There are many reasons why we live in this beautiful part of the world, but advances in internet access is probably not one of them.
Today, high speed internet is a key tool for communication, modern commerce and business.
Poor quality phone cables in old buildings and the lack of mobile phone coverage or other wireless in the country often means that the town folk enjoy much faster connection speeds. The debate about getting rural areas connected is increasing. Both the Countryside Alliance and the Country Land & Business Association are pressing for vast improvements.
We still lag behind Japan, France, Germany and America where broadband is delivered to homes just like another utility. It’s expected to be there, just like water or electricity.
A poor quality internet connection didn’t used to matter so much, but nowadays, not having decent bandwidth is becoming a problem and the old-style dial-up just doesn’t cut it anymore. The increased use of Flash and other animation and video on websites demand much higher bandwidth. Many people now take services like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the iPlayer for granted, but poor download speeds makes these unusable.
There are many more important functions for users in rural areas which are affected. A lot of farmers now submit cattle passport information online, for example, and a fast, reliable connection is now essential.
BT and government investment
The problems have got better in recent years as BT has extended broadband to some of its smaller exchanges, but not all, so there are still areas with a poor service.
Where broadband is available, but is slow, it often stems from a rural exchange not being “unbundled”. This means that the infrastructure has not been taken over and upgraded by providers other than BT. This tends not to happen where there aren’t enough customers to make it profitable.
The government has put £200m aside to fund projects to attain its 2Mbits/sec broadband commitment for the whole country by 2012. Service providers have been invited to put forward proposals on how this budget could be best used, but it can be very expensive for them to install and maintain equipment in very remote areas. The hope is that better connections will further promote the take-up of home-working and cloud computing, where your files are stored online rather than on your PC.
Check your connection
Before you do anything about getting online, it’s worth checking a website such as broadbandchecker.co.uk to see what kind of connection you’re likely to get.
If, however, you live in one the areas which Prince Charles recently called “broadband deserts” and you can’t get a conventional connection, there are options open to you already – wireless, satellite or mobile broadband. None of which use your aged copper wire phone line.
Wireless involves a provider receiving the broadband signal from BT and then transmitting it from their own antenna. This does rely on “line of sight” and doesn’t like hills or tall buildings. Costs are also a little higher than wired broadband and speeds will rarely exceed 2Mbps.
If you really are out in the wild woods, satellite internet could be the way to go. It is, however, expensive both in equipment and monthly fees. It also tends to suffer from delays so gaming, streaming video or voice (such as Skype) could be a problem. It can also be adversely affected by poor weather conditions such as heavy snow or storm clouds.
Getting on the web using the 3G mobile network is another option. 3G, which stands for “third generation”, refers to the latest type of mobile phone technology. 1G was the old analogue system, 2G was the digital handsets that we were using a few years ago, with 2.5G representing handsets with some data capabilities.
Using 3G is dependent on your location, but it’s simple to setup as you just need a USB device plugged into your PC or laptop. If you don’t get good mobile phone coverage, though, you could suffer from poor signal strength. Best coverage does seem to be in areas which already have a good broadband service. Many providers also restrict your usage.
It may well be worth taking up a free trial, which many providers offer, or sign-up for a pay-as-you-go deal first to make sure it works for you.
You can, of course, also make use of 3G on a smart-phone and put the internet in your pocket. If you’ve bought a mobile in the last five years, you can probably use it to access the internet. The restrictions here are having an appropriate contract or data plan and, of course, the much smaller screen. Many websites do now have mobile-friendly versions which work better with restricted screen space.
If you can get conventional broadband but it’s poor quality, however, there are a few things you could try to improve the service. The first thing to check is that all your phone sockets have microfilters on them. They separate the voice and broadband signals on the line and are essential.
Watch out for crackling or hissing on your voice calls. Interference (or “noise”) on the line will affect your connection quality. If you have more than one phone socket connected to one line, you may benefit from the BT iPlate (also known as the Broadband Accelerator). It’s low cost and helps remove interference from additional extensions and just fits inside your master (first) phone socket.
If you’re getting slow or intermittent connections and your router is connected to an extension, try moving it to the master socket.
Try disconnecting everything from your phone sockets except your router and see if the quality improves. Reconnecting devices one at a time will identify if one of them is causing the problem.
You may, of course, be in an unfortunate area that doesn’t have internet at all. When none of the big internet service providers can offer a fast connection, some good old community spirit may be in order.
If enough residents and/or small businesses club together to raise the necessary funds, a fibre optic cable to the nearest telephone hub could be laid to provide up to 50Mbits/sec broadband. However, this is not a cheap option, so it would need to be a very large or quite wealthy area to make it a realistic option. It would also depend on geographical location as the cost of running a cable will be cheaper in some areas than others.
On a smaller scale, you may be able to share an internet connection with a neighbour. Since broadband is dependent on how far you are from the nearest exchange, it’s possible a neighbour may be able to get a connection, when you can’t. If that’s so, they may be willing to let you access it wirelessly – maybe through the use of a range extender, if necessary. You could pay a share of their fee and if you’re not a heavy user, it’s unlikely to adversely affect their surfing experience. Your neighbour should check with their ISP, though, as some prohibit this kind of sharing and you both may want to turn off or secure any file sharing on your PCs so you can’t access each other’s files.
There are also some other, less conventional ways of getting fast internet to an isolated location sometimes using radio based technologies. The advantages with this are that signals can travel much further and are not as affected by passing through buildings as other wireless solutions.
Where broadband is available but performs poorly, adding a second phone line and placing broadband on it may be an option. Using a dual line router would allow the use of both lines simultaneously, thus increasing overall performance.
There are so many options for getting online, everyone should be able to find the right solution - so get connected.
Written by Mike Machin, this article was published in the North Devon Journal.
Appendum. April 2011
Devon County Council and Somerset County Council are bidding for funding to bring super-fast broadband to our areas. Please help the campaign by taking a few minutes to complete their online survey http://www.connectingdevonandsomerset.co.uk/