Broadband Buying Guide
As you probably know, there are numerous internet service providers (ISPs) selling a whole range of broadband products, many of which come with additional services available, such as free or cheap phone call packages, additional minutes and texts on your mobile phone contract, or a digital TV subscription.
As such there are a number of things to consider when shopping around for the right broadband package. You should not only think about your browsing habits - do you download/upload files frequently, chat, watch movies, email friends and family - but should also consider things such as how much do you spend on your mobile/home phone calls a month, do you pay a subscription digital TV, and if so, could you save money with the right broadband package?
This guide is designed to help you make the correct choice when it comes to buying broadband; after reading through everything here, please click through to our Broadband Comparison Table, where you can easily assess the packages and bundle deals on offer from the leading providers of broadband services in the UK.
The first thing you should do before searching for a broadband package is perform a local availability test to see whose services you can sign up for, as there's little point in comparing prices and services of all the available packages if you can't actually receive all of them.
The majority of broadband connections in the UK are made through copper wire phone lines, and so the availability of an ISP's broadband services will depend on if they have installed their equipment in your local telephone exchange. Broadband services provided over a phoneline are generally referred to as ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) services. The service is 'asymmetric' because the achievable download speeds over the phoneline are generally faster than the upload speeds; most home internet users download rather than upload files, which is why ADSL is marketed towards home customers.
Most other broadband services are delivered to households through a fibre optic cable line - again, availability will depend on if you live in an area where a cable network has been installed.
You can perform an availability test by typing your postcode into the appropriate window on our main page, which will then provide you with a list of the ISPs who are operating in your postcode area.
Speed, performance, and your browsing habits
Once you know which services are available in your area, you should then consider what you use the internet for, and how important a fast connection is. Ideally, you will want the fastest connection possible, regardless of your browsing habits, but a fast connection speed is especially important if you intend on playing either PC or console games online, or downloading music and movies.
Broadband speeds are measured in Mbps, a rate of data transfer equal to how many megabits per second can be transferred to your computer from a website or another user's computer - for example, a three and a half minute long music file in MP3 format is roughly equivalent to 3MB, therefore you would in theory be able to download one song every 4 seconds if you had a connection speed of 6Mbps or above.
ADSL and Cable
Several factors affect the performance and speed of your connection. A good rule of thumb for calculating your connection speed if you are signing up for ADSL broadband is to find out how far away from the nearest telephone exchange your house is - the closer you are to the exchange, the faster the speed will be.
Cable broadband networks are not affected by proximity to an exchange in this way: cable connection speeds are more dependent with the amount of user traffic in your local area, so if you live in a street where several people are accessing the internet via cable, then your net performance can be affected by this.
The specifications of your computer and the type of modem or router you use will also have some effect on your overall broadband performance. Most ISPs will publish a list of required system specifications for their products. In some cases these specifications are recommended, so that if your computer does not exactly meet the specifications you can still sign up for the services, but you might not be able to achieve the maximum connection speed advertised. In other cases, the stated specifications are requirements; you will not be able to use the provider's products if your computer does not meet the published specifications.
USB hardware is considered to be less efficient than Ethernet equivalents, and can often mean that the connection may not reach the maximum advertised transfer rate. Some providers will bundle USB modems free with their packages - USB equipment is popular because it is generally very easy to set up, and most computers these days have multiple USB ports. Games consoles including the PS2 and PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii feature USB, Ethernet or Wifi, so should you need a broadband connection for online console gaming - check the specifications of your console to see which type of connection you require.
When you compare and review any of the packages and bundles on this site, you will be able to see the computer specifications required to run each service, and see what routers and modems are compatible.
Broadband Speeds - Brief Summary
Factors which will determine the quality of your broadband connection:
- Distance from your local telephone exchange (if signing up for ADSL)
- The amount of user traffic in your local area (if signing up for cable)
- The type of modem or router you are using
- The specifications of your computer
If you mostly use the net for sending and receiving emails, shopping online or chatting, then a connection speed of 2Mbps should suffice, although the faster the better; users downloading files and playing games will want something at around 8Mbps or higher.
Bandwidth, Download Limits, and Fair Usage Policies
Bandwidth is a term used to apply to may things, usually to measure the capacity of a communications channel - in relation to broadband services, the 'channel' will either be an ADSL or cable phoneline. The majority of broadband packages will have a set monthly limit on how much bandwidth you can use, usually measured in gigabytes (GB).
The monthly limit, often called a download cap or usage limit, reflects how much information you can download in one month, including music and video files, updates and new patches for your programs. Using the above example, downloading a 3MB MP3 music file will count against your usage cap, so in theory, a broadband service with an 8GB usage limit would allow you to download over 2700 MP3s a month.
However, usage limits do not apply to just file downloads. Visiting websites which have large animated frames and numerous links, retrieving attachments and sending/receiving emails, making VoIP calls, and using chat/IM services all count towards your monthly limit - because of this, it is more accurate to refer to a monthly cap as a usage limit. Usage limits can vary from sizes as small as 1GB to 10GB to 50GB, or more.
Unlimited Downloading and Fair Usage Policies
Many ISPs provide an unlimited monthly usage cap with their products, theoretically allowing you to download as much as you like. However, any 'unlimited' usage limit will be governed by a fair usage policy. A fair usage policy is in place to ensure that the internet service is not compromised by the heavier users. As stated above, this can be a particular problem on cable connections, as cable performance is dependent with the amount of traffic in your local area, so if you live in an area with several cable users, then your net performance can be affected by this.
With an unlimited broadband package, there will typically be an unspecified 'ceiling' limit, and once you exceed this then your connection may be temporarily slowed down or even cut for the remainder of the month; some ISPs have a policy where you will be charged an additional fee should you go beyond such a limit. Most users will rarely excessively use an unlimited usage allowance, but be sure to read through the terms and conditions of each ISP's fair usage policies before signing up.
Your browsing habits
As with connection speeds, the size of a download limit is worth considering in relation to your browsing habits. If you are planning on downloading lots of music or having multiple users sharing the same broadband connection, you will want to sign up for a package with a sizeable bandwidth allowance so you can use the net for whatever reason without any restrictions or slowdown. Casual and infrequent internet users find 2GB per month more than sufficient for emailing and messaging, although you may want something a bit bigger should you want to occasionally download or watch video clips online.
Monthly Usage Allowance - Things to consider
- How often and how intensively you use the internet?
- How much on average do you download each month?
- How many people (if any) are likely to be sharing a connection?
- What service providers are operating in your area?
- What is the optimum connection speed you are able to achieve?
Find out which ISPs are operating in your area and how far away from your local telephone exchange you are in order to get a rough idea of how fast your connection speed is going to be.
- What package should I sign up for?
- What do you want to use the internet for?
Email and chat - Emailing, chatting/instant messaging, and shopping online are activities which generally do not require a fast speed or a particularly large usage limit - a connection speed of 2Mbps should suffice, although if you frequently chat to friends and have a large number of chat windows open at any one time, you might want to opt for something faster, along the lines of 4Mbps.
A monthly usage limit of 2GB should be enough to cover most general net use, although consider a package with a larger limit should you want to occasionally download media files. Users who plan on making VoIP calls should look for a higher usage limit of around 5GB or 8GB.
Downloading and playing console and PC games online - If you intend to download files from the internet, getting the fastest possible speed - 20Mbps or higher - is a priority as you will want to be able to download as much information in as quick as possible a time. Broadband packages with high download speeds typically come with a larger monthly usage allowance.
Multiplayer platforms such as Xbox Live will work on connection speed of 1Mbps, and higher connection speeds will not affect console gameplay as such - playing console games online over a 1Mbps ADSL connection will be the same as playing over an 8Mbps connection. If you plan on playing PC games online regularly, then connection speeds become more of an issue, as with certain titles you may wish to download patches to improve/access new game content or fix glitches.
Something which is important to consider is the length of the contract for the services you will subscribe to - when comparing packages and prices, think about but also what you will need twelve months down the line.
The standard is that when you sign up for broadband you will be obligated to a 12 month contract. Some providers will want you so sign up for a longer contract, sometimes 18 months or more. If you are committed to a contract, you will normally have to pay a cancellation fee to become released from it. So if you are moving house within the year, or will not be living at the same address for the entire duration of the contract, you should consider opting for a more flexible contract.
Some ISPs specialise in providing smaller, more manageable contracts of 3 months which are proving popular with students, people living in rented accommodation and anyone who may not be living at one address for more than a year.
Set up and Connection fees
Set up and connection costs will sometimes apply to certain broadband services, although many providers furnish customers with all the necessary equipment and instructions to set up a connection themselves.
It may be beneficial to pay for a connection if you would rather it was installed by a technician - this way you should have a guarantee of a secure connection and should anything go wrong, you can contact your provider directly with details of who set up your connection.
Some ISPs, particularly providers of bundled TV/phone/broadband services will require you to pay for an engineer to install everything needed at your address - the cost of this is usually a minimal one-off charge, separate to the regular monthly subscription.
Customer service is important, if you need to get in touch with your provider for whatever reason. Although broadband is very easy to setup and install, if you do have any problems or you are not entirely familiar with broadband technology, it is good to know that you have somebody you can talk to for advice.
Take into account the company's reputation in assisting consumers, and read feedback and customer reviews about the various broadband providers you are considering and decide how important the provider's customer service levels will be to you.
Bundles and Extra Features
The broadband market in the UK is highly competitive, and so the numerous providers are keen to offer customers other services in addition to a broadband connection. ISPs will often package numerous services together with broadband in the form of bundle deals.
As internet services are traditionally delivered over phonelines, the service most commonly sold with broadband is a phone service - phone packages will often provide you with cheap or free calls at evenings, weekends or all the time to selected numbers. Some phone packages will come with line rental included, potentially allowing you to save money on your monthly phone bill.
Many mobile phone handsets are web-enabled, and so broadband providers running mobile phone networks are keen to sell additional mobile minutes and texts, or free or discounted broadband services alongside a monthly mobile contract.
Other bundled services you will find include digital TV subscriptions with inclusive broadband. IPTV services are being introduced to the UK, more on-demand content is now available on the web and more users download and watch films and TV shows on their computers, and so free internet services with digital TV may soon become as common as broadband and phone services.
Other inclusive features
Some broadband packages offer extra features such as web space and virus/spam protection. These freebies may help when making a final decision between broadband deals.
Having free anti-virus software included with a package is great for a new system or first-time buyers, as it side-steps the hassle of having to buy and set up your own security software and also means that you can connect to the internet as soon as your welcome pack arrives.
Free security software is less of a bonus if you are an existing broadband customer switching to a new supplier and you already have an active subscription to a security program package. Many new computers also come equipped with their own online security packages, making the offer of a free one from a broadband provider superfluous. Please read our entry on internet security or more information.
Free webspace is useful if you are planning on making websites or hosting your own images, videos or music tracks, although there are plenty of hosting websites which allow you to upload information and are free to join. Those serious about making a website will also want to purchase a domain name themselves and have control over their own webspace.
Examples of types of bundles currently available can be found on our broadband bundles comparison page.