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Ask the expert: Do I need a landline to get a broadband deal?

Monday, July 24th 2017 by Dan Howdle
Whenever someone asks what I do and I explain that I work in consumer broadband, TV and mobile, this is the most common question that follows. As time marches on, fewer and fewer households find the need for a home phone, while of course, everyone needs broadband.

So why can’t we separate the two? The answer is tricky, so I’d like to split it into two parts. In the first part, I’m going to explain why most broadband deals demand a landline, and in the second what the options exactly are if you’re truly determined not to have a landline, but don’t want to be without broadband.

Why are broadband and landlines inseparable in most cases?

The first thing we need to understand is that most broadband providers – BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Plusnet and myriad other smaller providers (but not Virgin Media, we’ll come to that in a bit) – all operate on the same network. That network is called Openreach. You’ve probably seen the vans whizzing about to fix stuff or install new lines.

Openreach’s network isn’t a true fibre network, but a ‘part’-fibre network. And there are all kinds of arguments happening right now as to whether Openreach, or any other network provider, should be allowed to use the term ‘fibre’ on its own without an explanation that the fibre only runs as far as the cabinet in the street.

The final distance between the cabinet and your house (called the ‘last mile’ in the industry) is made of copper – the very same copper that carries your voice back and forth when you make a call from your landline. See? I’m getting to the point eventually.

So you see, if your broadband relies on the same piece of wire that your home phone does, you’ll need to pay line rental. Line rental is the sum charged by Openreach to its partners – the companies (Sky, TalktTalk and so on) that lease the lines and sell them on as broadband/landline packages.

To sum up then, if you’re taking out a broadband deal from any provider that operates on the Openreach network, you’re going to need a landline, and therefore have to pay line rental. There’s no way around it. That doesn’t mean you need to plug a phone in of course – I personally don’t, as for me a landline is just a point of ingress for nuisance calls – but it’s going to be there regardless.

What this amounts to, then, is that if you’re truly determined not to have a landline, or simply not to have to pay line rental for one, you’ll need to avoid providers using the Openreach network. Which can be extremely limiting.

Virgin Media, mobile broadband or satellite broadband

Your most realistic alternative if you are determined not to have a landline and pay line rental is Virgin Media. Virgin Media offers its own network, separate from Openreach, which offers both it and its customers a number of advantages.

For one, providers on the Openreach network are limited to the speeds Openreach decides upon – currently 17Mb (good for singles/couples), 36Mb (good for small families), and 76Mb (good for big families and student households). Virgin Media uses a different technology to Openreach, putting to use the old cable TV infrastructure from the Eighties and Nineties.

This means Virgin Media can offer faster speeds – currently 100Mb (already fast enough for very large families or student households), 200Mb (overkill), and 300Mb (the only reason to get this is so you can say you have it).

More importantly, it means that since Virgin Media does not use the copper phone lines of BT’s old infrastructure to bring a broadband signal into your home, you don’t necessarily need a landline. Virgin Media is the only provider to currently offer true broadband only deals.

Another option is mobile broadband, which is broadband brought to you via a 3G or 4G mobile signal. There are some severe drawbacks here, though: With all of these deals being capped, they’re expensive (very expensive when you exceed their data limits). You’ll also have to be sure you live somewhere with an excellent signal or you’re going to suffer service dropouts.

The final option – and one that should really be reserved for extremely rural locations – is satellite broadband. This beams your broadband service from a dish on the side or roof of your house, to a satellite. This suffers similar drawbacks to mobile broadband. It’s relatively expensive and always capped (limited data) – so you won’t be saving any money over simply having your broadband delivered through a landline, with line rental.

It also suffers from something called ‘latency’ – that is, a delay during the time it takes to send the signal to a satellite and back. You’ll have witnessed latency in action if you’ve ever seen a live news report from another country. Sometimes the presenter and the reporter on location find themselves speaking over one another as the signal between the two struggles to catch up. In broadband terms this means that while streaming Netflix will be fine (albeit expensive) you won’t be playing Call Of Duty anytime soon.

Dan Howdle, Cable.co.uk

Dan Howdle is Cable.co.uk’s resident telecoms expert. Dan appears regularly in the UK press to talk about issues faced by UK consumers on matters of broadband, TV and mobile, and has appeared on BBC Breakfast, ITV News, Sky News, and on a number of BBC and non-BBC UK radio stations. If you have a question for Dan, you can email him at expert@cable.co.uk.

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