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Understanding your broadband contract

By Dan Howdle
Friday, December 28th 2018

Before signing up to a new broadband contract it's a good idea to make sure you understand fully what you're getting yourself into if you want to avoid nasty surprises.

Different providers include different provisions in their broadband contract. They also don't exactly go out of their way to shout about them. Here are the things you should look out for.

The basic terms of your broadband contract

The basic terms of a broadband contract are essentially a two-way promise. From your point of view, you promise to pay the agreed amount each month until the end of the contract. At that point you can either stay with your existing provider or choose to switch to another.

Often, broadband providers will steeply raise the price of your broadband connection at the end of the contract period. Take a few minutes to note when and by how much your provider is likely to do this. Being loyal can be costly.

In return, your provider promises you a minimum service level. This includes things like a minimum speed you should receive. The basic terms also outline the things your provider can change. Unless otherwise stated, your broadband provider is free to change what it likes, including the monthly cost. Don't sweat it too much though as any change in cost refreshes the 30-day cooling-off period, allowing you to switch away without penalty if you wish.

Cancelling, switching and contract length

Broadband contracts typically last between 12 and 24 months. The most common broadband contract length is 12 months. When you sign up to a new broadband contract you are committing to staying with your chosen provider for the entire contract length.

If you change your mind and want to cancel you may do so anytime within the first 30 days. This is not typically 30 days since your new broadband connection is installed and working – more often it's 30 days since you signed up. This is called your cooling-off period. The length of this period can occasionally cause problems if for some reason your broadband is taking an unusually long time to install. Typically, installation takes around two weeks.

You can also cancel or switch back out of your broadband contract if your provider fails to meet the contract's basic terms (explained in the next section). For example, if you're getting a fraction of the speed your provider promised you and it has failed to fix the issue within a reasonable period of time.

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Installation, equipment and set-up costs

Up-front costs

Although some broadband deals do not require you to pay any up-front costs, many do. The amount you will pay on signing up will vary depending on the following factors:

  1. Whether it's fibre or ADSL: Do you want fibre or ADSL broadband? If installation charges apply to the deal you've chosen, they will tend to be much more expensive for superfast fibre broadband than they are ADSL broadband. This is especially the case if you have never had fibre before as a new line will need to be connected at the exchange
  2. Which provider you choose: Some providers charge smaller fees for set-up, while some charge no fees at all
  3. Whether your router needs to be posted: Many providers will charge you for the postage

All broadband comparison tools on Cable.co.uk will show you the sum total up-front costs on any particular deal.

Your router – is it yours?

One other detail made clear in your contract is who owns your router. Some providers will want it back if you switch away after your contract expires. Others are happy to let you keep it. Either way, this is worth finding out.

Providers will tend not to mind if you want to switch the supplied router to one of your own. However, if you do this your broadband contract will usually point out that you are waiving your right to have certain problems fixed should something go wrong. Our advice is don't do it without a very good reason.

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Contracted speed versus advertised speed

Providers advertise the average broadband speed received by their customers. It's a measurement, which is why the average speed often differs by a few megabits per second between different providers. As an average, though, it means that you may get speeds faster than those advertised, but you may also get speeds that are slower. Sometimes much slower.

The speed you can receive depend on a combination of two factors: Which broadband provider you choose and how far your home is from the nearest exchange cabinet. Your broadband contract will tell you the speed you are expected to receive. Take a few moments to check this and ensure you're happy with it.

Usage caps and traffic management

Usages caps

At the time of writing there are no capped packages (where you are limited to using a certain amount of data each month) available. They do crop up, though, from time to time. If you choose one, be sure of two things:

  1. The data allowance is enough: If you stream Netflix, iPlayer, Amazon, NOW TV or any other online TV or movie service, chances are you will hit your limit quite quickly. Likewise if you like to download a lot of games and apps. If you don't do any of these things you should be okay
  2. What happens when you hit your limit? Does the service shut down? Restrict to basic internet use (surfing)? Or will your broadband provider charge you for additional data usage? You can check your contract to find out

Traffic management

Some broadband packages are traffic managed, others are not. Traffic management is where your provider will slow your maximum download speed at certain times of day to help it cope with heavy loads – times when everyone wants to be online.

Most people will never notice if they're being traffic managed. But if you're someone who needs maximum performance at peak times of day you may want to consider choosing a deal where there is no traffic management at all. You'll need to check your the small print either in your contract or on the provider's website to know whether your package provider employs traffic management or not.

Acceptable use policy (AUP)

The acceptable use policy is the part of your broadband contract that will run you through all the things you can't do with your broadband contract. If you do any of the things banned under the AUP you will risk having your contract withdrawn.

It's easy not to breach the AUP since all those things listed are illegal: Spreading computer viruses, malicious hacking, online harassment and so on. Most of us simply won't ever do those things, but it's still worth familiarising yourself with the dos and don'ts.

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