Choosing the right broadband ISP for your needs isn’t easy, especially in the United Kingdom’s aggressively competitive market that bombards consumers with a confusing array of different options and where performance varies based on a multitude of often opaque factors. So here’s our editors pick for 2013, which we hope will make your life a little easier.
IMPORTANT: This article has now been superseded by the new 2014 edition – The Best Broadband ISPs for 2014.
ISPreview.co.uk has looked back at the performance of ISPs throughout the past year, irrespective of scale, and concluded a selection based on a balance of reliability, affordability and performance. This list represents a shortlist of personal editor choices, using our own experiences of observing the market, and as a result selection should not be considered an award.
To make life simpler we’ve grouped our choices into two unordered primary categories. The first focuses on ISPs that offer a balance of price and performance, while the second is more quality orientated; unlike big price comparison sites we also include smaller providers.
We usually only pick ISPs that have either been listed on our site for several years or which show a strong degree of persistent reliability (i.e. the ‘Quality’ choices). On top of that we have also written a useful guide to help you understand the market (just in case you don’t already).
Readers should similarly 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. As usual you should thoroughly investigate any choices before signing-up.
There are plenty of affordable ISP solutions around but most of them seem to sacrifice service quality for a lower price point, which can result in inferior support and slow speeds. 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.
According to Ofcom’s Q3-2012 data, Sky’s fixed line broadband service receives the fewest customer complaints out of the biggest five ISPs. Sky also has strong financial backing, is very affordable and offers one of the strongest TV packages on the market that can also be bundled with an entry-level FREE broadband service (2GB usage allowance).
Prices for the main Sky Broadband Unlimited package start at just £7.50 to £10 a month, which includes “truly unlimited usage”, typical download speeds of 14Mbps, free UK weekend phone calls, a free SkyHub wireless router and free wifi hotspot access via The Cloud. However Sky Line Rental must also be taken from £14.50 a month.
On top of that those wanting a superfast broadband (FTTC) service can take the Sky Fibre Unlimited package, which includes all of the above but with download speeds of up to 38Mbps (an even faster Pro service is also available) from £20 a month.
Sadly if you don’t live within Sky’s unbundled (LLU) network (covers around 85% of the UK) then the BT-based Sky Broadband Connect service is your only option and this is best avoided. It’s restrictive, more likely to suffer from problems and is also fairly expensive. Most of the gripes against Sky relate to this package.
• Price (especially if bundled with Sky TV)
• Truly Unlimited Usage
• The ‘Connect’ package is slow and costly
• Email support could be faster
PlusNet has won several separate awards for customer service and support this year, which is an impressive feat for one of the markets cheapest providers. You can’t necessarily expect the best speeds or quality but they have built a good reputation for budget services and even offer an affordable selection of FTTC based superfast broadband packages (from £15.99 a month), which deliver speeds from 38Mbps and faster.
Prices start at just £5.99 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 (shorter contract options available). A Home Phone (line rental) service with various free call options can also be bundled from £10.49 extra a 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 fairly good job of it.
Virgin Media uses a unique hybrid cable coax and fibre optic (EuroDOCSIS3) network, with some copper, to deliver a variety of phone, TV, broadband and also mobile services. It claims to offer some of the fastest and most reliable broadband speeds of any ISP (up to a staggering 120Mbps) but its service can only reach half of the country.
The strength of virgin’s cable service, moderate prices and popular TV bundles are the primary reason for our including them. But Virgin is by no means perfect. Those living outside of its cable coverage 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 £14.50 per month for a superfast 30Mbps cable service with unlimited usage (Traffic Management) and a free wireless router, which applies when taken alongside Virgin phone line rental (unlimited weekend calls) for an extra £14.99 a month. Various other bundles are also offered, often at significantly discounted prices.
NOTE: In the last 2-3 months of 2012 Virgin’s cable platform has suffered a lot of sporadic video buffering, peering and related high latency problems. Not enough to impact their inclusion this year but next year’s report could be different.
• Speeds (cable service)
• Strong TV Bundles (with TiVo)
• Virgin.net (Virgin National) performance
• Traffic Management can feel restrictive on Virgin’s cheaper packages
• Latency can be higher than non-cable based rivals (i.e. not ideal for multiplayer gaming)
BT’s standard broadband packages typically receive a lot of complaints, which is often due to the operators stiff Traffic Management policy (can hit the performance of P2P based and online video streaming services quite hard). Support isn’t the best either but they do offer a strong range of additional services, such as unlimited public wifi access, a free router, free connection and 5GB of free online storage.
But the operators new FTTC based superfast broadband service, BTInfinity, especially its “unlimited” package, is significantly better and actually deserves some praise for being able to deliver typical download speeds of up to 38Mbps and good service flexibility. Prices for this tend to start at just £18 a month (or £26 for the unlimited 76Mbps package) and usually includes free UK evening and weekend calls (cheaper discounts are often offered).
On top of that BT now has quite a strong TV solution that can be bundled with its broadband and phone deals. This is powered by the YouView (IPTV) platform and appears to be quite well priced vs similar offers from Sky and Virgin. Line Rental is also required for BT’s bundles and costs from around £10.75 a month.
• Flexible Usage (on the “unlimited” deal)
• Good TV Bundles
• Only Recommended for BTInfinity, the other packages can be poor