We all want better broadband, but knowing whether we're paying the right amount to the right provider isn't easy to ascertain. Armed with the results of our annual Home Broadband Survey we report on the best broadband deals in the UK today.

Broadband isn’t a luxury; it’s a right. At least it ought to be. Without access to the web, vast swathes of information are inaccessible. Public services use the internet to keep us informed about travel issues, school closures, and the introduction of amenities, as well as offering web-based advice, distance learning and the like. If you can’t get online, you’ll find yourself left out.

Best home broadband deals

Best mobile broadband deals

Other online services are less critical, but it’s hard to ignore the impact of social media and news sites as means of breaking and contributing to news and world events. The past year has borne witness to this to an unprecedented extent. Outside the realm of news, video streaming, catch-up TV and download services are transforming the way we consume entertainment. Most people shop online, and use the web to access critical services.

Of course, it’s not just a PC or laptop screen that’s used for all these things. Smartphones and tablets are an ever present window on the web. Internet access – and the broadband infrastructure behind it – really has become critical to our everyday lives. See Broadband Advisor.

Best broadband deals: Home broadband assessed

Every year, PC Advisor runs a web-based survey that asks readers to assess their home-broadband experience. The results enable us to report on broadband on a personal level – the connection speeds and service reliability customers receive, rather than the headline speeds the ISPs boast.

This is the seventh such survey we’ve run, and our thanks go out to everyone who took part. As with previous years, around 6,000 people took the time to tell us about their broadband connection, what does and doesn’t work with the service, what their ISP is doing right, and what needs improvement. See Best Home Broadband Deals.

While we offer modest incentives to encourage participation, we appreciate that filling in surveys isn’t the most fun use of your time. But it’s certainly worth your while, and allows us to share the cumulative feedback about the UK’s best-known ISPs and provide reports based on customers’ experiences.

Best broadband deals: Broadband trends

Connection speed and reliability remain key issues for most customers but, on the whole, UK consumers are satisfied with their broadband services. Of the nearly 6,000 responses we had to our survey, 77.6 percent said they were sufficiently happy with their broadband ISP to recommend it to a friend.

This wasn’t a big surprise: for all our gripes and grumbles about web access, most of us tend to stick with the same provider for a significant period of time. The 12- or 18-month contract initially binds us to an ISP, but more than a third of those we surveyed have been with the same provider for more than five years; another 31 percent have stayed loyal to their ISP for three-to-five years.

While 24 percent said they wouldn’t consider changing their ISP, just as many reported that they would switch to a provider that doesn’t tie them into a long-term contract. More than 60 percent would switch to an internet service provider that was able to supply a faster connection or offered better value, either in the form of a cheaper subscription or uncapped downloads.

Ofcom says that four in 10 households could enjoy significantly faster broadband at little or no cost by switching package or provider.

Of course, it’s easier to stick with what you know than go through the hassle of switching your service provider or internet package.

The home-broadband market has a notoriously bad reputation for the difficulties involved in changing your ISP. Although it’s an easier and faster process than it was only a couple of years ago, those who have tried and been burned by migration attempts may well be shying away from trying it again.

Best broadband deals: Going mobile

Only one in 200 survey respondents thought that 3G mobile broadband would make an acceptable alternative to fixed-line broadband, yet a third of readers regularly use 3G connectivity on their smartphone or tablet. In addition, 56 percent log on at Wi-Fi hotspots and access points when out and about; however, only 5.5 percent pay for such access. A further 12 percent make use of 3G dongles or SIMs on their laptops to sate their need for mobile web access. See Best Mobile Broadband Deals.

At the end of 2011, Ofcom reported that smartphone ownership in the UK had passed the 50 percent penetration mark; a further 9 percent of us own tablets. Not all tablets offer 3G connectivity, so additional services that allow access to national Wi-Fi networks are popular inclusions in broadband deals.

Best broadband deals: Speed issues

In February, Ofcom announced a 22 percent jump in average UK broadband speeds year on year. Its research found that 7.6 megabits per second (Mbps) is now the mean connection rate. The main factor behind this improvement is the availability of faster broadband services and consumers moving to faster packages with the same provider.

Our results showed a far greater instance of people whose connections approach the speeds intimated by their ISPs. Some 71 percent said they enjoy connection speeds close to or usually in line with those promised, but this still leaves 29 percent of customers frustrated by slower internet access. Overall, we found a 81.6 percent satisfaction rate for download speeds.

Reliability satisfaction

Enhanced regulations governing how service providers are allowed to describe achievable connection speeds come into force in April. These should ensure potential customers have a better idea of the actual speeds they will achieve with a given ISP. Two years ago, the introduction of a voluntary code of practice to which almost every UK broadband provider signed up saw some improvements in such transparency.

NEXT PAGE: changing ISPs >>

>> OR JUMP TO: PC ADVISOR HOME BROADBAND SURVEY 2012, THE RESULTS

 

Best broadband deals: Hitting the switch

Broadband providers are only too aware that overstating their ability to deliver fast broadband speeds has made consumers disinclined to believe industry marketing hype. The ISPs haven’t helped themselves, often seeming more interested in out-boasting each other and picking holes in rivals’ claims than in providing a clear and transparent outline of what they can offer customers. Many were hauled over the coals by industry regulators, the press and pressure groups for their shortcomings. The fact that it was also difficult for customers to extricate themselves from a service that wasn’t living up to its billing didn’t help.

Migrations are getting easier, though. ISPs must now give a prospective customer an estimated line speed that their particular connection will be able to achieve; should the service fall well below these expectations, the customer is entitled to make an early exit from the service, rather than being tied into it for a minimum contract period.

Ofcom is also calling for changes to how migrations between providers are managed, so that the ‘winning’ ISP controls the changeover process and makes it smoother. Currently, the customer has to request a migration authorisation code (MAC) to pass on to the new ISP. Since it’s losing business, the out-of-favour ISP has little incentive to provide the necessary code quickly.

Migration

Michael Phillips, product director at Broadbandchoices.co.uk, said “annual bills can be cut by over £350 through switching”, but the reticence of some ‘losing’ ISPs to provide MACs may be penalising customers.

Ofcom estimates that one in five consumers switching their broadband lose their service for about a week. Ed Richards, CEO, said: “Smooth switching processes are essential to ensure that consumers can change providers with confidence.

“There’s no excuse for leaving customers without a broadband connection for days during the switching process.”

A MAC is valid for only 30 days, which can cause switchover complications.

Nonetheless, with improvements to the changeover process, better enforcement from regulatory bodies, plus the continuing rollout of faster services across all types of broadband, there are definite benefits to switching to the right provider.

Best broadband deals: Geographic differences

The digital divide in Britain has long been a bone of contention. Certain areas get 100Mbps, while others get no more than 2Mbps on a good day.

Geographic differences and population distribution are often the issues here. Installing fibre-optic connections is expensive, and most such services are clustered in the more densely populated areas.

Rural residents are also likely to be paying the same amount or more for a slower service than people in a local loop unbundled (LLU) area, where a choice of ISPs is vying for their business. No wonder there’s poor broadband uptake in semi-rural areas – £15 a month for an at-best 2Mbps connection is a lot to pay.

Ofcom paints a gloomy picture of broadband access in Scotland and Cumbria, in particular. Its map of broadband services across the UK shows almost all of Scotland rated poorly for provision. (We've pictured the map, but you can get a better look here.)

UK broadband

In the Highlands, there’s a 66 percent broadband take-up rate, with an average connection rate of 7.3Mbps. Although this isn’t far off the national average, 17.2 percent of residents get less than 2Mbps – the figure selected by the UK government in its Digital Economy Bill as the acceptable minimum.

The Isle of Wight has similar statistics, while Wales is almost universally ranked poorly for overall provision and has no super-fast broadband outside Cardiff.

A loop in the formerly excluded south-west has recently been added to Sky’s broadband network, but there’s still much work to do to close the digital divide.

What comes as a surprise is how low broadband uptake is in the UK, according to Ofcom. In Kingston-Upon-Hull, which has its own telecoms network, connection speeds are a smidgen below the national average at 7.3Mbps, but broadband take-up is just 50 percent. The 96.7 percent of those who do have a broadband subscription enjoy a reasonable connection rate, despite Kingston Communications not offering any super-fast tariffs.

On the other hand, Stoke-on-Trent has theoretically good broadband provision, with 78 percent super-fast broadband availability, but a low 58 percent broadband take-up. Staffordshire has slower speeds and far less access to faster broadband, yet a better take-up of services. Cost can’t be the only issue at play here.

Thankfully, there has been some progress for the Final Third (the part of the UK that gets less than 2Mbps broadband or none at all). The government last year made an in principle agreement with Fujitsu, and a partnership of Cisco, TalkTalk and Virgin Media, to build a new network for these customers. This direct-to-the-home fibre-optic network will be delivered by a range of ISPs, How much it will cost to build, and how much customers will be charged, are still unknown quantities, but it’s a welcome development and one that’s long overdue.

Best broadband deals: Local loop unbundling

Even in areas of relatively good broadband provision, a lack of competition in exchanges that haven’t been unbundled continues to be an issue. Ofcom has told BT it must lower the fees it charges ISPs for wholesale line rentals and the right to install their own hardware in BT exchanges (known as local loop unbundling or LLU).

Half a million exchanges were unbundled in late 2011, according to ThinkBroadband, bringing the current total to a little more than 8 million lines.

If your exchange has only one LLU operator plus BT, you’ll be paying top whack. If there are at least three major providers (classified as Market 3), you’re getting good value.

You can find out your situation, plus whether your exchange is due an upgrade any time soon, by consulting the exchange checker.

Best broadband deals: Satellite broadband

Satellite TV broadcaster and terrestrial broadband service provider Sky is unbundling exchanges and upgrading old BT infrastructure to ADSL2+ broadband at a cracking pace. At the end of January, it was providing broadband internet to 17 percent of UK households, with an estimated user base of 3.6 million. Not surprisingly, its 10 million-strong existing customer base of satellite TV customers are proving a fertile market for its ISP business.

Jon Blumberg, commercial director for Sky Broadband and Talk, told us that 60 percent of new customers take its triple-play services, meaning broadband, TV and phoneline.

Sky isn’t the only satellite company in town. For the first time, we received feedback from more than a couple of readers who rely on a satellite connection to get them online. Avanti and Tooway are the two best-known names here.

Satellite broadband is still very much a ‘fill in’ technology, and an expensive option for those who can’t get online by other means. As with other types of broadband, the more people sign up for a service or who express an interest in taking it, the more cost effective it becomes.

Best home broadband deals

Best mobile broadband deals

Broadband wherever

>> NEXT PAGE: PC ADVISOR HOME BROADBAND SURVEY 2012, THE RESULTS

Best broadband deals: PC Advisor Home Broadband Survey 2012, the results

By far the largest number of responses we received were from Virgin Media cable-broadband customers. More than 22 percent of our survey respondents are Virgin Media customers, with a further 3 percent using Virgin Media’s ADSL service.

BT, TalkTalk and Sky Broadband were the next most popular broadband service providers, which reflects the size and availability of each of these major ISPs in the UK.

For our reporting purposes, we split BT’s connection services into ADSL broadband and fibre-optic (Infinity). However, BT Yahoo still exists as a separate entity, with 4.1 percent of survey respondents identifying it as their broadband provider. Combined, the three BT products represented 20.1 percent of the total results, five percent behind Virgin Media’s 25.3 percent overall share (ADSL and cable).

At the other end of the scale, we had single-figure responses from readers who depend on Eircom, UTV, Manx Telecom and Wight Cable to get online. We were unable to draw firm conclusions about the service provided due to the small number of responses for each entity.

Readers shared their experiences of a total of 70 UK ISPs. We had sufficient data on 13 of them to share here.

Best home broadband deals

Best mobile broadband deals

Best broadband deals: Be Broadband

Be Broadband

Reliability satisfaction: 88.9%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 88.9%
Tech support satisfaction: 93.1%
Customer satisfaction: 91.7%
Overall satisfaction: 95.8%
Would recommend: 86.1%

Be Broadband is an ADSL2+ ISP that appeals to customers who want a fast web connection and don’t require a landline or any other service from the same company. This scenario is true for 85 percent of the Be Broadband customers who took part in our survey.

The price paid per month is between £15 and £20 for unlimited broadband. Most Be Broadband customers should be enjoying services promising between 15- and 30Mbps download speeds, but 30 percent said the actual speed was some way off.

This didn’t stop Be from being highly regarded – almost 96 percent of customers declared themselves happy with the service. Solid customer service and tech support show that speed isn’t the be all and end all.

Be is also popular with Mac users: 18.5 percent of customers described themselves as Mac-only users, with a further 15 percent using both Mac and Windows PCs at home. Between two and four PCs share the connection in the average household of a Be Broadband customer.

Best broadband deals: BT Broadband

BT Broadband

Reliability satisfaction: 86.6%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 72.2%
Tech support satisfaction: 83.6%
Customer satisfaction: 82.4%
Overall satisfaction: 88.6%
Would recommend: 70.8%

BT Broadband customers pay between £15 and £25 a month for their web connection, with two thirds combining this with a landline telephone service. VoIP phone calls are enjoyed by 8.4 percent – something that’s promoted as a cost-saving service by BT.

Connection speeds are steady, with 5- to 8Mbps being the most common service chosen. BT offers faster speeds via its Infinity fibre-optic technology. For the longer-established BT Home Broadband, reliability doesn’t get a great write-up.

BT has managed to keep its customers on average for more than five years – almost 50 percent are long-standing customers of at least four years. Connection speed was the most popular reason for considering migrating to a new provider, however.

Many of BT’s customers live in rural locations where ADSL connections are limited to around 2Mbps. With little or no choice of ISP, BT is seen as both expensive and poor value compared to the speed urban dwellers are able to achieve.

Sweeteners for those customers able to access them are BT Openzone WiFi hotspots and BT Openzone.

BT customers tend to spend a below-average amount of their leisure time using the web: around 10 to 20 hours per week is typical, though almost as many said they are online for longer. By contrast, 48 percent of Virgin Media users spend at least 20 leisure hours online, and 44 percent between 10 and 20 hours per week.

General web use and email were the most popular activities, with BBC iPlayer, other streaming and downloading tasks and social networking are under-represented by BT Broadband customers. Online shopping is enjoyed by 83.5 percent, and online banking was cited by 73.7 percent of BT customers.

Based on our results, and with the exception of Plusnet, Mac users are more likely to choose a package from BT than any other ISP.

Best broadband deals: BT Infinity – BEST SUPER-FAST BROADBAND

BT Infinity

Best super-fast broadband

Reliability satisfaction: 95.3%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 95.2%
Tech support satisfaction: 93.1%
Customer satisfaction: 91.9%
Overall satisfaction: 97.3%
Would recommend: 89.9%

Infinity is the fibre-optic product offered by BT. A replacement for limited-speed copper ADSL connectivity, it’s been rolled out to UK homes and businesses over the past two years.

Prices start at £18 a month for a 40Mbps connection with a 40GB download limit and 2Mbps uploads. A BT phoneline is also required, adding £11.50 to the bill. Hardware installation is also involved, attracting a £25 activation fee.

The 2.6 percent of survey respondents who use BT Infinity judged it to be a pretty good deal. Most said they were paying £25 to £40 a month. Rather unfairly, those who aren’t in an Infinity-enabled area instead have to stump up £16 a month (plus phone costs) for a connection speed varying from 3Mbps to 20Mbps, and then get only a 10GB monthly download limit. Thankfully, BT’s Infinity service continues to be rolled out across the UK.

More than a third of BT Infinity customers were already with BT (and had been for at least five years) and had switched from ADSL to fibre-optic broadband when it was offered in their area.

Most customers chose the fastest connection speed they could: 40Mbps in most locations, but a few places enjoy up to 100Mbps broadband. Speed-reliability figures were exceptionally high at 89 percent, while connection reliability was a solid 95.3 percent.

As a result, 89.9 percent would recommend the service, and 30 percent wouldn’t consider changing to another ISP.

A typical comment: “BT Infinity is so much faster than anything else available in my area. With an integrated phone contract with free calls it’s a very good deal”. One complaint that came up several times, however, was that new customers seem to get preferential deals.

Best broadband deals: BT Yahoo

BT Yahoo

Reliability satisfaction: 89.6%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 70.3%
Tech support satisfaction: 84.6%
Customer satisfaction: 83.3%
Overall satisfaction: 90.1%
Would recommend: 70.6%

BT Yahoo customers are casting an envious eye over other BT customers who are enjoying far faster connection speeds. The average BT Yahoo user has been with the same provider for at least five years, so let’s hope their loyalty pays off and fibre-optic broadband comes their way soon. A staggering 43 percent say they can’t get anything like the promised speeds, and most are on an up to 8Mbps package. Another sizable tranche are on the promise of up to 20Mbps connectivity and are paying up to £25 a month for this luxury; downloads are generally unlimited.

A cautious lot, BT Yahoo customers make grateful use of the McAfee software that comes as part of the broadband subscription and make plenty of use of wireless connections. As with BT itself, some of the speed issues with BT Yahoo are likely to be down to the ISP offering a service in an area that others don’t. Overall, 70.6 percent would recommend BT Yahoo for broadband.

There’s a fair number of Mac users (16 percent) among the BT Yahoo customer base. In most cases, there are two or three laptops or PCs vying for the same home broadband connection and poised for online shopping. Email and general web surfing are popular but, given the reported poor connection speeds, it’s perhaps no surprise that more bandwidth-intensive activities such as downloads, video streaming and social networking are under-represented.

Best broadband deals: Demon

Demon

Reliability satisfaction: 88.9%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 73.9%
Tech support satisfaction: 87%
Customer satisfaction: 84.8%
Overall satisfaction: 89.1%
Would recommend: 65.2%

Demon all-but disappeared for a couple of years, but re-emerged in 2010 with a determination to get stuck into fibre-optic broadband provision. As with other mid-sized broadband service providers, it’s been frustrated by BT’s dominance of this market. Nevertheless, it continues to make in-roads in the home-broadband market.

Almost all of Demon’s customers are on a £20 or £25 monthly tariff for broadband only. A few receive a faster connection and pay £35 a month. We had a number of complaints stating that Demon is poor at passing on improved deals to existing customers, and that its service is more expensive than others. Customer service issues were also highlighted by survey respondents.

Web use is split evenly between light users who go online for less than 10 hours a week and those who use it an awful lot more. Connections are of the familiar up to 8Mbps and up to 20Mbps ADSL variety. Actual connection speeds fall below those promised, however, as our poor recommendation and download performance figures show.

Demon customers are sufficiently confident of their broadband connection to use it to run websites and make use of remote-access services, as well pure social activities. Streaming music, internet radio and video appeals to just under 50 percent of Demon customers, but entrepreneurial web use is just as big a pull. Almost half those who responded to our survey have access to an Apple computer at home.

NEXT PAGE: more ISP reviews >>

Best broadband deals: O2

Reliability satisfaction: 93.8%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 87.3%
Tech support satisfaction: 96.9%
Customer satisfaction: 96.8%
Overall satisfaction: 94.6%
Would recommend: 86.5%

Last year, O2 was the overall winner of our Home Broadband Survey and walked away with our Best ISP Award. This year, the broadband service provider has slipped down the ranks a little, but O2 still gives a very good account of itself.

A healthy 5.6 percent of our survey respondents are O2 broadband customers. O2 has a great offer that sees its mobile customers shave £5 off their monthly broadband bill – a very popular incentive, that’s taken up by just over half of its customers. As a result, our survey results show that 60 percent of O2 customers are paying between £10 and £20 per month for their broadband, and getting up to 8Mbps or up to 20Mbps connections in return. Monthly limits of 20GB or 40GB are imposed, although off-peak downloads are excluded.

Both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity are extensively used by O2 customers, which makes sense given the aforementioned mobile and broadband contract many take out. The O2 dongle for 3G access on a laptop is also popular, with 15.6 percent of customers using one.

O2

Broadband speeds don’t come up to scratch, though, warn a quarter of O2 customers. Some 12 percent specifically marked down the ISP for this factor. Connection reliability is better, and an impressive 93.8 percent were satisfied in this department.

Overall, O2 gets another great report from its customers, although the ‘would recommend to a friend’ figure has dipped to 86.5 percent.

A demanding bunch, O2 customers would potentially jump ship if they could get an even better deal that’s also uncapped. However, they may find themselves missing the superlative customer support that current customers report: O2 got one of the best write-ups for this aspect of all the ISPs reviewed here.

Best broadband deals: Orange

Orange

Reliability satisfaction: 84.2%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 68%
Tech support satisfaction: 77%
Customer satisfaction: 77.9%
Overall satisfaction: 68%
Would recommend: 64%

The story for Orange and O2 is in essence the same: customers who also take out or have an existing mobile phone contract can get discounted fixed-line broadband by bundling the two services.

Like O2, Orange offers loyalty incentives in the form of free cinema tickets, meal vouchers and so on. The mobile tie-in is less popular here, though, with just over a quarter (27.1 percent) saying they bundle their broadband with a mobile contract. Landline phone bundling is more common at 30.7 percent, while VoIP also gets a look-in at 8.9 percent.

Price-wise, the sweet spot for Orange broadband customers is £15, with most other customers paying up to £30 a month.

Most Orange broadband customers share their connection with only one other laptop or PC. Even so, 38 percent said they don’t believe they’re getting the connection speed they pay for; most are on an up to 8Mbps connection with unlimited off-peak use.

Only 68 percent of Orange customers state that they are content with the connection speeds they enjoy, while poor customer service and technical support continue to be an issue. These customers have yet to do much about their concerns: 21.8 percent have doggedly stuck with an ISP that clearly could do better for at least three years, while 45.2 percent remain loyal to it after more than five years.

Orange may not offer fibre-optic broadband, but most of its customers are engaged in online tasks that aren’t especially bandwidth-intensive. Email, shopping and general web surfing are fairly standard browsing activities; YouTube, Spotify and iPlayer take a back seat, with well under half of its customers saying they use such services. In contrast, online phone calls are cited by 24 percent of Orange customers as one of their important uses of the web.

Best broadband deals: Plusnet – BEST BUDGET BROADBAND

Plusnet

Best budget broadband

Reliability satisfaction: 94.9%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 85.4%
Tech support satisfaction: 97.4%
Customer satisfaction: 98.3%
Overall satisfaction: 97.3%
Would recommend: 91.1%

Plusnet trades on its good-value, no-nonsense broadband service. Average subscription costs are between £10 and £25 a month among the 5.3 percent of survey respondents who depend on Plusnet for broadband access. For 40 percent of Plusnet users, broadband and a landline phone are provided as a bundle with a single bill, but 60 percent told us they take only their broadband service from the ISP.

The most common connection speed is the up to 8Mbps service, with a further 18 percent on the up to 20Mbps tariff. Plusnet offers fibre-optic broadband too, but too few respondents reported that they are using this service for us to meaningfully analyse their experiences.

Around 30 percent of Plusnet customers told us they aren’t getting the speeds they were expecting. Nonetheless, most felt they were getting a good service and connection for the amount they pay. This was borne out with an incredible overall satisfaction rate of 97.3 percent, and download satisfaction of 85 percent.

Download caps are popular, with most customers appreciating the option to download as much as they like during off-peak hours from midnight until 8am. Whereas other ISPs offer similar deals, Plusnet allows customers to decide on a fairly limited cap of 10GB and schedule heavy downloads during the night.

In fact, it’s hats off to Plusnet for keeping its customers happy on most levels. Transparency of information relating to poorer-than-expected connection speeds, diligence over resolving customer issues, and the use of UK-based call centres all get a huge thumbs-up.

Of the many compliments from its customers, this summarised things best: “The customer support I receive is absolutely top-notch. If I have a problem, which is actually very rare, I get a very prompt and helpful response. Plusnet’s technical support is one of the main reasons I have stayed with it for seven years.”

As with most ISPs here, the internet accounts for an increasing portion of Plusnet customers’ leisure hours. Just under 57 percent said they spent at least 15 hours of their free time online each week.

Popular activities include online shopping, surfing, downloading and email, but gaming, social networking and BBC iPlayer and other streaming services were less common than with other ISPs. Plusnet has its own dedicated gaming broadband service that offers access to low-latency servers with high ping rates.

Best broadband deals: Sky Broadband

Sky Broadband

Reliability satisfaction: 90.9%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 75%
Tech support satisfaction: 90.9%
Customer satisfaction: 90.4%
Overall satisfaction: 90.8%
Would recommend: 77.6%

Sky offers satellite broadband, pay-TV, phonelines and video-on-demand and streaming services. Monthly payments to Sky are therefore high: 54 percent of its mainly PC-owning broadband customers pay more than £40 a month to the company. For this, connection speeds of between 15 and 20Mbps are the most prevalent, while email, web surfing, online shopping and some social networking are the favoured online activities. Unfortunately, nearly half of our survey respondents told us they are getting nothing like the web speeds the service promises. This was borne out by the Speedtest.net results customers provided, with some lowly figures.

On the other hand, 85 percent said they can surf to their heart’s content as their service allows them unlimited broadband. It’s customers also report slightly more than average leisure use (42.4 percent above 20 hours per week).

As one of the youngest ISPs in our survey, Sky has a cross-section of customers who have been subscribers from anything from a few months to three or four years. Peer recommendation levels are almost on a par with more established players, and almost as many current customers said they wouldn’t change their provider as said they’d prefer not to be tied in to a lengthy contract.

With expensive TV services and hundreds of channels to choose from, it’s perhaps no surprise to find less leisure time spent online and only a couple of PCs in a Sky Broadband household. And while web speeds have disappointed a quarter of customers, good connection reliability and technical support suggest Sky’s doing a good job.

Best broadband deals: TalkTalk

TalkTalk

Reliability satisfaction: 84.6%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 74.7%
Tech support satisfaction: 78.6%
Customer satisfaction: 74.3%
Overall satisfaction: 89.7%
Would recommend: 65.8%

TalkTalk customers like to bundle their home phoneline and broadband subscription and pay between £20 and £30 a month for the two. Most have been with the ISP for between two and five years.

Satisfaction figures for this ISP aren’t stellar, with many customers stating they’d rather choose an ISP that doesn’t tie them into a contract. Better value and connection speed were also cited as areas in which TalkTalk could improve its service. Nonetheless, 35.6 percent stated that a bundled broadband deal that gave them a ‘free’ laptop or phone would be worth moving for – the very tie-in deals that many customers appear to be ruing.

Connection drop-outs and lengthy spells waiting for issues to be fixed were mentioned many times in our comments and complaints section, but customers gave TalkTalk a good account. Connection reliability of 84.6 isn’t great, but 89.7 percent professed that they were generally happy with their broadband provision.

TalkTalk users are extensive users of the web, spending at least 20 leisure hours online in 34 percent of cases, with just under 20 percent approaching that level. Usage patterns follow the typical email, web surfing and shopping model of most ADSL providers. Most TalkTalk customers are on an up to 8Mbps or slower service with a 40GB monthly download limit and use a Windows PC to get online.

Best broadband deals: Virgin Media ADSL

Virgin Media ADSL

Reliability satisfaction: 90.6%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 82.2%
Tech support satisfaction: 83.6%
Customer satisfaction: 81.4%
Overall satisfaction: 92.3%
Would recommend: 71.2%

A little over a quarter of Virgin ADSL customers have a £20-per-month broadband connection, while the remaining two thirds pay £26 a month. There’s an almost equal split between those taking the broadband-only service and those with a landline bundle. Unlike Virgin’s cable customers, ADSL users get the choice. However, they can’t get the high connection speeds of their cable counterparts: up to 8Mbps or up to 12Mbps are standard here. Unlimited broadband in the form of the XL package is the most commonly chosen, although a sizable chunk prefer the 40GB per month deal.

Unlike most ISPs, Virgin doesn’t offer a headline speed for its ADSL broadband packages and then let you down gently when it comes to the results of the line and availability checker: you enter your locale details and get an estimate in return. Even so, a worrying 28 percent of customers in our survey said Virgin Media ADSL isn’t providing the speeds anticipated. Virgin Media customers are more vocal about this than customers of most of the ISPs here: they gave only an 82.2 percent satisfaction rating for connection speed, while a modest 71.2 percent said they would recommend their ISP.

Many users said the tariff was expensive – in comparison with the cable version of Virgin’s broadband offering, it certainly looks that way. Customer service also got many mentions, and not in a good way.

The 20 percent of our survey respondents subscribed to Virgin Media’s ADSL service have a Mac at home (often in addition to a PC), and most customers are avid users of Wi-Fi, 3G and tablets.

NEXT PAGE: Virgin Media Cable, and our Best ISP >>

Best broadband deals: Virgin Media Cable

Reliability satisfaction: 94.6%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 94.6%
Tech support satisfaction: 88.6%
Customer satisfaction: 85.5%
Overall satisfaction: 96%
Would recommend: 89.4%

More survey respondents (23 percent) told us they use Virgin Media’s cable-broadband service than that of any other provider.

As a quad-play operator offering a combination of broadband, home phone, mobile phone and digital TV services, it was little surprise to find significant sums being paid to Virgin Media each month. Almost 35 percent of customers are spending more than £50 each month to Virgin for their combined services, with as many again paying between £30 and £49 a month.

Most Virgin Media cable-broadband customers also get their phoneline from the company (70 percent explicitly said this was the case). In fact, taking a Virgin Media landline service is often a prerequisite. Discounted connections for Virgin Mobile customers were another a popular combination – just under 21 percent said they took advantage of this deal.

Despite its recent marketing, most customers are long-standing users, with more than half having been with the cable provider for at least five years and most other customers approaching that.

Far faster connection speeds are offered by cable than ADSL providers can supply, with Virgin Media forging ahead with up to 60Mbps connections for customers already on its 20Mbps service. More than 43 percent of Virgin Media customers who completed our survey said they have the 20Mbps or faster services; as a non-contended connection, most people said they usually get the advertised speed. A modest 9.4 percent said their connection speed was much slower than expected. The overall satisfaction figures of 96 percent were largely down to the impressive connection speeds that were acknowledged by 94.6 percent of customers.

Virgin Media Cable

However, late 2011 and early 2012 saw many reports of customers experiencing frequent connection issues. Consequently, it wasn’t much surprise to find comments along the lines of “I had frequent unexplained dropouts that took ages to be resolved.” On the whole, feedback on the reliability of Virgin Media’s cable service was very good, but many readers felt improvements were needed to the call-centre service. Lengthy waiting times and a lack of technical knowledge were common complaints. Customer service thus got a poor report, with an 85.5 percent satisfaction rating.

Virgin Media is highly praised for its unbeaten connection speeds and, in areas where it’s available, the cable service is clearly the best choice for heavy downloaders and frequent web users. There’s room for improvement in customer services, though.

Just under 80 percent of Virgin cable customers answering our survey said they were Windows and Linux users, with 12 percent using a Mac, and 10 percent describing their home setup as being a mixed PC and Mac environment. Two or three PCs and laptops are the norm.

Best broadband deals: Zen – BEST ISP

Zen

Best ISP

Reliability satisfaction: 98.9%
Peformance (download speeds) satisfaction: 92.2%
Tech support satisfaction: 99.4%
Customer satisfaction: 98.8%
Overall satisfaction: 98.9%
Would recommend: 97.6%

Zen isn’t the cheapest ADSL broadband provider, but it has always polled well in our broadband survey for customer satisfaction and good technical support. As you’ll see from the Best ISP shield adorning this write-up, Zen continues to impress.

Most Zen users take the broadband-only package with unlimited downloads (although several survey respondents were unaware of the limit). Zen also offers a fibre-optic broadband product, but we’ve received feedback from very few customers so far. Depending on the package chosen, you can subscribe to a rolling monthly contract, rather than tie yourself in for a minimum term. Most customers pay around £20 a month for a broadband-only service, and a higher proportion of Mac users than average list Zen as their ISP.

Customers have typically been with Zen for at least three years (32.7 percent have used Zen for between three and five years), with another 32 percent having at least a five-year relationship with it.

The feedback figures for Zen are nothing short of admirable. A little under 60 percent of customers said they wouldn’t consider trading their ISP for another, no matter what.

UK call centres and approachable technical support teams make the difference, it seems. “Brilliant ISP. Worth paying a little extra for the reliable, trouble-free service and friendly technical support” summarised how customers feel about our ISP of the year.

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