Broadband contracts: The small print

Do you always read through the small print when you sign a contract for broadband? There’s an awful lot to read, after all, but sometimes it contains some pretty vital information about what you’re committing to.

It includes all the details of what you're getting, what might change, and what your rights are - so, all important stuff. Luckily, we at broadbandchoices have read it all for you, and we've got a basic rundown of the terms and conditions you may find in your broadband contract.

Remember, though, that we're not lawyers - just a humble broadband comparison site. If you have serious concerns or want to know more detail, contact a solicitor, Ofcom, or other legal professional for advice.

Basic terms

The terms of your broadband contract at their most basic level are these: the provider promises to give you a broadband service, and you promise to pay your bills and use your connection responsibly.

Your contract will lay out what you're getting from your package and how much it costs you, and the minimum length of time it will stand for. It'll also say what the provider can change about your package - usually that they can change anything and everything for any reason whenever they please. Watch out for that, but don't worry too much - it's mostly just to cover themselves, and you have plenty of rights here.

By signing up, you agree to pay your bill and other related costs (like installation fees), and use your broadband reasonably. In other words, you'll just use it for domestic use, get the necessary permissions to install it, and won't use it for crime.

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Installation, setup, and equipment

When you sign up to broadband, you'll be told in advance how much you need to pay for its installation and setup. That'll include the price of your router and whether an engineer needs to come to your home.

The small print of your contract will confirm all this, with a few more details added in. That includes the terms related to your equipment, for a start, such as:

  • what pieces of equipment are included or available, and what you'll need to provide yourself - for instance, the provider may include a power cable for the router, but if it can't reach your plug socket you're responsible for getting an extension
  • whether the router is yours to keep, or if you're expected to return it at the end of your contract
  • your router's warranty.

It often also includes language saying that you agree to use the included equipment - if you don't, and choose to use your own router instead, you can't hold your broadband provider liable if something goes wrong with it.

Router

Speeds

The average download and upload speeds you can expect will be spelled out before you sign up to anything. They'll be based on the package you choose, where you live, and what kind of property you have.

Pay attention to this - it gives you an idea of how fast your broadband would be, and Ofcom has ruled that if you don't get your promised speeds, you may be able to cancel your contract with no termination fee.

Costs and bills

How much dosh you need to part with each month is a pretty important part of a broadband contract. Of course, it'll also detail everything else to do with costs - like how prices might change, how you can pay (and whether different payment methods incur extra charges), which day of the month you're charged, and how to view your bill.

This is also where it outlines what happens if you don't pay - whether the provider charges extra fees, shuts off your service, suspends it temporarily, or something else.

Remember that whatever your contract states here, you still have rights that override it. Ofcom rules that if your monthly broadband bill rises beyond normal inflation costs, you can cancel your package within 30 days of being informed about it with no termination fees.

Woman looking at bill

Usage caps, acceptable use, and traffic management

Some broadband packages have usage caps, acceptable use policies, and web traffic management. These will all be detailed in your contract too.

If your package has a usage cap, the contract will say what it is and what happens if you go over it. Read this bit carefully so you understand fully what might happen. The provider may send warning emails, require you to buy a bolt-on, charge you by the megabyte for everything you use above the cap, suspend your connection, or, in the case of some providers, automatically upgrade you to a more expensive package.

Fair usage terms aren't that common these days, even on "unlimited" packages - a lot of providers offer truly unlimited contracts - but most have an acceptable use policy. Your contract will go over what this means, but the general gist is that you mustn't do anything illegal or dodgy via your broadband (like purposely spreading viruses, hacking, harassment, and so on) and should treat it like a normal, household internet connection. Read all this carefully too - you don't want to risk a nasty unexpected bill.

There may be some wording saying that it'll investigate if you "exceed what is reasonably expected of someone using the service for domestic purposes", and what'll happen if that occurs.

It all sounds a bit scary, but if you're a genuine household (not a business) and not using the internet for anything illegal, there's no real need to worry.

Criminal using a laptop

You'll also find details of any web traffic management that your provider performs, and how it might affect your connection. The way it manages traffic is often subject to change, so it'll probably give a link to a page on its website with the most up-to-date info.

Customer service

Need to contact customer service, use tech support, or make a complaint? Check your contract. Your provider will give you the details of how it would like you to contact them, and which channels you should go through if you have a complaint.

Switching and cancelling

You won't have this contract forever, so it'll also talk about its eventual demise.

When you sign up, you'll be told how long you're tied in (say, 12 months), and the contract will go on to detail what happens when you reach the end of that period. Most likely, your provider will just continue giving you the same service and charging you for it. Still, chances are you'll want to cancel at some point, so the small print will give you a bit of info on how to go about that.

Once you're outside of your minimum terms, switching or cancelling is fairly straightforward, but your contract will also tell you what happens if you want to cancel it early (usually incurring a hefty fee). Look out for the phrase 'early termination' to find this bit.

You'll also find info about what to do if you're moving home, and times in which you can terminate early without a penalty. A lot include a 'cooling off' period in the first couple of weeks of your connection getting switched on, and Ofcom rules that you may be able to cancel without penalty if you don't get the speeds you've been promised.

Want to switch as soon as your contract ends? Sign up to our reminder tool and we'll send you an email just in time.

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