Whether you're getting online for the first time or just want to get the facts straight before jumping in to a new deal, read on: we know how to get the best deal on broadband.
Let's start by dealing with some really practical issues.
How to get a broadband connection
There are three questions we always get asked about fixed line connections.
Here we've tried to answer them as fully as possible.
1. Do I need a phone line?
To get an ADSL connection, the UK's most common type of broadband, yes, you'll need to pay for line rental.
When you sign up for broadband you will have one of the following options regarding home phone:
- Keep your current line rental and call plan.
- Move both your line rental and call plan to the broadband provider.
Broadband providers are generally keen for you to move your phone services over to them so cheaper broadband is usually available with option 2.
In both cases, the phone service is moved over while using exactly the same physical phone line. There usually aren't any reconnection fees if you want to go back to BT, either, so there's no real disadvantage to switching the service, other than convenience.
It also has the advantage of putting services together so that customers receive just one monthly bill. In addition, as we update this article, no broadband providers charge more for line rental than BT (at least when paying each month) so there are savings to be made.
If you don't have a phone line at your property or your current phone line is badly damaged you'll need to have a new phone line installed in order to get ADSL broadband.
Many providers will do this for free when new customers sign up for broadband, see our guide to new phone line installation for more.
It's also worth noting that it's possible to take a Virgin Media broadband package without a phone service or go for satellite or mobile broadband.
In these cases there's no need to pay line rental, although all three services are often more expensive than ADSL.
In the vast majority of cases, taking Virgin Media broadband without a phone line won't make home phone services unavailable in the future. However, depending on how they install their line, Virgin Media may sometimes need to physically disconnect the BT line from the master socket which could incur a reconnection fee if the household were ever to go back to BT for home phone services.
2. Why can't I get provider X?
Our search tables show providers based on postcode and, for even more accurate results, home phone number.
The range of ISPs available to a particular household depends on availability at the local exchange and, in the case of fibre, the cables running to the household.
If a search turns up relatively few broadband options then the chances are that the postcode is being served by a bundled or non-LLU telephone exchange, which is the least competitive type of exchange.
In that case, it will be worth checking our guide to rural broadband to see what the options are.
Since providers at non-LLU exchanges tend to be reselling BT Wholesale services they will typically be more expensive than those at LLU exchanges.
3. How much usage do I need?
Providers have a number of different ways of charging for broadband but one of the most popular is based on estimated monthly usage.
For tips on estimating how much is needed have a look at our guide to usage allowances.
Alternatively, it's an option to bypass the issue and go for a ISP that charges based on broadband speed. Virgin Media's broadband is a good example of this type of pricing.
The downside of that approach is that it inevitably means missing out on some of cheapest deals.
Some broadband providers charge based on a combination of speed and estimated usage.
This makes sense because light users are likely to be using services which don't need such high speeds and heavy users are also likely to need high speeds. Sky broadband uses this kind of pricing: all their fibre broadband deals are also unlimited.
Confused by some of the terms above? Never fear, we have definitions here.
Back in the days of dial-up, Internet connections were delivered through copper cables on the same frequency that carries voices (which is why we all used to get those irritating beeping noises on our phone lines).
Broadband as we know it was born with DSL technology, which moved the broadband connection to a different frequency. DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line; it uses the high frequency bands on telephone lines allowing it to run simultaneously with the low frequency voice data as opposed to dial-up, which runs on the same frequency as voice.
ADSL is the most common form of DSL and stands for Asymmetrical DSL. It's asymmetrical because the upload and download speeds are not the same. To reach the same speeds uploading as downloading the DSL has to use up all of the available frequency bandwidth on the line, stopping it from being able to support both data and voice.
ADSL broadband is now available in almost all properties in the UK. It's far faster than dial-up, most ISPs now have deals that allow information to be downloaded at rates of up to 20 megabits per second (written as Mb, Mbps or Meg), that's 280 times faster than dial-up.
The extra speed means that broadband users can stream music and video, download high-quality pictures and generally find any information they need faster.
BT Wholesale owns the telephone network so many ISPs are selling a rebranded version of the BT service.
However, this isn't true of providers that sell services from unbundled or LLU exchanges. ADSL2+ technology refers to technology used by some broadband ISPs at LLU telephone exchanges to boost speeds.
At first, LLU providers such as Be Broadband were installing their own ADSL2+ equipment at exchanges but BT eventually got in on the act too.
With ADSL2+ broadband providers can provide much higher speeds.
Most analysts define broadband as any internet connection faster than the notional top dial-up speed, which is 56Kb.
A broadband connection is generally delivered in one of three ways: as home broadband through a copper phone line, fibre optic cables or some mixture of the two; as mobile broadband through a high-speed wireless connection such as WiMAX, 3G or 4G or satellite broadband.
This guide will focus on the UK's most common and most reliable method of connection, fixed line. For more on mobile broadband see our best buy guide here.
Broadband can also be delivered through fibre optic cables, the fastest broadband available in the UK.
Virgin Media own a large fibre optic network and ten million households should be able to access BT fibre by the end of 2012.
Fibre optic services aren't as prone to disruption as ADSL and speeds aren't affected by factors such as distance from the exchange or the quality of copper cables.
However, to manage congestion over the network (that's the number of customers using it at the same time) Virgin Media and BT, like other non-cable providers, use 'traffic management' also known as speed throttling, which will affect the speed received - especially for heavy users during peak hours (that's in the evening for broadband).
See the fastest broadband packages and check availability to homes on our dedicated 'fastest' page here.
The acronym ISP stands for Internet Service Provider and is generally used to refer to any brand offering internet connections.
However, the UK broadband world is an incestuous one with most small outfits now owned by larger companies and often using the larger companies' equipment.
Here's a quick primer:
- BT owns Plusnet and Madasafish while the Post Office, Zen Internet, EE and Primus rely on BT Wholesale services.
- THUS, a Cable and Wireless company, operates Demon Internet and Tesco's broadband services.
- Sky Digital owns Easynet which operates Sky broadband. That network now includes equipment which was previously owned by Telefonica (O2 broadband and Be Broadband).
- The Carphone Warehouse own TalkTalk.
- Kingston Communications (the only provider operating in Hull) owns Eclipse Internet.
For a more in depth look which are the biggest and the most influential providers take a look at our market overview.
In that guide we keep an eye on which ISPs are gaining customers, which are losing them and why that might be.