How to choose a fibre broadband deal
The sheer number of speeds, bundles, providers, home phones and optional extras make confusion the ever-changing UK broadband market’s only standing feature. While it’s fair to say that if you take the pot luck approach, chances are you’ll come out happy, you’ll never know how much happier you could have been had you put aside ten minutes of your time to read this section on how to choose.
Further down this page, you’ll find a lot more in-depth stuff about individual providers – who’s best for what and so forth – but in terms of the information you actually need, this section is the only one that matters. So without further ado…
1. Check what you can get in your postcode
This point is somewhat chicken and egg: To know what you should get, you first have to know what you can get. No point getting all excited about 200Mbps of Virgin VIVID if there’s no Virgin cabling running outside your property.
By the same token, putting your postcode into the box above takes you away from this page, onto one that at first might seem pretty determined to overwhelm you with choice – choice that, at this stage, since you have not yet discovered the ins and outs of how to choose, might not make a lot of sense to you.
To help with what follows, then, punch in your postcode and look for just two things: Can you get Virgin Media broadband, and can you get BT Infinity broadband. Don’t worry if you’re not interested in either – whether you can get either, both or none of these only serves to demonstrate what type of cabling you have running past your house (Virgin has its own network and everyone else operates on BT’s). Jot down which are available then jump back to this page to continue reading.
2. How to find out what speed you need
Choosing a speed will take you a big step closer to choosing a provider, because certain speeds are only available from certain providers. It might not get you all that way there, but it will narrow things down a bit. Choosing the right speed will also help ensure you don’t choose a fibre package with either less or more than you need.
2a) Establish the internet usage levels of individual household members
Gather your household together and establish the sort of things each household member uses the internet for. Ensure they include everything from updating apps on their phone, to videogame updates to streaming movies and using social media.
Streaming, gaming and downloading are the highest-usage activities, especially streaming in high definition (HD), while surfing the internet and using social media are the lowest. Try to categorise each household member, including yourself, into light, moderate and heavy.
2b) Use this speed selection chart to identify the speed you’ll likely need
This chart offers a clear idea of which speed your household should be thinking of going for. Most of us with more than two or three people in our households will have discovered that it’s a bit of a hotchpotch when it comes to understanding the needs of each individual.
The temptation, then, is to weight things more towards the heavy users ‘just in case’. Resist that temptation. Broadband providers love it when you upgrade your speed – you can usually do it online and your new speed will be available within a few hours, often less. However, providers throw a lot of barriers your way if you want to downgrade. No provider allows you to do this online, many will put a lot of energy into dissuading you, and some broadband deals won’t let you do it at all.
Remember: Get the minimum, upgrade if you have to.
2c) Consider upload speed, but don’t dwell on it
Digging into the details, you might have already noticed that upload speeds are in all cases a mere fraction of the available download speed. While download speed determines how long it takes data to get from the internet to your devices, upload speed determines how long it takes you to send data to the internet.
There are some tasks for which you might need a good upload speed. If you rely on cloud computing to store all your personal files, run a home office, or regularly broadcast live video to the likes of Twitch. If all that sounds foreign to you, however, you can forget upload speeds exist. Which is why they’re so slow in comparison to download speeds: There are a lot less uses for upload and they tend to be quite specialist.
2d) Shortlist providers from your findings thus far
Interesting picture, isn’t it? The lower your required speed the greater the choice still available to you. The more you need, however, the easier it becomes. Notice how, at the very top end, Virgin Media stands alone.
Time to take a look at the notes you made in step one. If you can get BT Infinity, you can get fibre from any provider who offers it except Virgin Media and the Post Office (which only offers non-fibre ADSL broadband). If you can get Virgin Media either instead of or as well as BT Infinity, then the choice becomes a little harder.
Fret not. The purpose of taking you through this is not so you can make a choice here and now, it’s so you have a keener idea of what you’re looking at when you begin comparing deals. Stick with us, we’re nearly there.
3. Questions to ask yourself to further narrow things down
Every provider in the UK has a unique offering to some extent. Some offer TV packages, many don’t, some offer mobile SIMs, others don’t. And depending on which network you, and depending on where you live, there may even be more chance with one provider that’s you’ll get the speed you pay for than with another. To help narrow things further, then, ask yourself…
3a) On which network am I most likely to get the speed I’m paying for?
Remember: There are only two widely available networks in the UK. Virgin Media owns the smallest – available to around 52% of UK homes. Virgin’s network delivers exclusively fibre packages with copper coaxial cabling taking it some of the way. Despite the cabling not being 100% fibre it offers by far the fastest speeds (on its top broadband packages).
The other network is called Openreach, a fibre network that’s also part-copper (we’ll explain why this is important in just a sec), owned and run by BT. Both BT and all other widely available UK broadband providers (Sky, TalkTalk, Plusnet, many others) operate on Openreach, which is why the speeds they offer are largely the same. Openreach fibre is available to around 86% of UK homes. Standard, non-fibre (ADSL) broadband is available to almost everyone.
Both networks have their quirks. BT’s Openreach network and the providers who operate on it (everyone except Virgin) deliver slower speeds than advertised to those living 800 metres or more from their nearest cabinet. This is due to the technical limitations of the copper bi-wire used over what is known in the trade as the ‘last mile’ – the distance between the cabinet and your home. To find out how far you are from your nearest exchange, you can check here. It won’t tell you the distance, but it’ll show you where it is on a map and you can work it out.
Virgin’s network is delivered in part via the coaxial copper cables that used to deliver cable TV back when that was a thing. It’s a sturdier, more capable cable and doesn’t suffer to the same extent as Openreach when spanning distances. Virgin customers can and do suffer with slow speeds, however, but from something called ‘over-utilisation’. This is when too many people in one area subscribe to Virgin Media and overload the local equipment.
To avoid this, ask a neighbour who has Virgin Media to tell you what speed they’re getting (versus the speed they’re paying for) at peak times. If the former is significantly less than the latter, you might want to avoid Virgin Media altogether, as it’s likely you won’t get the speed you need when you most need it. Just make sure the speed they give you wasn’t tested over wi-fi, but on a device connected physically to the router. Airwave interference can give you misleadingly slow results.
3b) Do I want broadband-only – broadband on its own with no home phone and no line rental?
Easy one, this. Virgin Media is the only provider that offers true broadband-only deals. That is, broadband with no home phone and no line rental – but there’s a catch. It’s broadband-only packages tend to be significantly more expensive than those that provide a home phone line and charge line rental. In essence, it all evens out price-wise. That makes no sense to us either, but there it is.
Some other providers claim to offer broadband-only deals (Plusnet, Origin, one or two others), but what they’re really offering is broadband through an existing phone line (on which you pay line rental to someone else). Since the majority of those searching for broadband-only deals are doing so to avoid paying line rental, naming these packages ‘broadband-only’ is unhelpful to say the least.
3c) Do I want to bundle fibre broadband with a TV package?
If so, then how serious are you about TV in your household? Only five providers in the UK offer TV packages of any note: Sky, Virgin Media, BT, TalkTalk and Plusnet, and only two of those are really worth saying more than a few words about. BT TV, TalkTalk TV and Plusnet TV offer Freeview channels through a box supplied with your broadband and TV deal. BT offers BT Sport in addition – if you like football, this should be a consideration. Other than that, there’s nothing to say.
If you’re serious about TV, it’s really a two-horse race. Sky is the unquestionable king with over 440 channels available, tens of thousands of hours of on-demand content and the ability to add on Sky Sports, Sky Movies (now called Sky Cinema for reasons we can’t fathom) and BT Sport (for the total football experience). Virgin comes second with a still-very-decent 220-plus channels and the ability to add on movies, sports and so on.
3c) Do I want to get a cut-priced mobile SIM for me or even for the entire family?
You’ll be amazed just how much money you can save by opting for mobile sims from your broadband (and/or TV) provider. If you want SIMs this also narrows things down, since only BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk offer them, and BT doesn’t offer free calls between one BT Mobile phone and another, so you can strike them off the list immediately.
Virgin Media (Virgin Mobile) and TalkTalk (TalkTalk mobile, not to be confused with Talkmobile) both offer cheap SIM deals to their broadband and TV customers along with free calling between customers – called ‘network to network calling’ for reasons that make no sense.
Further, if you care about TV you can pretty much discount TalkTalk as its TV offering is distinctly sub-par.
Recap of services by provider
The following chart provides an overview of who provides what – everything covered in this whole preceding section. If you got lost in the complexity of it all or just couldn’t be bothered to read the whole thing, this should help you find your focus.
Free network to network calls are, counterintuitively to how they sound, free calling between phones on the same* network
You should by now have enough information to choose a provider, have a good idea of the speed you’re aiming for and know which additional services, if any, you intend to take along with it. Moving on, let’s take a look at each of the major providers in more detail…