Rural broadband – one man’s obsession

I’ve been advised to blog about something that animates me. Over the past year, nothing has animated me as much as our broadband. This has become an unhealthy obsession and I bore pretty much everyone I meet on the subject. Perhaps writing about it will get it out of my system once and for all.

Dreadful phone line broad band speeds

At first, moving in to a house in rural Hampshire with the sun shining at the height of summer was charming. It didn’t actually feel like moving house at all, rather we had rented a charming but tired holiday cottage, the abysmal internet and blue carpet adding to charm. In London we had been used to nearly 300mbps, we were now getting between 1-3mbps, if we were lucky. I hadn’t realised how reliant we had become on fast broadband.

I was going to write in detail about the months I spent on the phone to Talk Talk and OpenReach, the replacing of the old copper wire from the telegraph pole thing to the house and the rewiring of our internal phone cabling – the net effect of which was bugger all. Our broadband still trundled along at 1-3mbps, but I thought I would spare you this and instead give some practical advice on how we finally managed to get something usable.

With no fibre coming our way for decades, there was no option but to go down the mobile broadband route. This was going to be a challenge as we also suffer from terrible mobile signal but I was not going to let this defeat me. We get no signal in the house – so I was going to need to find someway of sorting this out.

EE offer a 4G home broadband package, it looks great and I was hooked by videos of engineers in white land rovers going round and sticking aerials on the side of pretty houses. At the time it was pretty expensive though, and there was no unlimited data option – I have no idea how much data we use but I expect it’s a lot. They have subsequently reduced their pricing which certainly makes it more compelling although still no unlimited data. We also have generally poor EE coverage around us for some reason.

So if you don’t want to go down the EE route there is a DIY option that’s pretty cost effective. I’ve listed out below the bits of kit you need based upon my experience of using them:

  1. 4G router
  2. 4G unlimited data sim
  3. External aerial (possibly)
  4. Wi-fi extender (possibly)

4G Router

This is the heart of the system and takes the 4G signal and turns it into Wi-Fi for you to access around the house. I would recommend either of the following from TP-Link or Huwaei . These things are pretty easy to set up – you stick your 4G data sim into them, turn them on and you are pretty much good to go. If you get good 4G signal and live in a relatively small house this could be all you need.

4G Unlimited data sim

A lot more choice here – you want to use the network that gets the best reception in your house. I bought a couple of pay as you go sims to experiment. I also found MastData, a website that lists where your nearest mobile mast is. My nearest is Vodafone and while I get no reception in the house, I now use a rather elaborate set up with a high mounted external aerial that really improves the signal.

There are loads of deals out there, but as a rough guide you should be able to find an unlimited data sim at the moment for £25 or less. I would tend to pick one from one of the big mobile networks (EE, 02, Vodafone, Three), rather than a virtual operator as some of these limit your actual data speed which is what we are after here! I’ll blog about these in more detail another time and will try and keep a list up to date of the better offers around.

External aerials

Impressive aerial length and untidy use of cable ties

If you really are in the sticks then you probably will benefit from an external aerial. I began by buying one that stuck to a window first, as I was a little daunted about drilling holes in walls etc. This definitely improved the speed of our internet, although didn’t change the number of bars signal shown on the router. Again, I would recommend SMA 4G LTE Antenna as a cheap initial option.

If this doesn’t work, then you will need a decent proper external aerial, mounted up as high as you can. Our house is listed, so this wasn’t an easy option, so I became obsessed with working out how to do this. In the end I put the router in an outbuilding which is uphill from the house and then attached a 6ft pole to it. At the end of which is a Poynting 4G Omni LTE Antenna. This is getting more serious now, but it definitely gives a more stable internet connection. I’ve attached it using jubilee clips and it’s mounted on a 6ft steel TV aerial mast- bulk which is then joined with more jubilee clips to 3’ Aerial Pole & Bracket. I am not at all practical, so its a miracle its still standing but it seems to have survived some high winds. I used a lot of jubilee clips (they only come in packs of 50 it would appear) to hold it all together.

Wifi Extenders

4G router in the building furthest away, wifi signal broadcasted this disc in spare room – seems to work well!

So I have now significantly faster broadband but it is essentially being delivered to a glorified shed that I tentatively use as an office. To get the signal down to and then around the main house required some thought and investment. I’ve tried powerline adapters before in the past and found them to be universally useless. For whatever reason, perhaps old wiring in the house, they seem to loose their connection at the critical moment. I have had much better experience with mesh wifi extenders. There are a growing number of these, but I’ve had really good results with BT Whole Home Wi-Fi. These white discs were super easy to set up and have been totally reliable. You connect one to your 4G router, and then distribute the others around the house. The app it comes with gives you some pointers on how to do it. In my case, I have a box in my “office” connected to the main router, this then broadcasts to another disc in the window of our spare room (about 30 meters away), this disc then connects to another two in the house which ensures our L shaped house has universal WiFi coverage. I invested in a fourth disc (you can buy them individually and add them on) just to make sure everywhere was well covered.

More usable – we’ve occasionally get up to 25mbps

So as I sit here writing this in my shed, and my third proper week of working from home thanks to COVID-19, my obsession seems to have paid off. Whereas before we were barely able to go on a web page in recent days I have been able to join Zoom video conferences while my daughter simultaneously does a Zoom piano lesson.

As I re-read this as well I am acutely aware of how dry the subject matter is. My only hope is someone, somewhere, wrestling with crap rural broadband while trying to work from home, reads this and it solves their problems.