Although broadband internet services are getting faster, is speed the most important feature? We explain some other things to consider before signing up
Broadband speeds in the UK have reached levels that were almost unimaginable when such services first appeared over a decade ago, with BT offering up to 40Mbits/sec and Virgin Media touting 100Mbits/sec.
These headline-grabbing services come with price tags to match and many people are happy to pay – but are these costly deals really worth it? In this article we will explain how ignoring the lure of super-fast services could save you hundreds of pounds a year.
Bundles of joy
We should be very clear from the off that we’re presenting a snapshot of the broadband marketplace taken at the end of September 2011. Deals are regularly revised, so use our information only as a guide.
We have also only written about deals that include both broadband and a telephone service (ie including line rental). This is because such bundles give the lowest monthly costs and a telephone line is a prerequisite for any broadband service (cable offerings aside).
We also investigated broadband-only deals, but without exception these were more expensive than the bundles. For example, the cheapest broadband-only deal we found was Plusnet’s Value package costing £6.49 a month, plus a one-off £25 activation fee. This compares terribly with the £3.24 charge for the broadband part of Plusnet’s bundle.
The reason for this discrepancy is that internet service providers (ISPs) make extra profits from the line rental and phone call charges, so they’re inclined to discount the broadband cost in order to get the phone line business.
This point is important to bear in mind as any ADSL broadband service requires a phone line, so rental charges are incurred even with a broadband-only service. If you’re paying BT for line rental but getting your broadband from elsewhere, then you’re almost certainly paying too much.
Line rental charges do vary quite a bit (from £10 to £13.80 during our snapshot), and you should check for any discounts. For example, BT charges £10 a month if you pay 12 months in advance, but for a monthly direct debit the cost rises to £13.90.
In most cases, it’s possible to switch phone providers while keeping your existing phone number.
Quick, quick, slow
It’s tempting to choose the fastest broadband package available, not least because the ISPs’ marketing campaigns emphasise just how wonderful our lives could be with their speediest products. The messages may be seductive, but the plain truth is that pretty well any broadband service is now more than fast enough for the vast majority of ordinary users.
In compiling our snapshot, we struggled to find a service slower than 10Mbits/sec (the Post Office’s 8Mbits/sec offering is a notable exception). Even the cheapest ADSL packages offer 20Mbits/sec connections, and four of them are 24Mbits/sec services.
Hurry up and wait
Obviously, there are still variations in connection speed, so which should you choose? While there is a case for opting for the highest speed possible, very few web surfers really benefit from these top-end services.
Indeed, even the Post Office’s apparently lowly 8Mbits/sec speed would be fine for many users, were it not for the fact that it’s actually relatively expensive.
At 10Mbits/sec, one megabyte of data (which is 8Mbits) takes little over a second to download. Computeractive’s home page, for example, contains around 5MB of data. As it happens, our website is relatively large, due to the amount of images and graphics – but it would still take just four seconds to download on even the slowest broadband connections.
In practice, it could be much faster, as web browsers store data from frequently visited sites on the PC’s hard disk in a special area called a cache, so rarely changing items such as a website’s logo don’t have to be downloaded each time you visit the site. Moreover, many websites are much smaller – 1MB or less – so, as you can see, for everyday browsing, broadband speed is really a non-issue.
And remember these are ideal figures; in many cases, slow web browsing is caused not by problems with your broadband, but with technical problems (such as congestion or deliberately imposed speed limits) on the website itself.
For the average user, then, the smart money is on the cheaper services, even if they’re ‘slower’. And remember, speed can also be affected by poor cabling in the home, or incorrect router settings – read our article 'Speed up your broadband connection' for lots of good advice.
Of course, the web isn’t just about web browsing and email – web radio, streaming TV (such as the BBC iPlayer) and video-sharing sites such as Youtube are all incredibly popular and surely these need super-fast broadband to work properly?
Well, not really. For example, high-definition (HD) streaming programmes on iPlayer require a minimum download speed of 3.5Mbits/sec (check your connection’s speed using the iPlayer diagnostic test by clicking here), so a 20Mbits/sec service is more than adequate. Youtube’s HD videos also play perfectly well on a 10Mbits/sec connection.
Web radio or streaming music (Spotify, for example) only needs a fairly modest connection speed – just 0.3Mbits/sec (320Kbits/sec) gives near CD-quality music, and many internet radio stations are broadcast at 0.1Mbits/sec or below.
As a short aside, it is easy (and understandable) for users to get confused by download speeds, file sizes and streaming speeds, as they are often quoted in different units. Broadband speeds are usually quoted in megabits per second (Mbits/sec), but we have seen many adverts where speeds seem to be referred to in MB (megabytes).
It might sound pedantic, but there is a huge difference. More to the point, computer files are measured in megabytes (or gigabytes). To convert from megabits to megabytes, just divide by eight.
Raw connection speed isn’t the only consideration when looking for a bargain package. In the early days of broadband, the services were expensive, but there were few – if any – limits on the amount of data users could download.
However, because ISPs have to pay for every megabyte of data their customers download from or upload to the internet, it was inevitable that this ‘all you can eat’ approach wouldn’t last.
Nowadays, truly unlimited downloads are less common. Budget services more often have some sort of limit on the amount of data you can download, and these are known as ‘capped’ deals.
After the specified limit is reached, the ISP may charge for every extra megabyte downloaded, or issue a reminder or warning before possibly terminating your contract if you ignore them repeatedly.
When it comes to ‘unlimited’ deals, these are sometimes bound by ‘fair-use’ policies, intended to prevent people hogging the connection to the detriment of others. To keep costs, and hence prices, down, ISPs share a single broadband connection among up to 50 other users (this number is known as the contention ratio).
A few downloaders can easily reduce the available bandwidth for all the other users sharing that connection. This, incidentally, is why broadband may seem to slow down at certain times of the day – just like road traffic, there are peak periods, when users come home for work in the evenings for example, or at weekends.
Virgin Media has a different approach and doesn’t impose download limits, but if a user downloads more than a certain amount of data during peak times, their connection speed will be dropped for a few hours – a practice known as traffic management, or ‘throttling’.
The details are quite complicated (click here for full details), but the main point is that if you are planning large downloads, find out the best time to do it. Virgin Media doesn’t throttle the download speeds for its 10Mbits/sec service between until 9pm and 10am, for example.
Other ISPs have much simpler rules. Plusnet’s Value service has a 10GB monthly download cap, but allows unlimited downloads between midnight and 8am – so download all you like overnight.
Tesco Broadband includes ‘unlimited’ downloads, but its fair-use policy states 100GB per month as the acceptable limit. Sky Broadband Unlimited package is unusual in having no caps, no traffic management and no fair-use policy – this is perhaps understandable as it is keen for users to subscribe to its online-streaming TV services.
What’s in a gigabyte?
Some ISPs try to translate talk of megabits, megabytes and gigabytes into more meaningful descriptions ('10,000 emails!'). This is well-intentioned, but the attempts are often short on detail, so let’s try to put a little more flesh behind the numbers.
We checked the inbox of a busy email user and found that in a two-year period there were 15,599 emails taking up 1.8GB. That equates to 20 emails a day (about 2.5 sent per day, and 17.5 received), and a monthly total of just 79MB. We doubt most readers will use anywhere like this amount, so email is not something to worry about too much in your calculations.
We’ve already mentioned that around 1MB is a reasonable average figure for the size of a web page. So browsing even 100 web pages a day is going to amount to about 3GB per month. If sharing photos online on sites such as Flickr, budget for about 2MB each for photos from an eight-megapixel camera (500 photos per 1GB).
A typical Youtube video uses about 10MB per minute, so watching a couple of 3-minute clips a day (three hours a month) would eat up perhaps another 2GB. A two-hour streaming movie in standard definition is around 1GB, or 4GB for a HD movie, and a one-hour iPlayer TV programme in standard definition is approximately 600MB, or 1.2GB in HD.
Internet radio (or streaming music services such as Spotify or We7) streams at anything between 40Kbits/sec and 320Kbits/sec, which translates to between 17MB and 140MB per hour. So listening to a couple of hours of internet radio a day is going to use between 1GB and 8GB a month, meaning internet radio addicts might want to consider an unlimited deal.
So if your internet use consists of sending and receiving a few emails a day (perhaps containing the occasional photo or document), browsing favourite entertainment websites for an hour or two in the evenings, doing a little online shopping, watching a handful of online video clips, listening to some internet radio every day, downloading the occasional music track and perhaps catching up with a couple of TV shows on iPlayer every week, a 10GB cap could suffice – surprising, but true.
Those households with multiple PCs and users (and possibly smartphones and other internet-connected devices) will more than likely need an unlimited package, though. With that in mind, Plusnet’s Value Broadband service currently costs just £3.24/month when bought with line rental (£11.99) – a total of £15.65/month. As mentioned, it does have a 10GB cap during peak times, but unlimited downloads overnight.
A final consideration is contract length. Many internet service providers demand 12- or 18-month commitments to their best deals. By contrast, Directsave Telecom offers an unusual 28-day rolling contract for all its packages.
The key to finding the ideal package is to measure your actual internet usage over, say, a month and base decisions on this. A free bandwidth-monitoring program such as Thinkbroadband’s Tbbmeter is ideal for this. It requires free registration (just your name and email address), and you can view up to a month’s worth of figures on your computer.
The program automatically launches when Windows starts and logs the amount of data downloaded and uploaded. This makes it easy to get an idea of when you use the internet most and there’s a stopwatch function to measure any particular activity. It can also be configured with a monthly quota and warn you if you are getting close to your data limit.
Keeping a simple diary for a few weeks, noting down every time you download a particular type of content, can also help you analyse your favourite online activities.
Look for the loopholes
To get the most out of a capped data allowance, check whether the ISP has any unmetered download times, and plan large downloads accordingly (including setting Windows to run its Automatic Updates tool during the same period – by default, it is set to do this at 3am each day).
Check whether other programs allow for scheduled updates too. Downloads can be scheduled using the Free Download Manager tool and, if used together with the free program Setpower, the computer can be woken up at a specified time to perform the job.
Also don’t forget the upload allowances, especially if you upload lots of photos and videos: most ISPs include this figure in the cap, though Virgin Media meters uploads separately for traffic-management purposes.
Other handy tools include the Opera web browser’s Turbo function, which reduces the size of web pages before they are downloaded – a useful trick if you do a lot of browsing.
Turning off image downloads can also reduce data usage a lot. In Internet Explorer click Tools, choose Internet Options and, in the Advanced tab, click to remove the tick from the ‘Show pictures’ box.
Analyse your requirements and big savings can be made. Most packages are good value but there is a big gap between the cheapest and most expensive. If you find your usage fits within Plusnet’s policy, for example, you can save yourself nearly £10/month over Virgin Media’s product.
Whatever your surfing habits, it’s well worth spending a little time thinking about them before committing to a new provider. And once you’ve done that you can look forward to the rather nicer problem of working out how to spend all the cash you’ve saved.
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