Broadband internet has become essential for modern life. We depend on it for work, for leisure, for news and education. We need it to manage our bank accounts, pay our taxes and do our shopping. Many rely on it to operate a business and for vital communications. Choosing the right broadband package from a reliable provider has therefore become a very important decision – especially since we are locked into a contract. Luckily for consumers, impartial surveys are published by bodies like Ofcom, Expert Reviews and Which?
Before looking into those results to find the best broadband providers, it is vital that you to have a clear idea about three things; the package you need, the packages you can get and what the package will really deliver.
What broadband deal do you need?
The selling point most broadband deals push these days is the download speed. This is the speed at which you can receive data – whether it is a website loading, a movie streaming, music playing or a file arriving. Providers used to like quoting the maximum speed at which you might receive data but since this was often misleading, Ofcom has ruled that they now have to quote you a guaranteed average speed.
There are a few important things to understand about ‘speed’. The first is that there is no advantage in having more of it unless you are going to use it. If your package quotes you 50Mbit of data per second but your internet activity only requires data at a rate of 25Mbit/sec, then most of the time you will not derive much benefit from the remaining speed available. There are exceptions however: since 50Mbit/sec is an average speed, there is no guarantee that it won’t reduce to 25Mbit/sec or less at peak hours so it is wise to choose a broadband deal with an average speed substantially higher than the maximum you might ever need. That way, your connection will always be sufficient.
Some ISPs are also more reluctant to ‘throttle’ the speed of high tier customers. If high speed data access is vital to you at all times it is worth asking prospective providers if their broadband deals can guarantee a minimum speed (Virgin say the minimum will never be less than half the average). Some providers (for example BT) offer deals with a fall-back connection to which you can be automatically switched if there is ever a problem with your usual one (BT switch you to their EE subsidiary network).
To be sure of getting the stated speeds, it is also important to look for the words “unlimited data”. This basically means that you can use the connection as much as you need to without hitting a maximum data download limit in any given time period (usually per month). However, “unlimited” means something different to different providers. Most of them reduce the speed available whenever their network connections are too busy and in danger of becoming overloaded, and most prioritise “high use” customers first.
What that means is, if you have reached a certain data volume, although you are “allowed” to download as much as you like, your speed may be cut at peak hours.
This is called “traffic shaping” by some and “connection throttling” by others. It becomes necessary when the ISP has signed up more customers than they have network capacity to support, therefore some ISPs do it more than others. Again, if your purposes require a good speed at all times you should either contact the vendor and ask about their traffic shaping policies or purchase a higher tier package as a safety margin.
When you compare broadband, bear in mind that companies that attract customers with the lowest prices and highest speeds are the most likely to become unreliable as a result.
What packages can you get?
Unfortunately, your location makes a difference in the packages available to you. Although the big names like BT, Virgin Media, Sky and EE offer accounts almost everywhere throughout the UK, the physical cabling varies from place to place and therefore the available deals on broadband are not the same everywhere.
Although numerous companies offer broadband accounts, there are only two main communication infrastructures. One is based around the old telephone network inherited by BT and the other around the old cable TV networks, inherited by Virgin Media. The former is largely composed of two-strand copper wiring and the latter of coaxial but both are being replaced by faster fibre optic cabling. Most other companies lease parts of the BT network (which is now administered by their subsidiary Openreach) and therefore have the same geographical and technological limits.
A few small areas are covered by new independent networks (such as Hyperoptic) and most also have the option of wireless connections which use the mobile phone systems (for example, Sky Mobile piggybacks on O2). When you use a comparison site to find the “best broadband providers in my area” they almost always consider your postcode and only show the packages available to your particular home from the main providers. Small independent providers and mobile options may not be listed. Under the government’s “Universal Service Obligation” even the most remote areas should be able to get a minimum of 10Mbit/sec.
Packages also offer different additional services. For example, bundling your mobile phone services or a landline service or a TV package with your broadband provision may provide an opportunity to save money overall but again, these services are not available from all providers and may not be available in all areas. Some packages offer more technical incentives – for example, some undertake to help you route your internet access around your home or building. Most users in a single building now rely on wireless connections to the broadband router and this is not always straightforward in large buildings with thick walls or sources of microwave interference. Multi-user packages that provide extended assistance (often a better router and a signal booster) could be a big incentive for customers that have previously had connection issues.
Comparing the best deals on broadband is therefore not always as simple as choosing the fastest connection at the lowest price.
What will the package actually deliver?
Whatever the package may say, the actual speed and reliability of your connection – whether it is fibre optic, ADSL or even wireless – will always be affected by the quality of the line between you and your ISP and on how well the ISP manages it. Even if you have used the availability app on a broadband compare website to find the “best broadband provider in my area” it is unlikely to have checked the ISP’s “uptime” record or taken into account the competence of their customer service department in resolving problems.
Bear in mind that whoever offers the cheapest or fastest deals usually wins over the most new customers. That’s fine until it results in their networks and human resources being over-extended, at which point they can easily become the worst provider for reliability and for efficient customer service. Virgin Media (who offer most of the fastest connections currently available and also many budget packages) seem to have fallen into this trap, constantly receiving poor reviews from their customers (as of early 2022). On the other hand, also bear in mind that competition between broadband providers is fierce and consequently they pay close attention to their review scores and most of them rectify their shortcomings over time.
Recent surveys by Which? Expert Reviews and by Ofcom itself are in broad agreement about which providers are currently the best and worst providers in terms of their network reliability, the number of complaints and the performance of their customer service agents in resolving them. However, these are national surveys and searching the ‘best broadband providers for my area’ could yield different results because of local problems. Always seek the opinion of other local people if you can. Bearing that in mind, here are some of their recent findings.
Shell Energy Broadband and Virgin Media have been named the worst providers of customer service in the latest reports . They are closely followed by Talktalk and then by Vodafone. At the better end of the table, BT, Plusnet and Now receive low levels of complaints but it is EE and Sky who receive the least of all. This is for wired-to-the-house connections, the picture is slightly different for mobile broadband providers.
Among wireless broadband (smartphone) providers, Virgin Media once again receives the highest number of complaints, while Tesco and Sky Mobile have been performing really well. This is despite the fact that mobile broadband providers like Sky mostly lease their bandwidth from the O2 phone network which itself receives a high level of complaints for its mobile services. Surprisingly, BT Mobile also receive high levels of service complaints for their mobile broadband delivery.
Another recent survey – from Expert Reviews  – broadly agrees with Which! and Ofcom on the reliability and customer service issues but they also take a broader look at the other factors that should be taken into account when choosing the broadband best provider. They rightfully point out that Virgin Media still offer the fastest packages and Vodafone are offering many of the cheapest deals (as of early 2022). The fact that BT packages tend to be relatively pricey (comparing like for like) prevents them taking top place in the Expert Reviews survey. Instead (and ironically) the BT subsidiaries Plusnet and EE take the lead as overall broadband best provider.
We have already mentioned a few other incentives that will help some people determine their broadband provider such as bundled telephone deals and TV stations, but first let’s mention a few other things that are often forgotten.
First the router. The quality and features of the broadband routers that are provided as part of most packages can vary considerably. For businesses, in particular, it is often important to have several Ethernet ports and perhaps a USB port for a network printer or a network attached storage device. In tall buildings, sprawling sites, old houses with thick walls or unusual layouts, the wireless range could easily be very important. If your living room is on the ground floor at the front, but your office is on a second floor at the rear, it is by no means guaranteed that you will be able to attach to the same router without installing additional equipment.
If necessary, you can install solutions ranging from Ethernet cabling, additional routers, booster devices and extra aerials. As a last resort, you can also choose to replace your main broadband router with one of your own choosing (at your own expense) but of course, it is far better if the router supplied does the job out of the box. Amongst the main broadband suppliers, BT routers seem to have the best all-round reputation. If you are concerned that you may have connection problems, it is always sensible to contact the provider and ask if they can offer you a choice of routers or will at least provide support if you have to fit your own.
Another detail to check is the contract length. Ofcom will support you if you choose to cancel your contract within the first month, especially if it is because your connection is not performing as well as the advertised figures and guarantees. Unfortunately, you would be surprised how many packages work perfectly for that first month and then slow down. The higher the tariff for your chosen package, the higher the penalty for trying to move to a better supplier before the contract term expires – therefore, the shorter the term, the better.
Also, check the pricing details. Some packages allow you to pay monthly, quarterly, six-monthly or annually and by direct debit or other kinds of payment method – but the overall price is not the same. Inevitably the price they quote is the one most convenient to them but not necessarily you. When comparing prices between suppliers, make sure you are comparing like with like.
Is the upload speed important? When you are receiving your emails, loading a website or streaming a movie, you are downloading data with very little travelling the other way.
However, when you are sending a stock update to a website or posting files to a colleague, you are uploading, and when you are playing interactive games, making VoIP calls or engaging in video conferences, the data can be flowing in both directions equally. Most packages put the download speed in big letters and the upload speed in the small print, so if you expect to be uploading often, be sure to check both figures.
Finally, those bundled services like TV channels and phone calls make it much harder to choose the most sensible package. Thousands of people in Britain are already paying for a landline they do even possess and a license for a TV they do not watch. If you combine these services into your broadband contract – be absolutely certain you really want them.
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