How to boost broadband speed in rural UK

We moved from London to Wales as a result of Covid which was a big life improvement. However one noteable exception to that improvement was our internet speed which was rubbish. Far too slow to have reliable zoom calls or stream films. Occasionally the WiFi connection would even drop altogether.

Our newly upgraded views

Our house only has a copper BT line coming into it (rather than fibre) which meant that at best we could get 6Mb downloads and it regularly crawled to 2Mb. Added to that was the fact that the router was not particularly reliable so would also occasionally drop the connection altogether. To get round it were constantly tethering off our phones which just about worked but was a massive pain.

At first we were a bit despondent since we knew that our road wasn’t going to get fibre anytime soon. However, we did eventually fix it.

And we get now enough bandwidth for two of us to simultaneously stream high resolution films wherever we are in the house, to have reliable zoom calls and internet that barely ever drops. So on the offchance it’s helpful to someone else I thought I’d share what we did. There are a couple of different bits to it but it’s not super complicated. In total it cost us ~£220 plus switching to a £28/month 4G broadband contract.

A quick primer on what makes up your home internet experience

There are a few different distinct things that make up your home internet and it’s worth learning what they are so that you know which one’s actually broken.

An easy way to do that is by understanding how it developed.

Back in the day when I was young and the internet first started getting popular we would use dialup to connect the computer to the internet. Our computer had a modem which converted the noises from the phone line into data. We plugged a phone line into the modem and literally dialed up the internet server.

Then by the time I was at university and living in a shared house we needed a way to share the internet connection between all five of us. We had broadband but it only had one plug so to avoid us having to take it in turns to use the internet, we plugged all our computers into a combined modem/router using ethernet cables. That box was both the modem that translated the incoming noise into data and also a router to allow multiple computers to connect to the same connection.

Then finally WiFi arrived. It came in the same piece of hardware as the router but now that box had to provide a WiFi network as well as being the router and the modem..

As you can imagine, all of this hardware is pretty complex. And it also means that the quality of the hardware in a combined modem, router and wifi unit that you get sent free from BT or Virgin is not that high. So when you’re thinking about how to improve the wifi coverage in your house you need to consider both the speed at which it’s coming into the house (your internet provider speed) AND the quality of the WiFi networking equipment you use to make that bandwidth available around your house.

How fast is “fast” internet? What do you actually need?

I wasn’t that familiar with what constitutes a “fast” internet speed going into all of this. In case you’re in the same boat, let me give you a primer: in order to stream a movie (at HD not 4K) you need about 6Mb/s bandwidth. If two of you are streaming a movie at the same time (say your wife upstairs in the bath and you in the sitting room) you need 12Mb and if two of you are on Zoom calls throughout the day then you‘ll need about the same i.e.~12Mb/s (you’ll also want good upload speed but for the sake of simplicity I’m just going to talk about download).

The faster you go, the smoother and more reliable everything is. If you’ve got about 10Mb per internet-user in the household you should be ok. So a family of 4 may want closer to 40Mb at absolute peak. Going above that won’t do that much for your download experience but improved upload speeds will mean that you will appear in higher bandwidth and clarity (for better or worse) to other people on video calls. I guess if you’re a gamer (or your kids are gamers) it’ll be much better for that too.

Our broadband in London was about 60Mb so the 5Mb we were getting in Wales was a rude awakening. And you just can’t switch providers to fix it — all providers have to go through the same pipes that connect to your house so if those pipes are copper rather than fibre you’re stuffed (or rather you’re not).

Testing whether your WiFi or internet provider is the problem

If you’ve got an awful WiFi network then it doesn’t matter how fast your internet provider is, the WiFi will still suck. So to figure out whether you have an internet problem or a WiFi problem go right next to your router and do a speed test to see how it performs. Ideally you should skip the WiFi altogether and plug your computer into your router using an Ethernet cable (you may need an adapter to plug the cable into your computer).

If the internet is fine but you’re getting sucky speeds in different corners of the house, you just need to improve your WiFi. If, like us, your internet is rubbish and the wifi is rubbish you’ll need to improve both.

1. We figured out the provider with the best 4G coverage in the neighbourhood

Since we couldn’t get any faster internet coming into the house via our copper connection, and since we’d also seen good performance from tethering off our phones, we decided to experiment with a dedicated 4G router.

In theory, 4G can be as fast as 30–60Mb. I was a bit cynical that we were going to get that but as long as it was better than the 5Mb we were getting from BT then it would be a win.

But which network should we pick? O2, Vodafone, 3, EE…? Opensignal has a coverage checker and if you download their app they’ll give you a rough estimate of the different networks’ performance around you so you can figure out which one to go with.

My understanding of Opensignal is that its coverage maps are based on readings from people who’ve downloaded the Opensignal app and used it to check coverage. So the fact that O2 is listed as having zero bandwidth in our area doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily the case, just that nobody with an O2 connection has downloaded Opensignal. Use it as a rough guide rather than gospel. You can also get a less nuanced but more complete coverage report from Ofcom.

2. We got a 4G router & unlimited data plan

As it happened we already had an EE 4G router (you can buy them for £120 off-contract from BT) so we didn’t need to buy a router. That said, we weren’t yet convinced that it was going to be better than our landline so we wanted to test it before committing to a contract.

So before tying ourselves into a 12 month contract we experimented by bying 8Gb of pay-as-you-go bandwidth to see how well it performed.

Happily, it was good. We got between 7Mb and 25Mb (depending on time of day). It probably averaged about 12Mb. All of which was much better than the 2–5Mb we were getting from BT.

Again, make sure you’re testing the connection to the internet and not your internal WiFi performance. Sit right next to the router when you’re doing your test (or ideally use an ethernet cable to plug your laptop into the router and bypass the WiFi entirely).

I’m sure there are better 4G routers than the EE one that we used but since we already had it it was free so none could beat it on price. And to be fair it has so far done a perfectly good job.

One thing to be very wary of when you get a 4G data plan is the amount of data you use. Home usage is HIGH, much higher than mobile.

I don’t exactly know how much we go through in a month but before getting the router subscription we trialled a pay-as-you-go 8Gb dataplan and ate it all in a single evening.

Empirically, 8Gb is an hour long zoom call and a couple of episodes of The Last Dance. So I figure we needed about 300–500Gb of data a month. EE has an unlimited plan for SIM-only which costs £28/month (inc. VAT) which is pretty good value.

As I mentioned, we already had the EE router but it may be worth shopping round to find a better non-network one (I say may because these things can be complex to setup and the EE one is at least fairly simple which counts for a lot). Also note that you don’t need your 4G router to create the WiFi network (we’re going to come to that in a second). All you need is for it to do a good job of connecting to the 4G signal. In the setup we’re going through, it’s basically just acting as a modem.

Once you’ve got the router make sure you try moving it around the house to see where you get strongest signal. I found that speed could vary by almost 2x depending on where I put it so it’s worth experimenting. You can use www.speedtest.net (or the Opensignal app) to test the speed in each spot.

It’s also worth testing it three times in each place to get an average before you draw conclusions as each run will vary quite a lot. Our router performed best in the window of a top bedroom facing west but that will be different for everone depending where the cell towers are around you. Windows seem to be better than walls though — I found that the loft (high up but surrounded by tiles), was not as good as on a window sill on the floor below.

3. We bought a couple of Google WiFi pods

The wifi network that’s created by the router your internet provider sends you isn’t that powerful. I hadn’t really understood this fact until some friends pointed out Google home wifi to me. You plug one of these Google WiFi units plug directly into your router using an Ethernet cable and it immediately creates a stronger WiFi network inside your home (alongside the original network from your internet service provider’s router).

The Wifi network that the pod creates is more powerful and reliable than the one that comes with the router but the really real beauty is that if you buy more than one pod then you can connect them to each other to create a mesh that extends the WiFi on as far as you like around your house.

You only actually need one pod to create a wifi network but you can get them in packs of two or three and they cost ~£110 each. The reviews for them were all very good and our experience with them has been excellent. Our house is probably about 2,500sqft and two of them are enough to create very strong coverage throughout (though you’d need more if you wanted garden coverage). They’re also very, very easy to setup.

There are other plenty of other makes available (Amazon has a cheaper own-brand one called Eero Mesh at £74) but after consulting with a friend who’s into hardware we decided to avoid chancing it and paid the premium for the Google hardware which he was more confident with.

Conclusion and further speed-ups

Prior to this, our internet was a constant source of misery. Since fixing it it’s pretty much been faultless. I wouldn’t say it’s fast but it’s pretty much always sufficient at about 12Mb/s. We spent £220 on the Google WiFi and we’ve now got a £28/month contract with EE for unlimited 4G (we already had the router but it would have cost £130 if we’d had to buy it).

Having now done it I realise that we don’t have to feel so trapped by the house’s copper broadband connection. We went the 4G route but I now realise there are also other options too.

I haven’t yet done this yet and I know that setup will get exponentially harder but in theory, we could combine both our copper connection and our 4G connection to get something more reliable (and ideally faster) than either of them individually. We’d do that using a load-balancing router like the one below (only £30 on Amazon).

I’m super hesitant to recommend this though becuase networking is HARD and reading up on it it’s not clear that this combination would actually result in faster internet for any one connection (my understanding is that you could improve bandwidth but not necessarily speed — see this comment)

In summary, there are many more ways to get around slow internet than I had previously realised. Don’t feel trapped and do experiment.

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