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.
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.)
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.