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Switching broadband during coronavirus

By Dan Howdle | Monday, March 30th 2020

During the current 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?

Most of us won't encounter any serious problems if we choose to switch or upgrade our broadband connection. However, there are some exceptions, and it will ultimately come down to which new services we are attempting to sign up to.

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) an engineer visit will likely be needed and you can expect to 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 is unaffected by the coronavirus outbreak. This is because an Openreach to Openreach switch does not usually involve an engineer entering your home. If on the other hand 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 going to be delayed, and it is not clear at this stage for how long.

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're out of luck. You will need an engineer visit, and all visits are currently suspended. You can take out a 4G or 5G mobile broadband deal, which does not require an engineer visit
  • 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 cannot currently switch between the Virgin Media network (Virgin Media) and an Openreach provider (all other providers). Your new provider will take your order, but will be unable to confirm a date for your switch as it involves an engineer visit to your home. Engineer visits are currently suspended across the board until June 2020
  • Upgrading your package with your existing provider – If you need faster broadband during this time, upgrading your current connection is probably the best option as it can be done with a simple phone call or online and does not require an engineer visit. Of course, if you are already on the fastest connection you can get, then you're out of luck, and you should take a look at the section further down on maximising your existing connection
  • Purchasing a back-up broadband connection – If you want to expand your connectivity, and can't 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.

It won't require a visit from an engineer. Usually, either applying online via your provider's website or giving them a call (the former being preferable as call centres are rather limited right now), you can be up and running with your new speed within a few hours. 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, a ban on engineers entering homes, as outlined above, and a closure of any bricks and mortar retail the provider runs. Here are the details.

  • BT – BT has closed all of its retail stores, removed all data caps on limited broadband packages, and capped the charges on calls to UK landlines and mobiles to £5
  • EE Broadband – EE has closed all of its retail stores, and has a host of tips for not running out of data on its website
  • 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 – Is business as usual, though John Lewis stores are of course closed. It continues to provide normal service provided an engineer visit is not required. All engineer visits are cancelled until June 2020. John Lewis Broadband says it will continue to provide all levels of service to vulnerable customers
  • Plusnet – Is changing the opening hours of its call centres from 9am to 6pm, but otherwise continues to provide its normal service so long as an engineer visit is not required. Plusnet encourages customers to use its online services rather than calling them at this time, if that's at all possible
  • Sky – Promises to continue business as usual so long as you do not require an engineer visit
  • 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 – Has cut down its call centre capacities to a point where they are only there to help vulnerable customers. TalkTalk advises customers to turn to its online 24/7 service centre and/or its community forum. New customers and upgrades continue as normal, provided you do not require an engineer visit
  • Virgin Media – Is encouraging new customers to order online and focusing its diminished call centre capacity to helping existing customers with their problems. It claims it is still allowing some engineer visits, but taking steps to minimise this and focusing its efforts on fixing problems for existing customers
  • Vodafone – Has closed all of its retail stores. It also has diminished call centre capacity and implores customers new and existing to do as much as they can online rather than calling
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Can I still switch broadband providers during the coronavirus epidemic?

Yes, in most cases. Here is a quick summary for you. A short, reference version of the more detailed information we've covered so far.

You can switch broadband packages if…

  • You're switching from one provider on the Openreach network (all of them except Virgin Media) to another, and don't need a new line
  • You're upgrading your package with your existing provider

Your switch will be delayed if…

  • You're switching to a provider that uses a different network (to or from Virgin Media)
  • You require the installation of a brand new line
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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 speed are less than desirable – you're going to have to make the best of what 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 area 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 switch broadband during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Yes. Provided you are not switching to Virgin Media, or switching away from Virgin Media, you can switch broadband providers during the current crisis. All other providers besides Virgin Media operate on the Openreach network, meaning switching one from the other won't involve an engineer visit, which is the main point of contention as regards the current situation.

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. Do your provide a favour and do it online as provider call centres are very stretched right now, with many helping only vulnerable customers.

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

In most cases, no. However, if you need a brand new connection installed or you're switching to or from Virgin Media, this will involve an engineer visit. In these instances, providers are saying it is unlikely to happen before June 2020.

Will I lose my broadband connection during the coronavirus pandemic?

That would be 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. This is unlikely to happen before June 2020.

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