Broadband buying guide: How to choose the best deals and packages for you

Standard or fibre? Ethernet or wifi? Here’s what to look out for when choosing your provider

David RS Taylor@davidrstaylor
Thursday 15 April 2021 15:00
<p>We ask how to get the best digital bang for your buck</p>

We ask how to get the best digital bang for your buck

Being indoors for a year has been a challenge. Sure, many of us have been able to go for the same walk every day for the last 12 months, but after a while, we need other things to occupy our minds – and it’s been even harder for those of us shielding.

The internet has come to the rescue of many a household, with binge-watching now a national pastime, Zoom or Teams calls our Friday nights out, and online gaming a genuine way of keeping up with friends.

If the internet is our hero, then broadband is the horse it rides in on. There are plenty of internet service providers (ISPs) in the UK, each offering myriad deals to the regular consumer.

The world of hogging the phone line and dialling up your internet to find a pixelated menu from your favourite takeaway is a thing of the past. Traditional dial-up internet access has been replaced with higher-speed, always-connected broadband that is able to access a wider (or broader) bandwidth, leaves your phone line open to calls and makes general internet life much easier.

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Once you get over the jargon being thrown your way, it’s quite a straightforward market to understand and take control of, to get the best digital bang for your buck.

To find the best broadband contracts available now, visit our best broadband deals page to compare offers from a range of providers.

You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent. 

What’s broadband all about?

There are two types of broadband: standard and fibre. Standard uses ADSL technology to connect to the country’s existing copper phone network, meaning that it’s available across most of the UK. What you get for this availability is a reduction in speeds, including when downloading.

Standard broadband’s average download speeds are around 10 to 11 megabits per second (Mbps) – this equates to a few minutes downloading your favourite TV show, compared to some fibre options dealing with the same task in seconds. Not a big deal on the surface, but it can lead to potential issues with video calling, sending large email files, online gaming and more, especially if multiple people are online at the same time.

What’s fibre broadband? Can I get it?

Fibre broadband refers to the much more efficient fibre-optic cables that internet service providers use to connect you to the internet and send data. This leads to the capacity for much faster data transference, which basically results in your internet being quicker, both when downloading and uploading, and offers a more reliable service – copper is much more likely to degrade than fibre-optic cables.

BT fibre has an estimated 9.3 million subscribers across the UK

Not all of the UK is covered by fibre, although efforts are slowly being made to connect the whole country. Currently, 97 per cent of households should be able to get 24 Mbps service, with about 80-90 per cent of the UK covered by BT fibre, and 60 per cent by Virgin Media’s dedicated fibre network. It’s easy to check by typing your postcode into any ISP’s website. 

Unfortunately, the UK still has one of the slowest average internet speeds in the developed world, coming in at 44th last year, but most everyday users shouldn’t notice much – it’s mainly national pride that takes a hit.

Do you need a phone line for fibre broadband?

A landline isn’t necessary for broadband. In fact, some ISPs offer landline-free packages, for those who have made the permanent switch to mobile phones. It isn’t common, as most ISPs use the copper wire network at some point to deliver your broadband: many fibre deals actually use fibre optic to connect the nearest Internet Exchange (a series of physical locations through which the internet’s data is transferred) to your street, before passing over to the phone line to reach your home. This means that providers have to pay the owners of the copper network – BT Openreach – to give you your package.

Virgin Media is the only big UK ISP to have its own fibre broadband network distinct from Openreach, and so can consistently offer customers landline-free broadband. However, a lack of landline doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper, so it’s good to shop in both markets, even if you don’t own a home phone – it might be better value to pay for one anyway.

What is a good broadband speed, and what broadband speed do I need?

Speed is important: it can be the difference between a relaxing film night with your significant other and the cost of a replacement screen after you throw a shoe in anger at Leonardo DiCaprio’s frozen, buffering face.

The equation is pretty simple: the more people in your household connecting to your broadband, the more strain this will put on your internet speed. If everyone in the house is connecting at the same time (and let’s be honest, over the last year, who hasn’t?), delays and connection problems will be worse.

However, just plumping for the fastest fibre broadband won’t necessarily result in the best deal, as not everyone needs top-of-the-range speeds, especially single- or two-person households. You’ll be paying over the odds for your needs.

For most users, download speed is the more important number, as this includes how well your connection deals with streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Spotify and YouTube. Most video streaming services now offer high-definition streaming, which will take more of a toll on download speeds, as does online gaming, which also puts the strain on your upload capabilities.

Most households won’t need superfast (above 30Mbps) or ultrafast (above 100Mbps) broadband, and will be able to work, stream and use social media at 10-15Mbps, but if you have lots of internet users in the house, all wanting to watch their own HD streams or play high-frame-rate games, then it’s wise to look into a more powerful broadband package.

Download speed is a consideration that enables fast connection with streaming services like Netflix and Disney+

One more thing to note: while broadband deals mention the “average speed” for each offer, ISPs only need to offer this to 50 per cent of customers at peak time in order to make the claim. Speeds will vary depending on how many users there are in your area, how far you are from the exchange and the state of your cables, and could be lower than advertised. Most providers will let you know the probable speed of your internet once you begin signing up.

Is broadband the same thing as wifi?

They certainly go well together, but broadband is not a synonym for wifi. Broadband is the hardwired tech that brings internet data into your home via a cable. When this cable stops, most home setups use a wireless router to distribute the data around the home via wifi. To use the pure broadband you paid for, you have to connect to the router directly with an ethernet cable: only then will you see the full potential speeds your package is providing. Wifi is a way of connecting your devices without the need for a cable. It uses radio waves, which can be interrupted pretty easily by distance or a particularly thick wall, so average speeds might be affected slightly.

Make sure to provide clear space between your devices and the router – don’t chuck it in a wardrobe or behind a bookcase, for instance. If you’re still having problems with your wifi connection either providing weak signal or dropping in and out, it could be that your router is outdated or simply broken, so contact your ISP for advice.

UK broadband providers

There are four major players in UK broadband. BT, Sky, Virgin Media and TalkTalk enjoy the largest customer bases. BT is comfortably the most popular, with an estimated 9.3 million subscribers, but the others have millions of contracts themselves.

As mentioned, BT’s fibre network is the biggest, with 80-90 per cent of the UK covered, followed by Virgin Media and its independent fibre network at 60 per cent. However, there are many other ISPs that are smaller but offer great service. Vodafone joined the market a few years ago, and offers simple broadband packages at a great price, without any of the unnecessary glitz and glamour you sometimes get from the big four: one current Vodafone deal in our area gives an average speed of 63 Mbps, with no set-up cost, for £24 per month. It’s a 24-month contract, however, which puts some people off. Sky is offering 59 Mbps on an 18-month contract for £26 per month, which might be preferable to those who’d prefer a shorter agreement.

Companies such as A&A, iDNET and Kcom offer various attractions, such as elevated technical knowledge and support or incredibly fast speeds for a good price, but these smaller providers are more limited in their coverage across the country.

Deals are varied, but will usually come in 12-, 18- or 24-month packages or even longer, depending on how much you want to spend monthly. A cheap contract might look appealing, but could trap you in a long-term agreement that will become outdated, so take your final price into account before you rush into a contract that costs £15 per month but lasts five years without the chance of an upgrade.

The best deals will vary depending on where you are in the UK, but you can generally get strong broadband with a few extras for around £25 per month. Some providers, such as Sky, Virgin Media and BT, also offer broadband and TV packages for a little extra, so this is worth bearing in mind if you’re in need of both. Use comparison websites such as Uswitch to find the best prices and services on offer to you. Make note of any extra fees, such as a set-up cost or delivery cost of your new wireless router.

Virgin Media and its independent fibre network is the second most-subscribed to in the UK

What if I want to cancel my broadband package?

It’s possible, but beware of hefty early exit fees. Usually, if you’re not happy with the service your provider has, erm, provided, a call to them is the best bet, detailing your complaints. More often than not, the threat of losing your custom is more than enough for an ISP to offer you better terms, be that faster speeds or a cheaper monthly deal.

Always remember to fight for the best price on offer. Many customers, confused by the broadband landscape and various types of deal, are happy to sit on their current contract, unaware that the monthly price after your initial agreement has shot up by a shocking amount, while new customers benefit from the ISP’s best offers. Continue to be on the lookout for better deals, either elsewhere or at your current ISP, and make a note of any potential “loyalty penalties” you’re incurring by sticking with your provider. After all, when it comes to contractual agreements, loyalty is a two-way street.

The verdict: Broadband contracts

An advantage that standard broadband used to enjoy when up against fibre was price. However, with fibre becoming more readily available across the country, and efficiency improving all the time, the cost difference between the two is becoming ever more negligible.

Broadband is certainly big business. In 2019, 91 per cent of UK adults were recent internet users, and that has undoubtedly risen in the last year or so. It pays for broadband providers to offer the best deals they can. Unfortunately, this sometimes isn’t the case, especially for long-time subscribers. Your choices might be limited by the network spread of various providers, but there are great-value deals out there. Be sure to take your time and shop around before making your decision.

To find the best broadband contracts available now, visit our best broadband deals page to compare offers from a range of providers.

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