Ever since the internet moved from the squawky sound of a dial-up connection to the instant gratification of broadband, politicians have worried about the countryside being left behind. Across the world, governments have fretted about the digital divide — the gap in speeds between rural and urban areas that seemed to offer privileged access to the internet for those people who live in cities.
Yet in Great Britain, at least, something very different is happening. A detailed analysis by the Financial Times of data provided by the industry regulator Ofcom shows that consumers in some of the most rural areas enjoy broadband speeds considerably faster than those in the middle of London or Manchester.
Within Great Britain, there are only 44 postcodes that offer average speeds of 1GBit/s, the “gigabit speed” broadband that is seen as a benchmark for the ideal standard for internet connections in the future — and is more than 20 times faster than the current average. British readers can put their postcode in the interactive map below to see internet speeds in their area.
Three of those are in urban areas. The fastest postcodes include Wray, a remote village in rural Lancashire popular with ramblers, the Cherwell Valley, a non-metropolitan region of Oxfordshire, and Epping Forest, the largest open space in Greater London. Even those urban postcodes that received the top score are in York, the historic English city of about 200,000 people, not in any of the large population centres.
The areas of the country with ultrafast internet have often taken a go-it-alone approach. Small telecoms operators such as B4RN (Broadband for the Rural North) in Lancashire and CityFibre in York have replaced old copper wires with their own fibre-optic networks that are independent of the traditional national network, controlled by Openreach, BT’s engineering arm.
And while the data show that speeds are generally faster in urban areas compared with rural ones, this is often the result of strong investment in the suburbs. One of the most striking features of the British internet reality is that connections are very poor in the centre of the main cities, including London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. In many of those cases, the speed is below the 10 MBit/s threshold set for the “universal service obligation” that the government is set to introduce as a minimum standard for broadband access over the coming years.
In Britain, the digital divide is often not between urban and rural areas: it is between the suburbs and the inner city.
This divide is a striking feature of life for some internet users in London. Dai Taylor, a photographer who lives in Rotherhithe, two miles from the City, says broadband speeds were so slow that it was impossible for him to work from home. “It was like trying to milk a donkey,” he says of his attempts to upload photos to remote servers. “Remote working was impossible.”
Fibre specialist Hyperoptic and Openreach have since upgraded the infrastructure in the area, allowing Mr Taylor to upload dozens of photos over an ultra-fast line, but he says that many nearby locations remain in the digital slow lane.
Lisa Pattenden suffered a similar experience when she moved from South Carolina, where she had cable internet, to the Isle of Dogs just outside of London’s Canary Wharf financial district five years ago. “It was like having dial-up internet again,” the aerospace engineer says. She was forced to decamp to her local coffee shop in order to work on computer-assisted design software. “We are living in London for crying out loud,” she adds. “Why are we not cutting edge?”
Anand Patel, operations director at property management company Revolution, says his company moved into offices in Deansgate in central Manchester to find it had appalling broadband speeds. But he was aware that there was a problem as residents were complaining about the broadband speed in the area.
“Having dismissed a hugely expensive leased line option, we struggled with our existing broadband product, which was often intermittent, not to mention slow. We couldn’t run the business over it,” says Mr Patel.
Smaller telecoms companies including Hyperoptic, which is backed by billionaire investor George Soros, and Community Fibre have stepped in to invest in metropolitan areas, often building by building. However, postcode-level data show that central urban areas often lag suburban areas in terms of speed.
The fastest speeds in Great Britain are found in very rural parts of Lancashire and are largely a result of B4RN’s community-built full-fibre network. A group of local residents pooled their resources in 2011 to dig their own trenches to lay fibre cables to connect farms and isolated homes. Similar projects had failed in the past even with government assistance, but B4RN has now connected 4,500 premises in Lancashire according to the company, which reinvests its fees in expanding the network.
The section of the countryside where B4RN has built its network has speeds orders of magnitude faster than nearby towns Kendal and Lancaster. Julia Fox, who lives in Wray, says tourists from urban areas that log on to the WiFi in the local pub are initially sceptical about the speed of the network. “People are gobsmacked when they log on. They think we are lying,” she says.
Chris Conder, a farmer’s wife, co-founded the network in 2009 after digging her own trench to connect a nearby farm via a full-fibre cable. “It’s not rocket science,” she says of the unlikely setting for the world’s fastest rural broadband network. “The main benefit is not really gigabit speeds. It is the community. Most of the volunteers are 65 and now they’re as fit as butcher’s dogs with all the trench digging. Their wives have fallen in love with them again. They’ve got their six packs back,” she says.
Ms Fox is one of the beneficiaries of the community network. She decided to use the ultrafast broadband to launch a business making bow ties and snoods using various tweed fabrics. She now has a small, but thriving business that exports to the US and Australia via her eBay and Etsy online shops. “With our broadband being so fast, it was sensible to go online rather than a traditional retail outlet,” she says.
That has meant she is not reliant on the struggling high street. “Retail businesses in Kendal and Lancaster are not benefiting from online. A lot of our towns are becoming ghost towns. They can’t compete,” she says.
Michael Hallam is the co-ordinator for the Ethical Small Traders Association, an association of companies in nearby Lancaster ranging from bookkeepers to dance teachers. He says the broadband speeds in town are “pretty rubbish” and that he tends to work off his phone to ensure he gets data as he cannot rely on fixed internet. A large chunk of the cost of installing fibre comes as a result of digging up the roads and repaving them. Mr Hallam says there is a political will to improve the situation but tearing up Lancaster’s cobbled streets would be disruptive and difficult.
The Lancastrian example is an anomaly. The postcode-level map of Britain’s broadband speeds show black spots across the country, with the lowest speeds in regions including Wales, Cumbria, East Anglia, Devon and large tracts of Scotland. Most rural areas are still underserved.
The UK’s status as a fibre laggard has been the subject of intense debate within the telecoms industry, with only 4 per cent of residential and small business premises connected to full-fibre networks capable of delivering ultrafast speeds, compared with 80 per cent of units in Portugal. The government said last month that it wants 15m homes to be connected to full-fibre networks by 2025 and this week raised the prospect of allowing it to switch off old copper networks. That move could dramatically speed up the rollout of fibre as Openreach would be able to overhaul parts of its network with fibre without having to carry the cost of running old copper lines that are required for emergency calls.
Ofcom has calculated that 925,000 are struggling to connect to a 10 MBit/s service, which is equivalent to 5 per cent of all homes and businesses.
Great Britain is being put on a high-fibre diet. Openreach is pledging to connect 3m homes by 2020 and is pushing Ofcom to come to a regulatory agreement so it can justify the investment to reach 10m premises by the middle of next decade. Clive Selley, chief executive of Openreach, says it is connecting 9,000 full fibre lines a week.
Other companies have moved to invest. Virgin Media’s £3bn Project Lightning plan to connect 4m homes to faster broadband expects around half that amount to be full fibre. Infrastructure investors have also piled in. Infracapital, part of Prudential, has bought rural player Gigaclear and plans, alongside TalkTalk, to lay full fibre networks to reach 3m homes.
CityFibre, which has partnered with Vodafone to target up to 5m full-fibre customers, was sold this year for £538m to a consortium of infrastructure funds backed by Goldman Sachs. They are targeting “second cities” including Aberdeen and Milton Keynes. The English town’s councillors have long complained that Milton Keynes has been left in the digital dark ages.
With rural areas and second cities saying they have been left behind in the race to install ultrafast broadband networks, it is surprising to see that areas of London, including Kensington, Millwall on the Isle of Dogs and Rotherhithe, have clusters of postcodes with average speeds below the minimum required by the government. Central Manchester is a broadband blackspot, as is the Baltic Triangle in the heart of Liverpool, according to the postcode-level data.
Some of this reflects a quirk in the Ofcom information, whereby postcodes of businesses and buildings that have their own non-consumer connections are not included in the regulator’s figures. Another reason is the “CBD effect” — central business district — where telecoms companies end up investing little in town centres where the number of residents is limited.
Matt Yardley, an analyst with Analysys Mason, says: “Low residential population (can) mean it’s not been a priority for broadband network upgrades.”
Openreach says the company is targeting urban “not-spots” but often meets resistance from local councils. “There are also still some small pockets in city centres where faster services aren’t available, and network builders like us face challenges like access restrictions, planning and street works permissions,” it adds.
Yet the blame for the slower speeds is not always entirely down to the quality of the line.
The FT data are based on Ofcom information and relates to the actual speeds that people have signed up for. It does not reflect the services that are available to those same customers. Openreach argues that 17.5m homes and businesses could upgrade to faster broadband services.
Citing ThinkBroadband data, Openreach says that if everyone in the UK upgraded to the fastest service then average speeds would hit 191 MBit/s — a decent rate compared with the current average speed of 46.2 MBit/s.
This story uses the Ofcom’s fixed postcode broadband data published as part of the Connected Nations Report in January 2018. It contains broadband speed data for 1.6m postcodes in England, Wales and Scotland that was collected in May and June 2017.
How we made the map
- Because we do not have access to the full boundaries of Britain’s postcodes, we began by plotting each postcode’s centroid — the co-ordinates of its geographic centre. We identified urban and rural areas using the classification of the output area that contains each centroid, using the unified UK Population Density and Urban/Rural Classification dataset produced by the Consumer Data Research Centre.
- We used a technique called 'inverse distance weighting' to create a 250-metre grid, where each of the resulting squares includes an estimated broadband speed based on the postcode centroids within or near it.
- Finally we overlaid a map of built-up areas from the OS VectorMap District layer. We coloured each block of buildings according to the grid square within which it is located (or an average of squares they straddle). By colouring only built-up areas, we avoided over-emphasising scarcely populated regions.