Don't get left behind by the furious pace of broadband

Faster, cheaper, the internet connection is changing all the time. Emma Lunn sees how to find the right deal and switch supplier
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The Independent Online

Three years ago, it was a Tony Blair soundbite as the Prime Minister tried to encourage us to hook up to the internet. Today, "Broadband Britain" is more substance than slogan: nearly eight million homes have signed up out of the 15 million UK households that are wired up to the web.

Consumer demand for this high-speed connection is being fed by falling prices, which are in turn the result of fierce competition and the growing use of the internet to access music, interactive video games, and film and TV downloads.

And, as the Skype internet telephony company is bought by online auctioneer eBay, the wider availability of free and low-cost phone calls via the internet is expected to fuel even greater competition - and better deals for customers.

Despite this, you should still shop around if you don't want to get lost on the information superhighway. For the uninitiated, broadband is simply a swifter way to surf the web - at speeds of more than 20 times the standard dial-up connection - while being able to use your telephone landline at the same time.

As a rule, different speeds suit different users. If you simply want to go online to shop and use email, you probably won't need more than 512 kilobytes (KB) - a bandwidth that is 10 times faster than a dial-up connection. For online gaming, watching films and quick music downloads - 30 seconds instead of five minutes with dial-up - you will need one or two megabytes (MB).

But it's not just speed of service that determines what you pay. Some packages "cap" how much material - measured in gigabytes - you can download each month, and levy extra charges if you go over the limit. Others offer you unlimited downloads at extra cost.

What you get for your money varies wildly between providers and, even with the same company, can change overnight.

A number of internet service providers (ISPs) are now upgrading their deals across all price packages: you either get more "bang for your buck" (greater broadband speed at no extra cost) or pay less each month for the same speed. Earlier this month, for example, Virgin doubled its standard broadband price deal from 1MB to 2MB.

Tiscali has taken a different approach, scrapping the cap on the amount of material you can download on its 1MB service - and reducing the price to £14.99 a month as well.

If all that wasn't enough, broadband speeds are rising again. Both Telewest and NTL now offer 10MB while Pipex and be*, another ISP, are expected to launch a 24MB service in the next few months. This kind of connection will allow users to watch high-definition television on their personal computer.

Regardless of your bandwidth, the chances are that you will be paying over the odds for an outdated deal if you haven't reviewed your internet contract since signing up.

"Consumers who have had a broadband link for a couple of years and never shopped around could be missing an opportunity to slash their monthly fees," explains Blair Wadman from the price-comparison website uSwitch.com.

According to PC Pro magazine, 17 per cent of internet users changed supplier last year - and this number is set to grow, says uSwitch.com. It has also become easier since most suppliers signed up to a voluntary code with the industry regulator Ofcom last year. Departing customers are now given a migration authorisation code (MAC), which they pass to their new provider.

"The process usually takes up to 15 working days with only around 20 to 30 minutes of actual [internet] downtime," says Mr Wadman.

But there are caveats. First, most broadband deals are for a minimum of six or 12 months (some, like Virgin, ask for only one month). "Break the contract to join another company and you'll usually either have to carry on paying the existing deal until it runs out - or pay a penalty charge," adds Mr Wadman.

Note also that when you switch supplier, you are likely to have to wait before you can get the speed you want. With most providers, you will remain on the same bandwidth to begin with, and can then request an upgrade.

And not all deals are universal. UK Online's 512KB service at £9.99 a month, with no download limit, is available only in parts of London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.

Lisa Burchell, 38, switched from Wanadoo broadband to TalkTalk using uSwitch.com. "I was paying more than £20 a month and was offered a better deal," she says.

"Now I pay £14.99 a month for 1MB internet and free phone calls at evenings and weekends."

She and her family use the internet for email, web surfing and downloading music. "The switching was done online and took just a couple of weeks."

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