Finding your way through a technical jargon minefield to compare broadband deals!
Comparing broadband deals is a nightmare when there’s a massive choice of service providers offering an ever changing selection of broadband packages. You’ve got to consider the issues around broadband coverage and have at least some understanding of important technical terms or it makes it especially difficult if you don’t speak their jargon.
We take an in-depth look at everything you need to know to get that perfect broadband package.
Megabits and more: broadband jargon basics
When researching broadband you can’t escape the techno-jargon. If you’re not interested in the technical side of broadband it can seem confusing, but the last thing you want to do is give up in frustration and just take the easiest option. That’s how you end up with an unsuitable and potentially overpriced deal.
Before we go any further, here’s a brief guide to some key terms to know to compare broadband for the home.
Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line. A type of broadband service using the telephone network with a maximum speed of either 8Mb or 17Mb. This is the most common type of broadband service.
Fibre optic broadband
Broadband using fibre optic cables which are capable of very high speeds. Most fibre broadband in the UK at present is what is known as Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) which means the fibre runs up to the street cabinets and is carried into homes by the regular phone line or, in the case of Virgin Media, coaxial cables. If you’re very lucky you may have access to an ultrafast Fibre To The Home (FTTH) service which uses fibre optic lines the entire way to deliver incredible performance.
Kilobits/Megabits/Gigabits per second
This how we measure the speed of a broadband connection, so the bigger the number the better! Most broadband services are measured in megabits per second (Mbps or Mb), though newer services may be fast enough to be gigabits per second (Gbps or Gb). Kilobits per second (Kbps or Kb) is only used for slower connections.
Broadband – ISP
Your Internet Service Provider is the company which bills you for broadband services. This is not necessarily the same company which owns and operates the actual network, many companies resell broadband using the BT network for instance.
The first step: check your broadband coverage
Broadband availability varies across the UK so before we can begin to compare broadband deals it’s important to find out what type of services are available in your location.
An ISP can check this but will only advise on the services they offer, and what we need is an unbiased opinion.
The best resource is www.SamKnows.com where the broadband availability tools can provide detailed information. An exchange search can be used to display a breakdown of the broadband technologies installed at the nearest exchange, though most useful to home broadband users is the broadband checker. By entering a postcode and, optionally, a phone number you can see exactly what’s available to a specific address.
For the most accurate results it’s important to search using a phone number, as a postcode only check does not guarantee service to a specific property.
The majority of homes will have access to ADSL. Many tens of millions of premises also now have fibre optic broadband using either the BT or Virgin Media networks, though this is still not as widespread as ADSL.
Which type of broadband is right for me?
Once you’ve checked availability it’s time to compare broadband deals and also decide what type of broadband service is right for you. If you’re lucky you’ll have a choice of several different types, so here’s what you need to know about the main fixed line broadband technologies.
The standard broadband service which uses the telephone network to provide a download speed up to 17Mb and upload of up to 1Mb. ADSL broadband uses the BT telephone lines, with other ISPs reselling services. This means that while you may pay an ISP such as Sky or EE for the service, it is BT Openreach engineers who will attend if work has to be carried out.
The key advantage of ADSL is availability. The vast majority of premises will have access to ADSL. It is also the cheapest home broadband service, with many budget deals available for well under £10 per month.
The actual performance of an ADSL service is heavily dependent on your distance from the exchange, as well as the quality of the phone lines. This is why speeds are always said to be “up to”, because while ADSL may be capable of 17Mb there are still many homes where it will be significantly slower. And there are still a few areas where ADSL has not yet been updated to the latest standard so is limited to a maximum 8Mb. But even in the best case scenario ADSL is still comparatively slow and can even be outpaced by mobile broadband. Upload rates in particular are very poor, which is a problem if you plan on uploading large files to the internet.
BT fibre optic broadband
BT fibre optic broadband uses fast fibre connections to street cabinets, then relies on the old telephone lines for the final connection into homes. This is cheaper and quicker to install, allowing BT Openreach to connect many homes to superfast internet services. It currently offers speeds of up to 38Mb, 52Mb or 76Mb, with upload speeds up to 20Mb.
BT Fibre Optic Pros:
BT network fibre is widely available and very affordable, and provides a very noticeable upgrade in performance over ADSL. Performance is more reliable too and in many cases will provide a speed that’s quite close to the quoted maximum. Like ADSL it’s offered by many different ISPs, not just BT, so there’s a wide choice of packages and special offers.
BT Fibre Optic Cons:
While this service is now available to more than 25 million premises, there are still many areas where it’s not installed (and not just in rural areas – EU state aid rules mean there are hundreds of thousands of homes in London and other cities without BT fibre).
Virgin Media fibre broadband
Virgin Media operates its own network independently of BT and is at present the fastest mass market broadband provider. Regular speed boosts over the last few years have allowed Virgin to jump ahead of BT, with current packages offering speeds of 50Mb, 100Mb or 200Mb (and further upgrades are planned).
Virgin Media Fibre Pros:
If speed is crucial, Virgin Media is very likely the fastest broadband service most of us will be able to get at this time. Virgin is also fairly unique for being able to provide broadband without a phone line. And if you’re looking for a complete home entertainment solution Virgin has some compelling broadband and TV bundles.
Virgin Media Fibre Cons:
Virgin does not have the same reach as the BT network so even fewer homes will have access compared to BT fibre. Virgin is also the sole ISP as well as the network operator, so if you don’t like its prices or policies there are no alternatives.
Broadband speeds: how fast is fast enough?
Choosing the right broadband speed is important. This will impact what you can do with the connection and heavily influence which type of broadband is best for your needs.
Some tasks do not require a superfast connection. Web browsing, social media and email do not generally demand high speeds, so if this is what makes up the bulk of your time online a cheap ADSL connection will suffice. Fibre optic broadband becomes useful for tasks involving large data transfers. That could include streaming HD video, downloading files, online gaming and uploading videos or photos. None of this is impossible with ADSL, but it’s a lot more comfortable on a speedy fibre line.
Another consideration is how many people or devices are going to be connected at the same time. ADSL might be fine for you, but if it’s the primary connection for a whole household or you’ve got many different gadgets connected it can quickly become overwhelmed. Here too the additional bandwidth of fibre optic broadband is going to be appreciated.
Both BT and Virgin Media fibre broadband offers different maximum speeds. In many cases a 38Mb or 50Mb connection (the entry level speed offered by each service) will be perfectly sufficient. If you are downloading lots of big files though and hate waiting, or it’s going to be handling the demands of a very busy household (such as a student house or family home with several teenagers), then a 76Mb BT service or 100-200Mb Virgin connection will give you plenty of space to play without everyone experiencing slowdown at busy times.
Comparing broadband deals
So you know what’s available in your area, what type of broadband to look for and have an idea of what speed is required. The final step is to compare broadband deals, explore the huge range of options, and choose a company which provides a suitable connection at the right price. To help you make the right decision here are the key features to look for in order to get the best deal.
Monthly price for broadband
The monthly running cost is going to be one of the major points of comparison when searching for a deal, but read beyond the advertising and make sure the price includes all extras. In most cases signing up for a broadband package includes taking on a phone line, and currently this does not have to be included in the monthly cost. Also watch out for fees relating to additional call packages and TV services. Often the monthly price is discounted for a period of time and this can be a great way to save money, but make sure it is affordable for you after the discount period ends.
Broadband setup price
The one-off fee you’ll pay when signing up to a broadband provider will in many cases be waived, though typically there’s also a small postage charge (around £5-7) for the broadband router. If not free the setup price is usually about £50, but can be much higher if an engineer is required to carry out work. Before signing on the dotted line ask the ISP for confirmation of all charges, and find out whether they’re going to ask for payment up front or add it to the first bill.
Contract length for broadband
Most broadband contracts will be 12, 18 or 24 months. Cancelling before the end of a contract will almost always result in a charge – this applies even if you move home to an area where the service isn’t available. In most situations we would recommend these longer contracts as they offer the best value. But if it’s not suitable there are short term deals available. Some may be on a rolling monthly agreement, others run for 3 or 6 months. While they can be more expensive it does provide a great deal of flexibility and can save you from paying a large cancellation fee.
Broadband data limit
Some of the cheapest broadband package will have a monthly data usage allowance, which limits how much you can use the internet before being hit with extra charges or service restrictions. These can be good value provided the data cap is suitable and you keep a close eye on usage, but for most people an unlimited package is going to be the best choice. They’re not expensive and eliminate any worry of exceeding a cap.
Broadband free extras and special offers
The broadband market is highly competitive so there are always special offers out there to entice you into signing up with an ISP. Most common are shopping vouchers (anything from £25 to more than £100) and free or discounted prices where the monthly broadband fee is reduced for a set period of time. While these can save money or provide a nice bonus for a service you were going to get anyway, don’t let the special deals alone sway your decision and always consider the full cost of the package include broadband fees, line rental and extra charges.
Broadband and moving home
One reason you may be looking to compare broadband deals is because you’re moving home. That can be a good opportunity to take advantage of a faster service or simply get a better deal, but there are some important points to keep in mind when moving to avoid unnecessary charges and ensure the broadband is not delayed. Here are our top tips for dealing with broadband when moving home…
Check broadband availability
Use the Sam Knows broadband tools (see broadband coverage, above) to check services at the new property. Even when moving within the local area there’s no guarantee that the same type of broadband will be available. If broadband is really important you will want to check this before agreeing on a purchase or rental! Ideally, search using both a phone number and postcode for the most accurate results.
Moving your broadband – get started early!
Speak to your ISP early on to find out how much notice they require to move or cancel a broadband service. Two weeks is typical, but it could be longer. If this is left too late you’ll not only be left waiting to get broadband set up in the new home but the new occupant of the previous property will find the line blocked until the transfer is complete.
Watch for broadband cancellation fees
Not taking the current ISP to the new home? Signing up for a new package can save money but make sure you’re out of contract. Moving home is not an excuse to cancel without charge, even if the ISP cannot supply services to the new address. Also confirm with the ISP what other conditions or fees may apply when ending service. Many of them request the broadband router to be returned, for example.
Synchronise your phone and broadband move
If you’ve got phone and broadband from the same provider then moving should be relatively straightforward. Provided they’re given enough notice and no major works are required on the lines in the new home the ISP should be able to activate it on moving day. But if you have phone and broadband from separate companies you will first need to speak to the phone company and request a Line Order Reference Number (LORN), which will then need to be passed to the broadband provider. This enables each company to synchronise the switch so that the broadband is activated at the same time as the phone.
If after reading this article, choosing the right broadband supplier still seems complicated, then there is help at hand, try a broadband comparison site and make sense of your Kilobits, Megabits and Gigabits!