We show you which of the recent rash of 'free broadband' deals are worth signing on for, investigate the perils and pitfalls of such deals, and suss out what's in it for the ISPs.

When Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk launched its ‘free broadband for all' offer in April 2006, students of modern history could easily have been forgiven for feeling a touch of techno déjà vu.

Eight years earlier the market for dial-up web access was turned on its head when Dixons Group teamed up with Leeds-based hosting provider Planet Online to offer subscription-free internet access to customers buying home PCs from Dixons stores. Instead of the standard monthly subscription fee, revenue was derived from a portion of the standard telephone line charges. The ISP was called Freeserve and was in large part responsible for driving internet access uptake in the UK.

Many predicted an impact of similar magnitude when TalkTalk introduced its free broadband offer. Until then, most broadband contracts were for one year only - after a 12-month period the customer was free to switch to an alternative provider. To qualify for the offer, broadband customers would have to agree to sign up for the company's phone service for 18 months.

Rival ISPs had no choice but to respond in kind, and there was a rash of imitations. If TalkTalk lit the torch, Orange and Sky subsequently blazed
a trail with rival free-broadband offers.

BT, meanwhile, has announced plans to offer a similar service when its 21st Century Network is switched on in 2008.

On the face of it, the offers seemed excellent value for money. But the reality fell short for some customers. There were reports of users being left offline for up to six months, while others complained of appalling technical support.

TalkTalk admitted over-stretching its call centres. It was "overwhelmed by demand".

"For about 20 percent of customers there is some kind of problem with the phone exchange, the line or something else," confessed the Carphone Warehouse's chief executive, Charles Dunstone.

"There is no point trying to pretend everything is all right. Our business exploded and we compressed the problems everyone in the industry has had into a few months.

"It has given customers nightmares and I just can't ignore complaints."

Following this teething phase, however, reports of dissatisfaction appear to have died down. As the market moves from what marketers call ‘early adopters' to ‘early majority', it could be the perfect time to make the most of these deals. Nearly 18 months on from TalkTalk's free broadband offer, companies can better gauge the ongoing levels of demand and can plan their level of call-centre support accordingly.

PC Advisor readers recently voted TalkTalk's Talk3 the best phone and web bundle on the market. What's more, in response to poor signup rates following multiple service complaints, TalkTalk has now introduced a free 30-day broadband trial. Customers are able to cancel their contract in the first month, penalty-free.

The deals explored:

Quick links

PCA PODCAST: GET LAPTOPS & BROADBAND FOR FREE

In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and
learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest internet news, tips and downloads

TalkTalk

www.talktalk.co.uk

To qualify for the Talk3 International call plan, you must sign up for TalkTalk's line rental at £10.50 a month (the same as BT). You also need to pay £10 for your phone package. So for £20.50 per month, all local and national calls – as well as calls to any one of 30 countries on TalkTalk's list (including all of Europe and the US) – are covered. You then receive ‘free' broadband with a top speed of 8Mbps (megabits per second) and a 40GB monthly download limit.

In terms of security, TalkTalk offers two internet security packages for an extra £2.50. But there are savings to be made if you're a DIY kind of person and are more than happy with a free virus checker, such
as AVG and Windows Firewall. You will have to manage your own updates, however.

The introduction of a no-quibble 30-day trial and its recent PC Advisor award as ‘Best phone and web bundle' makes Talk3 appear to be very reasonable value for money.

The deals explored:

Quick links

PCA PODCAST: GET LAPTOPS & BROADBAND FOR FREE

In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and
learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest internet news, tips and downloads

Orange

freebb.orange.co.uk

Broadband Starter is for new and existing customers. You're required to sign up to an 18- or 24-month pay monthly mobile plan costing £30 or more – broadband is free with selected mobile price plans.

Connection speed isn't great – up to 2Mbps – and there's a tiny 2GB monthly download limit. This is fine if you're a casual browser, but if you're regularly downloading multiple episodes of Lost, you'll need more.According to Orange a 2GB limit is sufficient for 90 percent of its customers, and it claims to be fairly tolerant if customers occasionally step over the line. Persistent offenders will be threatened with disconnection.

Any customer requiring more than 2Mbps or 2GB in downloads each month must pay an extra £5 a month for their broadband connection (on top of their mobile phone rental). Worse still, Orange is now billing users of the 'free' package 50p per minute for technical support. Users who pay for their broadband avoid this premium fee.

On paper, Orange Broadband is suitable for high-end mobile phone users who don't need top broadband speeds and don't download much. But complaints about customer service are still causing concern – the company recently came bottom in a uSwitch customer poll.

The deals explored:

Quick links

PCA PODCAST: GET LAPTOPS & BROADBAND FOR FREE

In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and
learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest internet news, tips and downloads

Sky

broadband.sky.com

If you're a Sky TV subscriber – or if you want to be one – you can get ‘free' broadband with your package. As with Orange's offer, this is entry-level stuff. You get an uninspiring 2Mbps broadband connection speed and a monthly download limit of just 2GB. Hardcore downloaders who want to increase the usage cap to 40GB will be expected to fork out an extra £5 per month on top of the TV subscription package. There's also a setup fee of £30.

If you're likely to be paying a Sky subscription anyway, this is a sensible way of getting lightweight broadband for free.

Tiscali

tiscali.co.uk

While TalkTalk offers free broadband in exchange for paid line rental, Tiscali has decided to skin the cat in a different way, providing free line rental in return for paid broadband. You get free line rental, a modem and email, antispam and antivirus services with your 2Mbps connection. It costs £15 per month for broadband, plus a £30 setup fee.

The deals explored:

Quick links

PCA PODCAST: GET LAPTOPS & BROADBAND FOR FREE

In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and
learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.

Visit Broadband Advisor for the latest internet news, tips and downloads