How to find the best broadband deal for you
By Dan Howdle | Wednesday, June 20th 2018
You're already in the right place. By entering your postcode we'll show you all the broadband deals available where you live, but if you're not sure what all those numbers mean the sheer choice on offer can be quite daunting.
Here then, we'll take you through each aspect of a broadband package to help you narrow down your choices, throwing a light on the right providers, speed, equipment and other options that are best for your needs and your household.
Work out what broadband speed you need for your household
Take a deep breath, this is simpler than it appears. Don't worry about what megabits (Mb or Mbps – megabits per second) are – that's simply not important. The only thing you need to care about it is what you intend to do and how many of them you should ideally shoot for to cope with those tasks. To work this out, answer the following questions:
- How many people are there in your household that use the internet?
- Do they stream or download movies or TV shows?
- Does anyone in the household play videogames and do they download them?
- Are any of the televisions in your household 4K ultra-HD?
Now to the simple maths. For each person in your household, allocate 5Mbps. For any that stream or download movies and TV, allocate 10Mbps. For any that play console or PC games on a regular basis and tend to download them rather than buy them in a shop, allocate 20Mbps, and for any that have a 4K TV and regularly watch 4K content via Amazon, Netflix, Apple TV, Rakuten or YouTube, allocate 30Mbps.
You can use a calculator to tot all this up if you have to. Also, remember that you don't need to 'stack' megabits here for a household member that does more than one of these things. They are almost certainly never going to be doing more than one of them at the same time. A household member that streams movies and downloads games, for example, is still allocated 20Mbps (for the more demanding activity) rather than 10Mbps for streaming plus 20Mbps for gaming.
Once you have your final figure, you should add about 20% to give yourself a comfortable ceiling during the busiest times of the day and round up to the nearest speed available. Here's a couple of examples:
- Household of four, one movie/TV streamer, no gamers, no 4K: Here you would simply add together the three basic users (three times 5Mbps), plus the one streamer (one times 10Mbps), giving you 25Mbps. Finally, add the 20% safety margin and you'll arrive at 30Mbps. There are no 30Mbps packages, so you'll need to round up to the first available speed, which right now means you'll need a package with an average speed of 35Mbps or 36Mbps.
- Household of five, three movie/TV streamers (two of whom use the same TV, one of whom is a gamer), one 4K TV:This one's a little more complex. Two household members are basic users in this example, so let's add those together (two times 5Mbps). Next we have three streamers, but one is a gamer and there is one 4K TV in the house. So for the basic streamer add 10Mbps, the gamer 20Mbps and the other streamer 30Mbps, assuming at least one uses the 4K TV. This totals 75Mbps. Add 20% for safety and you get 90Mbps. Round up to the nearest available package and you'll need a 100Mbps broadband connection - currently only available from Virgin.
Now, there's flexibility here. In the first and second examples, you could almost certainly do with less, but the chances of hitting those speed limits and experiencing problems like stream-buffering (where your TV show stops playing as it loads the next bit) are high without the safety margin.
Likewise if your calculation comes out above 67Mbps (the highest speed offered by most providers apart from Virgin Media), and you can't get Virgin Media (it's only available to around 60% of UK households), don't panic. Just get the highest speed you can get – you'll be fine most of the time.
Types of broadband available
We're going to keep this bit brief because there really isn't a lot you need to know. With all providers except Virgin Media there is old-fashioned 'ADSL' (don't worry about what that stands for – not important) broadband, which delivers speeds averaging 10Mbps, and there's fibre broadband, which delivers so-called 'superfast' speeds averaging around 65Mbps. Both arrive through your existing landline and differ only in the technology they use beyond the green cabinet on your street corner.
Virgin Media is a special case as it does not offer ADSL at all. It only offers fibre, and its speeds start at a good-enough-for-almost-any-household, 'superfast' 50Mbps, up to an absolutely dizzying 'ultrafast' 350Mbps. To give you a quick idea of how insane that top speed is, you could watch fifty different (FIFTY!) HD movies on fifty different TVs all at the same time. Useful for downloading very large files quickly, but not much else then.
Do you want TV in your bundle?
So far we've only talked about what broadband speed your household is likely to want. However, if you're coming to this with a bundle including subscription TV, that's going to significantly narrow your options when it comes to providers. Only Sky, Virgin Media, BT, TalkTalk, Plusnet and EE offer TV services, and of those only Sky, Virgin Media and BT do so with much to offer beyond basic Freeview.
TV from Sky
Up until around the start of 2017, Sky was in a league of its own when it came to TV. However, Virgin Media has done a hell of a lot to catch up and has in some ways surpassed Sky (Virgin TV has a better set-top box and doesn't need a satellite dish).
Sky, then, is about equal top-dog when it comes to TV. Though its Sky Q box isn't quite as capable as Virgin TV's V6 (unless you pay an additional £200 upfront for the posh version of the Q), it does offer superior catch-up and on-demand boxset services as well as the jewel in its crown: Sky Atlantic – which you can't get on any other TV service.
TV from Virgin Media
Virgin Media offers a number of different 'levels' of TV in its bundles. Unlike Sky, this will come through the same cable as your broadband connection. With Sky you need a dish. As mentioned above, Virgin TV's (free) set-top box is better than Sky's, and if you want to bolt on Sky Sports, BT Sport and Sky Cinema you're free to do so.
In the top packages, Virgin TV's channel count is vast, so it's worth doing a little research on the channels you need and which package delivers it before taking the plunge.
TV from BT
Some way behind the front runners is BT TV. Its best offering is still a long way short of both Sky and Virgin's, but then it's relatively new by comparison and adding new channels all the time. BT TV's YouView boxes are competent enough and they even offer a 4K version to go with BT Sport's 4K sport channel.
If you're just after all the Freeview channels with some premium stuff thrown in, and with the option to add Sky Cinema and Sky Sports, BT TV will be enough for most. If you really need 400+ channels, however, we recommend either Virgin or Sky.
Take advantage of free gifts, rewards cards, vouchers and cashback
When's the best time to join up with a new broadband provider? When they're offering free stuff. If you look in the table above you can see which deals are offering various bits and pieces on top of the basic broadband or broadband and TV bundle. These can really make a difference to the value you're going to get overall.
In the case of cashback and reward cards, it's worth remembering that quite often you have to manually claim these yourself after your services have been installed, and that providers generally quite like it when you forget.
Broadband with or without a phone line
Most people will want a phone line with their broadband deal. And that's great, because almost all broadband deals come with one. The broadband comes down your phone line, ergo you need a phone line, ergo why not have a phone?
Depending on how many calls you make on the average week on your landline and at what times of day you tend to make those calls, the 'calling package' offered with your broadband deal will matter to you to varying degrees. Generally speaking, calling packages come in four flavours:
- Pay as you go (PAYG)
- Free weekends
- Free Evenings and weekends
- Free anytime calls
The names are completely self-explanatory, so we won't waste any more of your time. Things only become nay more complicated than this if you decide resolutely not to have a landline.
If you want broadband-only (no phone line at all)
There are plenty of providers out there claiming to offer 'broadband-only' but realistically the primary reason anyone would choose this option is to pay less for the overall package. Well, we've got some bad news: You can't.
The part of your bill you pay for the phone line (still called line rental, but no longer separated out) is exactly that: Line rental. You're still renting the line, albeit just for your broadband, so you're still going to be paying line rental whether you have a landline hooked up or not.
Only Virgin Media offers 'true' broadband-only – broadband with truly no number or landline attached, but thanks to the line rental, you'll be lucky to be paying £1 less a month. We've even seen times when broadband-only is more expensive. So be careful what you wish for.