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Home broadband buyers guide
Our impartial buyers guide explains how to compare broadband packages, how to choose the right monthly usage allowance, what’s involved in switching providers and the questions you should ask yourself before you buy.
What is broadband?
Broadband is a fast connection between your home and the Internet that lets you browse web pages and access rich content including videos, music and on-demand TV services like the BBC iPlayer.
Broadband is widely considered an essential utility these days and it’s important to know what you need from a package before you buy. If you don’t, you may end up paying too much for a service that you won’t make the most of, or end up with a package that doesn’t meet your needs.
Choosing the right package
The right broadband package for you will be determined by:
- What’s available in your area
- What you do online
- The number of people sharing the connection
- Your budget
ADSL broadband can deliver speeds up to 24Mbps, but the actual speed you’ll be able to receive depends upon a number of factors including how far you are from your local telephone exchange and the quality of your phone line.
Fibre optic broadband can be as fast as 120Mbps. It isn’t subject to a lot of the limitations that affect ADSL broadband but it’s only available in certain areas of the UK.
You can find out your estimate broadband speed, and whether you can get fibre optic broadband by using our postcode checker at the top of this page.
What speed is right for me?
The faster your broadband connection the faster web pages will load and the quicker you’ll be able to download music and movies.
If you’re only going to be using your broadband for browsing the web and using sites like Facebook you probably wouldn’t see much benefit from spending more on a faster package. However, if you’re going to be downloading large files such as movies and HD content or sharing your broadband with family or housemates you should look for the faster options in your area.
Monthly usage allowance
Broadband packages have a monthly usage allowance which is the maximum amount of data your ISP will let you transfer each month under the terms of your agreement. Usage allowances can be low (10GB or less), medium (20GB-40GB), high (60GB-120GB) or unlimited.
What usage allowance is right for me?
Just as with choosing the right speed, you need to think about what you and the people sharing your broadband connection will be doing online to work out what usage allowance you need.
If you’re a light user who just browses websites occasionally a low usage allowance may well prove sufficient for your needs.
If you browse the web every day and stream on-demand TV shows and download music every week then a medium usage allowance would probably suit you better. If you’re a heavy user or if you’re going to be sharing your broadband connection with family or housemates then a high or unlimited usage allowance may prove to be essential.
To help you work out the right usage allowance bear in mind that each GB of your usage allowance will let you download roughly:
- 1 movie in Standard Definition
- 1-1.5 hours of BBC iPlayer shows
- 200-250 MP3 music files
- 1,000 photographs
Six essential questions before you buy
Before you go any further it will help you to consider your answers to these six essential quesions:
- Do I need a low, medium or unlimited monthly usage allowance?
- Do I need to pay extra for a faster package?
- How many people will be using my broadband connection?
- Am I willing to switch my line rental?
- Can I commit to a longer contract if it gives me a lower price?
- Do I want to add TV or a calls package?
What will I need?
To get broadband you’ll need:
- An active landline or fibre optic connection
- A broadband modem and wireless router, which may be two separate devices or a single combined unit
- A device with inbuilt Wi-Fi or a Wi-Fi dongle if you want to access the web wirelessly
Almost all broadband packages will require you to have an active phone line and to pay line rental to either BT or directly to your broadband provider. Line rental costs vary by provider, and can be up to £15.45 a month. It’s important to take line rental into account when comparing broadband so you know exactly what the overall monthly cost will be.
Switching broadband providers
If you're switching broadband provider you may need to contact your current provider to obtain your MAC code. Doing so will usually limit service disruption and may also help you to avoid a surcharge. Some providers will also require you to switch your line rental payments when you take up their broadband service. When you switch your line rental your new provider will usually be able to transfer your phone number for you.
You can request your MAC code by calling the relevant number for your provider from the list below:
- AOL 0844 499 5555
- Be 0808 101 3425
- BT 0800 328 6738
- Eclipse 0845 1224 111
- O2 0800 230 0202
- Orange 0844 873 8586
- Plusnet 0800 432 0200 or 0345 140 0200
- Post office 0845 600 3210
- Primus saver 0800 036 3839
- Sky 08442 411 653
- TalkTalk 0870 444 1820
- Tesco 0845 650 8000
- Virgin Media 0845 454 2222
Most broadband packages are offered on 12 or 18 month contracts, although in some instances contracts can be shorter or longer. Your contract will also have a specific “Minimum Term” which is usually equal to the contract length. If you decide to terminate your broadband service within this period your provider may charge you for each month that remains of the Minimum Term, and you may have to make a payment towards the cost of your wireless router.
Your provider may penalise you if you go over your usage limit, although the first time you do so you may simply receive an email warning.
If you go over your usage allowance for a second time it’s quite likely that you’ll be penalised. This may take the form of either a slowing of your connection for the remainder of the month, or by you being charged you for any extra data you download.
If you repeatedly go over you usage allowance your provider may automatically upgrade you to a package with a higher or unlimited usage allowance, and increase your monthly charge accordingly.
Both your uploads and your downloads count towards your usage so if you’re planning on using your new broadband connection for uploading a lot of photos or home videos, or for P2P file sharing, you’ll need to take this into account when choosing the right package.
Fair usage policy
Some “unlimited” broadband packages are actually restricted by a fair usage policy. This is a specific level of usage after which the provider reserves the right to slow down your connection, or to throttle the speed of specific online activities, especially file-sharing. If you repeatedly exceed the fair usage figure you may have your services either temporarily or permanently disconnected, although your provider should contact you to discuss this first.
When users download large amounts of data it can impair the service of other customers in the area. To limit this disruption some ISPs will employ traffic management activities to slow down the connections of the small amount of users who download what is considered to be an unusually large amount of data. Traffic management is usually only employed during peak times such as weekday evenings.
When you’re comparing broadband deals it’s worth considering a bundle with other services from the same provider. This can work out cheaper than taking each individually from different providers, and you’ll get the convenience of having all charges for your various services on a single bill each month.
Inclusive Wi-Fi minutes
It's common for broadband packages to come with inclusive Wi-Fi minutes as part of the monthly cost. With Wi-Fi minutes you can access the Internet from any of the thousands of UK wireless hotspots in public places such as airports, hotels, restaurants and shopping centres on any wireless-enabled device.
Broadband availability varies across the UK. In cities, home broadband and fibre optic broadband are both often available from a range of providers, while in rural areas availability may be low.
You can find out which types of broadband and which providers operate in your area with our broadband postcode checker at the top of this page.