Average broadband speeds jump, but rural areas still lag behind

16 April 2014, 17:50   By Neil Hawkins

The average speed of broadband in the UK jumped by 20% in six months, but the difference between the speed of connections in urban and rural areas remains marked.

rural businessman broadband
Credit: Air Images/Shutterstock.com

The figures were revealed in Ofcom's latest fixed-line broadband performance report, released yesterday.

The research showed that people in urban areas connect at an average speed of 31.9Mb, three times faster than those in rural areas where the average speed is 11.3Mb.

While both urban and suburban areas saw their speeds increase by more than 20% in the six months between May and November 2013, rural areas saw no statistically significant change at all.

Average broadband speeds
Urban (population 10k+): 31.9Mb
Suburban (less than 10k): 21.8Mb
Rural (less than 2.5k): 11.3Mb
UK average: 17.8Mb

"There has been significant investment to improve broadband in rural areas... which is to be commended," Countryside Alliance head of policy Sarah Lee said, "but progress is slow."

Rapid urban growth

The gulf in growth between urban and rural areas is due to the rapid proliferation of fibre broadband in urban areas.

ofcom speeds urban rural 2014

SOURCE: Ofcom fixed-line broadband performance research, November 2013.

The report disclosed that 25% of home broadband connections are now "superfast", connecting at 30Mb or more.

Both BT Openreach, who supply BT, Plusnet, Sky and TalkTalk with fibre broadband, and Virgin Media, who provide cable broadband, have been busily installing and upgrading their networks.

Virgin Media's policy of doubling their customers' broadband speeds (their top speed is now 152Mb) was cited by Ofcom five times in its report as a particular reason for the rise seen in suburban and urban areas.

These services have been slow to make their way into rural areas as they are not seen as commercially viable outside built up areas.

Quality gap

In addition, Ofcom's research reveals, where fibre is in rural areas, it is significantly slower.

Ofcom reports that fibre connections in urban areas are, on average, 17.3Mb faster than rural areas, 46.3Mb compared to 29Mb.

ofcom speeds urban rural 2014

SOURCE: Ofcom fixed-line broadband performance research, November 2013.

That's unsurprising, homes in rural areas are often far away from the nearest green street cabinet which means that much of their connection is carried on a copper line where it can attenuate and is subject to interference.

As you can see in the graph above, however, we shouldn't take this indication too seriously since Ofcom's sample of rural connections was just 17 households.

That is fairly representative in terms of proportion: evidence from user submitted speed tests collected by Thinkbroadband suggest that around 1 in 40 connections from rural areas are superfast, while in more built up areas almost every other connection measured is delivered by fibre.

However, it's not that helpful as a representative sample when comparing urban and rural broadband performance.

Rural areas must wait, as usual

Rural broadband

The Government have allocated £780 million so far to help subsidise the installation of BT's fibre broadband into rural areas.

The target is for superfast services to reach 95% of premises by 2017, though the remaining 5% remain a concern for rural campaigners.

"The benefits are not shared evenly across the UK," Ed Richards, Ofcom Chief Executive said.

"There is more work needed to deliver wider availability of broadband and superfast broadband, particularly in rural communities but also in some locations within cities to enable wider access to fast internet."

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