The majority of people probably don’t ask themselves this question. It wasn’t until the early years of the 21st century that internet connectivity and television services started to be seen as complementary and the concept of joint TV and broadband packages gradually became the norm. The fact that we take this association for granted doesn’t mean it is the only way to watch TV. In the constant search for the best value, we think it’s important to look at the whole topic starting with some of the most basic questions.
How We Watch
The UK’s fourth channel was launched in 1982, 27 years after the second channel (ITV) and 18 years after the third (BBC2). Forty years later, the viewing landscape is completely unrecognisable and there are scores of channels. Admittedly some of these are extremely specialist and others are generally quite poor. Although free services like Freeview do offer plenty of choice, many people choose pay TV packages to increase the number of quality channels they can watch.
The leading broadband providers all offer internet connectivity together with TV deals that include premium channels and although many of them still rely on a landline connection to deliver TV, there are some which operate outside the Openreach network. Three broadband with TV, for example, uses 4G and 5G wireless technology (although not every part of the country has 5G coverage yet). Sky broadband with TV is still the only service that uses satellite dishes, technology that predates the internet, while Virgin broadband with TV is building its own exclusive cable network. This doesn’t yet have national coverage and is mostly concentrated in major towns and cities where cable laying is more cost-effective.
Combined deals do give you the biggest choice of entertainment, including the first opportunity to rent recent movie releases and some exclusive sporting events.
However, none of this premium entertainment comes cheap, so let’s ask our first question.
Do You Need TV and Broadband Together?
We’re so used to this idea that the question might not have occurred to us, but you do have a choice. What you need to do is look at your TV viewing habits. If you mainly watch live TV, then the cheapest option might be to combine it with a broadband service because it is very common for providers to give you discounts when you bundle several products together. The market has become so competitive that service providers are falling over themselves to offer incentives designed to make you upgrade or switch.
Free gifts, vouchers and even cashback are among the benefits being used to tempt consumers into new broadband with TV deals. If you do mostly watch live TV then it may make financial sense and also give you the benefit of having to deal with just the one provider. This makes troubleshooting and service changes a lot simpler.
If, on the other hand, conventional live TV channels are not such a big feature of your viewing experience and you tend to prefer streaming services like Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Disney+, NOW TV and Netflix, then a special TV package may be unnecessary.
Terrestrial TV and many other channels are available on Freeview and Freesat as well as being accessible via NOW TV. There’s no point paying extra for channels that are already free. Having said that, we should also point out that some providers include some of the subscription services with their packages so you need to do some calculations to see if this is cheaper than subscribing directly yourself.
If you do decide to keep your TV and broadband separate, you’ll find you have a much wider choice of providers because there are relatively few companies that offer both. It’s slightly more complicated to deal with two, and there is always the potential for disputes should something go wrong: the TV provider tells you the fault is with your broadband while the broadband provider says they’ve verified your connection speed so the problem must be with the TV provider.
Do You Need to Pay for TV from Sky or Virgin?
How many hours in a day do you have free to watch TV? With a Sky or Virgin subscription you get more than 300 entertainment channels and 1,000 movies. Getting the most out of that lot is more than a full-time job.
You’re also paying for channels that are free elsewhere like BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5, Talking Pictures, Dave and Yesterday. What’s more you’re paying a higher rate than you need to for Sky channels in particular because a subscription to NOW TV will include access to most of these. Even other paid-for channels like Gold and Discovery are cheaper elsewhere.
Meanwhile subscription services that are part of deals from the likes of Sky or Virgin, such as Netflix, aren’t really cheaper than going direct, and you’re usually locked into it for at least 18 months, whereas an independent subscription can be terminated or suspended whenever you like.
How Does it Work with Broadband Only?
When we use the term ‘broadband only deal’ we’re talking about a range of options rather than a specific arrangement as it means different things from different providers. In all cases it refers to a deal that doesn’t include a TV package, but it might mean broadband that requires a landline via the Openreach network, broadband via separate cabling or broadband without a landline using, for example, 5G.
Landline use for phone calls is still significant in the UK but is gradually falling.
According to Statista, in 2016 83% of household had landlines but by 2020 this had fallen to 73% . In 2025 the government will be switching all landlines from analogue to digital, meaning that even householders who don’t want access to the internet will need at least a basic connection to make and receive calls. Currently, according to Ofcom, about 1.5 million homes have no internet access , which means there is a lot to be done before the switchover.
For the moment, however, many internet connections still require a landline and in some areas there is no alternative. This means you’re paying for a phone service you may not want or need, but since standard ADSL and the newer fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband can only function via a landline, you have no choice.
However, the latest FTTC broadband is being rolled out across the country so if it’s already available where you live you should calculate how much you could save on line rental compared to any potentially higher cost of non-landline broadband. Virgin is unique amongst internet service providers (ISPs) because its own fibre broadband network is designed to eliminate the need for a landline. Provided the network has reached your area, you can get broadband without a phone line. In addition there is a growing number of ISPs who are local rather than national whose own cabling bypasses the landline route. Look at for companies like Hyperoptic, currently available in 13 cities and towns including London, Cardiff and Liverpool, or Trooli which is ahead of Virgin in reaching some of the more rural areas of Kent.
The Streaming Habit
Notwithstanding Bruce Springsteen’s sceptical comments on the explosion of TV stations in his 1992 song ’57 Channels and Nothing On’, TV viewing has changed radically in the last 30 years. And there are far more than 57 channels. The advent of streaming has changed the game again.
Streaming and Live TV
The ability to pause live TV seems like magic to older viewers who once had to wait for commercial breaks or a slow patch to nip out of the room for any reason. Video recorders introduced the concept of time shift which allowed you to record and watch a show later in the day, which you could pause to go and make a cup of tea. Being able to sit down to watch a programme and simply press pause, then resume, has given a level of control over our viewing that people brought up in the internet age may find hard to appreciate. This is all made possible by streaming technology.
Streaming and Catch Up
Setting the video or DVD recorder for programmes you couldn’t watch at the time of broadcast was the only way to guarantee catching them later. These days a vanishingly small number of people will record programmes because they can find virtually everything on catch up streaming services. It’s often still necessary to record movies but a significant number of these are also available on catch up for a limited time.
Streaming Without a TV Package
As we’ve already mentioned, virtually all the subscription streaming services you could want are offered in combined broadband and TV packages, but you may be better off taking out your own subscription because it offers much more flexibility. Take Netflix and Now TV for example. Unlike with broadband and TV bundles, there is no contract, just a month by month subscription, which means you can cancel on 30 days’ notice (you still get the service until the notice expires) and restart at any time, say, a month, six months, or a year later. If you hear about a highly recommended new series that’s about to be streamed on one of these services you can just sign up for the duration then cancel again.
Streaming services are also easy to share out around the members of the household. Although in some cases you might need a separate set-top box, many of them are accessible through downloadable apps on smart TVs so all you have to do is log into the main account and start watching.
What Broadband Speed Do I Need for Streaming?
Speed is a very important consideration. Your connection needs to be able to receive and process a considerable amount of data to watch TV without the delays of buffering, the frustration of pixilation or simply the loss of signal. The bandwidth speeds you need are roughly the same across all services but some of them have higher recommended rates than others. For example, to stream Standard Definition programmes on BBC iPlayer you’re looking at about 1.5 Mbps, while Amazon Prime can be as low as 0.9 Mbps and Netflix as high as 3 Mbps. Remember that these speeds are affected by other devices using the same connection so if someone is streaming elsewhere on a laptop or uploading video files to YouTube, this will affect the streaming capacity of your TV. High Definition streaming will obviously demand higher speeds.
The way the industry is developing suggests that the subscription model is the future. For a while, Netflix had a virtual monopoly because it entered the market early. Now it faces extraordinary competition from Disney, whose unbeatable back catalogue and virtually limitless buying power constitutes a real threat. Apple TV and Acorn TV are other contenders. What all these services have in common is exclusive content, which in the battle for viewers and subscribers, is gold dust.
What’s the Answer?
It’s perfectly possible to have a great viewing experience with a combined broadband and TV package. Not long ago it was the only option. Today you have choices and it’s entirely realistic to abandon the idea of a TV package and curate your own service. The key to reliable, high-quality streaming is the speed of your broadband. That ought to be your priority. Get the connectivity right and you can make your own choice about what you watch, how you watch and who you pay.
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