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Should UK Broadband ISPs Stop Locking Users to Bundled Routers

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018 (12:01 am) - Score 13,357
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The “free” routers that so often come bundled alongside broadband ISP packages are usually nothing to write home about, not least because they’re often budget models and frequently come with key features disabled. But should provider’s be preventing customers from using their own kit?

The majority of internet users are probably quite happy to use the kit supplied by their ISP and many of them may never even bother to touch the device’s admin panel, except while setting it up for the first time. However a lot of people still prefer to use their own third-party router and that can be due to a number of reasons.

Top Reasons for Adopting a Third-Party Router

* Huge selection of kit to choose from.

* Possibility of buying a device with much faster WiFi and general performance.

* Much wider selection of advanced features available (file servers, 3G/4G connectivity, VPN etc.).

* Greater flexibility with device configuration (bundled routers will often lock down useful features, such as custom DNS settings).

Unfortunately those who may wish to use a third-party router (usually anybody with an IT background or a desire for better performance / flexibility) may find that they are unable to do so or are hampered by the need for a complicated setup. For example, Sky Broadband do not release the password for their end-user broadband connections and that is vital for using a third-party router.

Often the only alternative is to disable the bundled router’s WiFi settings and then plug your own third-party kit into the second router’s WAN port (i.e. only using the ISP’s router as a modem), although even this isn’t always easy because some providers will ship their router without a WAN port or they’ll lock you out of being able to access the needed network settings. Not to mention that this is easier for those who have some IT knowledge.

Cable operator Virgin Media does at least recognise that their customers may wish to use the SuperHub router in modem-only mode and so they support dual-use with a second router. Sadly this is often the only option for Virgin customers because a lot of other cable modems won’t work on their UK network.

However, using two devices is usually undesirable because it’s messy, consumes more electricity and can make it harder to diagnose problems with your local network (especially if you have to configure all of the network settings manually, which is sometimes necessary).

Why do ISPs make it so hard?

The key word here is “support” because if every customer purchased their own third-party kit then diagnosing related problems would become much more complicated (there are thousands of different brands with different user interfaces etc.), which also makes it more expensive to deliver effective support. As a bonus the end-user also benefits from regular firmware updates to resolve issues, add features and fix security problems.

On top of that it’s desirable for ISPs to only adopt routers that are fully certified to run on the underlying network, which is done to ensure correct compliance with the required standards (fewer bugs to worry about etc.). This is why providers on Openreach’s (BT) infrastructure usually have to get their kit certified before offering it to customers (uncertified routers might cause unexpected problems that are harder to diagnose).

Suffice to say that some providers will frown on customers that use third-party broadband routers on Openreach’s network (albeit only in their T&Cs), unless they’re an approved model. However in reality a good third-party router will usually perform better than what the ISP provides, regardless of whether or not it’s been certified for use on Openreach’s network (assuming it supports the right modem standards of course).

We should point out that providers generally won’t take any action against those who use their own kit (after all if an issue does occur on the device then it’s usually, but not always, only you who will suffer), although it’s always wise to keep the ISP’s own router handy so that you can plug it back in, such as when requesting support or testing for a fault.

What can you do about it?

The good news is that there are sometimes other ways of using your own router, without doubling up on router / modems via the WAN port or a complex network setup (assuming you can even use that). For example, customers of Sky Broadband with one of the operator’s Sky Hub or older routers can Google around to discover a method of using the Wireshark software to extract the password for their broadband connection.

Sometimes it’s also possible to ask the ISP directly for your broadband connection’s login and password. For example, customers of Vodafone have had success by making clear to the ISP that they took full responsibility for using their own router and were using an Openreach approved device (here).

On top of that the EU’s new Net Neutrality laws might be in your favour. In last year’s update from Ofcom the regulator claims to have identified “some areas where internet providers should improve their compliance with the regulation” (here), not least in terms of the rule that says “end-users have the right to use terminal equipment of their choice” (this could be applicable to broadband routers too).

Ofcom’s Statement on End-User Terminal Equipment

Article 3 (1) establishes the rights of end users to access the internet using the “terminal equipment of their choice”. During the first year of operation of the Regulation we identified a practice of concern through our own engagement with ISPs and independent monitoring.

We have opened an initial enquiry into the matter. The purpose of an enquiry is to determine whether there is a case to answer, and if there is, whether it would be consistent with Ofcom’s administrative priorities to carry out a formal investigation. If we decide to investigate, we will, in accordance with our normal process, publish the details on our website.

A second precedent for this has already been set in Germany, where the Government recently abolished ISP locking so that customers are now free to choose whichever broadband modem or router they want. However we probably won’t learn the outcome of Ofcom’s position until the next Net Neutrality report (due mid-2018).

Mind you this could create problems if people connect a router that causes harm to the operator’s network and / or other users. This is especially tedious in the UK, where Openreach refuses to publish a full list of approved devices (here) and doesn’t do enough pro-active testing of new models on their own initiative. A kite-mark system could be handy for new devices but that would also require manufacturers to be more pro-active.

The other, perhaps more obvious, approach would simply be to choose a broadband provider that doesn’t lock their kit and connection down in the first place. Most smaller ISPs leave the decision about router choice up to their users and those that do bundle a router will often still give you full control over the device.

Meanwhile anybody planning to use a third-party router of their own should ideally always check with their ISP first to see if they will release the login and password details for your broadband connection (assuming you haven’t got those already). NOTE: This is not to be confused with the login details for your WiFi network or router admin.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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31 Responses
  1. Paul M

    A few extraneous apostrophes – mainly “provider’s” or “providers'”

    There was a discussion on the UK Network Operators Forum about why there’s no big list of approved devices. AIUI, a big reason is because individual ISPs have to do their own testing and get their devices certified at their own cost. Naturally they don’t want to give this away as the process isn’t cheap.

    Many smaller or specialist ISPs would like BT Openreach to be able to supply the separate VDSL modem (e.g. Huawei HG612) like they use to, so that the demarcation point is an ethernet port (like it used to be), because it would give them much greater flexibility in supplying routers/firewalls or combined devices.

  2. simon carty

    Vodafone do give you the username and password.

    I have been using it for 12 months with a Netgear d7800.

    Get your feasts right.

    • Get your spelling right.

      Yes you are correct, I accidentally left that in from an earlier draft and have removed the sentence.

    • Bob2002

      Vodafone did have a policy of not providing the username and password, some people got lucky with support and were given theirs – most were not provided with them. Vodafone did eventually relent for certain router models, and that was probably due to work done in a thread over at Kitz forum where Hashcat was used to brute force CHAP and extract the password.

  3. Tom

    You can’t even enable WAN ping on BT Home Hubs (but can on the business variant).. stupid restriction.

  4. Joe

    If I;m honest I’d like free choice but I recognise the reality is that for most users its not needed and most ISPs its a hastle they don’t need

  5. Jono Brain

    This is why I chose Zen. I just wanted a fttc modem connected directly to Google WiFi.

  6. John Miles

    Surely it makes good sense for the network provider to provide the ADSL/VDSL router and have a known network demarcation point. This allows for controlled testing and verification of the link and also remote firmware upgrades e.g. upgrading for IPv6 options. Also cable modems (i.e. VM) are interacting with a shared communication media – so a malfunction of one subscriber’s modem could affect others.

    The provider’s router will be sufficient for the vast majority of customers. But if a customer wants enhanced WiF, firewall, QoS features etc. then they can attach their own home router/hub via ethernet to provide these features.

  7. spurple

    ISPs will always complain about some vague risks to the network, but I tend to view these restrictions as being similar to your Electricity provider requiring that you only plug approved devices into the grid.

    This is obviously nonsensical. Instead, there are standards and testing and certification procedures that electrical devices need to conform to so that whatever you buy off the shelf is considered good enough to plug into the grid.

    ISPs should be forced to let users use their own devices if they wish to, and if they are concerned about network reliability, to adopt a standards and certification system instead.

    Hopefully, OFCOM and/or the powers that be will recognise this and adopt similar rules to Germany.

    • Neil McRae

      Unfortunately standards are often vague and do not go far enough to be that specific and standards move in real time with many vendors lack of will to keep up causing challengers for new technology and features that improve the network. . It’s relatively simple for a single CPE to cause significant impact to others in DSL, Fibre and cable technology and there are several cases reported.

      I personally think this article doesn’t go as far enough to mention the upsides of having a provider based CPE. Integration into other services such as TV and mobile that many service providers are now offering. Deployment of the latest telemetry technology to drive improved network performance. The test ring effort that many service providers go through to ensure maximum performance across chipsets and also how they impact the household network and internal wifi performance.

      I’ve personally tested a lot of third party CPEs and unless you are willing to pay several hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds, none of them improve the performance of the service and indeed many of them (notably around TV and IPV6) have a very negative impact to the overall service.

    • Mike

      “I’ve personally tested a lot of third party CPEs and unless you are willing to pay several hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds, none of them improve the performance of the service and indeed many of them (notably around TV and IPV6) have a very negative impact to the overall service.”

      Really???
      Why is it with an Openreach branded ECI B-Focus Modem i get almost 10Mb less in speed than using an Openreach branded Huawei HG612 Modem??? Do not blame my cabinet being a Huawei one, even though it is as by your logic Openreach approved gear should perform to the best of the lines ability without me having to “pay several hundreds” or use “third party” gear?

      In fact why is it basically anything both on and not on Openreaches outdated ‘approved’ list with an even newer broadcom revision chipset will out perform them both the above ISP supplied devices? Oh and not at any significant cost. Certainly not hundreds.

  8. David Evans

    My experience is that you can only use a Virgin router in modem mode on a domestic connection. A business connection (with a fixed IP) doesn’t allow modem mode, so your kit has to live on an intermediate address.

    • Spurple

      I suspect you’re doing something wrong, as a reasonable size business may have its own routing requirements that necessitate using their own equipment. The feature may be available and labelled differently (example, Bridge Mode), especially if you’ve been assigned more than one public IP.

  9. Dragon

    With sky send something in DHCP option 61 should work they’re not even checking the password thesedays

  10. Joe

    I do remember 20yrs back that our village lost its BB @ about 6pm on the dot each night (no ISP would connect) This was due to a biz running faulty equip on their systems that kicked in at that time and introduced frequencies into the phone network. So issues can certainly happen.

  11. My first router was a hand-me-down router which was firmware locked, meaning I had to connect to the PSN to download games and patches via a LAN cable.

    Bought a new router (which I don’t like as much) last year which means I can do that wirelessly! \o/

    Sky are another good example of awful businesses. The fact they force people to use their routers in order to connect to the Internet is why I’d never use them ever.

  12. Alistair Stewart

    Very happy that switching from BT to Vodafone lets me connect at around 74 Mbps after BT started restricting it to 60. Vodafone are also less than half the price for the same service. Checked before switching that I could use my own router (Linksys Velop x3) and VDSL modem (DrayTek Vigor 130) as I need mesh WiFi and parental controls which the Vodafone router doesn’t offer. I’m fine with putting the Vodafone box back on if troubleshooting is required.

  13. Tim

    FWIW I use my Sky Q Hub as a modem only on my Fibre Max connection, putting my Asus GT-AC5300 in the DMZ and running it in full router mode. Everything on the LAN side of things connects to the Asus, whether wired or wireless.

    I’ve been up and running like this for a couple of weeks and no problems so far. I’m reasonably IT savvy, but far from a networking expert. YouTube videos gave me the knowledge I needed before purchasing the Asus.

    • Peter

      Do you know that the sky q mini and 2tb boxes run there own wireless networks if you connect then via a network cable. With out access to the password being made available if you do not use the sky ISP.

  14. Anthony

    They should offer as standard decent routers with the contract. The Home hub 6 is a bloody good router. And one worth buying in itself. I have seen very good reviews about TalkTalks bundled router and also the Zyxel given with Zen and the Post office seem to be one the best you can get. It seems to me, the main problem that has promted this topic is Sky. From everywhere I have seen they bundle with their fibre a truly awful router and force you to use it and lock down your details to block you using others. So you are messed over every which way with them. If Sky offered one of the decent Zyxel routers with them it would not be so bad them locking things down. But as it stands they need to be avoided.

    • John Ansolabe

      Not sure where you heard that talktalk routers are good. I can confirm that talktalk routers are a pile of crap. Nothing but issues ive gone through 4 of them in 1 year so far

      Anyone got any ideas what i can use instead of talktalks “super” router ? Preferably one thats MCT compliant

    • Mike

      “…The Home hub 6 is a bloody good router. And one worth buying in itself. I have seen very good reviews about TalkTalks bundled router…”

      LOL you are joking right, Homehub with its crap firewall and port forwarding functions, NO separate WAN port, NO GUEST account funtionality, a “TEST” button that does nothing of the sort and just sends you to BTs website, nonsensical IP allocation, wireless by default naming the 2.4ghz and 5ghz networks the same SSID, PITA not obvious DNS configuration, buggy needing to be restarted issues, inability to ping almost anything, crap limited info on line stats (wheres my error counts??) TO name just a few… Not to mention its physical size and form factor, the modern but useless design of must make it stand on its side with 2 daft plastic feet… Buy that at around £130 notes (or whatever BT are charging nowadays) thanks but no thanks ill take almost anything over it.

      As for Talk Talk, you really do have to be joking, that junk in its current iteration still has 100Mb LAN ports does it not??? How very last decade of it.

      As for your info and the info on this news item about Sky locking you into using their router, that is also now incorrect, you do not even need a password anymore.
      Im glad Mark has at least updated the previously incorrect Vodafone info.

  15. Meadmodj

    The ISP needs some standardisation for support etc. All of you contributing on this thread are clear regarding what you want but most of their customers haven’t a clue. Therefore ISPs trying to remotely determine what the issue is and make sure the line service is as specified is difficult. Having their own recommended router and building their call centre scripts around them reduces their costs. Many of the latest hubs have line stats and they know where these are. They could revert to modem only or allow their router to be set in a modem only mode but this would then interfere with other package offerings such as BT WIFI access as a condition of broadcasting BT WIFI hotspot on BT Hubs.
    Some ISPs put a lot of time and effort into simplifying the router from its base firmware for just that reason and why they have adopted a single device option.

    There may be a case for a “No Router” discount but that would have to come with a support warning.

    Those of you who do not like the ISP router can easily pick up a good VDSL2 modem (positioned near to the incoming line) and then cable to your own router choice and location which is the best overall solution anyway. For VM (where they own the equipment) the WIFI can be turned off on the router (usually close to the TIVO/TV) and again cable to the best position for your router choice.

    For the vast majority of customers you need to ensure that dealing with the ISP is kept as simple as possible. Most broadband issues are in the home anyway starting at the incoming line, NTE, modem cable etc. Otherwise broadband costs and charges will go up.

    If it was Gas or Electricity anything past the meter would result in a costly call out.

    • Spurple

      Mm Should the user be free to use their own third party equipment?

      When you say “buy their own modem” it is in effect agreeing that users can bring their own equipment.

    • Meadmodj

      Only those that can technically support themselves. The problem going forward is that urban ASDL users will be “encouraged” onto FTTC and its becoming a lottery what tech/settings will be on your local FTTC cabinet (Vectoring, Gfast, LR-VDSL). So if you keep the ISP modem/router then it remains their issue if something changes. Currently FTTP appears to come with discrete devices but it wouldn’t surprise me that single ISP devices may be promoted in future. As for Virgin Media there aren’t many alternatives.

    • Web Dude

      I quite understand the “single device” option (and worked in a support role for 10+ years a while back), but not being able to override the primary and secondary DNS being dished out to my devices, and not even being able to enable a ping (for TBB’s BQM – see https://www.thinkbroadband.com/broadband/monitoring/quality ) is a nuisance and far from essential, in my view.

      I get around the ping problem by nominating a Now TV box (previously a linux system) for DMZ, and can manually define alternative DNS, but not the point, it used to be possible to do both on the ADSL router the same ISP provided, before I switched to FTTC…

  16. Alex

    This is desperately needed to prevent customers being forced to use sub-par equiptment such as the Hub 3 by Virgin Media which uses the Puma 6 CPU with known issues that have not been fixed for well over a year.

  17. Billy Bunter

    I think this is a terrible idea as it gives the isp even more reason not to support you because you are using a router they dont support. The only router they support is their own and blame shit connections/issues on the router you bought from alibaba for a tenner.

  18. Jonathan Buzzard

    Thing is the Openreach approval list falls foul of other EU regulations that govern the connection of equipment to the telecoms network. Basically in a single market there can only be one set of approvals that is EU wide. As such SIN498 is illegal. Its the reason you dont see BABT approved stickers on devices any more. The back door attempts with SIN498 should be shot down by Ofcom is they where worth their salt.

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