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UK Broadband - Part 2 - Providers


  • Friday, Feb 7, 2020
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Who is the best broadband provider in the UK? It’s complicated.

If you haven’t read Part 1  of my guide to UK broadband, it’s a good idea to read it first to get to grips with the terms I mention below.  

 


 

A word on download and upload speeds

 

Broadband speed chart

As we saw in Part 1 , there is a lot of variation in speed on offer from the various different types of network infrastructure that carry the internet. But how much speed do you really need?

The average film takes around 7 minutes to download on an average ADSL connection, and about 1 minute on a 60-70Mbps Openreach connection.

Bear in mind that the speed you pay a provider for is the maximum total speed you will get; it has to be divided by the number of devices using the connection at once - for example, if 10 devices are all using a 76Mbps download connection at the same time to do something like, say, watch or download a film or TV show, the connection will be divided up between them so that each device will get around 7.6Mbps each.

One thing it’s very important to bear in mind is the amound of bandwidth needed for streaming services. Let’s use Netflix’s own guidelines as a starting point:

  • SD (up to 720p) - minimum 3mbps

  • HD (1080p) - minimum 5mbps

  • Ultra HD (4K) - minimum 25mbps

It’s important to account for the number of people likely to be using the internet at the same time; for example, a household of four all expecting to watch Netflix separately in 4K at the same time will require four 25Mbps streams, so a total speed of at least 100Mbps will be required (and that’s assuming no other activity is happening at the same time that requires downstream bandwidth). If you have less, you’ll need to lower your resolution until everyone can get a fair share (four 5Mbps 1080p streams only needs 20Mbps for example). There is more information about the various streaming services’ recommendations over at this helpful Currys article.

The same goes for uploads. Most providers offer much faster download speeds compared to upload speeds:

 

 

Most people mainly consume data from the internet to their home, but if you upload a lot of large data from your home to the internet (which is becoming increasingly common as people upload and store high definition personal videos shot on their smartphones, as well as make an increasing number of video calls), upload speeds will also be something to consider, especially if lots of people are uploading large files at once.

(NB - People often (incorrectly) assume that a faster upload speed means a better online gaming experience - this isn’t quite the reality, it’s more to do with the quality of the connection rather than the pure speed - you can find out more about this in Part 4  of my guide to home networking (although probably best to start with Part 1 !) However, with more and more people buying games digitally through platforms such as Steam, the faster the connection, the more quickly you can download games - and patches - which can often be well into the 10s or 100s of gigabytes for modern AAA titles.)

 


 

The providers

 

Here are my thoughts on the different broadband providers in the UK at the time of writing:

 


 

Virgin Media

 

Virgin’s maximum offered download speeds are faster than any BT Openreach FTTC provider (upload speeds are roughly the same). I recommend that you don’t take the slowest package on offer, as the contention ratio  tends to be high in my experience. On faster packages, they seem to give each customer a fairer share of the main connection. However, prices tend to be higher than BT Openreach providers, especially once the initial promotional package you sign up for as a new customer increases in price. They can also be subject to problematic outages , which they can often take some time to rectify. They can also be extremely aggressive  when it comes to “upgrade” offers, and generally customer service isn’t their strong point.

Currently, they offer the following speeds:

  • 50Mbps download, 5Mbps upload (this seems to be being slowly phased out)

  • 100Mbps download, 10Mbps upload

  • 200Mbps download, 20Mbps upload

  • 350Mbps download, 35Mbps upload

  • Coming soon - 500Mbps download, 35Mbps upload

  • Coming soon - 1000Mbps download, 50Mbps upload
    (currently only in Southampton, Manchester and Reading )

 


 

BT Openreach based providers

 

These all use the Openreach network to provide either:

  • A) An ADSL connection
    (average download speed of around 8-17Mbps and 1Mbps upload speed)  
    This uses twisted-pair cable both to the green cabinet in your street and from there to your house. This is the oldest type of broadband connection still in use in the UK. For some parts of the UK, this is the only speed available. Most providers offer it everywhere, and it’s often the cheapest package they provide, because the speeds are relatively slow. For low usage households that don’t really upload a lot, this can be an economical option, but really it’s better to pay a bit more to get the superior speeds of option B) below.

  • B) A Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) connection
    (average of either 35Mbps download speed and 10Mbps upload speed or 60-70Mbps download speed and 20Mbps upload speed)  
    This uses fibre optic cable to the green cabinet in your street, then twisted-pair cables from the cabinet to your house. This is the most common type of Openreach connection in the UK.

  • C) A Fibre to the Home (FTTH) connection
    (average speed of up to 1000Mbps for both downloads and uploads)  
    This uses fibre optic cable both to the cabinet in your street and from there to your house. This is not available to very many people at the moment (currently under 15% of the UK - see Part 1  to find out why).

Since they all have to use the same physical network from the street cabinets to your property, providers have to work within the limitations of the Openreach infrastructure in your area. Where they tend to differ is in how they optimise their own setup and connection between the exchange (which is where the connection to and from the street cabinets goes) and the internet, and also in customer service. The speed can vary between providers.

The connection between you and the exchange will be a bit different depending on the settings the provider chooses in the balance between speed and reliability, but that doesn’t make all that much difference. There is a lot more difference between providers in the speed and capacity of the connection between your exchange and the internet (which is the bit they can control and choose to optimise (nor not!)). Some providers throttle data speeds between the exchange and the internet at busy times. Some providers simply don’t have the capacity to carry all the traffic for their users as they are oversubscribed.

The problem for a customer is knowing what the situation is with a specific provider in their area. And it can be difficult to pin down whether any issues you have are down to Openreach or down to the provider’s choices when it comes to implementing the network. To an extent you get what you pay for:

Bear in mind that many of the providers above are actually also owned by the same companies once you dig a little deeper - for example, John Lewis is a reseller of PlusNet and PlusNet are a subsidiary of BT Broadband. And BT’s mobile phone network is provided by EE. Now Broadband is a subsidiary of Sky. So in reality there will be very little difference between, say, PlusNet and John Lewis for example.

Also, the better providers on the list above work harder to optimise the Openreach network and try their best to squeeze as much as they can out of it. Zen, for example, let you speak directly to a technician, as opposed to call centre workers that tend to follow a script. Notice that there is a proportional relationship between how high a provider is on the list above, and the price.

Andrews & Arnold offer an excellent service, but to do this, they limit the amount of data you can use per month (300GB or 2000GB depending on how much you pay - half of your unused data does rollover to the next month though). Other providers used to limit the amount of data you could use per month based on your monthly payment (similar to mobile phone providers) - but now they all offer unlimited data (except A&A).

According to the most recent Ofcom  data, fixed line broadband users consumed an average of 240GB per month in 2018 (up from 190GB in 2017). This figure will only continue to rise year on year as we consume more and more video content at higher and higher resolution (the higher the resolution, the larger the file and therefore the more data you need to use to stream/download it).

 


 

True FTTH providers

 

There are very few of these available at the moment (as we discussed in Part 1 ). One example is Hyperoptic . These providers have very limited coverage, usually in new or recently-built properties.  

 


 

Pricing

 

Money

Below is some guidance regarding what I consider to be a fair price for the various providers at the time of writing. I often find that my new clients are paying way over the odds for their broadband. The prices below are for a broadband connection and a basic landline with no inclusive calls (adding call packages onto a landline is often not too expensive - and there is always mobile packages too - more on mobile deals coming in a future blog article!)

At the time of writing, whether a new or existing customer, you shouldn’t pay more than about:

Openreach Providers

  • £15-20 a month for BT Openreach ADSL
    (8-17Mbps download, 1Mbps upload)

  • £25-35 a month for BT Openreach FTTC
    Most providers do two tiers: there is usually very little difference in cost per month between the two, so I would stump for the faster one if you can (NB - don’t forget, as discussed in Part 1  of this guide, you may actually be limited to the slower tier due to the distance between your property and the cabinet, meaning there is no point paying for the more expensive tier. However, many unscrupulous providers will try to sell you the higher package, even if the speeds advertised aren’t actually attainable!!):

    • £20-25 a month - c.35Mbps download, 10Mbps upload

    • £25-35 a month - 60-70Mbps download, 20Mbps upload

Virgin Media

  • £25-50 a month - you shouldn’t pay more than new customers, and they are notorious for increasing prices for existing ones, both once the “new customer” price expires, and then every so often after that.

    (NB - once you start adding TV (as with Sky), prices can quickly go up, depending on what channels you add - try to get a price for broadband and phoneline first, then add the TV package on so you can calculate the true costs).

    Whilst you can get standalone Virgin broadband without a phone line, bizarrely getting a phoneline makes it cheaper. There are four tiers (prices at time of writing for new customers):

    • £27 a month - 100Mbps download, 10Mbps upload

    • £32 a month - 200Mbps download, 20Mbps upload

    • £37 a month - 350Mbps download, 35Mbps upload

    • Coming soon - 500Mbps download, 35Mbps upload

    • Coming soon - 1000Mbps download, 50Mbps upload
      (currently only in Southampton, Manchester and Reading )

FTTH Providers

  • £25-65 a month for true FTTH from a provider like Hyperoptic , or in areas where BT Openreach FTTH is available (availability is currently limited).

    • On all but the minimum package (50Mbps download, 5Mbps upload) download and upload speeds are the same (known as “symmetric” or “simultaneous”)

    • You can usually get 50Mbps download/5Mbps upload, or symmetric 150Mbps, 500Mbps or 1000Mbps depending on how much you pay.

 


 

Conclusion

 

For most people, the choice is between a BT Openreach based FTTC provider with a maximum speed of 60-70Mbps download and 20Mbps upload, or Virgin Media, with a maximum speed of 100-500Mbps download and 10-50Mbps upload.

It’s useful to know what’s on offer from all providers when looking for a new one, or if your contract with your current one is up for renewal. A good resource for this is the Moneysavingexpert.com Broadband Checker Tool .

If renewing, your current provider might offer you a retention deal if you say you have seen a better deal elsewhere and are thinking of leaving (although this is harder than it used to be - one way to really get a good price is to place an order with a rival company asking to port your landline number over from your old provider. Until you do this, your current provider will call your bluff and offer you merely average retention offers. If they receive a request to actually port your number to another provider, you will most likely receive a call from someone in retentions offering you something genuinely competitive. Almost all providers have a 14 day cooling off period, so take advantage of it, as that retention deal usually comes in during that time).

One final thing to note: Ofcom launched new rules  last year regarding the speed you get from your provider and there is automatic compensation  if they fail to fulfil them. So far only BT, Hyperoptic, Sky (including NOW Broadband), TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Zen Internet have signed up to these rules - if you are with one of those providers, hold them to account if they break them.

To check your speed, connect a computer directly to your router with a cable - this will eliminate any potential WiFi issues (which I’ll cover in a future blog post). The best speed checkers are DSL Reports  or Waveform’s . (NB - for DSLReports, select the appropriate connection type at the top - “DSL” for Openreach ADSL or FTTC, “Cable” for Virgin Media and “Gigabit / Fiber” for FTTH). Most other speed test websites (Speedtest.net for example) are abused by ISPs to give false speeds .

Hopefully after reading both parts of my guide, you will feel more informed about how to choose a broadband provider, and which package you need, as well as what is considered a competitive price.

Now, once you have a connection from a provider you are happy with, it’s time to look at your Home Networking  setup to make sure you make the most of it!




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