Many people pay over £200 a year for broadband. Our tips could help cut your bill in half
Many people stick with the same gas and electricity supplier year after year, even if they could save money by switching providers. The same is true of broadband: staying with an existing internet service provider (ISP) might be the easy option but it could be costing you hundreds of pounds a year.
Home broadband services are typically priced according to download speed and the amount of bandwidth they provide. If one ISP charges less than another for essentially the same service, then a switch makes obvious sense - and it’s not as difficult as you might imagine.
In this guide you’ll learn how to determine the best broadband service for your needs and slash your bill by half - or even more.
What you pay now
If you’ve been with your current ISP for a few years, don’t just assume the price hasn’t changed over that period. The cost of a home broadband service may be wrapped up in a larger payment that also includes a telephone and satellite or cable TV subscription. Regardless, in all cases it’s important to establish how much is being paid each month for internet access alone before any comparisons can be made. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of telephone line rental when looking at home broadband prices. A telephone line is a must for traditional ADSL broadband connections, but BT isn’t the only option for line rental; plenty of ISPs offer cheaper deals of their own.
The current service must also be established. Broadly, there are two types of home broadband: unlimited (or ‘unmetered’) and capped. In principle, ‘unlimited’ means any amount of data can be downloaded or uploaded, though so-called ‘fair use’ terms often apply.
Capped services, on the other hand, do place a limit on internet use (with additional charges if this is exceeded). ISPs typically describe these restrictions as a ‘bandwidth’ cap, meaning they apply to downloads and uploads equally, so sending an email with a large attachment counts just as much as receiving one.
Do I need unlimited?
Unlimited home broadband usually costs more than a capped service, so switching to a capped one is an easy way to save money. Some bandwidth caps are surprisingly generous and many broadband users don’t use anywhere near their monthly allowance, let alone fully exploit an unlimited service.
However, it is important to measure your usage. This is best done for at least a month to get a reliable estimate (since bandwidth caps tend to run from month to month), but historical data for your broadband use might be available - more on this in a moment.
If you have only the one internet-connected computer, measuring broadband use is easy. Think Broadband offers a free metering tool for Windows that runs in the background and shows internet use for the last day, week and month. It can also pop up an alert when a preset data limit is reached, meaning it’s worth using with any capped broadband service to avoid excess charges. Apple Mac users can do something similar with the free Surplus Meter.
A home network with multiple computers complicates bandwidth measurement. One option is to install a metering tool on each computer and add up bandwidth use at the end of the month, but this won’t take into account home internet access from smartphones, tablets, games consoles or internet radios, for example.
Some routers log bandwidth use by default and since all internet traffic goes through the router, this records the combined data use of all devices on the network. The only way to check if a particular router records this data is to look in its manual for mention of ‘SNMP support’ and this should also include an explanation of how to find the results in the web-based control panel. Unfortunately, although many routers record this data it may be inaccessible to the user. Apple Mac owners can use a £5.49 utility called Netuse Traffic Monitor to extract and present it in a way that can be easily understood. We’re not aware of an equivalent affordable tool for Windows.
What’s my speed?
If you can’t be certain of the supposed speed of your current broadband connection, check with your ISP. For the sake of curiosity, you should also test the actual speed of your internet connection at different times of the day, and on different days of the week, to see how it actually performs. There’s an excellent free test at www.mybroadbandspeed.co.uk that saves all previous results.
If it turns out that you never use more than 10GB of your unlimited bandwidth each month, for example, then a capped broadband service makes sense, as long as a cheaper option is available. Similarly, if your ‘up to 20Mbits/sec’ ADSL connection only ever delivers a download speed of around 6Mbits/sec, the chances are your phone line can’t handle anything faster and a slower broadband service may cost less, but deliver the same download speed.
How to compare ISPs
With this information gathered, it’s time to look at broadband prices from some other ISPs.
Switching specialist website Uswitch offers a home broadband comparison service, but we prefer the more detailed information provided by Broadband Genie. The top 10 deals list should give a good idea of the savings on offer from other ISPs (ignore the top-most ‘sponsored’ result), but you’ll need to tap in your postcode in the search box at the top of the list to see which ISPs are available in your area.
There’s no great skill involved in finding a better broadband deal, but pay close attention to the Speed and Downloads (ie the bandwidth cap) columns on Broadband Genie’s tables. It’s no use being drawn in by a low monthly price if the service is capped and you want unlimited broadband. Broadband Genie also makes ISP comparisons a little more even-handed by working out the effective monthly cost for the first year by ignoring any initial discounted months and factoring in any setup costs - this is the ‘Effective cost’ column.
Don’t forget to read any fine print for a particular deal, too. This may mention the need to sign up for something else with an ISP in order to qualify for a preferential price, such as a phone service. That said, it’s also worth clicking the Phone Bundles tab at Broadband Genie in case money can be saved by switching line rental away from BT. Finally, even if you end up staying with your current ISP, ADSL users with a BT line should still consider paying for line rental annually. This means coughing up £129 in one go, but it gives an annual saving of £46.20 when compared to 12 monthly payments of £14.60.
How much could you save?
Often it seems the savings to be gained by switching from one service to another are insufficient to justify the effort (see the How do I make the switch? box on the previous page for more). However, when it comes to broadband provision we’ve calculated that vast numbers of customers could save more than £200 a year, which is a substantial sum.
BT is the biggest ISP in the UK in terms of subscriber numbers but at the time of writing its Unlimited Broadband and Evening & Weekend Calls service (www.snipca.com/6120) costs £26 per month, plus £10.75 per month for BT line rental (when paid annually) - that works out at £441 per year.
Compare that with Sky’s Broadband Unlimited package, which costs £10 per month plus £9.95 per month line rental (again, when paying up front for 12 months). If you haven’t already done the sums, that totals £239.40 per year, saving £201.60 a year, or nearly half the price. This deal includes evening and weekend calls incidentally but Sky doesn’t make it easy to secure the discounted annual line rental deal - you’ll need to call the company’s customer services department on 0844 241 4141 to arrange it, as the online ordering system won’t offer it.
However, with even more careful consideration it’s possible to increase the percentage saved. Be’s Value ADSL service costs £17 a month and offers download speeds of up to 10Mbits/sec with unlimited use. It seems like a good deal.
However, Plusnet’s Value service offers 16Mbits/sec download speeds, but costs just £6.49 per month; a 62 per cent saving on Be’s deal. The catch is that it comes with a 10GB data cap, but that only applies to peak times and it’s lifted for internet use between midnight and 8am. So as long as you don’t need to watch lots of streaming video during the day and are happy to schedule large downloads to take place overnight (the BBC offers a free iPlayer Desktop utility for this at), switching deals will save £126.12 a year.
These calculations don’t include line rental, though. Be’s line rental costs £11 per month, which includes free evening and weekend calls. When added to its broadband service, that comes to £336 a year. However, Plusnet’s line rental with free evening and weekend calls costs £9.49 a month (when paid annually) and when added to its broadband costs, that works out to £191.76 a year, an annual saving of £144.24, compared to Be.
If internet access is required only for light web browsing and occasional emails, then a capped broadband deal is the best choice. Plusnet remains a good option here, with its 10GB Value for £6.49 a month, plus line rental.
However, occasional internet users who subscribe to Sky TV can get a much better deal than that - free broadband. Called Broadband Everyday Lite, this service offers a 14Mbits/sec service with a 2GB monthly bandwidth cap for subscribers to its telephone service (£9.95/month when paid annually). That’s £165 less than BT’s cheapest service and £97 cheaper than Plusnet’s, and it includes free evening and weekend calls. The cost of a Sky TV subscription must also be added, but that’s not an issue for anyone who already subscribes to the service.
Home broadband is only useful at home, which is why some people pay separately for mobile broadband, via a smartphone or dedicated broadband adapter that plugs into a USB socket. This raises an interesting question, though - why not use mobile broadband at home, too? Most smartphones can double as a mobile hotspot using a feature called ‘tethering’, which means laptops and other Wifi devices can get online via their phone’s connection.
Three is the only reasonable option for this, since it is the only UK network to offer both unlimited mobile broadband and tethering, as part of ‘The One Plan’. Its SIM-only tariff, which costs £25 a month, is only £12 more than BT’s cheapest ADSL service. The tariff also includes 2,000 minutes of voice calls to any phone network, so there’s no need for a separate landline at home - saving around £10 a month on line rental, plus the cost of any ADSL service that would otherwise be needed. As long as the network signal is strong, the 7.2Mbits/sec download speed should also be sufficient for most people, although the latency of mobile broadband usually makes it unsuited to online multiplayer gaming.
BT and Sky broadband subscribers also get potential mobile broadband savings with a smartphone, since they get free access to commercial Wifi hotspots in towns and cities. BT broadband subscribers can also opt in to its Fon service that gives free access to Wifi hotspots in suburban areas. This works by other BT broadband subscribers granting limited access to their Wifi network under the secure control of BT, but trying something similar by sharing Wifi with a neighbour and splitting the broadband bill is not advisable. Apart from almost certainly breaking the ISP’s terms and conditions (few look kindly on such sharing), it also puts the person who pays the broadband bill at tremendous risk, since there’s no way to prevent the other party using the connection for illegal purposes.
Make the switch
Remember that the specific deals we cite may have changed by the time you read this but it should be clear that switching ISPs can save serious money. Moreover, because our cost calculations don’t take into account any new-subscriber or first-year discounts, the potential savings are actually much higher. Plusnet waives the first six months’ broadband subscription when a new customer also signs up for line rental, for example, saving a further £39 in the first year. Looking for new discounted deals when an ISP contract expires is another money-saving tactic to use too, but don’t forget to mention your intention to move to your current ISP - it may knock some money off to retain your custom.
How do I make the switch?
What happens to my email address?
Switching ISPs may be straightforward but it can cause problems with email access. An email address in the form email@example.com will usually be cancelled along with the broadband service. Some will still allow email to be checked via the web, but retaining an email address at an ISP that’s no longer in use is never a good idea, even if it is possible.
This is why it’s much better to use an email service that isn’t tied to any ISP, such as Hotmail or Gmail. Gmail is a particularly good choice because it also allows email from an existing ISP to be imported via Pop or Imap and saved for posterity. So it’s worth opening a free Gmail account before terminating an ISP subscription, so email can be saved.
Updating your subscription status