It's not just low cost that makes for good student broadband

Don't end up with a dud for the year, hunt down the most competitive packages, says Chiara Cavaglieri

Bagging the best current account freebie is usually top of a student's financial wish list, but broadband providers are stepping up their game too, offering tailormade packages and their own set of enticing perks. Getting the best deal is about much more than giveaways, however, and experts warn students to hunt down the most competitive packages lest they end up with a dud for the year.

"Trying to meet the needs of everyone in a student household can often be challenging and time consuming, not to mention expensive," says Ernest Doku, technology expert at uSwitch.com. "Luckily, suppliers are becoming increasingly aware of the specific needs of students, with low monthly costs, short contracts and freebies thrown in."

The first consideration is often price, but if you're splitting costs in a large student household, speeds and usage allowances are likely to be the most important features. The good news is that the average UK broadband speed has increased by 10 per cent over the past 18 months, rising from 6.2 megabits per second in December 2010 to 6.8Mb in May of this year, according to Ofcom.

But advertised speeds should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the gap between actual speeds and advertised "up to" speeds has also risen. Some firms are worse than others, so it may pay to keep this in mind when deciding who to go for. Karoo emerged as the provider with the slowest actual speeds compared with the speedbands touted, offering rates of "up to" 24Mb but actually only managing average speeds of between 5.6 and 7.6Mb.

By contrast, Virgin Media came out of Ofcom's study with head held high; its advertised speeds of "up to" 10Mb recorded real speeds of between 9.3 and 9.6Mb, while "up to" 20 Mb packages reached between 17.6 and 18.7Mb.

You may want to check the upload speed too. The download speed covers how fast you can receive information – iPlayer, iTunes etc – while upload speed is all about how fast you can send information – photos, say, or making video calls. Both Be Broadband and O2 offer upload speeds of up to 1.3Mb on cheaper packages, or 2.5Mb on their Pro packages, all with unlimited downloads and generous fair-usage policies.

And if your household is heavy on downloads, then "fibre optic broadband is the best choice", says Michael Phillips, of Broadbandchoices.co.uk.

Once you have the speed sorted, make sure the download limit isn't too stingy. Virgin Media offers several unlimited broadband packages with students in mind, These cost from £21 per month for broadband-only – up to £56.90 per month for a triple-play package of broadband, TV and phone. All of Virgin's student packages are offered on nine-month contracts, which may be helpful if you don't want to pay for broadband over the summer holidays.

There are also rolling one-month contracts available from Plusnet and O2, so you can cancel at any time and won't have to pay for internet you're not using. Two of O2's broadband packages, The All Rounder and The Works, cost £20 and £28.50 per month respectively for existing O2 customers (including line rental), with speeds of up to 20Mb plus "unlimited" downloads, subject to a fair-usage policy. There is a connection charge of £30.63 if you want a 30-day contract.

Plusnet broadband packages offer speeds of up to 20Mb with either a 10GB or 60GB download allowance – you need to factor in line rental at £11.99 and a £25 activation fee, plus the cost of a router (up to £40) if you want a flexible contract, but you do get free overnight downloads.

If you want to go it alone, you can just plug a dongle into your laptop's USB port and enjoy net access on the go. These mobile broadband packages don't require line rental so you could save over £160 a year immediately, but be warned – do a postcode search with your chosen provider, you don't want to pay for patchy coverage.

Also, mobile broadband over third-generation mobile is fairly slow compared with fixed broadband. Many of the best deals will also tie you into a lengthy contract. Three offers a £10 HMV voucher with its Standard Broadband 15GB (if you buy online and use the voucher code HMVMBB10). This costs £15.99 per month, but you must sign up for 24 months.

Think twice before opting for one of the many "free-laptop" packages offered by providers such as O2, Orange and Three. These come with colossal 24-month contracts and there are often cheaper monthly tariffs available; you could end up paying for your freebie over the course of the contract.

EXPERT VIEW

Ernest Doku, uSwitch.com

"Student households are heavy users of broadband so it's crucial students check file transfer speed and usage allowance before signing a contract. Many won't want 12-month contracts, so look out for short or no-contract packages. It's likely price will be the deciding factor for those on tight budgets, and providers have started to target the market with low-cost deals."

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