Broadband deals abound, but which one's right for you? Our in-depth reader survey revealed how well each ISP (internet service provider) is performing – and contained a few surprises…
To find out which ISPs perform best in each sector - visit: the PC Advisor broadband awards 2007
Broadband internet in the UK today
Broadband provision and the associated service (or lack thereof) is a real touchstone issue. It’s one of those technologies we depend on and take completely for granted. When we don’t get the connection speed we expect, or find ourselves unable to get online, it raises our ire as well as being a royal inconvenience.
However, broadband is in a constant state of flux. Deals and the way they are sold alter all the time, as do the connection speeds the average home can expect to enjoy. The past year or so has seen fundamental changes in the way ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) broadband is delivered, which have enabled significant speed hikes, while buyouts among service providers have led to several bundling other services, such as mobile phone contracts and TV.
A handful of ISPs dominates, with hundreds of smaller providers making up the numbers. Ofcom reports that around 450 ISPs currently do business in the UK.
For the past couple of years, PC Advisor has periodically been sticking a finger in the air and gauging the shifting shape of broadband from customers’ point of view – after all, statistics and PR claims are no indication of actual user experiences. So to find out how these changes have affected the average surfer, we ran the third of our broadband surveys. In late March and April, we asked you to tell us your experiences. More than 2,700 of you did.
What we’ve learned about broadband today
This doesn’t just enable us to give a pat on the back to the top-performing ISPs – although the award winners you’ll find scattered throughout this feature were selected as a direct result of the responses we received. The survey also told us about the decisions that come into play when you choose a broadband provider.
We were keen to discover whether issues highlighted in previous questionnaires, and which have become the subject of wider debate, have been resolved. As a result of consumer pressure and complaints to Ofcom, for example, ISPs must now make it easier for users to switch suppliers.
And we had questions for those who decided a change of ISP was due. Did your current ISP try to keep your custom, or was it happy to let you go? Did the firm make it as easy as you’d have liked, did it explain the changeover process and did it do anything to encourage you to stay?
We wanted to see how things have changed since summer 2006, when several smaller ISPs were bought out – in some cases by bigger ISPs, in others by media and telecoms firms that were new to the arena. Orange’s acquisition of Wanadoo caused lots of problems, but these have settled down.
Several of these conglomerates have followed Carphone Warehouse’s lead by launching ‘free’ broadband in return for lengthy subscriptions and customers buying several services at once. Famously, Virgin Media and Sky have been squabbling over TV channels delivered as part of bundled broadband, TV and phone subscriptions. Has it done either of them any good?
The state of the nation
So what did we discover from our month-long survey into readers’ broadband experiences? We learned which services you enjoy, the ISPs you deem worthy of an award and why.
We’ve looked into what faster speeds enable you to do and what sort of price you should be paying – as well as the issues that need to be addressed to make broadband provision better. What do service providers themselves intend to do to make it happen?
As well as asking about the specific ISP you use, we wanted to get a more general picture of the choices the British consumer is making about broadband provision.
We wanted to know whether raw speed was the main consideration or whether you’d been tempted to compromise on this for an attractively priced broadband bundle – throwing two or more essential services into one basket.
We were conscious of customer service issues that continue to dog the industry. Given that you can now choose between a no-ties contract, a standard year-long subscription and a typically longer commitment to a bundled service with lower subscription costs, we wanted to see which way the traditionally loyal reader jumped.
In past surveys our findings indicated most respondents took the ‘better the devil you know’ approach. This is no longer necessarily the case.
The outlook for broadband Britain is bright and our trickiest decision was deciding which ISP was most deserving of the customer satisfaction award. Deals have become better and more flexible, while connections are quicker and more reliable. And we know that using our collective voice when things aren’t right can yield results.
Broadband user types
Connection speeds and download limits
Five years ago the goal for the majority of UK households was merely to be able to enjoy a broadband connection, but these days it's something we take for granted. Even the few isolated spots where it isn't possible to get ADSL or cable broadband can – or
will shortly be able to - get high-speed internet access.
At the turn of the century, we just wanted to use broadband, but it's no longer a question of ensuring that we all have access to what many regard as a staple of modern life. Britain has become more demanding, and won't settle for less than low-cost, high-speed connections without interruption.
In 2002 and 2003, a full megabyte of bandwidth was considered pretty good – not as nippy as the heady speeds of 2Mbps (megabits per second) available to cable broadband users, but certainly quick. Nowadays a 2Mbps connection is common, while many of us can get 5Mbps. Others are enjoying five times this speed.
It's not just a matter of what you're willing to pay for a connection, though. The broadband postcode lottery plays a critical role too.
In this respect, those lucky enough to live in a cable catchment area continue to have the best deal. If you can get a cable connection with Virgin Media – the result of a merger between the NTL and Telewest cable firms – you'd be well advised to grab one. If you live on the Isle of Wight or the Isle of Man, cable is the obvious choice. Head to wightcable.com or manxcable.com.
We've all seen the TV adverts for incredible broadband speeds. The reality is more pedestrian. In 2005, the few broadband companies that were able to offer 20Mbps and above were greeted by an enthusiastic mob of would-be customers. The truth was that it was possible to get these figures, but unless you had the most pristine wiring from your home to your telephone exchange and were all but adjacent to it, real-world speeds would be significantly lower.
It seemed unfair that if you couldn't get the speeds advertised, you still had to pay as much as those who could. It's now clear that consumers want either speed and hefty (or even unlimited) downloads, or a value package in which speed is less critical. Pricing has changed to reflect demand.
When it comes to whether or not you can get the top speeds advertised, it's not the individual ISPs setting the rules here: it's BT. The oft-cited issue of the copper that carries data down the line is important, but the offers of up to 8Mbps broadband are of a new kind: ADSL Max. Instead of depending entirely on line quality and proximity to the exchange, this boosts connection rates via compression algorithms. Choose such a product and you'll need to wait a week or two for it to ‘bed in' and find its balance.
However, Freedom2Surf customer care manager Helen Hudson says the instability of the product, even after giving it time to settle down, often means she advises customers that they will have a better broadband experience if they switch back to a fixed-speed IPStream product. The top speed for this is 2Mbps.
While BT offers this via its own Total Broadband product, it's offered by many other ISPs too. This is where LLU (local loop unbundling) comes into its own, and is also where Orange came a cropper when migrating the Wanadoo customers it inherited last summer.
According to Ofcom, the average connection speed available to UK households is 3.4Mbps. This includes those lucky enough to enjoy cable broadband, a service that has long offered speeds several gears ahead of ADSL.
But if you want to know whether you're keeping pace with the Joneses, the answer is that, if you can get broadband at all, you should be able to get at least 2Mbps.
Beyond this, companies such as Bulldog and Be were early to the table with still faster ADSL2+ broadband services, but the hype around them has died down. Such ISPs can deliver fast broadband only where it's economically viable for them to fit their own hardware into an exchange and, in practice, this continues to be urban areas. So, yes, you can get 18, 20 or even 24Mbps broadband, but you need to live
in a privileged area to do so.
Are 'unlimited broadband' accounts fair?
Over the past two years, so-called unlimited broadband has been available. This may seem an odd thing to say, given that we were sold broadband as 'always on' internet. But as many hundreds of customers have found out, web access isn't as untrammelled as all that.
In 2005 ADSL customers got some very welcome speed hikes. We saw a noticeable, tangible acceleration in our broadband-connection rates, along with the ability to load up web pages and draw down content much faster. This, however, led to greater demand for content stored online.
Almost overnight it became possible to download huge files; playing games against others online became a smooth and satisfying experience. Running sophisticated applications over the web became feasible.
But these activities, which huge bandwidth enables us to take for granted online, are the reason restrictions were put in place. More and more web servers are needed to store and serve up all the data we're demanding. Imposing a limit on those demands is necessary – and the terms and conditions of 'unlimited' broadband deals give the game away. They are subject to an arbitrary-sounding policy known as 'fair use'.
What is fair use?
Pressing your ISP on what it deems fair use is unlikely to yield concrete limits beyond which it will cut you off or charge you. But if you've a speedy connection that you set to download huge files on a routine basis, and only ever come offline when taking a week-long sojourn, you're likely to eventually find your service either slowed or interrupted.
ADSL broadband is a contended service, which means that dozens of other people will be hooked up to the same server as you and share the available bandwidth. So if everyone wants to be online at once, streaming video or downloading movies or software, the service will slow down and the server may eventually collapse. Not fair, say the ISPs – but unclear terms and conditions for broadband services aren't fair either. ISPs need to find a better way of describing their 'uncapped unless you push it' subscriptions.
If you're on a very speedy capped connection in which you choose a download limit to suit your needs, you need to keep an eye on how long you surf and how much bandwidth you used. A 2GB or 4GB service is fine for light use such as general surfing and email, but these activities are included in the monthly usage limit. If several family members engage in these 'light' activities, or any of you start messing about with Web 2.0 activities such as photo and video sharing, online gaming or downloading music – even sending numerous attachments over email – you could hit your monthly cap.
At this point, you'll probably receive an email warning from your ISP, along with details of how much per gigabyte it will cost you to exceed your download limit. The amount varies substantially, so check this in the small print of your terms and conditions or against our comparison tables.
Happily, you should be able to upgrade your account to one with a far higher limit without fuss – a much more cost-effective way of buying extra bandwidth.
Download and keep guide: more than 30 web-only broadband deals compared in depth:
Phone and web broadband bundles
ISPs' terms and conditions vary hugely but bundled broadband services may well be the best way to get the web – and more.
An increasing number of us are electing to get our broadband from the same company that provides our home telephone, cable TV or even mobile phone. A report released by Ofcom in April 2007 states that 40 percent of UK households now buy broadband and at least one other service from the same provider.
This is echoed by our own survey, in which 53.8 percent of you told us you get your broadband and landline telephone services from the same company. And the attraction is clear: it costs less.
Buying broadband in this way is known as a bundled deal. The customer gets low-cost (or even no-cost) broadband, with added incentives such as cheap calls thrown in.
Many of us find it simpler to receive a single bill from one provider for a selection of utilities. In return, the provider has our guaranteed custom – often for a lengthy period. When Carphone Warehouse launched its 'free' TalkTalk broadband deal in 2006, the requirements included using its landline phone service and an 18-month contract.
There's fierce competition between providers to offer the best combination for customers, as we are unlikely to switch once we've chosen to bundle all our services.
To swap providers for one utility is a hassle; but to have to change providers for two, three or even four different services is something we're unlikely to bother with.
With such high stakes, it's hardly surprising to see underhand methods coming into play. Some firms try a little too hard to attract customers, sometimes using a technique called 'slamming'. However, satisfaction levels for bundled broadband are high.
Add X to Y
There are plenty of options available when choosing a bundled deal. There's an abundance of service providers, many of which offer a range of bundled plans. Some provide cut-price broadband, while others offer cheap telephone calls. In each case, you'll need to have a BT landline and, unless you're signing up to one of BT's Total Broadband packages, will need to pay your home phone charges through your ISP.
For example, Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk deal provides broadband at no extra cost when you sign up to its Talk3 call plan. The charge for the line rental and monthly fee for the call plan comes to just under £20 a month. You'll need to buy a modem.
Reader Pete Thompson was torn between a TalkTalk bundle and a similar Tiscali deal – TalkTalk won his vote with its 40GB download limit and good value bundle.
"I decided to go with TalkTalk – even though its customer service was receiving very bad publicity at the time – because, when I looked at the fine print, Tiscali was about £10 per month more expensive and the download limit was only a fraction of that provided by TalkTalk," he said.
Tiscali's BroadCall offers free weekend calls, 8MB broadband and line rental for under £20. There's no minimum signup period, you can bolt on gas and electricity – ideal if you prefer a single provider to take care of all your bills – but the catch is the £1.25 fee per GB above the monthly limit.
How to compare bundles
Perhaps you want to combine your home phone and broadband, or you'd like to get all of your services, such as TV, mobile, home phone and internet, through one service provider. In our comparison tables we've outlined deals for landline and broadband combinations separately from those for TV and mobile phone deals.
Subscription costs vary depending on the download limit and connection speed. Other variables you should consider are the price of line rental and setup and the minimum contract. Usually, the ISP will charge BT's standard £11-a-month line rental, but since LLU has come into play, some ISPs shave a pound or so from this element.
Most bundled contracts are for a year, but some ISPs, including BT, encourage you to sign up for a minimum of 18 months. At the other end of the scale, ISPs such as Plusnet provide a bundled package on a month-by-month basis. And Tiscali requires no commitment to its phone package.
The cost of migrating between providers needs to be considered when choosing a bundled deal. Some allow you to switch for nothing, while others charge a hefty fee.
If you're opting for a deal that includes special offers on phone calls, glance over your existing bill and see where and when most of your calls are made. Many providers have deals specifically for certain times.
Note, too, that not all ISPs can provide a service in all areas. Enter your postcode and phone number at the ISP's site to discover whether it covers your area and to find the top connection speed on offer.
Ensure you read the provider's terms and conditions. Tiscali, which offers two Tiscali Talk bundles, Free Weekend Talk or Anytime Talk, has no minimum contract for Tiscali Talk but a 12-month contract for Tiscali Broadband.
Taking TV too
TV bundles are popular. As of October 2006, Ofcom found 32 percent of residential broadband subscriptions were combined with a landline telephone service in this way. A further 12 percent of customers said they had signed up to a package offering TV. Sky had recently launched its Sky+ Broadband deal for existing Sky satellite subscribers, while most of the other positive responses were from cable broadband customers.
Since then, bundles have gone from strength to strength, with more consumer choice and greater rivalry among bundled service providers – the most obvious example being Sky and Virgin Media.
Just under 35 percent of respondents to our survey chose a bundled TV and internet package, while the figure for landline phone and broadband bundles is 53 percent. Fewer than 7 percent chose a bundled deal for their mobile phone and broadband.
Our research found 81 percent of survey respondents who have TV and broadband bundles are Virgin Media customers. This is unsurprising, given that cable customers account for around half the UK's broadband base.
With Virgin's buyout and dual cable/ADSL offerings, the behemoth was bound to increase its share. 12.4 percent of these have a Sky Broadband and TV bundle.
Bundles of joy?
On balance, our survey findings suggest bundled broadband is a good option for most consumers. There's flexibility in the types of packages, with connection speeds, download limits and costs to suit everyone.
However, it can be difficult to work out which deal is best. And it's important to get this right, since you may be tied into the bundle contract for up to 18 months.
The thing to remember is that you shouldn't be immediately enticed by the freebies. Check out the specifics of each package and see which best suits your needs before making a final decision.
Broadband reliability and service
When we asked how reliable your connection was, we were delighted to find almost uniformly positive results. Most of you reported that you were able to get the connection speed you'd been told you would at signup and were largely happy with the speeds you routinely enjoyed. Some of you had measured your live connections and had found them approaching the speeds advertised.
Several ISPs, including Karoo and Eclipse, have opted for hefty evening download limits – typically 20GB to 50GB – and provide users with as much bandwidth as they wish the rest of the time. This has led to fewer speed fluctuations as heavy users are encouraged to scheduled bandwidth-hogging downloads at hours when others are unlikely to feel the pinch.
Following gripes and grumbles over 'connection throttling' and the cunning way some ISPs seem to (wrongly) imply their service involves no restrictions, an e-petition was set up on the Downing Street website asking Ofcom to enforce greater clarity. But we felt these details were generally offered upfront or easily found in service outlines. The picture is certainly far clearer than it was. In any case, ADSLGuide.org and commercial comparison sites reveal much of the fine print on consumers' behalf.
Downloads: how happy are you with your ISP? & how reliable is your connection?
While not all of you were convinced by the technical prowess of your ISP – more than a few readers were unimpressed by their old ISP's support team's knowledge but have had a better experience with their current provider – the level of customer service was generally high. This was good news.
However, while the responses to our own survey suggest a bright picture, Ofcom says poor customer service levels are still a particular concern with bundled broadband. This is the area with the most upheaval (the clamour for signups that TalkTalk experienced last year being a case in point) and the most disparate elements – landline, internet, mobile phone, VoIP (voice over IP) and TV. It also contains several newcomers to the market.
That said, no ISP can be complacent, no matter how effectively they seem to have locked customers into their service. There are simply far too many competitors – and these are not just the fixed-line ISPs.
As well as no-strings broadband, there's now a groundswell of interest in affordable mobile broadband in the shape of 3G on laptops and other portable devices.
What's more, while a major proportion of our survey respondents were still with their first broadband ISP, more of you than ever before had seen fit to chop and change – a big shift has occurred in the way we think about internet provision.
Customer care in action
Nildram and Freedom2Surf were two of the standout companies in PC Advisor's survey when it came to satisfaction and customer care. The firms recently came 6th and 8th respectively in the BBC's Watchdog poll – something Andy Slater, director of products and marketing at Nildram, is keen to improve upon.
To this end, the company has introduced a 'dashboard' questionnaire designed along similar lines to the well-regarded JDPower Ratings scheme, seeking to establish whether the firm is meeting its users' expectations.
Slater argues that as the broadband market matures, opening up usable web access to everyone, it's more important for ISPs to stand out by providing a good experience. "Nildram isn't selling the cheapest service, but it has the support to back it up," he says.
Behind the marketing speak is Helen Hudson, head of technical support at F2S/Nildram. Her staff go on a three-month training course before answering any support calls, and the firm tries to keep this knowledge within the business.
The calls this team handles are distinct from those of customer care, another 50-strong team that looks after broadband orders, billing, provisioning and questions about when a customer's service will go live.
They're backed up by QBuster software, which helps both teams through peak call times, as well as informing customers of wait times or offering them an automatic callback. Helen Hudson says this scheme works well and customers are far happier to receive a call from the service team than to wait in line.
Details of calls are logged so the teams have an idea of the sorts of queries customers have. An online Ask A Question microsite acts as a knowledge base for existing customers. Many current queries relate to the BT Max product that enables ISPs to offer up to 8Mbps broadband – a flexing service that takes 10 days or more to 'bed in'. Even then it may not be stable, and customers are often switched over to a fixed-rate 2Mbps line.