Money mensch: How to get the best broadband deals

By Martin Lewis, March 19, 2009
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It is now much cheaper than before to get online, with a couple of dirt-cheap stand-alone home broadband packages that cost not much more than a fiver a month.

There are two main types of broadband: ADSL, where your broadband goes through the phone line; and cable, where the broadband is provided by the cable operator. Cable usually means Virgin, and the broadband comes as part of a package. Yet the real competition is for phone-line broadband.

New to broadband?
If you are new, the process should be quite easy, unless you’re sadly in one of the thankfully diminishing number of areas where connection is not possible. When you sign up for broadband, the company should arrange with BT to activate your line, and it should be ready after a few days.

Switching broadband
● If you are looking to switch, there are two key issues.

● 1. Are you locked in? Many people are on broadband contracts lasting 12 or even 18 months. Try to leave before the end and you will be charged a penalty; if so, it is often not worth it. Yet once that’s elapsed, or if it has already, you should be free to move without any problem; though occasionally your new provider will charge a migration fee.

● 2. Know your MAC. The first thing to do before you leave is call up your provider and ask them for your MAC, which stands for Migration Authorisation Code. It is a standard process, and should be hassle-free. At this point, your existing provider may decide to offer you a better deal to stay. Not a bad thing, as it might end up being the cheapest and easiest way.

If not, once you have got a MAC, give it to your new provider; it should mean much less downtime (when you will have no access) — possibly just a few hours, if you are lucky. Without a MAC, it could take weeks.

Choosing a broadband supplier
The issues here are speed, reliability and the amount you can download. Internet broadband speed is measured in Mbps, or megabits per second. These days, advertised speeds of 8Mbps are becoming the standard; on paper, that’s roughly 160 times faster than a dial-up connection, so it should be super-quick.

The problem is that while providers may tell you their service is “up to” 8Mbps, it’s very rare for anyone to get near that speed. It depends on a number of factors, including how close you are to the exchange and how well equipped that exchange is.

You can check your real speed on www.thinkbroadband.com, but for most people, anything above 1 or 2 mbps should be fine.

More key for pricing is how much you will use it. Broadband is “always on”, so suppliers commonly measure and impose limits on the amount of data you download, rather than the amount of time spent online.

Downloaded data is measured in gigabytes. To put this in perspective, viewing 25,000 web pages or emails will take around 1 GB. Yet by downloading bigger files, such as music and films, or regularly watching web TV, you will swallow up the allowance much faster. In which case, you are better off going for an unlimited broadband package, or at least looking at a limit of 5 to 10 GB a month.

Best buys
It is a constantly changing market, but prices have plummeted recently, especially for standalone broadband — my focus here. However, if you want an all-in-one telephone and broadband, do not fall for a cheap headline price; check out the call costs. Full details of these at www.moneysavingexpert.com/homephone

● The overall cheapest deal. The newly-launched Plusnet value package is £5.99 a month on an 18-month contract. It has a generous 5GB daytime download limit and unlimited downloads from midnight until 8am. If you go over the limit, you will pay an extra £2 per 2 GB.

The speed is up to 8Mbps, with a free wireless router included, though it is worth noting that traffic is quite heavily managed during peak times, so downloaders should expect to have their speeds strangled in the daytime.

Provisions have been made for online gamers, however, who should still find it speedy. Currently, it is possible to take advantage of a special cashback offer, which pays £35 when you sign up, knocking £2 per month off the £5.99 “Value” package, and making it £4 a month. To grab the deal, you need to go via a cashback site, such as Quidco.com. For a full guide to cashback sites, go to www.moneysavingexpert.com/cashbacksites

The main issue is that only 80 per cent of the country can get the “Value” package. You will be told if you qualify when it checks your postcode. If you do not, you will only get the first three months at £5.99 and after that pay £11.99 a month — in which case, there are more competitive deals around.

Unlimited broadband
For unlimited download limits, O2 offers an 8 Mbps broadband package for £12.23 per month, subject to a “fair usage” policy, so those who are constantly downloading things may make it invoke this clause. However, you would need to be using really serious amounts for that to happen. Existing O2 customers get these packages £5 per month cheaper.

This also comes with a free wireless router, so if you have a laptop you will be able to connect to the net anywhere in the house. If you do not, it will work in the same way as a normal modem. Again, it is possible to get cashback with this package: TopCashback offers £70 for new sign-ups, reducing the monthly cost to £6.40.

No contract
If you are moving house soon or do not want to be tied into a contract, the cheapest no-contract broadband is Newnet, which charges £12.95 for a month-by-month contract, but you may have to pay for a full month when you leave it. As with all packages, the most important thing to do when signing up is put a note in your diary when it ends. At that point, the promotional prices may disappear, and you start to pay more. It could worth moving again.

    Last updated: 11:37am, March 30 2009