as Stornaway or the Isle of Man or maybe the furthest tip of Cornwall, might expect to get dodgy broadband.

After all, the signal has to go up hill and down dale and will probably have to run along BT wires on top of innumerable telegraph posts.

Wireless broadband mast on Dutch barnBut where we farm in north Essex isn’t in any sense remote. We are in a built-up area surrounded by all manner of shopping centres, offices, pubs, restaurants and
even a large retail park.

However we are the last-but-one subscriber on the Chelmsford tele­phone exchange.

So the signal that meanders its way to the end of the mile-long lane where we farm is already pretty feeble.

And by the time it has run along the damp wires, been repeatedly shaken by tree branches and got to the farm, it’s knackered.

We are talking a rheumatic 0.5-1Mbps here

Fine for gawping at websites and sending a picture or two to your granny in Australia, but if you want to do some serious work, let alone run BBC iPlayer, Netflix or Amazone Prime, you’re stuffed.

Compare that with the 40-50Mbps that most people in towns would expect and you see the problem.

Incidentally, we have two farm cottages halfway along the lane from the farm. BT recently promised them a reasonable speed of 4-5Mbps but when it came to it they could only deliver the usual weedy 0.5-1Mbps.

So what was the answer?

By a stroke of luck, in 2005 a company called W20 put up a mast a couple of miles away.

It used a system that allowed the broadband connection to piggy­back on a wireless signal.

We signed up for a £30/month package and paid £200 to have an antenna on top of a Dutch barn.

It worked pretty well, although every so often the system would fail and they would have to reset it again.

However, three years ago they packed in and we shifted to a new provider called County Broadband. Its mast is six miles away but seems to be a more stable set-up than the previous company’s.

A 6Mbps download speed and 0.5Mbps upload speed may not sound that great but we can just manage to run the likes of BBC iPlayer.

Even at busy times of the day the signal is reliable.

We are on a fairly basic package.

The cost is £17/month and installation was about £100.

How does it get from the antenna to the house?

This is the clever bit, because what comes out of the antenna needs no further decoding. In fact you could plug a laptop into the base of the antenna and it would work fine.

In our case, we had to get the signal from the top of the Dutch barn to the house, which is about 300m.

So we used a powerline adapter (also known as a homeplug) to send the signal from the Dutch barn to a shed across from the farmhouse.

From there, a relatively short run of RJ45 cable brings the signal into the house.

It loses a bit of oomph, but not much.

Wireless broadband adapter

Any problems?

The antenna on the Dutch barn won’t tolerate anything in the way – even if it is something as weedy as a tree-branch.

Otherwise, it has all been very stable.

Broadband provider perspective

Wireless internet is an increasingly popular way for rural dwellers to get decent broadband.

James Salmon from internet wireless provider County Broadband says that it now has more than 2,000 wireless broadband subscribers since it started business in 2003.

These cover central and north Essex and south/central Suffolk from its base at Aldham near Colchester.

Its eight 40-60m core towers are now supplemented by 300 smaller masts, which include church towers and houses and farms on high ground.

In return for hosting these mini-masts, owners get free broadband.

Like all wireless internet providers, County Broadband offers a range of speeds and data allowances.

A basic residential 6Mbps/10GB data plan costs £9.99/month. At the other end of the scale, you can go for a 32Mbps/160GB data plan for £34.99/month.

There’s a range of business tariffs, too.

These start at £35.99/month for 4Mbps data and top out at £143/month for 32Mbps.

How to find a provider

Who provides wireless broadband around the UK?

There is a pretty exhaustive list that includes monthly price, set-up cost, download and upload speeds and data allowance at www.ispreview.co.uk

Cable

Sometimes, it seems as though BT taunts those without access to decent broadband by plastering advertising slogans such as “superfast fibre here” on tantalisingly close exchange boxes. Only, it isn’t – nor is it likely to be anytime soon.

This was the case for Courteenhall Estate in Northamptonshire.

Despite being near the M1 and less than 10 minutes from Northampton, there were no plans for BT to bring fibre-speed broadband to the exchange covering the estate, for the obvious commercial reason that there were not enough houses to make it viable, says managing partner Johnny Wake.

The estate, as well as farming and contracting 1,200ha, has a number of rental properties, is a popular wedding venue and offers corporate events such as clay pigeon shooting.  

“Obviously, it’s a prerequisite now to have broadband not only for the farm business but also for the estate as a whole, and although we did have conventional broadband, it was painfully slow at little more than 0.4Mbps.”

Johnny Wake

Johnny Wake

Slow speeds

The other major bugbear was the fact that it was excruciatingly slow for external advisers to connect to the network remotely, which was a necessity for some parts of the business.

The company had a contact at IT specialist Comtact, a company responsible for everything from data management to network systems for multinational companies.

“It was a very small project for a company like Comtact, who are more used to huge installations, but they were willing to take it on,” says Dr Wake.

Comtact started by looking at the various options available, which were satellite, mobile technology or fibre.  

“We had tried satellite broadband on several occasions but we couldn’t seem to make it work,” explains Dr Wake.

The other potential downsides of satellite were that the speed isn’t guaranteed, the service is very dependent on weather conditions and, in general, it isn’t as reliable as a hard-wired option, according to Rasel Khan of Comtact.

Relying on mobile technology can also be hit and miss, adds Mr Khan, as it’s not a guaranteed service either.

End of the drive

After carrying out a survey to find out where the nearest fibre cable was, Comtact discovered that it ran right by the end of the estate drive.

BT had made it clear that there were no plans timetabled for fibre-fast speeds to become available to the estate or even the local village, but were willing to run their service to the gatehouse, where the ISP would then terminate.

“A tender was then put out to various network providers to see which would be willing to offer a service, and BT was successful.

Essentially, everything hangs on the connection point in the lodge at the end of the drive,” explains Mr Khan.

Comtact, alongside the estate and infrastructure specialist J Brand, then created a dedicated network for the estate by running cable from the gatehouse to the estate office, where the server is now housed.

From here, cable was fed out to all the relevant properties.

“We dug all the trenches and laid the ducting for the cable ourselves as we had the machinery and labour,” adds Dr Wake.

To date, he reckons they have put down roughly 2,900m of cabling.

With the network now installed and fully functional, most houses and cottages in the heart of the estate are connected and using the service at standard broadband rates, only this is paid to the estate instead of a provider.

Streaming TV

“We have a bandwidth capacity of 100Mbps, but actually only require 10Mbps at the moment.

Sometimes in the evening, when everyone is streaming TV online we might get to usage of 9Mbps, but that’s rare and we haven’t needed to extend it yet but it does mean it’s future-proof.

“To be honest, it’s difficult to put a value on the benefits it brings to us for everyday business or our daily lives, but it isn’t cheap.

“Everything just works, and it’s no longer a struggle to get things done online.

“It has dramatically improved upload speeds and our Voip [voice over internet protocol] phone calls are now very clear.”

Crucially, it also makes the estate more attractive to both potential business and residential tenants.

“Another advantage is that only our team and tenants are using the network, which means if there are any cases of overuse then we can have a quiet word or throttle the bandwidth if it ever came to that.”

More information

If you want to find out the main providers of non-BT broadband go to www.ispreview.co.uk.

It gives lots of information on 105 wireless internet service providers in the UK, 21 satellite providers and a clutch of 4G providers.

Jargon buster

There are hundreds of baffling abbreviations in this area. We’ve picked just some of them.

ISP – Internet service provider

Basically, anyone who sells you broadband.

Mbps – megabits per second

This denotes the speed and bandwidth of the signal. Not to be confused with MB (megabytes). A megabyte is eight times bigger than a megabit, so it pays to know the difference.

FTTH – fibre-to-the-home

The best type of broadband connection, which takes the fibre-optic signal right into your home (rather than just to the nearest BT box on the side of the road outside). Dream on…

Voip – voice over internet protocol

This allows you to make (usually free) phone calls over the internet via programs such as Skype.

Fixed-line broadband

The signal comes down a fixed line, unlike wireless internet and satellite internet systems.

Satellite broadband

The signal is sent up to a satellite and then down to a receiver.

Wisp – wireless internet service provider

This beams the broadband signal by line-of-site to a receiver. Not to be confused with wireless broadband widely used by BT/Talk Talk/Plusnet and the like to mean that your broadband signal is available throughout the house.