Hurrah! I finally have internet speeds that are faster than the ones that we had back in 1999! And all it took was Mr AMR hanging precariously out of the top window, holding a 4G router above his head like a possessed telecommunications engineer. It’s the same router I’ve had for a while, but we had never tried positioning it 80cm outside the house before – more fool us!
Only others with painfully slow internet will share my joy in finally finding a workable solution to the problem – if you have internet, and it’s fast enough to do basic things such as watch a film on Netflix, then my revelation (indeed this entire post) will hold no interest for you. Move on, smugly, knowing that the next page you click to will take approximately 2.1 seconds to load and not fifteen minutes.
A bit of background, for those who are still with me: I live in a rural hamlet and we don’t have high-speed broadband. Our download speed with BT is around 5MB, upload speed is about 0.8. Netflix can be slow to respond, large files are impossible to upload and, if we have an important email to send with attachments, we find that it’s easier to dictate it to an aged monk and then summon a messenger on horseback to deliver the manuscript directly into the hands of the recipient. Godspeed, Cedric, Godspeed.
When we bought the house, we knew that the internet speeds were dire but the owners had installed satellite internet. Which seemed like a good fix. It really wasn’t – it was temperamental, didn’t like cloudy days and was very expensive to run. I think we kept it for a couple of months before realising that it was a complete waste of money and barely any faster than the bog-standard BT line. This might not be the case for everyone – it can very much depend on geographical position, whether or not you’re in a valley, for example – but the overall feeling about satellite internet, when you read online, seems to be that people aren’t overwhelmed with enthusiasm for it.
So what was my next line of attack? Well, I’ll admit that I was a bit stuck. The residents of my hamlet had been promised Truespeed, which is one of the providers trying to bring FTTP (fibre to the premises) to people in areas without any high speed broadband. They quite literally build the network, from scratch, and connect each home to a network that’s often higher than you’ll even find in the cities.
I have a love-hate relationship with companies such as Gigaclear and Truespeed and also quite a lengthy relationship. The village I lived in just outside of London didn’t have fibre (more forgivable in 2014, I suppose) and one day a meeting was held in the village hall about a high speed network that would be put together by someone called Gigaclear. So we all duly signed up and those of us who were desperate for it (freelancers, mainly, and people running businesses from home) even took it upon ourselves to go out personally and get new sign-ups. Everyone had to give their bank details, sign the forms – we were at 99% they told us! Only less than one household to go! – and it looked like a done deal. But nothing materialised. Even by the time we moved, in 2017, there was no Gigaclear. And I’ve just checked online now, in 2020: still no Gigaclear.
It’s the same with Truespeed. Promised it way before we bought our house in Somerset and for almost two years we’ve been receiving updates but there’s always one more barrier, one more problem that needs to be overcome.
So I had to put aside my hopes of getting Truespeed for now (fibre speeds of up to 200MB!) and seek other remedies. Thankfully, the best one – and I shall be eternally grateful – came from one of my neighbours, Adam, who had beaten us to Somerset by around four months and had therefore exhausted most internet-improving avenues. Now I must be clear, before you get overexcited: this method of gaining miraculously high speeds does depend on your 4G reception. I’ll admit that many rural places have crap internet and barely any 4G coverage, but for those luckily enough to have good phone signal, you’re in for a treat.
4G coverage is ever-improving, so it’s worth checking coverage maps for all providers, not just the one you happen to have stuck with for the past fifteen years. See who comes up trumps on the coverage maps and then get hold of a pay as you go SIM card for that company and test out the 4G reception in all areas of your house.
The areas of the house thing is incredibly important, by the way; in my office, my 4G router gives me download speeds of 6.8MB and upload speeds of 0.98. If I shunt the router forwards into a front bedroom and balance it on the windowsill (or, even, out of the window on the end of Mr AMR’s arm) then I get a ridiculously speedy (for here) 12MB download speed and 26MB upload. (I have no idea why the upload speed is faster, I suspect it’s not a good sign but quite honestly I can’t be bothered to rock the boat when I finally have a workable connection!)
But I’ve gone too far ahead and missed out important information here: neighbour Adam had been experimenting with various internet things and had settled on the very satisfactory method of using a 4G data-only SIM with a router he had bought on Amazon. He was getting fast, reliable internet and paying around £25 per month.
I immediately ordered the router (this one here* (AD/affiliate link) in case you’re interested) and went for the same data SIM he was using (Vodafone, 50GB limit) and the next day slotted everything together and crossed my fingers. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the speedtest came back with 25MB download and 8MB up. Hurrah! All of my work (and Netflix) problems had been solved!
Huawai Router* + Data Only SIM + Reasonable 4G Coverage = Rural High Speed Internet
There was one more twist in the tale, though. Left to its own devices, my Macbook Pro was a champion devourer of data. It chomped its way through data like one of those people who eat hot dogs to break world records; the remaining gigabytes dissolved in front of my very eyes as my iCloud synced the ten thousand daily photos that I took on my phone and my iPhoto uploaded all of my DSLR photos to the iCloud and my iTunes did things that only iTunes really understands, because who can actually access any of their music anyway? It’s all locked up in some virtual shipping container somewhere and you can only play it if you ask really, really nicely, even though you spent forty-nine days importing all of your CDs into your iMac in 2004. (What a bloody waste of time! I swear, the number of weeks I’ve spent copying records onto tape cassettes, tapes onto CD, converting CDs to MP3s. Oh! And the brief yet painful era of the mini disk. Remember those? You couldn’t even buy music on a mini disk, so you had to make the world’s most labour-intensive mix tapes and the whole set-up only lasted for about a year anyway! Which meant that my in-car mini disk player and my mini disk walkman were both an epic waste of hard-earned cash…)
To cut a long story short, my 50GB data was lasting for around two days if I left my MacBook running. So I had to turn off iCloud, which meant I couldn’t sync my photos and I couldn’t see my emails either because they were burning up data like psychopathic data fire-starters. Unlimited data SIMs weren’t yet a thing, so I had to try and find another way to limit my usage. Firstly I bought two SIMs so that I would never run out – I just swapped them over when one ran out for the month. But then I looked into how to manage my usage and found a very handy app called TripMode. I can’t really rave about this app enough; it’s inexpensive, it works, it will probably save you tens of pounds each month, especially if you work from home.
TripMode automatically limits your data usage by blocking things on your computer (or phone) that are data hogs. So iCloud, for example, and Mail, and even iPhoto if you tend to take a lot of video footage and photos with large file sizes. You can preset which apps to block and toggle TripMode on and off so that if you do need to quickly email or sync something it’s easy to do. It also monitors usage and can set data caps – all for about six quid. (At last glance.) Find that here, it’s an absolute must if you don’t have unlimited data.
Luckily, more and more data providers are now doing unlimited data SIMs that you can slip, with an almost sexual level of pleasure, into your router slot. Oh, the thrill of knowing that you’ll be able to load a page on ASOS without getting the spinning wheel of doom! Oh, the sparks of passion that will fly as your fingers caress the keyboard and open New Tab, New Tab, New Tab, as you frantically absorb all of that internet information and even play a Youtube video in the background! Stick a fork in me, unlimited data SIM, I’m done.
Virgin do an unlimited data SIM for those who are already customers, SMARTY have one that’s very cheap and doesn’t have a contract (I found this the slowest for speeds in my area so cancelled), 3 have one, Vodafone have an unlimited SIM but they say it’s just for phones. I have yet to test this. For many, 3 will be the best bet – they have exemplary coverage when you look at their maps. I think that 3 own SMARTY, but I found speeds higher with 3. Go figure.
I hope, sincerely, that at least a few of you that have been struggling with rural – or just plain bad – internet will find this useful. Some will be eye-rolling and saying “duh, like I hadn’t thought of that!” but at least a dozen people in my immediate geographical vicinity hadn’t known about the router + 4G sim option, so I’m going out on a limb and putting it out there.
And at the risk of being even more obvious, I’m going to precis my rural internet findings below, with the Three Useful Things You Should Know If You Have Very Slow Internet. You’re welcome.
1 You can easily find out whether you’re in an area that’s being considered by providers such as Truespeed and Gigaclear. Just type your postcode into their websites (linked above) and it’ll tell you whether there’s a build in progress or any interest at all in your area. You can also (actually is maybe a better first call) check on Open Reach to see whether fibre is coming to your area, or whether your cabinet (not like a kitchen cabinet, it’s bigger and further away) is due to be upgraded. Check that info here.
If your community isn’t eligible for any sort of network building scheme then you could also look into Community Fibre Partnerships, which is when you all get together and basically foot the bill. I’ll side-step the politics on that one, because it seems slightly ridiculous that a community should be having to raise massive funds for something that others get for free… Trying to be all zen at the moment.
2 If you can get 4G signal then you are massively in luck, because you can try the Router + 4G SIM method that works so well for me. You can find 4G coverage maps for most providers here. If you have a reasonably strong 4G signal with one of them then you can buy a 4G router here (that’s the one I have) and data SIM cards from most mobile phone providers. If you want unlimited data (why wouldn’t you?) then try Three (here) and EE have literally just launched theirs onto the market, the deal is £34 per month here. (Please do your own checks as to suitability for your router and so on!)
3 If you don’t get any 4G reception then all is not lost. Though it may be a matter of doing some heavy research and/or digging a little deeper in terms of costs. If you want to try satellite, because you’re desperate (I found it twitchy) then try a larger provider such as Avonline. I also found this website incredibly interesting: ruralinternet.co.uk. You can also contact Open Reach and see how much it would cost for fibre to your premises privately – ie, the road gets dug up just for you, the price depends on how far you are from the nearest cabinet. I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure, that it’s probably going to be really, really expensive. There’s a rudimentary price list here if you can get your head around it…
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