The market for broadband has gone crazy over the past few weeks, as a price war has helped slash the average cost of high-speed internet packages from around £15 or £20 a month to next to nothing. In fact, signing up to broadband no longer needs to cost you a penny, with the likes of Sky, Orange and TalkTalk all handing it out for "free".
There is, of course, a catch. While these packages may offer free broadband, they also require you to sign up to other products, such as mobile, landline or television contracts - and will often tie you into the deal for as long as 18 months.
"It is a very competitive market now - where prices are being driven down - but it's important to be wary of anything described as 'free', because it never is," says Karen Darby, the chief executive of comparison website Simplyswitch.com.
"It's getting more and more complicated to compare offers now. You can bundle your broadband with TV, landlines or mobile phones - so it's difficult for customers to make a clear comparison," she says.
It's more important than ever to consider your broadband package alongside your landline, television and mobile phone contracts. If you are a Sky customer, for example - or are considering getting satellite or digital television - signing up to Sky's free broadband deal is well worth considering.
Its cheapest TV package is £15 a month - and installation and the set-top box come free. However, there is still a £40 connection fee for the most basic package - plus a £50 installation fee.
Similarly, TalkTalk's "free forever" broadband is not in fact free at all (as the Advertising Standards Authority were quick to point out to it last week). Customers must sign up to the company's landline package for £20 a month (locked in for 18 months), and are likely also to have to pay £29.99 for a compatible modem. However, this is a very competitive deal if you still regularly use your home phone.
Orange offers free broadband if you sign up to one of its mobile contracts, worth at least £30 a month. Chris Williams, the broadband product manager for comparison service Uswitch.com, says consumers need to consider several factors, such as connection speed, download limits and hidden costs, before signing up to a lengthy contract. With most providers locking customers in for at least a year, it's vital to ensure that the service meets your needs.
Download speed tends to vary between 1MB and 16MB. Darby says that for online gamers,a fast connection is imperative. But if you only check e-mails and surf the odd website, a slower one may not bother you. Even a 1MB broadband package is faster than any of the standard dial-up deals on the market.
The monthly download limit is also important. Some providers cap downloads at 2GB a month, which may not be enough. Although many providers do not impose a limit, it's worth noting that none of the "free" packages offers unlimited capacity.
"Some companies will say a 'fair usage' policy applies," adds Williams. "If you're using a lot of capacity, downloading loads of movies and songs, they may restrict you at peak times."
Williams says people who receive broadband through their landlineshare their connection with a group of other local users - typically 50. Some companies have slightly lower "contention rates". TalkTalk customers, for example, share with just 33 people.
You should also consider hardware, software, installation and connection costs. This is where the packages really vary. While some will give you wireless routers and modems for free, others will charge you. Some will offer free installation and connection, while others will hit you with a £70 bill. Brian Sullivan, the director of product strategy and management for Sky, boasts that his company's broadband deal comes with 12 months' free subscription to McAfee's virus protection software.
"A full security package is included in our deal, whereas with Carphone [TalkTalk], for example, you are only offered a very basic service," he says. "If you want more comprehensive protection, you have to pay another £3.49 a month." The security package Sky offers is worth up to £50. If the decision wasn't complicated enough already, choosing which provider to sign up with may be about to get even harder. Later this year, NTL Telewest and Virgin Mobile (which it bought earlier this year) will become the first company to offer a combined TV, mobile phone, landline and broadband package. And BT is planning a similar product.
Many believe such packages will be the future for home communication - all four services rolled into one. Sullivan disagrees. "We think people will want to choose exactly what suits their needs and gives them the best value," he says. "All bundles do is hide charges, and make it difficult to see the true cost."
A number of websites provide useful guidance. Both Simplyswitch.com and Uswitch.com ask you a series of questions to determine your Internet usage and requirements, before providing a list of companies which fit the bill, along with details of charges, fees and add-ons.
Darby says that if you feel uneasy signing up to a long-term contract, some providers, such as Virgin and Help the Aged, allow you to commit to only a month at a time. Although these packages are more expensive, it seems likely there will be even better offers on the market by the end of the year. If you sign up to an 18-month contract now, it's worth bearing in mind that you won't be able to take advantage of any better deals.
'Good customer service is what I want most'
Nigel and Cathy Blount (above) added a broadband connection to their television and landline package with Telewest last year, paying an extra £20 a month for the service.
Although at 1MB, it is not the fastest connection on the market, there is no limit on capacity, which has been crucial in the busy Blount household. With three children of 16, 17 and 20 at home, the internet is in constant use.
"They use it for all sorts," says Nigel. "Christine, our youngest, is often on there talking to her friends, or using the webcam. And then she uses it for all her school research as well.
"My wife's heavily into genealogy, and spends hours on there tracing back our family trees, while I use it a lot to buy motorbike parts. The boys are always on there playing strategy games - and all of them download a lot of music and movies."
Although the Telewest package is by no means the cheapest, Nigel says he likes the convenience of having his landline, cable TV and broadband all with the same provider, and has been happy with the service he has had from Telewest. "It's more important to me that I have good customer service - I'm willing to pay a premium for that," he says. "I get one easy to understand bill every month, and when I need to get in touch with the company, the service is always brilliant."
'We'll save £235 a year by switching'
Sarah Jacobsen, 31, from Hornchurch in Essex was amazed to discover she could save £235 a year on her broadband package by switching to Sky's new "free" deal, which it launched last week.
As an existing Sky television customer, the new package will only cost Sarah and her family a one-off connection fee of £40, after which it will be free for life. Under her current 18-month contract with BT, which is about to expire, she pays £17.99 a month. "We haven't had a problem with BT," she says, "but we have been shopping around. A straight cost and service comparison with Sky broadband is just no contest."
Sarah and her husband, who have a two-year old son, Joshua, are relatively heavy internet users, downloading at least an album a week as well as the odd movie. "My husband also plays online poker a lot," she adds. "Maybe too much!"
The couple also use the web to share their holiday and family photos with friends and relatives.
Nevertheless, Sarah says she's happy with Sky's basic 2MB package, and doesn't believe they'll need any more than its 2GB download limit. If she's wrong, however, it is just an extra £5 a month to upgrade to 40GB.Reuse content