If you want to switch mid-contract to get a better deal, you're going to incur early exit fees. However, if there's a problem with your broadband connection that can't be fixed, you're not getting the speed promised or your provider has hiked the price, then that may be another matter altogether.
There are also some providers who will pay towards your early exit fees when you switch up to a certain value. And there's a lot of subtlety in when and why you might be able to switch free of charge.
Of course, it goes without saying that if you've already run the course of your existing contract you're free to choose a new broadband deal, but what if you're not? Let's take a look at the ins and outs: When you can switch, when you can't, and what your rights are.
Some providers, such as BT, Sky and Virgin Media will sometimes offer to pay your early exit fees from your existing provider if you switch to them. This amount tends to be capped and rather than simply paying you at the start of your contract, you will instead have to pay you early exit fees, and then your new provider will knock a bit off your bill each month. Often you will have to stay with the provider longer than your contract to get the full amount back. If you're considering doing this, just remember the following four points:
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.
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 were promised 38Mbps, say, and you're getting 3Mbps and despite your complaints your provider has failed to correct the problem, you can leave without charge by mutual agreement with the provider (don't just cancel your direct debits).
However, you should understand the difference between advertised speed and quoted speed. The advertised speed is the one attached to the package and all of its advertising. This is the average speed received by all customers who bought this package. Your quoted speed on the other hand is the estimated speed you personally will get to your home. Your provider will give you your quoted speed at some point during the sales process.
If you are quoted 3Mbps and you are getting 3Mbps, you cannot go back to your provider and tell them you are leaving because you are not getting the advertised speed. It's the quoted speed that matters here. If on the other hand you were quoted 30Mbps on your package that was advertised at 38Mbps, but you're only getting 3Mbps and they can't fix it – this entitles you to leave free of charge.
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.
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.
As of last year, automatic compensation became mandatory. If you have a fault and it is not fixed quick-smart, your provider will have to start paying you compensation. For a delayed repair following complete service loss, this is £8 per day. For a missed appointment (the engineer failed to show) it is £25 per missed appointment. For new customers who experience delays getting set up, it's £5 per day including the missed start date. It may not sound like a lot, but it's better than nothing, which is what we had before.
Fixed-line broadband isn't all there is these days. Provider such as Three Broadband and EE are offering home broadband solutions delivered by mobile network. It's a great solution if you live somewhere with awful broadband and no end in sight. 4G customers can expect to get around 20Mbps and if you're lucky enough to live somewhere where 5G is available, 100Mbps to 300Mbps is not beyond reach.
If you've served out your time with your existing provider, you're free to switch to a new broadband deal. Our broadband comparison tools round up almost every deal in the UK and is updated daily. Make use of it to find the deal that suits you.
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.