Broadband internet access is now available for less than £10 a month, as a price war between telecoms companies intensifies. BT promises that 99 per cent of the population will have access to a broadband supplier by the end of the summer, but if you are one of Britain's five million existing users, it is possible to make big savings now.
Broadband makes the internet work much faster than traditional internet services - between 10 and 160 times faster, depending on which facility you use. Until recently, however, it has been very expensive, which has limited appeal. That began to change at Christmas, when the telecoms watchdog told BT it had to reduce the fees it charges rival broadband providers to use its network.
But a new deal from UK Online, which was launched this month, is a real breakthrough; it offers broadband for just £9.99 a month. UK Online is able to offer such a cheap deal because it has installed its own technology in BT's telephone exchanges.
"This enables us to offer more innovative products than our competitors," says Chris Stening, the company's chief executive. It also enables UK Online to be cheaper, because, unlike rivals, it doesn't have to pay BT for its facilities. The downside is that UK Online has not yet rolled out its equipment across the country. In fact, its services are mainly restricted to cities including London, Glasgow and Leeds. Also, the £9.99 fee is only available on the company's basic 512k service. Its faster services begin at £19.99 a month.
Blair Wadman, broadband manager at the price comparison service Uswitch, says service speed is one of several important issues to consider in addition to price when choosing a provider. "512k is perfectly adequate if you're just surfing the internet and e-mailing, but 1mb is better if you are going to download content such as music clips, for example."
Wadman also points out that 1mb will produce better quality streaming, where users view or listen to pictures or sound online without downloading clips.
The cheaper broadband services may also come with strict limits on the amount you may download each month - 1 gigabyte or 2gb are common limits. For many internet users, these caps won't be an issue, but anyone downloading films, for example, may soon run out of capacity. 1gb is enough to spend 100 hours surfing the net, but only six or seven hours downloading or streaming video.
The other cost issue to consider is what you will pay for technical support. Most broadband operators offer telephone helplines that you can call if you run into problems. Some of them are free, but others charge, even if the problem is the fault of the provider. On services such as NTL Freedom and Virgin.net, the helpline is a premium-rate number.
If you're already a broadband user, switching service to cut your costs should be simple, though check whether the new company charges a switching fee, likely to be £10 or £15.
Broadband operators subscribe to an industry code of conduct, which requires them to give a customer's new service provider details of their account with five working days of receiving a request for this information. Uswitch says a transfer should take no more than a fortnight.
The only hitch may be your e-mail account. If your existing address is provided by your current broadband provider, you should be able to hold on to it. But you may have to pay to access your mail. It may make sense to set up a new account with a web-based e-mail company, such as Yahoo! or Hotmail, so that you are not affected by this problem in the future.
Read broadband providers' terms and conditions carefully. Some companies, such as AOL, Wanadoo and Tiscali, require you to sign up for a year. Others will give you access on a month-by-month basis.
Martin Lewis, who runs the price comparison website moneysavingexpert.com, says that it might be worth signing up to a year-long contract for new broadband users. Lewis argues: "On the open market, line activation fees and the cost of a modem can cost you £100, so if you can get this for nothing in return for accepting being tied to one provider for a year, it may be worthwhile."
Your choice of provider will also depend on where you live. You can check which providers offer broadband in your area at www.broadbandchecker.co.uk. The more urban your home, the wider choice you will have.
If you already have cable television, from NTL or Telewest, check these companies' prices. They offer packaged deals with internet access, television and phone services all for one price, which can be good value for certain customers.Reuse content