he cost of broadband internet access has fallen by almost a third over the past 12 months and prices are still falling. Price comparison service Uswitch says the average standard broadband deal cost £23 a month last March - today it is down to just £16.50.
The reductions mean that for those without internet access - or those who still have slow dial-up services - broadband has never been more affordable. And if you've already signed up to a deal, by switching, you may be able to save money and improve the quality of your broadband access.
The advantage of a broadband connection over dial-up services is speed. Your internet access will be at least 10 times faster, plus you're always connected, and the link does not tie up your home phone line.
The good news is that broadband is getting faster. A year ago, the standard service was 512Kbps (kilobits per second). Today's basic packages are generally at least twice as fast, at 1Mbps (megabit per second). Connection speeds of 8Mb are widely available, though not all telephone exchanges have yet been equipped to deliver broadband providers' fastest services.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of broadband service available, though bundled packages (see story right) are also worth considering.
First, if you're only a moderate internet user, a standard 1mb connection should be fine. At this speed, websites will appear almost instantly, but downloading music or video files may take slightly longer.
Second, there are premium services. Neil Hodges, of the price-comparison service Simply Switch, says: "If you're a heavier internet user, you may need to pay a little more in order to get a speedier service." Paying a premium for a 2Mb, 4Mb or 8Mb service will cut down on waiting time if you download a lot of large data files. It should also improve your online gaming experience, if that's what you use the internet for.
The third issue to consider is how much you download. Most basic packages set a monthly limit - one or two gigabytes is typical. Each web-page that you call up counts towards that limit, though simply surfing won't get you anywhere near a breach. Regularly downloading large files, however, will eat up capacity and you may need more.
Broadband providers charge more for extra download capacity, but unlimited deals are not prohibitively expensive. Just think carefully about what you need. Although BT has just announced a crackdown on those users who regularly go over their contracted download limits, most providers will not penalise a few occasional breaches.
"The people who genuinely need speed are also the ones most likely to be heavy downloaders," says Hodges. But pick a broadband deal that best fits your profile as an internet user.
There are some hidden costs to watch out for. Before signing up for a deal, check whether there are any upfront charges to pay in addition to the monthly subscription. 4D Internet's unlimited download deal, for example, is competitively priced at £29.99 a month, but comes with a £70.50 connection fee.
Sometimes, it may be worth paying such fees. If you're signing up for a 12-month contract, check the total amount you'll pay over the year, rather than focusing purely on connection charges or monthly fees.
Also, check on the price of technical support. Broadband suppliers provide a telephone hotline you can call if you have any problems - most charge national rates, but some are premium-rate. Toucan, for example, charges 30p a minute for calls to its support line, and costs will mount up quickly if you do have problems.
Finally, note that the majority of broadband providers now require you to sign up for 12 months. If you want to get out of the contract earlier, you'll have to pay penalty charges. It's not a problem signing a year-long contract as long as you're aware of the commitment you have made. And suppliers offering one-month contracts - including Virgin and Plusnet - are rarely the absolute cheapest broadband providers.
Bundles of savings for doubling up
* Some of the cheapest deals on broadband are available from suppliers offering bundled packages, with internet access and a home phone service for one price. Cable & Wireless's Bulldog service, for example, offers broadband at a speed of up to 8Mb for just £9.75 a month, but you also have to sign up to its phone line, for £10.50 a month.
* Chris Williams, of the price-comparison service Uswitch, says these deals are definitely worth considering. "The risk is that by getting a cheap deal on broadband you'll be paying over the odds for your phone service, but most bundled packages are pretty competitive on both," he says. "You might get a slightly cheaper deal by finding the cheapest phone and internet providers separately, but many people are happy to pay slightly more for the convenience of a single package."
* Home-phone users with a standard deal from BT are likely to be able to save money on their phone costs by switching to a bundled broadband deal - and they don't need to change their phone number.Reuse content