Get up to speed with broadband provision

Although the broadband market has become fiercely competitive over the past couple of years – driving down prices, and improving service – the majority of consumers still don't get anything close to the speed which their provider advertises.

According to the consumer group Which?, customers who are promised a broadband package offering speeds of up to 8 megabytes per second, typically enjoy a connection no faster than 2.7MB. While even the very best 8MB package only registered speeds of 6.7MB in its tests.

The latest research from www.broadbandchoices.co.uk, the comparison website, paints a similar picture. While Tesco's package topped its tables for a second month in a row in August, it still only delivers speeds of around 50 per cent of the advertised rate. And at the bottom of the pile, Talk Talk, on average, delivers customers less than a third of their advertised speed.

The results demonstrate the importance of carrying out a bit of due diligence before signing up to a new broadband package, and understanding that plumping for the cheapest deal is likely to leave you with an unreliable and much slower service than you had bargained for.

Your broadband speed is determined by a number of factors – the first of which is how far you live from the exchange. "Theoretically, you'd need to live next door or on top of the exchange to achieve the advertised speed," says Michael Phillips of broadbandchoices.co.uk. "We think providers should have to advertise a typical speed, which represents at least two-thirds of their customers – similar to the rules surrounding the use of APRs in adverts for credit cards."

Phillips says that some providers, such as madasafish.co.uk, will tell you what speed you're going to get before sign-up – and most other providers offer a tool to help you find out what the likely speed would be in your home (but might not encourage you to check before you sign up).

Sites such as broadbandchoices.co.uk and uswitch.com have customer service ratings which show how users rate different services on a number of factors. These can prove to be a useful tool when trying to pick out the best provider.

Before you spend too much time looking for a provider which can deliver you a super-fast service, it's worth taking the time to consider exactly what kind of service you need. Steve Weller of uswitch.com says that if you only tend to use your broadband connection for checking your emails and some light web browsing, a 2MB connection with a relatively low download limit will probably suit your needs.

However, if you regularly play online games or download music and movies, you should think about getting a faster connection and one with more flexible limits. Some providers will have a limit, but then charge you a set fee for every additional gigabyte of downloads that you make each month. While others offer unlimited downloads – subject to a "fair usage policy". Uswitch's website has a tool which enables you to estimate how much capacity you need each month.

The monthly cost of the package is one of the most important factors when shopping around for a new broadband provider, but don't just look at the headline rate. "Look out for things beyond the surface price, such as charges for equipment," says Ceri Stanaway, a senior researcher at Which?. "And if a company offers you free equipment, it's important to consider whether it's the equipment you really need. A lot of companies provide a modem, when what most people want is a wireless router."

Weller points out that customers who are willing to sign up to longer-term contracts are less likely to be charged a set-up fee, or have to pay for hardware. However, it's worth being sure you've made the right choice before committing to 18 months or two years, as there are hefty exit penalties if you try to terminate your contract early.

"Until recently, most contracts were 12 months," he says. "But we're starting to see an increasing number of 18-month and even two-year contracts now. AOL offers customers a free laptop if they sign up to a two-year contract, although they have to take a phone line as well. You can get some good deals by committing to the longer term."

If you're switching from another provider, you should be able to make the move within five days. However, Jason Lloyd the comparison site, www.moneysupermarket.com, warns that some companies still take over three weeks to make the transition. "To help cut down on delays, you should get written confirmation from the provider you're moving to stating when you will get connected and hold them to that date. It's a little-known part of the regulation that providers should tell you when they intend to connect you to their service."

Phillips points out that before you switch, it's worth making sure you've done everything to ensure you're getting the most out of your current package. Broadbandchoices.co.uk offers 10 tips to improve your broadband speed at home, such as adjusting your browser settings, getting a better router, and using shorter cables.

Many of the best value deals come by signing up to other packages as well. For example, VirginMedia offers broadband for just £4.50 a month if you also take its landline phone service. And if you subscribe to its cable TV service as well, there are even greater savings. Furthermore, broadband is then supplied down the cable, which can be more reliable.

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