How to choose a broadband provider

We all need to stay connected nowadays, and domestic broadband contracts provide our link to the world when we’re at home. The UK broadband market is hugely diverse, and there are lots of different providers and plans catering to different household requirements. When you’re about to choose broadband services, you’ll have to weigh up a variety of factors to select an optimal package.

Woman's hand choosing broadband

Do I need broadband?

While dial-up may have been a suitable option for some households a decade ago, it’s hard to imagine a modern home without broadband. Admittedly, there are a few remote regions of the UK which aren’t yet equipped to offer hardwired domestic broadband. Yet even in these areas, other options like mobile broadband (MiFi) are available. 

Most households require a stable internet connection for casual browsing and sending emails, as well as more data-intensive activities like media streaming and working from home. People who are constantly travelling or working in different locations might benefit from using MiFi, as opposed to traditional broadband. 

Given the diversity of modern consumer requirements and the wealth of available broadband packages, it’s difficult to determine how to choose a broadband provider. In this guide, we explain how to get broadband, how to weigh up your future requirements, and which broadband is best placed to meet those needs.

What do I need to know to choose broadband? 

A number of factors are important when choosing a new ISP. These include line speed, contract length and monthly costs. If you consider the following factors, you should be able to make an informed choice of provider:

Price 

Price can be the most important factor when deciding which broadband is best for your needs. Prices vary greatly from one provider or package to another, depending on the services being offered. 

When comparing different packages, it’s important to check what extra costs you could face in addition to the headline monthly price. Some plans might have extra line rental fees and installation charges, or you may need to pay for a router. If these extra costs begin to mount up, it may be worth finding a broadband deal with no upfront costs instead.

It’s also important to remember you can save money by bundling other services in with your broadband. Many providers offer deals to include home phone, mobile and TV packages in one plan. Known as quad play contracts, these can provide significant savings. Calculate the cost of obtaining these services from separate providers, to determine if it’s more affordable to use one company for everything. 

Contract length

Broadband contracts range in length from 18 to 24 months. One-year broadband contracts were the industry standard a decade ago, but major providers are increasingly shifting towards longer minimum contract lengths. Nonetheless, 12-month broadband contracts are still available.

Choosing a shorter contract can be beneficial, as frequently re-evaluating your plan helps you to take advantage of the special deals and discounts offered to new customers. Existing customers are legally required to be offered comparable prices when their contracts end, but because providers are constantly adjusting pricing and plans to stay competitive, it may be possible to take advantage of better prices by switching more often.

Type of contract

Another option offered by many providers is monthly rolling contracts. Also known as no contract broadband, these packages are ideal for people who regularly move house, or account holders whose financial circumstances don’t allow them to commit to a one-year contract. 

It’s possible to leave a rolling 30-day broadband contract without facing the cancellation or early exit fees triggered by departing a longer contract before it expires. A rolling monthly contract is generally more expensive over a one-year period, though, so it’s worth deciding if the convenience justifies this cost.

Contract types can also vary depending on personal circumstances. For instance, student broadband caters to undergraduate needs in terms of contract length and line speed. On the other hand, the eight-month or nine-month academic year might make no contract broadband a more affordable option. Finally, mobile broadband deals can be extremely competitive and easy to cancel compared to regular broadband. 

Download and upload speeds

When it comes to download and upload speeds, the former are most important; as consumers, we tend to download content far more than we upload it. Download speeds affect almost every online activity, which is why they’re the speeds you’ll see advertised by providers relating to broadband plans. Download speeds don’t relate just to downloading files – they’re relevant to any online task, from casual browsing to streaming HD video content.

Although upload speeds are less critical in terms of daily internet usage,  they affect the time taken to send emails, post videos or save documents to the cloud. Activities like online gaming and video calling are two-way communications with data flowing in both directions, so upload speeds are still important. You may need to do some research to establish a broadband plan’s average upload speeds, as these aren’t always prominently advertised.  

How to get broadband with specific speeds

There’s no point paying a premium for full fibre broadband if you’re only online sporadically. Daily usage levels can influence the type of connection that’s best for your circumstances:

ADSL

ADSL is carried over phone lines provided by former BT offshoot Openreach. Connections range from an average download speed of 2Mbps up to 24Mbps. If you’re living in a smaller household where the internet is only needed for casual browsing and emails, ADSL speeds are usually suitable. You can still do more data-heavy things like streaming movies, but not in HD, and potentially with a degree of buffering. Gaming may suffer from latency – the delay between an action being instructed and a response displaying on-screen.

Fibre optic

Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) connections involve fibre optic cables carrying information to local exchanges before a slower ADSL-style connection completes data’s journey into your home. Most major providers offer at least two fibre optic plans – one usually providing average speeds between 28-35Mbps, and another delivering average speeds from 67 to 75Mbps.

These services will suit most British households, where activities like web browsing, streaming, gaming and video calls are rarely undertaken simultaneously. The lower speed is generally described by providers as a ‘standard’ plan.

Full fibre

Anything above 100Mbps is considered ‘ultrafast’. This is delivered by full fibre broadband, also known as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP), where fibre cables run through local exchanges directly into your property. These connections suit heavy internet users and large households who need to undertake a lot of data-intensive activities at the same time. With full fibre, family members could be engaged in online gaming, video calling and 4K movie streaming simultaneously, without experiencing any lag.

That may sound appealing, but speeds like this aren’t cheap, or universally available. Fortunately, regular fibre optic speeds will be sufficient to support today’s modest array of smart speakers and mobile devices.

Broadband download limits

Most providers offer unlimited usage with their broadband plans, but some plans impose a limit on how much data you can download and upload each month. Exceeding these limits could lead to big fees, a marked slowdown in connection speed or an inability to get online at all. These plans are best avoided unless you’re confident the data allowance will be sufficient – such as for people whose only internet usage involves light web browsing and emails. 

Broadband traffic management policies 

Many providers offering ‘unlimited’ broadband aren’t actually offering a truly unlimited connection. They use traffic management policies to limit certain users during peak hours.

If you frequently upload large files or play online games, and you experience lulls or lags in speed during the evening, it may be because you’ve fallen victim to a traffic management policy. This isn’t likely to trouble casual internet users, but we’d recommend finding a provider who offers truly unlimited broadband without traffic management policies or usage caps. 

Broadband provider reputation and reviews

Customer service can be a critical factor in finding a new ISP if your existing provider has delivered patchy service or inconsistent billing. Switching to a new provider ought to be as seamless and stress-free as possible, with the reassurance that any connection problems will be responded to promptly. Even the biggest providers sometimes experience outages or network failures. 

Checking online reviews is a good way to monitor how customers feel about their provider, though bear in mind dissatisfied customers are far more likely to post reviews than happy ones.  Consider a provider’s approach to customer service, but also its reputation for performance and quality. Ofcom provides regular reports on broadband performance and customer satisfaction, including statistics that paint a picture of the level of service you should expect. 

How to get broadband extras

As mentioned, bundling services together can create cumulative savings. Almost every broadband provider will offer add-ons and extras, some of which will be automatically included in a broadband package. Common perks include:

  • Security software

  • Parental controls

  • User apps

  • Friend referral bonuses

  • Free gifts

  • Extra routers and Wi-Fi extenders.

These extras are dependent on broadband plans being available in your local area, so always check what kind of broadband is being offered in your postcode. ADSL is available in 99% of UK homes, with fibre optic in 96%. Full fibre has more limited coverage but is quickly expanding, as ISPs attempt to roll out gigabit-capable networks across the UK.

Virgin Media offers a proprietary ultrafast cable broadband network across roughly 60% of the UK, and providers like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear provide FTTP broadband in specific regional or inner-urban locations. BT and Sky are also rolling out FTTP broadband, but these companies are more likely to be limited to FTTC options. 

How to choose a broadband provider that’s right for you

The above factors should help to determine what’s required in terms of internet access, and which broadband is best. Would you prefer a costlier plan with more features, or a budget-friendly plan without any additional perks? Will your circumstances be changing within the next twelve months, or can you be tied down over an extended period? Is the internet used for bandwidth-intensive activities like MMORPG gaming, or just casual web browsing?

Once you know what you need, use an online comparison tool to compare broadband deals and find a policy which ticks all the boxes.

Last updated: 3 November 2020