The UK market for Internet Service Providers
(ISP) is often both highly competitive and confusing, one where consumers are frequently bombarded by a bewildering array of different service types, prices, speeds, coverage and bundles. On top of that no amount of prior research can ever fully prepare you for how a particular service might perform once it has actually been installed (every phone line and location is different); sometimes even the best will fail to meet your expectations.
IMPORTANT: This article has now been superseded by the new 2014 edition - The Best Broadband ISPs for 2014.
In an effort to make your life a little simpler ISPreview.co.uk has looked back at the performance of ISPs throughout 2011, irrespective of scale, and concluded a selection based on a balance of reliability, price and performance. This represents a shortlist of personal editor choices, using our own experiences of observing the market; selection should not be considered an award.
Our choices are grouped into two primary and unordered categories; one for a balance of price and performance and the second for pure quality. Unlike big price comparison sites we also include smaller and often higher quality providers. We only pick ISPs that have been listed on our site for several years and which show a strong degree of persistent reliability and high standards, at least in terms of the 'Quality' choices.
On top of that we have also written a useful guide to help you understand the market (if you don't already).
* GUIDE How to Choose a Broadband Internet Provider
Readers should also check out our 'Broadband Technology' page to learn about the advantages and disadvantages of different broadband types. The 'Broadband Coverage Checker' is handy to check which ISPs operate in your area and our 'Top UK ISP Listings' database can provide further details or links to related news articles. It's always wise to thoroughly investigate any choices before you sign-up.
Best UK ISPs for a Balance of Price and Performance (Consumer)
There are plenty of affordable ISP solutions around but most of them seem to sacrifice service quality for a lower price point, which can lead to inferior support and frustrating performance woes. Paying less is not always a good idea but if you have to and still require a good balance of performance then the following tend to fit that bill:
Reason: O2 both owns and shares its fixed line network with BE Broadband (below) and as a result both can deliver a strong / similar balance of performance, albeit with different prices and packages. Prices start from just £8.50 a month if you have an existing O2 mobile service (£13.50 if not) for speeds of up to 20Mbps (20GB usage allowance), although packages with "truly unlimited downloads" and faster upload speeds are also available at extra cost.
Customers can also take a Home Phone (line rental and free calls) service from £7.50 per month, which costs from £16 when bundled with the above entry-level broadband package. The Home Phone service can come with pay-as-you-go calls, free evening/weekend calls or an anytime calls service at a small additional cost. Most packages include a minimum 12 month contract term, free connection and free router hardware. A 30-day contract is available at extra cost (£30.63)
Generally speaking O2 is a strong, if a little more costly, ISP but we suggest avoiding its 'Home Access' (BT based) package, which isn't run from BE’s unbundled network and remains the primary cause of most negative opinions. O2’s other (Basics, All Rounder and Works) options are far better. At the time of writing O2 also lacks any superfast broadband (24Mbps+) packages.
- Price (if you're an existing O2 mobile user)
- O2's Home Access package needs improvement
- No superfast broadband (24Mbps+) services (in development for 2012)
Reason: BE is owned by and shares its fixed line network with O2 (above) and both have a strong / similar balance of performance, albeit with different packages. BE has also won more awards for its service satisfaction than O2 and is highly regarded by many of ISPreview.co.uk's readers (BE has a greater focus on service quality). Sadly BE has suffered from a few capacity and latency issues in 2011 that have affected its service performance, although a major network upgrade plan is in place for this year.
Prices start at £17.00 a month for a 12Mbps package (up to 24Mbps services are available) with unlimited usage, a 12 month contract (optional 3 month terms are available), free connection and a free wireless router. As with O2, customers can also take a Home Phone service from £10 per month with the usual range of free call options at extra cost (e.g. Anytime calls and Home Phone would cost £14).
- No superfast broadband (24Mbps+) services (in development for 2012)
- Some nasty capacity/latency issues in 2011 (being fixed in 2012 but needed ASAP)
Reason: PlusNet has made its first entry into our best ISP recommendations this year after it won some awards for customer service, which is an impressive feat for one of the markets cheapest providers. You can't expect the best speeds or quality but PlusNet has certainly built itself a good reputation for budget services and even has an affordable selection of 40Mbps superfast broadband packages (from £16.49 per month).
Prices start at just £6.49 a month for their budget broadband package, which includes a 10GB usage allowance (unlimited overnight usage), free wireless router, free connection and 12 month contract (a 1 month contract option is available for an additional fee). A Home Phone (line rental) service with various free call options can also be bundled from £9.49 per month (cheaper bundle deals are often offered).
- Speed (on the superfast packages)
- Don't expect stellar quality for such low prices but they still do a fair job of it.
Reason: Sky lacks the same quality as some of its more established counterparts, but it does have strong financial backing and reasonable (definitely not perfect) customer support. It offers a neat range of broadband and home phone packages, not to mention satellite TV services.
Prices start at just £10 (£7.50 when bundled with Sky TV) for their truly unrestricted 'Sky Broadband Unlimited' package with 20Mbps download speeds and a free router, although it does require your phone calls to be made through its Sky Talk Freetime service (Free evening & weekend UK landline calls), not to mention the extra cost of line rental (£12.25 per month). Luckily 'Freetime' doesn't cost anything extra per month (the anytime calls upgrade does cost a little extra). Sky often offers super cheap bundle / free service deals so keep a look out for those.
Existing Sky TV users pay a bit less for their broadband (as above) and can even get FREE 20Mbps broadband service at no extra cost, although this free option is restricted to a tiny 2GB usage allowance. Sadly those outside of Sky's unbundled (LLU) network coverage (e.g. BT-only Market 1 areas) will only be able to choose their inferior ‘Sky Broadband Connect’ package, which is slower, costs a hefty £17 per month and includes a 40GB usage allowance. Most of the gripes against Sky relate to their 'Connect' package.
- Price (especially if bundled with Sky TV)
- The 'Connect' package is slow and costly
- Email support could be faster
- No superfast broadband (24Mbps+) services
Reason: Virgin Media offers a variety of phone, TV, broadband and also mobile services. It uses a unique cable and fibre optic (EuroDOCSIS3) network, which allows it to offer the fastest and most reliable broadband speeds of any ISP (up to a staggering 100Mbps and 200Mbps in the very near future) but this service can only reach half of the country (geographically at least).
The strength of virgin's cable service, moderate prices and popular TV bundles are the primary reasons for our including them. However Virgin is by no means perfect. Those living outside of its cable coverage (half of the country) are only able to take their inferior 'Virgin National' (Virgin.net ADSL) packages, which use BT's older copper lines and aren't well rated for performance. Virgin's customer support quality could also do with some improvement.
Prices for broadband start at around £13.50 per month for a 10Mbps (L) cable connection (18 month contract) with unlimited usage (Traffic Management) and a free wireless router (discounts and promos often make their packages significantly cheaper), which applies when taken alongside Virgin phone line rental (unlimited weekend calls) for an extra £13.90 per month. Various other bundles are also offered, often at significantly discounted prices; current speeds go up to a whopping 100Mbps (£35 per month).
- Speeds (cable service)
- Strong TV Bundles (not to mention TIVO!)
- Free Spotify Premium access is bundled with some packages.
- Support could be better
- Virgin.net (Virgin National) performance
- Traffic Management could feel restrictive on Virgin's cheaper packages