Broadband supplier in the spotlight: BT

June 27th, 2022
Broadband supplier in the spotlight: BT

BT claims to be the world’s oldest communications company, tracing its roots to the Electric Telegraph Company, founded in 1846. It was later transferred into state control as the General Post Office (GPO). Then in in 1896 they took over the National Telephone Company, becoming the monopoly telephone service supplier under the control of the Postmaster General. Reforms in 1969 (under Tony Benn) finally split the postal and telecommunications services into two semi-independent corporations, which primed it for privatisation.

The telecommunications branch was renamed British Telecom in 1980 and in the following year, the British Telecommunications Act empowered it to license private telecommunications enterprises that piggy-backed on British Telecom’s infrastructure. It was fully privatised in 1984 and adopted the “BT” acronym in 1991.

Meanwhile, cable television providers were beginning to amalgamate and in the mid 1990s a company called Diamond Cable began to extend and upgrade their coaxial networks with fibre optic cables. Diamond Cable later became part of NTL who were eventually renamed “Virgin Media” after a series of mergers in 2006. Initially, their main target market was cable TV but the upgrades also allowed them to offering an alternative telephone service and an ‘always-on’ Broadband package. The first pilot was installed in 2000 (in Basildon) but had a maximum speed of just 512Kbit/s and it took another 8 years before Broadband began to roll out across the country at large.

Initially, the BT network could not provide the same maximum speed as NTL’s fibre optic connections. However, BT soon developed alternative technologies and partnerships that allowed them (and the other telecom companies that rely on them) to compete with most packages – phone, internet and TV. Today, the services and speeds available from different providers are becoming increasingly similar but BT prides itself on the reliability of its network and equipment.

The difference between BT, Openreach and PlusNet

Equal access for telecom businesses to the country’s telecommunications infrastructures is encouraged and regulated by OFCOM. To help BT demonstrate this impartiality, they created a separate business division called Openreach in 2006.

Openreach is now responsible for the maintenance of all the network cables and junction boxes between BT’s exchange points and the main sockets in our homes and businesses. In effect, it works as much for Sky, TalkTalk and other providers as it does for its parent company BT.

PlusNet was originally one of the independent private companies that piggy-backed on the BT infrastructure but they were bought out by BT in 2007. Despite being directly owned by BT, they continue to operate largely independently, so a PlusNet Broadband package will not be identical to an equivalent BT package and nor will their customer service department. Nevertheless, there is some crossover between the “two” companies – for example, their standard fibre-optic modem – the Plusnet Hub One – was rebadged as the BT Hub 5. PlusNet, in turn, is the service provider for other Broadband suppliers, such as John Lewis Broadband (while John Lewis remain an independent partner).

Broadband access

The word “Broadband” has no precise meaning. In general terms, it means a wide bandwidth data connection that can transmit multiple signals of different types at multiple different frequencies at the same time. The actual connection can be over fibre optic cabling or over coaxial cables, twisted pair telephone lines, or even wireless transmission (including 4G and 5G). However, the type of connection has a big influence on its achievable speed and reliability (especially its maximum traffic capacity).

In practice, data transfers rarely travel over just one type of physical medium. For example, it is common for the signal to travel over fibre optic cable from BT’s exchange to the green junction box in your street, and from there to your house over ordinary copper (telephone) wiring. Connecting fibre optic all the way to your house (FTTP or “fibre-to-the-premises”) greatly increases the maximum speed you can enjoy. There must also be enough cabling to carry signals from all the other houses connected to the same junction box and travelling over the network to the same exchange – otherwise they have to be queued and consequently slow down. The further your house is from that exchange, the more traffic it has to contend with. This is why the maximum data throughput (speed) you can buy is different from area to area.

Neither Openreach nor Virgin Media have yet rolled out access to full fibre connections in every part of the country. This is why the first question when you visit a Broadband seller or a comparison site is your postcode. This allows them to sort out the companies operating in your area and the tier of services that is possible with the network equipment in that area (there is a BT broadband checker here [1]) The vast majority of people can already choose from the full set of BT Broadband packages: in 2020 96.9% of UK residences could already access “Superfast” Broadband (30 Mbit/s data downloads) if they wanted it.

The target is for at least 85% of UK homes to have access to the top “Gigabit” speeds by 2025. BT Openreach, Virgin and several smaller cable companies are working hard to make the same wired services available everywhere. Wireless 5G may provide an alternative in some areas. There are also government schemes aimed at ensuring everyone in the country will have decent internet access as a right – including people on benefits. The government call this the “Universal Service Obligation” and defines it as a minimum of 10 Mbit/s download and 1 Mbit/s upload.

Is BT Broadband any good?

In their “Best Broadband Awards 2022” Expert Reviews awarded BT Broadband the top award – “Best all-round internet provider”. The results are based on a regular survey of actual customers of all the major Broadband providers. This is despite the fact that BT packages are slightly more expensive than similar packages from other providers and despite Virgin Broadband offering faster maximum speeds in many parts of the country. BT won the award thanks to the high marks their customers give them for good customer service, network uptime and their highly reliable Broadband routers. Other perks with many BT contracts include free access to BT hotspots when roaming, free Xbox game passes and Cloud storage facilities.

BT also offer some paid-for service enhancements. These include an option to install a fall-back modem that can switch you to a different network (EE) if there is ever a problem with your BT connection. There is also an “Extra box” that makes it possible to watch different TV channels in other rooms of your home simultaneously.

One of the most appreciated qualities of BT Broadband routers are their reputation for strong Wi-Fi coverage. As most homes now have several people sharing their internet connection, the ability of the signal to penetrate walls and reach upstairs bedrooms has become very important. Although there are a few ways to overcome a weak Wi-Fi signal, they can be problematic for ordinary householders to set-up correctly or may involve running old-style Ethernet cables through the house. It is far better if all your rooms have good access out-of-the-box.

The latest BT Broadband router is called the BT Smart Hub 2. It has multiple antennas to support complete Wi-Fir and is dual-band – so it can switch frequency to avoid any interference, which means you can get better performance for multiple wireless users. It also has built-in 4G filters and offers USB ports and four Ethernet ports if you still have devices that need them. The slightly older Smart Hub (1) is almost equally capable.
These routers should not be confused with the longer-established BT Home Hub range. The latest of these is the BT Home Hub 5 which is also a very capable router offering most of the features of the alternative Smart Hub models. Note that some of the routers supplied by rival companies, such as EE, are actually rebranded BT Hub routers.

What is BT broadband speed?

In 2018, the Advertising Standards Authority told ISP’s to stop describing their packages with “up to” speeds. This is because numerous investigations have long proven that those maximum speeds are hardly ever available during peak hours. Providers must now quote an average speed that the package will usually deliver reliably. Fibre optic packages currently available from BT therefore quote “average download speeds” of 36Mbps (the Fibre Essential package), 50Mbps (Fibre 1), 72Mbps (Fibre 2), 150Mbps (Full Fibre 100), 900Mbps (Full Fibre 900) and so forth.

Compared to most of their rivals, the saying “you get what you pay for” seems to be true of BT Broadband packages. Instead of offering blistering headline speed promises that are often unachievable in practice, BT seems to deliver a consistently good connection. This is partly because of the well-developed network infrastructure that they have access to. Their lines are not choked by taking on more customers than they have the network capacity to support.

BT Broadband and TV packages

Like most providers in the market, BT offers bundled PAYG “landline” packages and TV packages on top of the basic BT Broadband options. These entertainment bundles include a good range of TV channels (AMC and Freeview) as well as access to Netflix, Prime and NOW Entertainment. There are also sport-oriented options including BT’s ‘Big Sport’ channel and Eurosport. Their ‘Big Entertainment’ package largely consists of Sky channels such as Sky Cinema.

A small number of channels that are available with a Sky or a Virgin Media contract are still not available from BT. Most people will not notice the difference but if there is a particular channel you need (perhaps a foreign language service) you should take care to check availability before choosing your Broadband provider.

PlusNet is not BT (yet)

Since PlusNet is also a division of the BT Group it should be mentioned that although BT packages are rarely the cheapest, contracts with PlusNet often are – both in the fibre optic category and for ADSL connections that still use some of the old telephone network. Currently, a contract with PlusNet does not guarantee you all the bells and whistles of a direct contract with BT but there is likely to be more integration between them in the future.

More information about BT Broadband deals

Free Price Compare always provide up-to-date details about BT Broadband packages but if there is a technical question, this is best addressed to BT directly. Their main contact webpage is at https://www.bt.com/help/contact-bt but if you don’t have an active internet connection you can call them on 0800 800 150, or if you have a BT Mobile you can dial 150. From outside the UK you will need to call +44 150 174 7714.

If you are already a BT Broadband customer and have a technical problem, you can either use the same phone numbers as above or you can just send a text message saying “HELP” to 61998. They will automatically identify your Broadband account and scan it for issues. If you need to speak to an engineer to resolve the problem, they will get back in touch with you by mobile phone within about 15 minutes.

This is the kind of swift efficient attention that has made BT a very popular Broadband provider.

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