Broadband providers have brought their headline prices to an all-time low, and everywhere you look you’re surrounded by special offers.
But if you're not careful, you could end up paying far more than
you expect through increased call charges, data limits and other
Paying for "freebies"
A short time ago, free laptops were the hot give-away item. However, such offers are less common now. Three (www.Three.co.uk) is one of the few providers that still offers a free laptop with some of their packages. But of course there's a catch - these deals come with mammoth 24 month contracts. And although the deals do advertise "free" laptops, you essentially pay for your new computer over the course of your contract through higher monthly payments.
Download penalties and fair usage
When it comes to downloads, broadband packages come in three varieties; ones with set, published limits, ones that are advertised as 'unlimited broadband' but are subject to a fair usage policy, and those that are genuinely unlimited. The first two can end up costing you more than your basic package fee, or result in a throttled connection speed.
With set usage limits, it's wise to be mindful about how much you're downloading. Over the past couple of years, the way we use the internet has changed dramatically with people downloading TV shows using services such as the BBC iPlayer and downloading high definition, DVD-quality movies - and as your habits change, you could find yourself paying more for the extra bandwidth that you use. For example:
- BT broadband (www.BT.com) charges £5 per 5GB if you exceed your 10GB or 40GB allowance
- Plusnet broadband (www.Plus.net) also charges £5 per 5GB if you exceed your 10GB or 60GB allowance
"Unlimited broadband" packages are more generous with how much usage they allow, but be aware that there may be hidden download limits in the form of fair usage policies. These are put in place by your ISP to ensure that your downloading doesn't affect other people's connections.
In accordance with their fair usage policy, many ISPs, including the biggest providers BT Broadband (www.BT.com) and Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com), can slow down your connection to limit your downloads and even upgrade your broadband to a more appropriate and more expensive package if you regularly exceed your limit, so you will have to pay a higher upfront fee every month.
The cost of unbundling
Some cheap broadband providers, such as TalkTalk Broadband (www.TalkTalk.co.uk) and Sky Broadband (www.Sky.com) keep their costs down by connecting customers to their own local loop unbundled (LLU) networks.
LLU allows providers to install their own equipment in the local exchange, bypassing BT altogether and saving money that they can then pass on to customers in the form of lower headline rates or free broadband and inclusive line rental.
However, if you find that you're not happy with your LLU provider, or simply find a better deal elsewhere, you could end up forking out a lot of money to migrate.
Some providers will charge a cease and re-provide fee if you want to keep your broadband when you move house - even if your contract hasn't yet expired. Make sure you read the small print, as providers could make you sign a new contract with them when you move house - which could keep you tied into an outdated contract for another 18 months.
As the broadband market has become increasingly competitive, providers have lowered headline rates, only to bump up the cost of calling essential technical support lines and customer services.
Make sure that you check the cost of calling sales, customer servicesandtechnical support lines - some providers offer a free or local rate number for sales and customer services, but technical support - which you are likely to have no choice but to call at some point - could be more expensive. If you think you're likely to need a lot of technical support, make sure that call cost is one of your priorities when looking for a new provider.
For example, 10 calls to a helpline, for 10 minutes each time, at 10p a minute, would add another £10 to your bill - a charge for advice that some companies give out for next to nothing, or even for free if you're with O2 Broadband (www.O2.co.uk), which offers UK-based technical support for free.
Take a look at our Broadband Comparison Calculator and click on the package name for a full breakdown of charges and call centre opening hours.
Connection and cancellation charges
All ADSL providers have to pay BT to connect you, but many will regain this cost through your monthly payments over the course of the next 12, 18 or even 24 months. However, some of the cheaper packages will still charge a connection or set-up fee when you join.
If you've found a "no contract" broadband package that hasno connection fee, make sure that you read the small print, as you'll probably be charged an exit fee instead.
Click here to read more about no contract broadband packages.
However, if you want to cancel because of poor service, you could contact us, or get in touch with Ombudsman Services: Communications, the telecommunications industry's watchdog, or Ofcom. If you want legal advice, try the Which? Legal Service for over-the-phone advice at for a small fee.
Most providers will give a free modem and wireless router when you take up a broadband contract but, depending on your needs, you might end up paying for extra hardware if you need it.
Also remember that some providers will offer you a free modem, but will then charge you for postage, and you could have to pay around £14.99 for delivery of any "free" laptop or games console you get with your new broadband package.
Check out our guide to find out more about wireless broadband.
Securing your PCs
Not all providers provide security as part of their broadband packages, but good anti-virus software and a firewall are essential. Without them, you could be exposed to virus attacks, bank fraud and identity theft.
Some broadband packages do come with free virus protection, while others will offer only a trial version. If you don't get free protection with your monthly subscription, market leaders Norton (www.Symantec.com) and McAfee (www.McAfee.com) charge around £50 a year for full internet security.
But there are also free options for protecting your PC. For instance, modern Windows packages include a free firewall that's quick and easy to set up. Avast also offers free protection software.
Headline rates don't include the line rental that almost all copper wire ADSL customers will have to pay in order to connect to the internet.
However, there are now a couple of ways around paying themonthly line rental fees to BT for a line you might only be using for your broadband connection.
Mobile broadband from providers such as T-Mobile (www.T-Mobile.co.uk) and Three (www.Three.co.uk) allow you to cut out your line rental completely. For your set monthly fee you'll receive a dongle or USB modem stick that you plug into your laptop, allowing you to connect to the internet - no matter where you are.
However, you need to make sure that you check the mobile broadband coverage in your area before signing up as it can be patchy in rural areas. You also need to keep an eye on your downloads as mobile broadband packages have far lower allowances than traditional home broadband connections.
Otherwise, cable company Virgin Media doesn't use the BT copper wire network, so you could get a standalone cable broadband package too.
Some ADSL providers also offer their own line rental, which can sometimes cut costs.
The way you pay
Most companies only give you the option of paying via direct debit, and some providers might charge a premium if you want to pay any other way, including extra monthly fees.
You might also have to pay a surcharge if you want to receive paper bills.
However, the Post Office (www.PostOffice.co.uk) has made a positive move by offering packages where you can pay by cash or cheque in your local Post Office without an extra fee.
Best value doesn't always mean cheapest. Look beyond the price and get a package that really suits you, thinking about your needs as a user. For example, if you're a technophobe, you could benefit from packages that offer cheaper support and free security.
You should also think about whether or not you could save even more by bundling your home communication and entertainment services. If you currently take your phone line, broadband and digital TV from two or three different providers, the chances are that you could save money and get a better service by taking a bundle from Sky, BT or Virgin Media.
Broadband & Phone deals
Monthly cost: £3.25
(for 12 months)1st year cost: £39.00
Monthly cost: £14.50
(free for 6 months)1st year cost: £87.00
Monthly cost: £7.50 1st year cost: £92.18
Monthly cost: £16.00
(free for 6 months)1st year cost: £102.95
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Call TalkTalk on
0800 049 7843
Call Virgin Media on
0800 098 8203
Call Sky on
0844 241 1407