The results of PC Advisor's annual Home Broadband Survey and the winners of this year's Best Broadband awards – as judged by you.

Another year has drawn to a close and, yet again, it was a 12-month period that promised a lot and didn’t always seem to deliver. At the start of 2010, we were told that the worst of the economic downturn was behind us, a whole new era of government would inject new ideas, and BT Infinity would deliver 21st-century broadband to most of the UK. Meanwhile, those previously stuck in the broadband slow-lane would be given a connectivity boost.

See also: How to get 100Mb broadband

With austerity measures hitting the headlines, and the coalition government backtracking on plans to fund the gap between broadband haves and have-nots, it would be easy to summarise 2010 as a technological write-off.

In many ways, it’s been anything but. BT Infinity installations for fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband were about to hit the accessible-to-four-million-homes landmark by the time we were tuning up for ‘Auld Lang Syne’. The telecoms giant was also preparing to wire up the have-nots of Cornwall with a mixture of FTTC and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband in early 2011 (for more information, see

BT’s Race To Infinity project came to a close at the end of 2010 – we soon expect to be able to announce which communities successfully made a case for their exchanges to be upgraded to fibre-optic broadband.

And while the planned upgrades to the basic broadband infrastructure apparently stalled for lack of government commitment to the unpopular 50p-per-month broadband tax, it’s still claiming to have earmarked £830m to the project.

Virgin Media, too, continued to investigate how to get fast broadband to rural locations, famously using telegraph poles to carry its cables to parts of Oxfordshire.

For most of us, though, it was a matter of making the best of existing broadband connections. Promised exchange upgrades to local loop unbundling (LLU) have taken longer to effect than was originally predicted. Many readers commented in our Broadband Survey about overdue upgrades; several said that more than a year after their service provider promised it, a speed hike was only now looking likely.

Even so, the results of this year’s annual PC Advisor Home Broadband Survey are largely positive, with thousands of readers expounding the delights of being able to surf the web smoothly and at will, without page-load delays and connection interruptions. Almost all your shopping and associated research seems to be conducted online these days, while online gaming, web-based learning and internet radio are commonplace.
As well as keeping in touch by email, on Facebook, via instant messaging and by chatting over webcams, many survey respondents said BBC iPlayer, YouTube uploads and music-streaming sites are also keeping you entertained. No wonder bandwidth and unlimited monthly downloads have become such a prized commodity. Considering the aspects of your current ISP you’d change, fast, unlimited downloads with no cut-offs (ideally with no traffic shaping) were a common wish.

Here, we look at what else this year’s PC Advisor Home Broadband Survey has revealed, and the conclusions we can reach about ISPs and the services they provide.

Best buy broadband: The customer is always right

After years of decrying ISPs for promising more than they could deliver on the speed front, customers have finally got some muscle in the form of Ofcom. It’s backing a voluntary code of practice that requires ISPs to state realistic connection speeds, to which they can then be held accountable.

These more accurate estimates are intended to give broadband customers greater transparency over what they are buying, and to improve the reputation of the ISPs. An ‘access line speed’ must be given to a potential customer enquiring about a new subscription. This figure must be provided before a migration authorisation code (MAC) is handed over to allow the transfer from one ISP to another.
Ideally, it should be offered at the start of negotiations.

Virgin Media has sought to make itself a hero here, proclaiming its transparency over connection speeds – which is somewhat easier if, like Virgin, you own the infrastructure rather than lease it, and you have an uncontended web service. ADSL broadband shares its bandwidth among multiple users, with resulting peaks and troughs at different times of the day and days of the week.

NEXT: the need for speed >>

The results of PC Advisor's annual Home Broadband Survey and the winners of this year's Best Broadband awards – as judged by you.

Best buy broadband: The need for speed

With a form of service-level agreement now in place between broadband provider and customer, there’s more reason than ever to take a peek at how well your ISP is delivering on its promises. When we asked about this factor in our Home Broadband Survey, we were surprised to find 24 percent of you don’t know or never check your connection speed.

Given that 42 percent of all survey respondents said they spend at least 20 hours of their leisure time online each week, and 46 percent of you are ardent BBC iPlayer fans, it’s a critical figure.

To check your web-connection speed, you should consult an online speed-test utility. There’s one on the PC Advisor website ( You’ll need Java installed, so head first to and ensure your version is up to date.

More than two-thirds of survey respondents made use of this test and let us know how well their ISP is performing. A pleasing 65 percent said their result was fairly close to the claimed speeds.

Other broadband speed tests exist. Ours is based on Think Broadband’s Speed Test, but the other well-known one is SamKnows. In tandem with Ofcom, SamKnows began conducting exhaustive speed trials with home broadband users throughout 2010 that will run until late 2011. Participants are offered personalised average-speed reports on a monthly basis. In time, we hope to see a similar service rolled out on demand to all broadband customers.

For an accurate reading, you need to have your PC otherwise idle – if you’re downloading a large program or engaged in instant messaging, you’ll either get a skewed result or prevent the speed checker working. Check, too, that other devices are not also trying to use the connection while you perform the test. For a fair comparison, make subsequent speed checks at a similar time of day.

Ofcom regularly publishes average connection speeds that show a slow but sure increase across all ISPs. The UK average was 5.2Mbps as of July 2010. If your service seems to have plummeted, your speed-check results can help prove your point. While you may not get actual monetary compensation from the ISP for not matching your speed expectations, you do get an all-important get-out clause to help you look to other ISPs.

A MAC and a quick exit from your contract can be yours should your broadband service fail to deliver. Along with good value and good speed, not being tied into a lengthy contract is something 28 percent of you cited as critical to choosing your next ISP.

See also: How to get 100Mb broadband

Best buy broadband: Faster broadband for free

There’s a fair bit you can do to optimise your own web connection. Keeping the router firmware up to date and upgrading from the ADSL modem that came with your broadband subscription are a good start.

A router also gives you more control over your connection than a modem. You can choose what types of traffic are prioritised, perhaps pushing all the available bandwidth towards the web-call you want to make to your cousin overseas using a feature confusingly known as quality of service (QoS). Similarly, gaming fans can prioritise ping rates for the gaming server, giving a critical advantage over rivals as you get to see the enemy tanks appear over the horizon fractionally before your competitors.
Other improvements include attenuating the modem settings – something hardcore tweakers swear by, but whose benefit depends on additional factors – and switching your web browser to one that is less graphics-heavy, such as Google Chrome. When Mozilla entered the web-browser market with Firefox, it was largely its lack of bloat compared to Internet Explorer that won it immediate fans.

Checking for malware and keeping your web-security defences on guard is also important. One of the first signs of a malware infection, keylogger or other rogue web element, is a noticeable slowdown in the web connection and the rate at which pages load. Of course, disabling pop-up adverts, turning off ActiveX and browser-enhancement apps, and not spending all your time on video- and graphics-heavy sites will also help avoid web crawl.

Other people can greatly influence your web experience, too. If lots of you are sharing a web connection, it’s a fair bet your internet access will crawl along or even cut out. In shared accommodation, a second line such as an ADSL2+ one could be a good bet, while a pay-as-you-go 3G connection could be worth having as a standby. Tethering your smartphone and using its 3G function to get online can also work in a pinch. A 3G hub such as a MiFi hotspot can even get several of you online via the same subscription.

Routers bring their own issues. Site them above basement-height in the middle of the premises, with the antennae pointing upwards. Splay out the antennae to broaden its reach. For dead spots, supplement the connection from your laptop to the PC directly connected to the broadband modem router with another wireless router or an ethernet or HomePlug connection.

If you try to upload lots of YouTube or camcorder video clips, you may also find your £10-a-month web connection will stall. Some budget broadband deals provide healthy download speeds, while uploads are limited to 512Kbps or less. As we found in our recent webcams group test, you ideally need synchronous broadband (rather than the asymmetric fast downloads; slower uploads of ADSL) to successfully make crisp broadband phone calls and conduct video chat.

NEXT: how to change your ISP >>

The results of PC Advisor's annual Home Broadband Survey and the winners of this year's Best Broadband awards – as judged by you.

Best buy broadband: how to change your ISP

If you’ve decided your broadband provider no longer represents the best-value service or isn’t performing as well as you’ve come to expect, or BT Infinity is coming to your area and it’s tempted you to jump ship, here’s how to go about changing your ISP.

Check that the service with your chosen ISP is available to you. Do both phoneline and postcode checks at the ISP’s website, then check a reputable broadband-comparison site, such as, for up-to-date information about the actual speeds currently enjoyed by your near neighbours. Be sure the figures listed are current – within the past three months, ideally.

Find out whether any special terms and conditions apply to your proposed service. The length of contract and the need to install a phoneline or change to a new provider (some broadband deals insist that you use the same ISP for phone calls) should all be borne in mind.

Will you need new hardware and do you have to return the router your current ISP provided? Will you be able to take your email address(es) with you and how easy it is to change over and inform friends of your new email details?

Is there any security software provided with the new service? A quarter of our Home Broadband Survey respondents said they use theirs – if you don’t want to go down the free antivirus route, you will need to fork out for ongoing security cover if you’re changing over from an ISP that has been protecting your computer until now.

Armed with all this information – and the advice from existing customers summarised in the individual ISP report cards overleaf – you’ll be in a good position to choose and switch to a new provider.

When choosing an ISP, head to a site such as PC Advisor’s Home Broadband Comparison Site and enter your postcode to see what your locality offers. If you want to know whether BT Infinity is coming to your postcode any time soon, type in your address and landline phone number or consult the BT Openreach logs at

Get a ‘line access report’ from the new ISP. This is the estimated connection speed it believes it will be able to provide you with. It will be dependent on the usual quality of the copper line/distance from the telephone exchange/unbundled or not issues that all ADSL connections are affected by. The figure the ISP gives you will also be legally binding and offers some redress if it can’t deliver.

When you’re ready, give notice to your ISP, obtain a MAC, pass it to the new provider along with the paperwork to set up your subscription, then arrange a switchover date. These days, you have far more control over the whole process – which once you have the MAC, could happen in as little as seven days, if you wish (and other circumstances allow). All you have to lose is a laggy old web connection and the monthly bill as you bid your old adversaries a not-so-fond farewell.

NEXT: our reviews of the Top 10 Broadband ISPs in the UK in 2011 >>

The results of PC Advisor's annual Home Broadband Survey and the winners of this year's Best Broadband awards – as judged by you.

Best buy broadband: The best broadband deals revealed

Choosing a good-value, dependable broadband subscription that delivers most of the speed its marketing materials promise isn’t as hard it as seems. Postcode checkers that show you on a street-by-street basis the ISPs that operate in your area and the connection speeds enjoyed by your neighbours go a long way to providing an accurate indication of what you can expect.

However, there’s still a vast inequality between the connection speeds on offer in some postcodes and those available a few miles – sometimes only a few streets – away. Making matters worse is that in areas where there is choice, and therefore competition, better-value deals are often on offer. If you’re in a rural area where it’s BT or nothing – and then only an ‘up to’ 2 megabits per second (Mbps) connection – you may end up paying as much or even more than friends in a nearby town where there’s faster connectivity. It doesn’t seem – and isn’t – fair.

As we’ve found in previous years, many people prefer to choose one ISP and stick with it through thick and thin. Often, it’s the easiest option. Who’s to say whether a different provider will offer a better service, and what about the hassle involved in giving notice and getting a MAC to release you from the handcuffs of your existing ISP?

But with some useful tools on your side, there’s no reason to be stuck in a broadband rut any longer.

The Top 10 Broadband ISPs in the UK, 2011:

AOL Broadband review 3/5

Be Broadband review4.5/5

BT Broadband review 4/5

O2 Broadband review 4.5/5

Orange Broadband review 3/5

Plusnet review 4/5

Sky Broadband review 4/5

TalkTalk review 3/5

Tiscali review 2.5/5

Virgin Media review 4/5