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How to choose a broadband provider

Written by Max Beckett, Broadband Expert

29 May 2020

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 just a decade ago, these days, it’s hard to imagine a home that doesn’t need broadband. 

There are a small number of areas in the UK that are not yet equipped to offer broadband in its wired form. But even in this case, there are other options available, like mobile broadband (MiFi). 

Most households require a stable internet connection, even if it’s just for casual browsing or sending the odd email. However, if you’re somebody who’s constantly on the move and spends more time away than at home, then perhaps you would also benefit from using MiFi as opposed to traditional broadband. 

What do I need to know to choose broadband? 

There are a number of factors that are important when deciding on the best broadband speed, provider, and plan for you. If you consider the below, you should be able to form a pretty good idea of what the best provider for your needs is:

Price 

Price is, of course, the first thing to consider when choosing your broadband plan. Prices can vary greatly from provider-to-provider, depending on the different services that are offered. When looking at pricing from different providers, it’s important to check what extra costs you could face in addition to the monthly price.

Some plans might have extra fees for line rental and installation charges, while you may also need to pay for your own router. Look out for these extra costs and see if it’s worth finding a no upfront cost broadband deal instead.

It’s also important to remember that you can save money by bundling other services alongside your broadband. Many providers offer deals to include home phone, mobile and TV packages in one plan, which could lead to some significant savings. Consider what you would pay for these services if they were all from separate providers and figure out if it would actually be cheaper to do it all in one. 

Contract length

Broadband plans are available in a range of contract lengths, typically ranging from 18 to 24 months. 12-month broadband contracts were the standard for a long time, but in recent years some major providers have decided to shift towards longer minimum contract lengths. Having said that, you can still find 12-month broadband contracts offered by most providers.

Choosing a shorter contract can be beneficial, as the more frequently you re-evaluate your plan, the more you can save year-on-year. Providers constantly adjust pricing and plans to stay competitive, and often offer special deals and discounts to new customers – so the more often you switch, the more often you can take advantage of better prices.

Type of contract

Another option offered by many providers is monthly rolling contracts. With these, you’ll only be tied down for a month at a time, so you can switch your plan without facing any cancellation or early exit fees.

You’d have to pay to leave a longer contract before it expires, so monthly contracts remove that risk. Having said that, choosing a rolling monthly contract means having to pay a premium, so it’s worth deciding if the convenience is worth the cost.

Types of contract can also vary depending on your situation. Student broadband, for example, specifically caters to student needs in terms of length and speed.

Download and upload speeds

When it comes to download and upload speeds, download speeds are the most important. They affect almost any activity you do online, and as a result, these are the speeds you’ll see advertised by providers for broadband plans. Download speeds don’t relate just to downloading files but to pretty much any task you do online — from casual browsing to streaming videos.

On the other hand, upload speeds impact sending emails, posting videos, playing games or making video calls. You may need to do a little extra digging to find out the average upload speeds for each plan, as these are not always prominently advertised.  

Type of broadband

There’s no point paying extra for fibre if you’re only online to send a couple of emails a day. You should also consider your daily use and if you can justify going for fibre optic over ADSL standard broadband. The types of broadband currently available are:

ADSL

ADSL ranges from an average maximum download speed of 2Mbps to 24Mbps. If you’re living in a smaller household that only uses the internet for casual browsing and the occasional email, ADSL speeds would be perfectly suitable. You can still do more data-heavy things like streaming movies, but not in HD, and likely with a good deal of buffering.

Fibre optic

With fibre optic, also known as Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC). Most major providers will offer at least two fibre optic plans, one offering average speeds from about 28-35Mbps and another offering average speeds ranging from about 67-75Mbps.

These speeds are suitable for most average-sized UK households. If you go online to browse, stream, game, call or email, but wouldn’t need to be doing all that at the same time, then this could be a good broadband option for you. The lower-level fibre optic speed is generally touted as the ‘standard’ plan by most providers.

Full Fibre

Anything above 100Mbps is considered ‘ultrafast’. These speeds are only possible with full fibre, also known as Fibre to the Premises (FTTP). They are best for frequent internet users and large households who need to run a lot of data-heavy activities at the same time.With full fibre, you could have an online game going on one device, a video call on another and stream a 4K movie on a third device – and you’d still be unlikely to experience any lag.

That may sound appealing, but it’s important to remember that speeds like this aren’t cheap (or widely available), so you’ve got to figure out if you really do enough things online to justify it. More often than not, you’ll find that regular fibre optic speeds are more than enough.

Download limits

These days, most providers offer unlimited usage with broadband plans, but there are still some plans that will place a limit on how much data you can download and upload each month.

Exceeding that limit could lead to big fees, or a loss of connection altogether, so it’s best to avoid these kinds of plans unless you’re certain you wouldn’t go over the maximum. 

Traffic management policies 

Many providers offering ‘unlimited’ broadband aren’t actually offering a truly unlimited connection. These providers 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 in the evening, it may be because you’ve fallen victim to a traffic management policy. This isn’t likely to be an issue if you’re only a casual internet user, but either way, you’re better off looking for a provider who offers truly unlimited broadband without any traffic management or usage caps. 

Reputation and reviews

Customer service is super important – you want your switch to a new provider to be as seamless and stress-free as possible. Plus, if there is ever any problem with your connection, you want to know that your provider will be quick to respond to issues, as even the biggest providers sometimes experience the odd snag. 

Checking online reviews is a good way to monitor how customers feel about their provider.  You should consider not only a provider’s approach for customer service, but also its reputation for performance and quality.

Some providers may offer incredibly high speeds at incredibly low prices, but performance reviews may show that those advertised speeds don’t always match what you receive. Ofcom provides regular reports on broadband performance and customer satisfaction, offering real statistics that paint a picture of the level of service you should expect. 

Extras

As mentioned, one smart way to save is by bundling a few services together. Almost every broadband provider will offer add-ons and extras to perk up your plan, some of which will be automatically included in the package. Common perks include:

  • Security software

  • Parental controls

  • User apps

  • Friend referral bonuses

  • Free gifts

  • Extra routers/WiFi extenders (for pricier plans)

  • Free trials of TV plans

Availability 

Not every broadband plan is available everywhere in the UK. If you live in a more rural area, you should always make sure to check what kind of broadband is available to you. ADSL is the most widely available type of connection at 99% coverage of the UK, closely followed by fibre optic which these days is available in most UK homes (96% to be exact), and then full fibre, which still has very limited coverage but is quickly expanding. 

Currently, Virgin Media offers its own ultrafast cable broadband network to about 60% of the UK, and providers like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear provide FTTP broadband to specific rural/inner-urban locations.

BT and Sky are working on offering this type of broadband, but generally speaking you’ll be limited to FTTC options. These are usually more than ample for most homes, even those requiring gaming broadband. 

Of course, if you can’t find any of these, there are other options. Mobile broadband deals can be extremely competitive and easy to cancel (compared to regular broadband), while they can also be unlimited if you purchase a data only SIM or bundle with limitless free calls and texts on a standard SIM.

What is the best internet for me?

After considering the above factors, you should have a better idea of exactly what you need when it comes to broadband.

Would you rather a costlier plan with more features, or a budget-friendly plan without the extra frills? Will you need to switch soon, or can you be tied down for an extended period? Do you use the internet for intense online gaming, or just casual browsing?

Answering these kinds of questions will help you narrow the list and find the best broadband for you. Once you know what you need, use an online comparison tool to compare broadband deals and find the one that ticks all the boxes.