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Could 4G help rural areas get online?

While the government likes to talk about broadband as a commodity, alongside water or electricity, the sad truth is that many rural areas can get little to no service. There have been many false dawns in rural broadband; so is 4G set to be the next one, or is it the real deal?

In simple terms, 4G mobile broadband is set to slowly replace the current 3G networks we have cross the UK. You’ll need a new smartphone or dongle to access it, but otherwise it should smoothly replace 3G while offering the promise of faster, more reliable mobile data transfer.

The case for 4G mobile broadband

The 4G revolution certainly has the potential to meet rural needs. Rollout should be relatively straightforward, with first-to-market EE (Orange and T-Mobile) having already brought 4G to 27 UK towns and cities since launching late in 2012.

Price shouldn’t be an issue either. Mobile network Three has announced it will not charge a premium (above its 3G charges) for 4G mobile broadband, so it will be tough for the other networks to do so once competition for customers hots up.

Then there are the speeds. EE has been quoting averages from 8-12Mb since launch, with the current potential for 40Mb max speeds. While this is a long way behind current UK fixed-line speeds over fibre (which are already 100Mb and rising), 40Mb would be more than fast enough for the majority of rural customers’ needs.

And better still, this is potentially the tip of the iceberg in terms of speed. Etislat tests last year clocked a new 4G record at more than 300Mb and while you’re not likely to get that in a windy field near you anytime soon, it shows what this fledgling technology still in the locker.

The case against

As always tends to be the case when it comes to broadband, the biggest barrier to rural 4G is money. While the mobile internet providers are always quick to get their shiny new networks up and running in London, Birmingham and Manchester, those of us living in less population dense areas know the postcode lottery all too well. The talk is always of ‘population’ coverage, not geographical, and you can be sure the 4G rollout will be no different.

Then there’s reliability. We’ve had 3G for a long time now and enjoy very high UK coverage in terms of population, but standing stock still isn’t often enough to hold a reliable signal – let alone moving around. This can make data downloads a tedious task, while streaming can be next to useless. When 3G arrived there was much talk of being able to scrap your fixed line connection – something few have gone on to risk.

This leads us nicely onto speeds. Again, while first 7Mb and then 14Mb were promised the UK average 3G mobile broadband speed has never really got higher than 1-2Mb. Independent 4G field testing isn’t averaging out at 10Mb yet, so for now the jury is very much out. However, many a rural broadband customer would happily accept a reliable 10Mb broadband package.

So yes, 4G mobile broadband has the potential to get rural areas online. But unless you have a very active council or business community getting behind your push for base stations, I wouldn’t start holding your breath just yet.

Author Bio: Matt Powell is the editor for the broadband provider comparison site Broadband Genie.

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