I bought my first computer ten years ago. Way back in those dark days, the internet was a wasteland of viruses, ugly websites and connection speeds that made the prehistoric glacial movements look like a 100m sprint!
Times have moved on. High speed broadband connections, once the preserve of the well paid and universities, are common. Prices have come down. Is it worth looking for deals when most ISP’s are offering the same service for the same price? Definitely!
Here’s my guide to the cheapest broadband suppliers plus a few tips on how get the best deals.
This is a full guide to the cheapest providers, allowing you to slash costs and save £100s.
What Is Broadband
And how does broadband work? I won’t give you the full ins and outs. The technical description of how broadband works can be quite confusing. Basically, it’s a way of accessing the internet via a high speed connection. Like the standard dialup connections, you access the web via your telephone line but in this case you do it using ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line).
There are other ways of getting high speed internet (e.g. via a satellite antenna) but we’re not going to talk about those today.
Broadband has a number of advantages over dialup connections:
- Faster download speeds. This means the web pages you are viewing load faster. Downloading software from the web is faster
- Always on. There’s no need to dial up an internet connection using your modem
- Telephone usage. You can still use your telephone whilst connected to the internet (unlike a dialup modem)
New broadband connections
If you’ve never had broadband before it will take a little time to get everything set up. The Internet Service Provider (ISP) supplying your high speed internet connection should keep you informed of the progress and the work shouldn’t take more than a week.
(Note: If you’ve moved into a new house and the previous owner had a cable connection the work to get you online might take a little longer.)
Your ISP will send you a broadband modem (if they don’t, find another supplier). This piece of equipment is your gateway to the web – without it you won’t be able to access the internet.
You’ll also get filters for your telephone line. These are used to remove the ‘noise’ on your telephone line. Personally, I’ve never needed to use them and I live in an old house. For the sake of arguments, use the filters.
How to switch broadband suppliers
Switching your broadband from one supplier to another used to be a pain. In the past few years, organisations such as Ofcom have handed out fines to a number of companies.
If you already have broadband and you want to switch supplier you need to do a few checks first:
Are you still in contract?
Broadband providers want to keep you on their books for as long as possible. They also need to make a profit on the services they supply. Most contracts last for a minimum of 12 months with many now locking you in for 18 months. Leaving before the end of contract can incur a penalty (in some cases, the provider will want you to pay the balance of the remaining line rental period).
If you’re lucky enough to avoid incurring a penalty fee you may still end up having to pay for all the modem, filters, etc.
Migration fees should be a thing of the past
Fortunately, most of dinosaurs are almost extinct. Very few ISP’s now charge a migration fee. TalkTalk is one of the last of the big companies to charge you for this service. A good tip would be to check the terms before you sign up for any broadband supplier. If they charge a migration fee then give them a wide berth.
It’s also important to note that for technical reasons the new company usually only allows you to switch to its service at the same speed as your current provider’s speed, but after that you should be able to upgrade.
Make a note of your MAC
What is a MAC? It’s your Migration Authorisation Code. You’ll need this to be able to move your broadband services to a new supplier. All you need to do is call your existing supplier and request the code. You should receive your MAC without any problems.
At the point you request your migration code, your existing provider will do their upmost to keep you as a customer. Don’t simply pay lip service to these offers; in some cases you may actually find you can get a better deal by negotiating with your existing broadband supplier.
All you need to do is give your MAC to your new internet provider. They will then arrange for your internet connection to be migrated. Ordinarily, there should be minimal downtime as your service is moved from the old provider to the the new provider. In most cases, you’ll have no internet connection for a few hours, at the most. In some rare instances it might be down for a few days.
Note: if you don’t give your new provider your MAC you could be left without a broadband connection for up to three weeks!
What type of broadband user are you?
What do you want from a broadband package? There are a number of factors you need to consider and you choice of supplier and package should be a reflection of how you use the web. Consider these points before you rush out to sign up to a particular supplier.
Free broadband is everywhere
Do you really need a home internet connection or will free wireless broadband meet your needs? If you’re highly mobile and you own a laptop or a tablet such as the iPad then you probably already know about free WiFi. Traditionally, free WiFi access has been available in coffee shops and hotels for a few years. Now more and more suppliers are letting users connect to the web for free via high street wireless networks.
For unlimited web access during your lunch break head over to your local Starbucks or Macdonalds. Don’t bother going to Coffee Republic. Your connection is limited to a maximum of ten minutes (which isn’t enough time to drink your coffee let alone browse the web!
If you’re interested in finding free hotspots near you then check out this free WiFi app
How are broadband costs calculated?
In most cases, you’ll be charged based on the amount of data you web browsing uses. Although data is measured in MegaBytes (MB) I’ve yet to find a supplier, other than mobile broadband) that limits you to less than a 1 GigaByte (that’s 1024MB of data usage).GB) In fact, if you’re getting less than 1GB now might the time to move or upgrade as most suppliers will give you a bigger data allowance for the same price that you’re paying now.
What is your average data usage?
It’s going to be difficult to get a precise figure for your data needs so here’s a quick guide:
The average web page is about 4k in size. If you view 25 pages you will, on average, use about 1MB of data. With a 2GB data limit you can view about 50,000 pages per month. Likewise, most emails are relatively small in size. Even if you mum keeps emailing you photos that are 4Mb in size you’ll still have enough data allowance to download 250 pictures of her last holiday!
If you’re downloading software of music on a regular basis you’re going to need more data. If you download the latest version of Ubuntu Linux, the last 3 months worth of updates and some extra software you can easily hit the 1GB mark.
Likewise, if you download movies or watch them online you’re going to need a bigger data allowance. Watching a nature programme on the MSN network (excellent selection of educational programmes, I might add) can chew through as much as 600MB 800MB. Ouch!
How fast is the connection?
The speed you see advertised for your internet connection is measured in Megabits per second (Mb). The number you see, e.g. 2Mb, is the maximum speed at which you can download data from the web.
Upload speeds tend to be lower unless you’ve paid for a package that caters to users uploading a lot of content (web designers, file sharing, etc). For the majority of home internet users, upload speeds aren’t very relevant hence most companies supplying maximum speeds of 256Kb (a quarter of a Mb).
Let’s dispel one myth: buying a 20Mb package doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get 20Mb broadband piped into your home. A number of factors can affect the maximum speed of your internet connection. They include:
- The telephone exchange: the distance from your house to the telephone exchange affects the bandwidth. As a rule of thumb, the further away you are from the exchange the slower the speed of you connection
- Contention ratio: simply put, this means the number of people sharing the line. More users equals more competition for bandwidth resulting in slower speeds
- Supplier limitations: providers will deliberately slow down connections speeds during peak hours to reduce costs
Paying for support costs
If you don’t know your modem from your elbow you might be in for a shock. Some broadband suppliers will charge you as much as 50p per minute for telephone support. For a half hour support call you’re going to end up paying £30!! Suddenly, that cheap broadband package you’ve been eyeing up doesn’t seem quite so appealing.
In some cases, it might be worth calling a friend or family member to help you out. Alternatively, consider bringing in a local IT guy to do the tech work.
Getting feedback on internet providers
In all likelihood, you’re going to be signing up for a long contract. Like I said earlier, expect to be locked in for at least 12 months at a minimum. Many ISPs contracts are now 18 months long.
Do yourself a favour and make sure you get some detailed feedback on all the options out there. A number of sites exist purely to bring customer feedback to potential buyers. These include thinkbroadband.com and ispreview.co.uk. You’d be well advised to check them out.
Ensure you give each option a thorough combing over. Every ISP will have their fair share of disgruntled users all you need to do is cut through the noise.
Don’t forget to give your feedback as well. It all helps in the long run.
Are broadband bundles right for you?
Beyond sitting in Starbucks every day, the most cost effective broadband packages available usually come as part of a bundle.
A bundle involves buying your telephone line and broadband as a package. Virgin, Sky and NTL go one step further offering you multi-channel cable/satellite services as part of the bundle.
Some companies require an existing BT landline but this can dramatically add to the costs. If possible, when you buy your bundle, try and go with a provider that offers you everything in one package.
Are you highly mobile?
If you’re travelling on a regular basis or you spend little time at home then you may want to consider a 3G dongle.
Dongles for your laptop have been around for years now. Coverage has improved massively over the last 5 years to the point that all the providers have a minimum coverage of 90% of the UK.
You can check out coverage here.
If you have a data package with your mobile phone you can use this as an alternative to buying a 3G dongle. Most modern phones come with either data cables or other connectivity options that let you tie your laptop and phone together e.g. Bluetooth. Once connected you simply activate 3G on your mobile phone and use it as a modem.
Using your mobile phone as a 3G modem is nothing new. I was doing this about 6 years ago. Fortunately, times have moved on and the service you receive is comparable to home broadband (as long as you have coverage).
Be careful: most mobile contracts come with a small data allowance (average 250MB). If you go over the limit you could receive a large bill as, typically, mobile companies charge you about £1 for every MB over your allowance that you use.