How do you choose the right broadband package?

May 16th, 2022
How do you choose the right broadband package?

The price of everything is rising and despite assurances to the contrary, it isn’t going to be “temporary”. As a result, almost everyone is re-evaluating their household necessities and looking to strike better deals for essential services. Broadband is definitely one of those essentials. In today’s world, you are cut off from vital shopping facilities, employment opportunities and everyday news without a reliable connection. Broadband being cheaper than petrol means that a good connection saves you money.

Choosing the right broadband package depends on quite a few considerations and not all of them are well explained in the advertising of the typical UK broadband provider. Most of these things you can quickly compare on a broadband comparison website such as Free Price Compare but for others, you may have to delve a little deeper. The following sections describe most of them.

Service bundles

It has long been common for broadband packages to include a telephone account. Originally, the logic of this was very simple, most internet connections used some part of the telephone wiring system, so to get an internet connection you needed a phone line – even if the phone wasn’t connected. But technology is moving on. Instead of internet connections borrowing our phone lines, in the future, phone lines will often use our internet connections. Strictly speaking “landlines” are a thing of the past and almost everyone has a mobile phone. As a result, some broadband packages in the UK have switched to offering mobile phone deals.

Not everyone wants to get all their services from the same provider unless the saving is significant so this is something to consider. There are plenty of internet only deals available.

At one time, broadband packages in the UK were often bundled with TV channel subscriptions. This too has been changing: fewer people are watching old-style TV channels and more are using on-demand streaming services such as Netflix and YouTube, and watching them on laptops and mobile phones instead of TV sets too. If you are still a fan of cable TV services, you can find deals bundling them with broadband. Bundled TV services are usually available from Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk TV, BT TV or Now TV.

How much speed do you really need?

A 10Mbit/s connection – the minimum you are likely to find but in a few areas, still the only kind available – is enough for viewing a website and using email. It will often struggle if you are trying to watch a movie unless you can download the entire movie first and watch it later. Large downloads will be slow but are possible. You will probably be okay using an IP phone but might struggle with conference calls. It will be difficult for more than one person to use the line at the same time except for very light activities. Nevertheless, this is all the connectivity that some people need – so why pay for more that you will not use?

Faster packages are usually called “Superfast”, “Ultrafast” and “Gigabit”. Superfast packages will allow multiple family members to watch different movies at the same time (unless they all want HD) but serious online gamers, or houses shared by numerous students, will probably be interested in Ultrafast. Ultrafast and Gigabit packages are also the most appropriate for typical business users. Other factors, such as poor connections in your area or the need to maintain a good quality connection even at peak hours might persuade you to opt for a higher speed provider or a higher tier with the same provider.

A Superfast UK broadband package will also state a specific speed, such as “65Mbit/s”. Be aware that those quoted speeds are supposed to mean the average speed that the company provides to at least 50% of its customers even at peak hours. By definition, half of the company’s customers must be unable to reach that figure.

Here's savings for you on your broadband

Unlimited Fibre Extra

  • New customers only
  • UK-based customer service
66Mb average* speed
Unlimited Downloads
£0.00 Setup costs
18 Month contract
Pay as you goCalls
£24.99per month

Superfast 100

  • New customers only
  • Up to £3/month saving for existing mobile contract customers
102Mb average* speed
Unlimited Downloads
£0.00 Setup costs
24 Month contract
Pay as you goCalls
£25.00per month

Fibre 1 Only

  • New customers only
  • Free access to BT Wi-Fi hotspots
50Mb average* speed
Unlimited Downloads
£29.99 Setup costs
24 Month contract
Pay as you goCalls
£29.99per month

What Speed and Data use really mean

The “speed” of your connection is usually the headline statistic that broadband providers use to describe their packages. As a result, lots of users blame the speed of their connection when they have trouble streaming a movie, downloading a file or playing an online game. More often, those problems are due to download limits, traffic shaping or local network congestion.

Nearly all broadband packages in the UK now claim to be “unlimited” which means that you can download (not always upload) as much data as you like. In the past, if you went over a certain amount of use in any one month, you were sometimes surcharged or even blocked but that doesn’t happen with an “unlimited” contract. In reality, every broadband provider has been caught “throttling” connections at peak hours and targeting heavy users first. Some also appear to target certain heavy-load activities such as video streaming. If this is likely to be an issue for you, it is better to choose a faster package, because the speed makes up for some of the throttling and also because providers are more reluctant to throttle those with higher-tier packages.

Of course, it also makes sense to choose providers who do it less. Since the providers do not advertise their current practices, you may have to rely on reviews. Alternately, call them and ask them directly to tell you their traffic shaping policies. The reason for traffic shaping is that the provider’s network access is also capped. If they take on more customers than they have sufficient capacity for at peak hours, they have no choice but to throttle their customers’ connections to reduce the traffic. When you think about it, that means that companies offering the most attractive cut-price deals are the most likely to be oversubscribed and therefore to throttle (or drop connections completely).

Geography

It is a sad fact of life that the further your data has to travel, the more likely it is that it will encounter network congestion. This is true of the distance between your house and the local junction box (those mysterious green metal cabinets scattered around the neighbourhood) and also between the box and the ISP’s premises. Although all customers are offered the same broadband quotes, it is a technical impossibility to provide them all with the same quality of service. Since most providers use the same physical infrastructure to provide their services, changing provider usually makes no difference.

OFCOM and many comparison sites provide a “Broadband checker” so that you know what broadband services (including mobile services) are available in your area. If you discover you are at a geographical disadvantage, all you can do is to consider upgrading your package to compensate. Life isn’t always fair! Another thing worth trying is to wait until you are sure you are being throttled and then make a complaint, pointing out that you are already at a geographical disadvantage so deserve to be throttled less often. If your entire area constantly suffers from poor connections caused by network congestion, ring OFCOM and complain that the provider is taking on more customers than their capacity supports.

Equipment

Most customers don’t care whether their connection is running on phone cables, coaxial, fibre optic or something else, but it is worth understanding how it can affect your options. For example, you can’t buy a faster internet package that depends on fibre optic connections if you don’t have fibre optic in your area. Again, that sometimes means between the ISP and the street junction box, or can mean between the junction box and your house.

The terminology they use has been agreed with OFCOM [1]. “Superfast”, by convention, means that there is fibre-optic to the cabinet but then the signal takes the telephone line to your home. OFCOM say that “superfast” should also mean that you can get a download speed of at least 30Mbit/s. Most popular packages fall into this category but there are still many rural areas, such as Devon and the Derby Dales, where this is still not available. Fibre to the Cabinet is also sometimes abbreviated “FTTC” and packages usually promise speeds from about 36-76Mb/s. These are download speeds.

Upload speeds are normally considerably less in domestic packages.

“Ultrafast”, again by convention, should mean that you will get a minimum of 300Mbit/s – for which you will need fibre optic all the way to your door. There is an even faster option, called “Gigabit” (because you should get 1000Mbit/s) but it requires an upgraded type of fibre optic called DOCSIS 3.1 which is not yet available in most areas of the UK. At the last OFCOM survey, only 8% of British homes were able to choose an all fibre optic package [2].

While on the topic of equipment. Some customers will have requirements about their broadband router. All modern routers have the option to connect your devices wirelessly but different models differ in the strength (range) of that wireless connection. If your house has three floors and thick walls, make sure you are getting a powerful router. There are other ways around this problem but getting a good quality router is the best place to start, so see what they are offering.

Will you want to connect devices to your router by Ethernet or USB? If so, you will need a provider willing to supply one with the necessary number of ports. You can buy your own router separately if necessary but in that case, is the provider willing to help you set it up? Tip: most routers work whether they say they support them or not!

Business packages

Some packages designed mainly for businesses will offer bundled extras such as extra security or guaranteed uptime, with compensation schemes for when they let you down. Businesses that operate a website (and most now do) should always take into account the importance and frequency of the data uploads they perform into their backend database and of the downloads they perform of website code backups. Both of these operations can involve very large data transfers and the faster they can be performed the greater the chances of a successful transfer and the sooner the bandwidth is available again for other office operations.

Bear in mind that your web hosting company is probably not the same business as your broadband provider. Your deal with the hosting company also sets limits on how much bandwidth and server resources you can use, which also affects the speed of big uploads and downloads.

Contrary to many complaints a few years ago, IP telephone systems now work smoothly without eating up a lot of your capacity. However, if you regularly have several Zoom meetings going on at the same time – which is common if you have a lot of home workers – you could struggle. Most UK Broadband providers provide good support for business customers so if you are in any doubt about the internet connection you need, simply ask them for their opinion.

Customer service

Never underestimate the value of good customer service. It is well worth sacrificing a few Mbit/s in return for a more helpful and considerate company. This is where review sites can be really useful, but statistics about customer satisfaction are also collected by OFCOM, “Which” and other sources that you can find online. Here are a few things you might want to know about your prospective broadband provider.

Down-time: Connections sometimes go off for maintenance, usually (but not always) at night. What are the average number of minutes per month you can expect to be left potentially in the lurch by each company?

Breakdown policies: In the event of a more serious incident – perhaps a damaged cable – what is their track record for prompt callouts and repairs and at what point will they offer you compensation for the service interruption and inconvenience? Believe it or not, some companies have been known to leave customers disconnected for months and yet still expect you to pay them for the services you are not receiving.

Contact centres: How quickly do they pick up the phone and transfer you to a properly qualified customer service assistant? Is the problem then dealt with efficiently? Be aware that certain broadband providers have been known to confuse their customer service department with their sales department. As a result, getting your line repaired or your modem replaced always seems to be expedited by signing up to a completely new and unnecessary contract. Our advice is to avoid such companies like the plague.

Some key figures about the performance of broadband companies, including their customer service, are available from Statista [3].

Contracts: At one time, signing on for an internet connection often entailed sending an engineer to install cables and the provider giving you a rather expensive modem or router. Therefore, it was understandable for them to require you to commit to one, two or three-year contracts in order to recoup their installation costs. That is simply no longer the case. The infrastructure is nearly always already in place and the cost of a router (if you don’t already have one) is much lower than it used to be.

OFCOM still allows them to bill you for extra costs if you terminate your contract early but we think this has become unreasonable. If you agree, you will prefer the packages that tie you in for a shorter period of time. After all, if they are a good company why would you want to leave them?

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