BT has insisted it is investing heavily in improving broadband services in rural parts of the UK. The Observer spoke to several BT broadband customers living in the countryside who were unhappy about getting speeds much slower than those they had been promised. For instance, Karen Oxley of Craster in Northumberland said she was struggling with speeds of 7Mbps, despite purchasing an Infinity 1 package offering a minimum download speed of 45Mbps.
She said BT had “advertised and sold something it cannot deliver”, as a BT engineer established that since superfast broadband was not yet available in her area, her line could never deliver more than 7Mbps. However, BT has stressed that it checks what type of broadband is available and gives each customer a personalised speed range estimate before they place their order.
“If a customer consistently gets lower speeds than we estimated, we try to improve it,” the provider said.
“Where we can’t do that, the customer can cancel the service without charges.”
BT also said it is spending more than ?3 billion on rolling out fibre broadband, which is now available to more than 26 million homes and businesses across the UK. The company added that Ms Oxley’s slow service is down to the length of the fibre cable from the street cabinet to her home.
The watchdog stated that allowing broadband providers to promote speeds that are achievable by just ten per cent of customers is potentially misleading and means the majority do not get the speeds they expected.
HEATHSVILLE–On any given night, several cars are parked outside the darkened, closed Northumberland County Public Library along U.S.
360. Inside them, faces are lit by the bluish glow of devices.
These are the library’s most ardent users of its 24-hour, seven-day-a-week internet service. They belong to a community of the Northern Neck residents who don’t have internet at home. Library Director Alice Cooper said one man visiting to care for his mother literally had tears in his eyes when he found out that the library has Wi-Fi.
“She did not have adequate internet at her home and he was going to lose business without that connection,” said Cooper. “There’s really no other public Wi-Fi access in the county other than the public library. People are in our parking lot all the time using it.”
Other libraries in the Northern Neck are providing similar services. Cooper said her library’s board researched the problem and found that more than half of the county’s residents do not have access to high-speed internet at their home.
And it’s not just the Northern Neck. Lack of high-speed internet extends beyond to Caroline County and into central Virginia. Nationwide, 39 percent of rural communities or about 23 million people lack broadband access, compared with only 4 percent of urban Americans, according to the Federal Communications Commission. What makes access concerns more immediate is that rural communities will eventually lose their copper phone line infrastructure to fiber.
“Verizon is no longer replacing it,” said Joe Lenig, director of sales and marketing for Virginia Broadband, a rural high-speed wireless internet provider. “They’re going to be losing their lifeline, their phone line.
They need internet for a multitude of reasons.”
Landlines are more reliable during electrical outages because they have their own power, while IP-based networks usually require an independent power source. The FCC requires landline providers to notify customers in advance of “retiring” copper networks. Verizon is offering financial incentives for separating landline billing from wireless billing. And while a spokesman for Verizon noted that Virginia Broadband is a competitor, he did not respond directly when asked whether his company has stopped replacing its copper phone lines.
“In areas where Verizon does not have fiber facilities, it continues to provide high speed internet service formerly known as DSL over its copper facilities. Verizon also provides Verizon Wireless 4G Long Term Evolution broadband through its wireless network,” Verizon spokesman Michael Murphy wrote in an email.
Getting affordable high-speed internet service to the so-called last miles–down rural dirt roads to a farm or a small cluster of four or five houses is an economic as well as a geographic problem that providers and counties have wrangled with for years. Along the Northern Neck’s prized shorelines, tides and wind can whip up waves that can interfere with wireless broadcast towers, Lenig said. That’s another factor that makes the last miles so costly. Access to leasing utility poles, now required under new net neutrality regulations, can cost anywhere from $2 per month per pole to $30 per year per pole. Add that to building the infrastructure needed to supply roughly 20 rural homes pushes the cost to roughly $30,000 per mile, according to Danny Jobe, vice president of system operations for MetroCast, which provides high-speed internet through cable and digital telephone service.
Since 2011, MetroCast has invested about $58 million in the region. Jobe and Lenig were part of a panel discussion put together recently by the Northern Neck Planning District Commission to address service to the Northern Neck’s last miles. Other participants included the Northern Neck Electric Cooperative, the Utilities Telecom Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.
“This is one of the first times that a cable company and a wireless company are willing to talk to each other,” said Lenig. “We both see the need that people in rural areas need it as much if not more than the suburban people and the urban people.”
Private companies such as Virginia Broadband and MetroCast are now faced with states and localities trying to set up their own broadband authorities, basically becoming their own internet service providers. Lenig says that’s a risk to taxpayers.
“In Virginia, some have been successful, but most have not,” he said. “Reason being is they did not factor in the overhead cost and the expense of running an internet service, especially in rural areas where there’s only three to five houses that need it.”
Jobe said getting service to areas with fewer than 20 homes becomes prohibitively expensive.
“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” said Jobe, adding that the solution lies in public-private partnerships. “It’s going to take different technologies, whether it be satellite, whether it be Virginia Broadband. There are going to be different ways to do it.”
The Northern Neck is also considering applying for a loan or grant through the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. That money would come through the Northern Neck Electric Cooperative.
“A lot of other rural areas are looking at this and it’s something we need to look at,” said Jerry Davis, executive director of the Northern Neck Planning District Commission. He has spent years trying to bring high-speed internet to the Northern Neck.
“MetroCast has built out their system as far as they are going to build it,” he added. The next step, he said, is conducting a feasibility study, before applying for an RUS loan.
“We’re talking about a 40-year loan at a very low interest rate, where a private service provider or even a co-op could never access that kind of funding under those kinds of terms,” he said. “A study effort would look at all the issues to see if it’s doable for all parties. If it is, let’s do it.”
Lenig calls the public-private efforts monumental.
“As for-profit companies, we need to watch our bottom line. But by the same token, we have to be stewards of our community and we need to figure this out together,” said Lenig. Meanwhile, library director Cooper has her own solution–a mobile library, the first in the region to be equipped to provide high-speed Wi-Fi as it visits Northumberland County neighborhoods. The equipment works off Verizon cell towers, allows up to 60 users, broadcasts up to 100 feet and has no trouble streaming video.
But it costs $5,000 a year.
“It’s a very expensive service for us, but it’s really the only option we have,” said Cooper.
‘Which?’ consumer research suggests 12.5m million UK households are frustrated by their broadband service.
In parts of County Durham1 and Northumberland2 slow ‘broadband’ is something you just seem to have to live with, although providers have been criticised for shouting about speeds which customers simply do not get. A survey of more than 2,000 households from Which? found 46% said they were left frustrated by broadband3 problems. Based on the UK population, this equates to around 12.5 million households. Its research found one in four customers who had connection problems were forced to ditch their online activities for the day, with a fifth saying they’ve taken a financial hit due to poor internet speeds.
One in three had been prevented from making online banking transactions quickly due to lagging connections.
here4. Alex Neill, Which? managing director of home services, said: “With millions of us frustrated by bad broadband and stopped from doing the simplest of online tasks, we have launched a new, free tool to help people improve their connection.
“There is nothing more annoying than your internet cutting out when you’re streaming your favourite programme, or when you’ve spent ages filling your online shopping basket but your connection is too slow to get you to the checkout.
“Far too many people are experiencing problems with their broadband across the country and we want to help people to fix it.”
How to improve your speed
- Avoid telephone extension cables: always plug your router into your master phone socket instead.
- Use a microfilter: ensure every phone in the house uses a microfilter, as this will prevent interference from connected phones from disrupting your broadband.
- Move your router: the more objects between your router and your device, the worse your speeds will be, so try to place it in a central location, as high up in the room as possible.
- Check for viruses: viruses will use your connection to download and upload data from your PC, which is not only bad news for your finances, but will also play havoc with your connection speeds.
- Change the channel: the more wireless networks you have in range (such as from your neighbours), the more interference your own connection will face. By changing the channel of your router from its default setting, you may be able to boost your speeds.
Should I switch?
If the internet speeds you get are no where near what was sold to you, then you may be able to get out of your contract without paying a penalty. Ofcom offers a get-out clause to broadband customers if their provider does not deliver an “acceptable level of service”.
Dan Howdle, consumer telecoms analyst at Cable.co.uk, said: “Just as consumers are required to meet monthly payments, providers are obliged to deliver the service we pay for – failure to do this is a breach of contract and may mean you can vote with your feet without fear of cancellation fees.”