Not all broadband services and ISPs are the same. Choosing the right (fastest) service is generally much more important than choosing between ISPs. However, selecting a good ISP will ensure that you maximise your broadband speeds and stand the best possible chance of fixing any faults that you have (or may have in the future) on your line.
New! If you are specifically looking for the best fibre broadband service, then please view our new Which Fibre ISP? page.
Your choices of ISP and service depend on your location
The broadband choices available to you will depend on where you are located. In general, if you live in a town or city, you will have many more choices available to you than if you live in a rural location.
The following broadband services may be available to you in your location, ranked in terms of broadband speed:
- superfast broadband services, delivered by BT’s latest fibre-optic broadband network – available from BT Broadband (called Infinity) and other ISPs
- superfast broadband services delivered by Virgin Media’s cable network
- ADSL2+ services delivered by BT’s network and offered by BT Broadband and other ISPs
- Local Loop Unbundled (LLU) services using ADSL2+, offered by a range of providers (such as Sky and TalkTalk) and smaller ISPs
- basic ADSL services delivered via BT’s ADSL network and offered by BT Broadband and a raft of ISPs.
Surprisingly, many people are unaware that the latest (and fastest) broadband services are now available to them. Ofcom recently found that 8% of all broadband connections in the UK operate at downlink speeds of less than 2Mbps and a significant number of these connections are in postcodes where superfast broadband is available!
There is generally no cost in upgrading from ADSL to ADSL2+ services, and a relatively small premium to upgrade to superfast broadband services.
The availability of superfast broadband services is increasing rapidly
Superfast broadband services offer the very best speeds available and prices are now surprisingly affordable. If superfast broadband is available in your area, we strongly recommend that you opt for this.
As described in our Superfast broadband in the UK page, BT is in the middle of a £2.5 billion investment to roll out high-speed fibre broadband to two-thirds of UK premises by spring 2014. Furthermore, additional government and public funding is being used to expand the fibre broadband footprint to beyond 90% (and beyond) of UK premises by 2015.
As described in our What is fibre broadband page, BT’s Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) service delivers download speeds of up to 76Mbps (with upload speeds up to 19Mbps). Speeds can be lower if you are located a considerable distance from your (green) BT street cabinet, as described in our Chart of BT FTTC speed against distance from the cabinet and shown in the chart, below.
In its its report on broadband, Ofcom found that the difference between the monthly rental fees for ISPs’ lowest-cost ‘superfast’ services and their lowest-cost ‘current generation’ services is often relatively modest.
For the latest information on fibre broadband services, view our new Which Fibre ISP? page.
ADSL2+ can provide significantly greater speeds than ADSL
In the absence of superfast broadband services, you will generally be reliant upon ADSL technology (or the more modern ADSL2+ technology) for the delivery of your broadband service, with a large range of ISP options.
ADSL2+ is an enhancement to the original ADSL technology that is widely in use. If superfast services are not available, we recommend that you seek out ADSL2+ services. As discussed in our Chart of ADSL and ADSL2+ speed versus distance page, ADSL2+ can deliver significantly higher download speeds than basic ADSL.
There may be a number of way in which you can get ADSL2+ services, which are now described.
Local Loop Unbundled (LLU) services offer significant advantages where BT services have not been upgraded to ADSL2+
Local Loop Unbundling is the process whereby other operators (such as Sky Broadband and TalkTalk) place their own equipment in BT exchanges so that they can offer their own services with more control. LLU services use ADSL2+ technology so can offer superior speeds in exchanges where BT-based services only use ADSL technology. Sky Broadband and TalkTalk offer competitively-priced services bundling telephone, broadband and TV. You can check the availability of LLU broadband services in your area by using the Sam Knows UK exchange search, and you can also check the latest offers from the Sky and TalkTalk sites.
If you opt for unbundled ADSL2+, do not make the assumption that you have to go with the available provider, as there may be a number of additional options available. For example, TalkTalk, which offers very cheap consumer broadband services that combine line rental and broadband, has received criticism about the quality of its customer care. Less well known is the fact that TalkTalk provides wholesale services (just as BT does) to a number of ISPs that provide superior customer care such as Xilo (which is rated as the top ISP in ISPReview’s top ten list of ISPs ranked in terms of customer feedback).
BT is rolling out ADSL2+ services to 92% of UK premises by summer 2013
As discussed in our ADSL2+ page, BT is currently in the process of upgrading its exchange equipment from ADSL to ADSL2+, so check the current status of your exchange using the Sam Knows UK exchange checker.
In July 2011, BT Wholesale announced that it planned to significantly extend the availability of ADSL2+ to 2,604 exchanges by spring 2013 – representing around 90% of UK premises. In February 2013, BT announced that it will extend ADSL2+ coverage beyond its previous targets and into more rural areas to reach over 92% of UK premises by summer 2013.
Of the available options using BT’s ADSL2+ network, BT Broadband is the most popular. BT Broadband is the biggest broadband ISP with about 7 million customers. BT broadband customers receive ‘free’ access to the new BT Sports channels on multiple devices (via fibre broadband and Sky boxes), and some sports enthusiasts may be swayed by the recent announcement that BT has secured the rights to screen Champions League matches.
BT currently relies on overseas call centres and the quality of telephone support is variable. However, customers can often get a much better response online using the BT Customer Support Community Forum. For the latest information about current BT prices and offers, visit the BT Broadband website.
Which ISP should I choose for ADSL services based on BT’s network?
If only BT-based ADSL services are available from your exchange, then you still have to make a choice of ISP, to get high-quality customer care and the fastest throughputs possible for your broadband connection.
BT Broadband is the biggest broadband ISP with about 7 million customers and customers receive ‘free’ access to the new BT Sports channels on multiple devices (via fibre broadband and Sky boxes). However, just as with all the largest ISPs, telephone support can be somewhat problematic. Fortunately, customers can often get a much better response online using the BT Customer Support Community Forum. For the latest information about current BT prices and offers, visit the BT Broadband website.
There can be advantages from considering a smaller ISP, and a number of smaller ISPs have developed a solid reputation for delivering excellent customer support. Xilo and Zen Internet are regarded very highly. When you have a fault on your line, it can be very frustrating getting many large ISPs to take proactive actions (for example, sending out a BT Openreach engineer to your premises) to resolve the fault.
It is important to note that the ADSL services offered by ISPs can be based upon two different services provided to them by BT Wholesale, which are called:
- IPStream Max
- IPStream Max Premium.
While IPStream Max is the ‘standard’ service (used by the vast majority of broadband services on offer), IPStream Max Premium offers two significant enhancements:
- a faster maximum uplink connection of 832kbps (compared with 448kbps with IPStream Max)
- higher priority on BT’s network than IPStream Max connections, to maximise throughput speeds in busy periods.
Taking account of all these factors, if you really want the fastest speeds, our current recommendation is to consider one of the Office Broadband services offered by Xilo, which are based upon IP Stream Max Premium. Xilo has a reputation for providing excellent UK-based customer services, 832kbps uplink connection speed, no traffic shaping and priority through BT’s network.