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How to cancel your broadband contract for free

By Dan Howdle
Thursday, December 27th 2018

Your contract is your legal promise to your provider you'll stick with them for an agreed period of time. If you want to get out early, most providers will demand you pay off the remainder of your contract. But what if your service isn't up to snuff? What if you move house or your provider hikes its prices?

No matter what your provider tells you, there are some circumstances where you'll be able to walk away from your broadband contract scot-free. Having said that, being angry with your provider is rarely enough on its own. Amazingly, there are providers who won't let you out of your contract if you move house, even if their services aren't available at your new address.

But fret not. If your service isn't fit for purpose, your provider cranks up its prices, or your complaints remain unresolved, there is probably a means to get you out for nothing. It's all about knowing your rights. Knowledge is power. And that's where we come in.

Some providers will pay your exit fees for you

There's loads of information in this guide about how you can exit your contract under a whole host of different circumstances, but first here's something we're willing to bet you didn't know about: most of the major providers will now pay some or all of your early exit fees to your previous provider when you sign up. That includes BT, Sky, Vodafone, EE, Virgin Media and more. But there is a catch. Four catches, actually:

  • The amount each provider is willing to pay to buy you out of your existing contract varies dramatically, so be sure to check what the deal is
  • None of them will actually pay off your existing provider directly. You will still have to pay them, but your new provider will reimburse you up to a designated maximum amount
  • In some cases, such as with BT, this reimbursement will come in the form of money off your monthly payments, so it may take you months with your new provider to gain back the full value of your exit fees
  • Most providers with such a scheme will not allow you to participate in conjunction with other offers, including – often – discounted, or sale prices

That out of the way, this is definitely worth looking into as a way of offsetting the cost of leaving your current contract. Choose a broadband deal you like, then find out what the particulars are in terms of when you will be reimbursed, how, and over what period of time.

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If your broadband provider hikes its prices

This is nowhere near as fluffy as if you have some sort of fault or distance-from-cabinet problem (lots of advice on that further down). If your broadband provider raises its prices, even by a penny, and you're still in contract, you can leave. No arguments, no fuss.

If prices change, your provider is bound, by law, to send you a letter informing you of the change and offering you 30 days after its receipt to switch or stay. If you're in a contract and not happy with what you're getting, this is your get-out-of-jail-free card.

It may not sound like a particularly good thing on the face of it, but the fact that most broadband providers hike their prices once or even twice a year (usually around March/April or September/November) means you have one, potentially two, opportunities to get out for nothing.

If you do, you'll be able to take early advantage of all those juicy new-customer deals. Cashback, super-low offer prices, free stuff and so on.

If you're not getting the broadband speed you pay for

This is the situation most people who want to leave their contract early find themselves in. You signed up for a standard broadband deal, advertised as up to 17Mbps and you're getting 3Mbps, or 2Mbps, or worse. This will be for one of two reasons: either you're in some sort of rural location (or otherwise a long way from the nearest green Openreach cabinet), or you have a fault.

Broadband cabinet

If you have a fault

Before you can get out of your broadband contract due to a fault, your provider needs to have amply demonstrated that it's unable to fix your problem. And that means you giving it every opportunity to do so, as infuriating as that may be.

There are only two outcomes from there. Either they can fix it, or they can't. In the meantime, don't forget that you may be entitled to compensation while you wait if your broadband is either ruinously slow or non-existent. Details of how to claim can usually be found in your contract. That won't help you get online (or help you to calm down), but it's something at least. Somewhere near the beginning of 2019, Ofcom – the telecoms regulator – will be bringing in rules that mean compensation is distributed automatically, but for the time being you'll have to claim it yourself.

Annoyingly, there is no specified length of time you have to put up with poor or non-existent service to qualify you to leave the contract and switch to another provider. Ofcom itself says only that the problems should have persisted for 'some time' before you get to walk away for free. Not very helpful.

The other problem with walking away comes if the intention is to get a better service from a different provider. For example, if there is a fault on your line which will involve digging up roads to fix and that's what's taking the time, switching provider is unlikely to solve your problem. This is because all UK providers (bar Virgin Media) use the same network: Openreach. If you switch from BT to Sky, for example, Sky will still have all the same problems because it operates on the same network.

There is a solution for some of you. If you're on any other provider other than Virgin Media, switching to Virgin Media, if you can get it, will fix your problems. You'll be on a totally different network with a totally different physical line. Likewise, if you're with Virgin Media and the service is bad enough for long enough that you're able to walk away, switching broadband to any other provider will hopefully achieve the same goal.

If you're miles from the nearest green cabinet

It takes about 800 metres of cabling between you and your nearest green Openreach cabinet before the speed you can get starts to drop off. But drop off it does. Off a cliff. Without getting too technical this has to do with frequencies and electrical resistances – all you really need to know is it sucks being a long way from the cabinet.

But how do you know? You could walk the streets until you find it and estimate the distance, but that's still not going to tell you the length of subterranean wiring between it and where you live. Instead, phone your existing provider and ask them straight what the maximum speed is you can actually get. It will be able to give you a good ballpark figure.

If the maximum speed you can get is a mere fraction of the one advertised, and as long as your provider did not warn you in advance, you can leave your contract. Because that's the operative word here: contract. It is also your provider's obligation to you to deliver the service it has promised you.

Obviously this does not apply if you were warned upfront that the speed you would get would be low. Signing the contract after being warned indicates you've agreed to receive these low speeds. Providers are increasingly adding the predicted speed of your connection into the point-of-sale experience, whether that's during your online sign-up or on the phone. If you agree to it, you're stuck with it.

Beyond that, the same advice applies if you're a long way from your Openreach cabinet and you either have, or are being quoted, speeds far lower than what you ideally want or need: see if you can get Virgin Media. Although only available to around 60% of the country, if you can get it, you can say goodbye to your Openreach woes.

If you're no longer in your contract period

This may seem like the most obvious thing in the world – a bit like when you're looking for your glasses and someone says 'have you checked your face?' – but it might be worth double-checking whether you are indeed still within your defined contract period. No need to feel silly, take a peek. Most providers will allow you to view your contract once you're signed in on their website, but failing that just pick up the phone and ask.

If your contract is over, just switch. If it's nearly over – a couple of months left, say – you're going to be best off waiting it out, then switching broadband. However, that doesn't mean you can't start the process now. Most providers will allow you to sign up now and switch when your old contract is done and dusted. One notable provider even offered to sign us up that day, then wait ten months before the end of our contract to switch us over. If you're determined to get out, this trick can at least provide some psychological satisfaction – you did something about it!

A final word about complaints

If you want to complain to your provider about your service, especially with a view to leaving your contract early, it's important to know how your provider is law-bound to deal with any complaint you make. The first step is to tell your provider you are making an official complaint. It will note down all the details, so it's a good idea to keep some kind of record of what your problems are and how they have been dealt with thus far.

Your provider must then make a ruling as to whether your complaint is upheld or not. If not, depending on how angry and/or digitally destitute you are, you can still take the matter further via an alternative dispute resolution service, or ADR. In telecoms, the two you need to know about are the Ombudsman Services: Communications, and CICAS. Your broadband provider is required to be a member of at least one of these, so your choice will come down to which that is.

If you're feeling socially spirited, we also recommend you make a second, separate complaint to Ofcom. Ofcom – the UK telecoms regulator – uses complaints from the public to measure satisfaction levels among customers of providers as well as to formulate new rules that may prevent other people finding themselves in similar situations to the one you're in in future.

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