Just how free is 'free' when you buy into broadband?

As new services launch against a backdrop of hype and controversy, it gets harder to make the right choice

It was a busy week for broadband, and a bruising one too.

As pay-TV broadcaster Sky pitched into the "free" broadband market, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rapped rival provider TalkTalk on the knuckles for misleading consumers in parts of its television and print publicity, and in a CD promotion.

Most of the big broadband providers also locked horns - chiefly in response to the Sky launch - and swamped newspapers, magazines and television stations with ads in a frantic bid for customers.

But the ASA ruling will make providers think carefully before emblazoning the term "free" across future promotions.

In the case of TalkTalk - which is owned by The Carphone Warehouse - the advertising watchdog has curbed its use of the word "free" after receiving 145 complaints from the public and rival companies, including BT and Tiscali, about its ads.

Three complaints were upheld: that it was misleading to use the word "free" when a host of other charges (see the table) were applied; that its "free broadband forever" claim was misleading; and that the geographical reach of the service wasn't made sufficiently clear.

As a result, TalkTalk must water down its claims.

In the first case, the company must now replace "free" with "inclusive" when promoting its Talk 3 International telephone package, which allows customers to surf the web at high speed without charge.

Second, the "free broadband forever" slogan is to be dropped. Third, TalkTalk must make it clear that its deal is only available in 70 per cent of the UK.

However, consumers will still see TalkTalk advertising a "free broadband" package. Industry rules for telecoms promotions determine that the word "free" can be used when the service is an add-on to an existing deal.

The ASA could clamp down on Talk 3 International because it was, in effect, a new telephone calls package deliberately set up with broadband. However, TalkTalk also offers a separate calls package called Talk 3. It has now decided to use this existing deal to advertise the newly added-on broadband as "free".

The cost of this package - with unlimited telephone calls to UK landlines - is £8.99 a month plus £11 line rental.

Unlike its Talk 3 International counterpart, there is no connection fee but the same 18-month contract and disconnection fee of up to £70 apply.

"We are keeping a watching brief on the use of the word 'free'. The ruling on Carphone Warehouse applies to everybody," says an ASA spokesman.

The ASA has not received any complaints about a rival Orange offer that has been advertising itself as "free" broadband, he adds. This is understandable since, in line with the ASA rules, the free offer was launched two months ago as a bolt-on to a number of existing Orange deals, although customers signing up for the service may need to extend their current contracts to qualify.

Sky's entry into the "free" broadband market had been widely trailed but the terms took many of the switching websites by surprise. Its "Base" deal (see the table) - the simplest of the three new internet offers on the table - is described as "genuinely free broadband" by Tim Wolfenden of uSwitch.

But as usual, terms and conditions apply. To receive its basic broadband package - a 2Mb speed, fast enough for music downloads - free of charge, you need to be an existing Sky customer. And its most basic TV package costs £15 a month on a minimum 12-month contract.

There is also a one-off £40 "activation" fee to pay, and if you're not confident about installing broadband in your home, it will cost £50 for a technician to come round and do it for you.

As with all these deals, you must first be within reach of its broadband coverage. Today, Sky's service - which is being pumped around the country through its own cables - only covers 28 per cent of British homes, largely in London, Birmingham, Man-chester, Edinburgh and Glasgow (go to the website below to find out if you can receive the service). It hopes to cover 70 per cent of the country by the end of 2007.

"The Sky offer could affect the broadband market dramatically because it has four million customers who are currently with other providers," says Mr Wolfenden.

"Very soon, [these people] are going to be able to turn around [to their existing broadband provider] and say 'why should I carry on paying for my internet connection?' "

Sky customers not covered by its broadband network can sign up to a separate, faster deal called "Mid". This will be available over rented BT lines for £17 a month. This has an internet speed of up to 8Mb - enough for film downloads and online video gaming - and you can store up to 40GB of material online.

Alternatively, this deal is open to all those Sky customers covered by its broadband network for much less - £5 a month.

The third strand of Sky's broadband assault is its "Max" option. Again available only to those receiving its broadband coverage, a monthly £10 gets you a speed of up to 16 Mb and unlimited downloads of digital files such as films and music.

With each of these three options, an extra "bundled" deal allows unlimited landline phone calls for £5 a month, though you do need a BT landline.

Karen Darby, the chief executive of the SimplySwitch website, says she had hoped Sky would not have " tied customers in for a year" and instead agreed to allow shorter contracts such as those offered by Virgin.

"Bundled products are generally not suitable for all users, and those who do not want a TV package [with their broadband] should look at some of the many competitively priced alternatives available."

With Vodafone and other providers set to bring their own broadband deals to market, she expects more innovative offers and "to see prices fall even further over the next 12 months".

With any broadband deal, always scour the small print to check the length of the contract and whether the provider imposes any disconnection fees.

And always make sure you choose a package that suits you: there's no point getting a super- fast broadband speed of 8Mb if you only go online to shop and send emails.

WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH THE NEW BOYS OF BROADBAND?

Provider Contract length 1st-year cost 2nd-year cost Package

TalkTalk/Talk 3 Int'l
Contract length: 18 months
1st-year cost: £281.87
2nd-year cost: £251.88
Package: Up to 8Mb speed; £20.99 monthly phone deal; £29.99 connection charge

Orange
Contract length: 18 months
1st-year cost: £360
2nd-year cost: £360
Package: 2Mb speed; £30 monthly phone contract; £11 monthly line rental

Sky Base
Contract lentgth: 12 months
1st-year cost: £220
2nd-year cost: £180
Package: Basic deal 2Mb; £15 TV deal; £40 activation fee

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam