Where can I get free broadband?
IT'S reassuring to know that as energy prices soar and food costs go up, some things are getting cheaper.
And because of the way the telecoms industry works, broadband is the service we're most likely to be able to sign up to for next to nothing.
But that doesn't quite make it free.
Here's our guide to the "free" deals out there, including what they really cost and what to look out for when signing up - and how to get broadband for less when free doesn't seem to be available.
Most ISPs will at some time run adverts or offers that look something like this:
SOURCE: Plus.net, Sky.com
These ads were both running at the time of this update in August 2016; the providers offering free broadband, and the details of those deals, can and do change quite frequently.
But there's usually at least one ISP offering free broadband of some sort to new customers. Again, at the time of this update, these are some of them:
*Plusnet line rental will increase to £17.99 a month from September 1st.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and while we try to keep things up to date, the latest "free" deals can always be found by looking here.
Smoke and mirrors
But notice that column for other costs. That's important.
Let's go back to the examples in those adverts above.
Let us stress now, we're not picking on Plusnet or Sky in particular. Almost all of the larger ISPs offer "free" broadband at various points. These two adverts just happen to be the best examples when we were writing this article.
At the time of this update, Plusnet are about to raise some of their prices. For simplicity's sake, we'll stick with those they were charging at the time of the above advert.
This is a nice straightforward example to begin with, as Plusnet are offering their standard broadband free of charge for 12 months, on a 12 month contract, with line rental of £16.99 per month.
To get broadband and line rental for the year will therefore cost £203.88, which can be brought down to £185.88 by paying for the year's line rental upfront.
Plusnet don't include any calls with their line rental; adding evening and weekend calls will cost £3 extra a month, while adding anytime calls will cost £6 more per month.
That means the total cost of their free broadband ranges from £185.88 up to £275.88.
Sky's "free fibre forever" deal is only available to customers taking Sky TV (reviewed here) with Sky Sports.
While there are often discounts on one or both parts of the TV bundle for completely new customers, the cheapest standard price for a Sky Sports bundle is £47.50 a month.
Then customers will need to pay line rental, currently £17.40 a month, with no calls included. That's a total of at least £64.90.
It's also worth noting that it's the capped fibre deal Sky are offering free of charge; users will need to stay within a 25GB limit. Those who aren't sure they can do that might be interested in the unlimited fibre deal - for £10 a month, rather than £20, for as long as they have Sky Sports.
The minimum contract is 12 months - so that means the free broadband will cost just under £780 all together. It'll be more expensive - from at least £4 a month more - for people wanting inclusive calls, or more channels.
In fact, Citizens Advice have made official complaints about adverts for free or cut price broadband from each of the Big Four media providers.
As we hope is now clear, "free" broadband is often not cheap.
Why "free" costs so much
Broadband is something of a loss-leader for most of the ISPs.
It used to be that as well as paying basic line rental, people would pay to make all of their calls. But that changed dramatically with the spread of mobile phones: why use the home phone to make a call we have to pay for, when we can use the mobile to make that call free?
So most of us now tend to use the landline solely for incoming calls, or when we have free calls - say, at weekends or during the evening.
What's more, while TalkTalk used to be unusual in not including any kind of inclusive call with their line rental,in the summer of 2015, Sky and Plusnet joined them in making line rental cover just the cost of, well, renting the line. Others have followed suit.
In comparison, once the infrastructure's in place and basic costs are taken care of, even unlimited broadband provides a fairly steady income for the providers.
They can afford to take a bit off the headline cost to reel in new customers - and once we're committed to a contract, it's easier and cheaper to sell us further products that make up further for taking that initial hit.
A really good example of this kind of tactic has been provided by the Post Office each of the past two occasions they've increased their line rental.
In January 2015 they raised it from £13 to £15 a month - and at the same time reduced both their broadband packages by £2 a month, meaning anyone who had both continued to pay the same amount.
When they announced the second line rental increase within a year last November, bringing it up to £16 a month, they brought in the new price at the same time as they ran a deal offering free broadband for 12 months.
This is why it's now practically impossible to take broadband without also taking that provider's home phone line, as we discuss here.
In addition, cancelling once the bargain period's over can prove expensive and complicated - see our guide to cancelling contracts early for more details.
As we touched on above, headline price shouldn't be the only consideration when looking for lower cost broadband.
At the very least, consider how much line rental and broadband are together. Our comparison tables show both of these, including the before and after prices when there's an introductory period.
The table here shows how much the biggest four standard broadband providers charge. These tend to be the benchmark by which the rest of the industry set their prices - and offers - so do bear them in mind
Then look at how long the minimum contract lasts.
A general rule is that fibre contracts tend to be for 18 months minimum, while standard broadband contracts are 12 months long - but TalkTalk demand a commitment of 18 months for both their standard and fibre broadband.
Do some maths
A seemingly more expensive introductory price may not be that much dearer - and may sometimes be cheaper - than a rock-bottom alternative if the cheaper one doesn't last as long.
For example, at the time of writing, John Lewis (more here) are offering broadband free for 6 months, then for £11 a month after that, on top of line rental of £15.50 a month, on a 12 month contract.
EE (more here), meanwhile, are offering broadband for £1 a month for 18 months, before the price reverts to £10, in addition to monthly line rental of £17.50.
Let's ignore for a moment that EE require us to sign up for 18 months - six months longer than the John Lewis contract - and pretend that both are for 12 months.
Over those 12 months, the "free" John Lewis Broadband would cost £252; EE's broadband with its token monthly payment would cost £222.
Then factor in that EE also offer upfront line rental, which costs £189 for 12 months, which can bring the overall cost down to £201 for those first 12 months. That's a significant saving compared to the "free" John Lewis deal.
To make the comparison truly fair, let's assume the John Lewis customer stays put for six months after the end of their contract, so we can compare what they'd pay over 18 months with the cost of the full length EE contract:
|Package||Price||Line rental||Total over 12 months||Total over 18 months|
|Broadband + Weekend calls||£19.50
for 18 mths,
|Unlimited + Evening & Weekend calls||£22.50
for 12 mths,
There are two things we can take from this table: firstly, that longer contracts don't have to mean paying more long term, and secondly that it can pay to look for a new deal or be prepared to haggle after the initial contract has finished.
Bundles, sweeteners and being upfront
Remember that the more services we're willing to take, the better the deals we're likely to find, such as cashback offers, bill credits, vouchers, and even "free" something or other for a certain period.
Here are some of the deals being run by the main providers:
And as with the example of EE versus John Lewis Broadband above, many providers also offer upfront line rental payment options, which can make a substantial difference to overall cost.
Time the search right, and combine enough offers, and it could be possible to get the holy grail of broadband for practically nothing.
"Free" broadband - again
Not so long back there was at least one deal that genuinely let people off paying for broadband all together - but it was really only useful for people with very low usage requirements, and as everyone's data usage has crept up, it's been retired.
Sky Broadband Lite was is an added bonus for customers who took both Sky TV and home phone - but at up to 17Mb and with a monthly data limit of 2GB, it really was only for the very occasional surfer.
There's now a slightly more generous light use package available for Sky TV and phone customers, Sky Broadband 12GB, but it costs £5 a month.
The other option is to take advantage of free wi-fi. We don't mean stealing the neighbours' - no, really, don't do that.
Instead, infrequent users who don't mind nipping out for a coffee to download their emails could do worse than taking a look at our guide to free and cheap wi-fi to find out more.