Setting up the bare necessities in your home was a lot simpler 20 years ago. With no competition in the telephone, gas or electricity markets, a simple call or letter to British Gas, British Telecom and your local electricity board was enough to set your home up with all you needed. No broadband, no digital TV, no mobile phone to think about – and no shopping around for your other utilities.
In the 21st century, things are somewhat different – and while the savvy consumer should be able to find themselves a much more competitive deal these days, by shopping around for their home utilities, the overwhelming choice makes it difficult to ever be completely sure you are really getting the best value.
Most home phone providers, for example, now offer broadband packages too, while some may also provide digital, cable or satellite TV products. Similarly, mobile phone providers are moving into the broadband, home phone and TV markets – making it ever harder to know where to go for the best bundles.
According to Simplify Digital, a new organisation whose aim is to try and help confused consumers to find the best home communications deal, there are now well over half a million different combinations of TV, home phone and broadband packages – and many more when you start to throw mobiles into the mix as well.
"The idea for our business came from my experience working at Sky – where we were originally only selling TV, but then broadband and phone deals, and it became increasingly clear just how confusing it was for the consumer," says Charles Ponsonby, Simplify Digital's chief executive. "It struck us that there was a real need for someone sitting in the middle of all this to demystify the market for consumers. There are a lot of people out there who need help."
Simplify Digital offers a free telephone-based service (0800 138 8388) to help consumers find the right combination of home communication packages for their specific needs. The firm takes a commission from the companies they eventually advise you to sign up with, but at no extra cost to the customer.
Ponsonby says his business is targeting two types of consumers. "Firstly, there's the digitally disenfranchised," he says, "who may not have digital TV, or even broadband, but who are getting sucked into the market due to the digital switchover, or because they're looking for a new deal on their phone."
The "digital switchover" is the national project which will close down regular analogue TV. It starts in parts of Scotland this autumn, before being rolled out around the rest of the country over the next four years. Once it hits your area, you'll no longer be able to receive any television signal without a set-top box, or a newer TV that has a digital receiver built into it (for more information, visit www.digitaluk.co.uk).
"The second group of people who use our service are the digitally enfranchised," continues Ponsonby, "people who still have a level of confusion about the technology, and who have got better things to do than find out which deals are best for them."
For the moment, Simplify Digital does not incorporate mobile phone packages into its platform, and does not have every single company in the home phone and broadband markets included in its systems. However, the service is constantly improving, and already covers the majority of the market, so it is well worth a try if you are looking to switch all your home communication packages.
For those who want to do the legwork themselves, however, the best place to start is with your TV.
Choosing your television requirements is a good starting point as, for the moment, it's the market with the least choice. If you're happy with the package of channels available on Freeview – which includes BBC 3 & 4, ITV 2,3 & 4, E4, More 4, Film 4 and many others, you won't need any more than a set-top box, which could set you back as little as £20.
However, if you want any of Sky's live sports channels, or if you're after other premium channels – such as Sky Movies, Paramount Comedy or MTV – or on-demand content, you'll need to consider signing up to a satellite, cable or broadband TV package.
Sky is the UK's only satellite provider in the UK, while Virgin Media is the only cable provider. Their websites, www.sky.com and www.virginmedia.com, both provide details of their numerous TV packages – but before you get carried away picking the best deal, check that your home is in an area where you can receive cable or satellite.
Many flat-owners are not allowed to install satellite dishes on their external walls, and Virgin Media cable is not available everywhere. Check whether you live in a cable area on the Virgin Media website.
The third option is to get a broadband TV service, such as those offered by BT Vision and Tiscali. These do not offer the same access to live sports channels, but can give you access to many other premium channels.
BROADBAND & HOME PHONE
If you opt for broadband TV, then your choice of broadband provider is already made for you. Tiscali and BT packages will also include your home phone.
Likewise, Sky and Virgin Media both offer cheaper deals on their television packages, for those who also sign up to their home phone and broadband deals. With Virgin, for example, its basic television package is free if you take a phone line, and Sky offers free broadband if you take one of its TV packages.
If you don't need or want a broadband or phone deal that is tied to your TV package, the best way to search for the cheapest packages is to use comparison websites such as www.uswitch.com, www.moneysupermarket.com or www.broadbandchoices.co.uk. Once again, however, the cheapest deals are always reserved for those who buy more than one service from the same provider. For example, Talk Talk offers free broadband, at a speed of up to 8Mb, for customers who sign up to its home phone plan.
It's important to decide what speed you want, and to do some investigation into what speed you may actually get. Although your broadband provider may advertise that it offers speeds of up to 8Mb or even 20Mb, the reality can be considerably different.
The speed you actually receive will depend on a number of factors. These include how far away you live from the exchange (unless you're using cable) and whether your exchange has been upgraded recently. How many other customers are using the same exchange locally will also have an impact.
Talking to friends who live locally and asking about their experience is one of the most effective ways of trying to work out which provider is best in your area. Or checking out chat forums on websites such as www.moneysavingexpert.com or www.moneysupermarket.com may also help.
Michael Phillips of Broadbandchoices.co.uk says some providers are also a little more honest, and will give you an estimate about your likely broadband speed. "Some, such as Madasafish.com, will say what speed your line can support before you sign up," he says. "But most ISPs (internet service providers) won't tell you."
O2 also has a deal where it will change you on to a cheaper package if you're unable to get the speed that your package advertises. And if you're an O2 mobile customer, there are even bigger discounts to be had.
Beware when you're shopping for your home phone deal, that if it's offered for free, it's likely to be stripped of the extras, such as voicemail. These will cost you money on top of the basic package.
Only Virgin Media offers a package that incorporates TV, home phone, broadband and mobile – from £40 a month for all four. BT also offers all four services but, as yet, has not designed a specially priced package to incorporate all four, due to regulatory restrictions.
It is thought others will follow in the years to come, however. In the meantime, O2 has already begun offering broadband, with discounts for its mobile customers, while Orange offers broadband and home phone – again with discounts for Orange mobile users.
For most people, however, it continues to make sense to shop for your mobile phone deal separately – an equally complex process. Brokers such as Carphone Warehouse and The Link can help to demystify the whole experience. Or use websites such as www.onecompare.com.
'Virgin Media is far from perfect, but I'm sticking with it'
Having just come to the end of a six-month trial with Virgin Media – which has been providing my TV, phone and broadband – I've been dealing head-on with the nightmare of finding the right home communications package this week.
Although my experience with Virgin has been largely positive (though not perfect), the truth is that I, like most broadband and TV customers, am reluctant to even consider switching, because of the enormous hassle of it all.
Having Virgin's cable TV packages has been good, and I particularly love the V+ box that allows me to pause and rewind live TV, and to record two different programmes at a time. All the on-demand content has been great, too – and in spite of all the bad reports I've heard about Virgin systems crashing, mine has been pretty reliable.
The downside has been the broadband. While I have been assured I'm on a 20Mb package, I've never registered speeds of more than about 6Mb, according to the internet speed checker that I use ( www.broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk). If you've never checked your broadband speed, it can be very enlightening.
I'm told that my slow speed is down to the growing number of users on Virgin's network and, apparently, my local area is due for an upgrade on its equipment soon, so I should see some faster speeds.
Nevertheless, the experience would usually have been enough to encourage me to consider getting my broadband elsewhere. Yet Virgin's cleverly priced bundles make it much cheaper for me to stick with it. So I am.