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Switching broadband during coronavirus

By Dan Howdle | Tuesday, July 6th 2021

During the coronavirus pandemic, and with more of us staying at home, our reliance on our home broadband has increased dramatically. Where our existing broadband connections may have coped well before, that may no longer be the case, and some of us may need to switch or upgrade. So what's the situation?

Happily most providers are now resuming home visits from engineers for new customers. If you are switching or upgrading then you shouldn’t encounter too many problems, but you may still experience some delays.

At a glance: Which providers are affected?

If you're switching to or from Virgin Media, or setting up a brand new broadband connection in a new home (rather than switching) it is likely that an engineer visit will be needed and you might experience delays. All other switches between broadband providers are unaffected.

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Switching broadband and new broadband installations

First it's important to understand that there are two widely available networks in the UK, and which one you are with and which one you are switching to matters. The Openreach network is where you will find most providers – all of them except Virgin Media, in fact. And then there is the Virgin Media network. These two networks are entirely independent of one another.

This is important, because if you're switching from one Openreach provider to another (Sky to TalkTalk, or BT to Plusnet, for example), the ability to do so has been unaffected by the coronavirus outbreak. This is because an Openreach to Openreach switch does not usually involve an engineer entering your home. On the other hand, if you are switching from Virgin Media to any of the others or vice versa, you will be able to order your new package, but installation is likely to be delayed.

Here is the exact situation, depending on what it is you're trying to do.

  • Brand new connections/lines – If your home doesn't currently have any sort of fixed-line broadband connection (if you've just moved house, for example), you may have to wait. You will need an engineer visit, and although engineers are now installing new lines again, demand is high. You can take out a 4G or 5G mobile broadband deal, which does not require an engineer visit if you aren’t prepared to wait
  • Same-network switching – If your switch does not involve Virgin Media, either from or to, you will be able to compare the best broadband deals and do so as normal. You can also upgrade your Virgin Media broadband connection if you're already a customer and you're not already on the best speed available
  • Switching between networks – You can now switch between the Virgin Media network (Virgin Media) and an Openreach provider (all other providers). Your new provider will take your order, but there may be a delay in arranging installation
  • Upgrading your package with your existing provider – If you need faster broadband during this time, upgrading your current connection is straightforward as it can be done with a simple phone call or online
  • Purchasing a back-up broadband connection – If you want to expand your connectivity, and can't currently switch or upgrade, a 4G or 5G mobile broadband connection can help in some situations

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Upgrading with your existing provider

If your home broadband is struggling under the weight of everyone being at home and trying to use the internet at the same time, and provided you're not already on the fastest speed your provider offers where you live, contacting your provider to upgrade your package is the most hassle-free and immediate solution to your woes.

Usually, either applying online via your provider's website or giving them a call (the former being preferable as call centres are still rather limited right now), you can be up and running with your new speed within a few hours without the need for an engineer. If you're currently on an ADSL (non-fibre) connection and want to upgrade to a fibre package, however, just be aware that some providers will require you to use a different router to the one you have. We cannot tell you definitively whether or not this will be the case as some providers provide different routers for ADSL and fibre and some don't. You'll need to get in touch with your provider and they will let you know.

Individual broadband providers' coronavirus policy

Beyond merely switching, each provider has published its own policy in reaction to the coronavirus crisis. Rather than visit their site and wade through all the text, we've distilled down the important points from each provider in handy list form.

The general trends across all providers seem to be reduced customer service, as many call centres have had to close or are operating with limited staff, and a cautionary set of requirements should you need a visit from an engineer. Here are the details.

  • BT – BT has reopened its retail stores but customers are required to use the Test and Trace app or leave their details. Engineers can now visit your property to install new equipment if necessary. BT states there may be delays for customers requiring aerial installations due to a backlog
  • EE Broadband – EE has reopened all its retail stores and requires visiting customers to use the test and Trace app. Engineer visits may still be cancelled or delayed. EE also now offers remote expert set-up for new services
  • Shell Energy Broadband – Has no specific information or advice concerning the COVID-19 outbreak on its website, so please refer to the general advice on this page regarding switching and upgrading
  • John Lewis Broadband – Now provides normal service including engineer visits, with screening questions beforehand and social distancing during the visit. John Lewis Broadband says it will continue to provide all levels of service to vulnerable customers
  • Plusnet – Engineers are now making home visits but Plusnet encourages customers to use its online services rather than calling them, if possible, as its customer service lines still very busy
  • Sky – It’s business as usual for Sky, with Covid safety guidelines in place for engineer visits
  • SSE – Has no specific information or advice concerning the COVID-19 outbreak on its website, so please refer to the general advice on this page regarding switching and upgrading
  • TalkTalk – TalkTalk still advises customers to use its online 24/7 service centre and/or its community forum rather than calling the customer service line. New customers and upgrades continue as normal, with safety guidelines set up for required engineer visits
  • Virgin Media – Is encouraging new customers to order online and use self-install packs where possible, but is now sending out engineers when necessary, subject to Covid safety checks
  • Vodafone – Still advising customers new and existing to do as much as they can online rather than calling, but engineer visit are now going ahead, with no expectations of delays
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Can I still switch broadband providers during the coronavirus epidemic?

Yes. If you are switching from one Openreach provider to another (i.e. everyone apart from Virgin Media), your switch can be done online. You will be sent a new router in the post and there is no news for an engineer visit. If you are switching between Virgin media and an Openreach provider, engineer visits are now available, subject to Covid safety checks, Track and Trace and social distancing.

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Getting the most out of your existing broadband connection

If you're already on the fastest broadband connection you can get where you live – and let's be honest, there are still plenty of places around the UK where speeds are less than desirable – you can still do certain things to optimise the connection you have. Here are our top five tips to maximising your home broadband connection during these difficult times.

  • Disconnect devices you're not using – Devices such as laptops, mobiles, tablets and smart home gear can be taking up some of your bandwidth even if you're not actually doing anything with them. They have this awful habit of downloading updates and telemetry in the background. Scour your house and make sure only devices that you're actually using are connected to the wifi. If you're in no danger of hitting your mobile data limits, switch all the mobiles in your house over to mobile data only
  • Switch off microwaves and fairy lights – Other electrical items in your house can slow down your wifi. The most notorious culprits are microwave ovens and fairy lights. Of course, you're unlikely to be using your microwave round the clock, but maybe switch off those pretty lights, eh?
  • Connect computers over a LAN cable – Provided it's not too great an inconvenience, try to get any computers in the house that have a LAN cable port connected directly to the router with a LAN cable. You'll get better speeds on those computers and they won't be hogging wifi when sitting idle
  • Schedule downloads for the nighttime – If you have large files to download – movies and videogames being the biggest culprit – schedule those downloads for overnight. Most services will let you do this in advance, but failing that set it all to download just before going to bed
  • Purchase a backup mobile broadband connection – If absolutely necessary, if you're really struggling, you can purchase a second connection via mobile broadband. This is either a dongle (USB stick for one computer), a MiFi device (portable hotspot), or a full-blown 4G or 5G home router. Most mobile broadband deals are available on 30-day rolling contracts, so these arrangements needn't be permanent

Frequently asked questions

Can I upgrade my broadband package during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes. Upgrading your current speed to cope with more people at home should be very straightforward. If possible, arrange it online as provider call centres are still very busy, with many helping only vulnerable customers.

Will there be delays to installation of new broadband packages during the coronavirus pandemic?

In most cases, no. If you need a brand new connection installed or you're switching to or from Virgin Media, this will involve an engineer visit, which happily, are now available with most providers.

Will I lose my broadband connection during the coronavirus pandemic?

This is extremely unlikely. Both Virgin Media and Openreach – the main two UK networks – have stated they are experiencing no capacity issues whatsoever with their networks, and that usage during the daytime is still far below usage at peak evening time. Nevertheless, several streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and Disney+ have downgraded the quality of their streams in anticipation of network capacity issues that do not at this time seem like they will ever manifest.

Do I need an engineer in my home to switch broadband during the coronavirus pandemic?

In most cases, no. If you're switching to or from Virgin Media, or setting up a brand new phone line however, you will need an engineer visit, which can now be arranged. All providers take great care with home visits to ensure both their engineers and customers are kept safe.

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