Not all ISPs and broadband services are the same! Choosing one of the best ISPs 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. We advise keeping well clear of BT as the standard of customer services can be appalling.
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 Be) and 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. 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 latest 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.
Virgin Media also offers high speed broadband services delivered through its cable network, offering download speeds up to 120Mbps. Its footprint is restricted to urban areas.
We strongly advise against opting for BT services directly, as the level of customer care can be extremely poor. Instead, we recommend ISPs that use BT’s network but provide their own higher quality customer services, such as Xilo.
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
Local Loop Unbundling is the process whereby other operators (such as Be Broadband) 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.
We strongly recommend that you opt for LLU ADSL2+ services.
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 additonal options available. For example, TalkTalk, which offers cheap consumer broadband services that combine line rental and broadband, has received a lot of criticism about its quality of 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 (also known as uno Broadband).
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+.
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.
Be very wary about opting for BT services directly. Even if BT has enabled your exchange with ADSL2+ BT may still provide basic ADSL to you, with reduced speeds and it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to change to ADSL2+.
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.
Even though ISPs use the same BT ADSL equipment in the BT exchange, there are significant differences between ISPs in terms of:
- the quality of customer care
- the extent of traffic shaping
- the BT wholesale service on which the ISP’s service is based.
When you have a fault on your line, it can be very frustrating getting many ISPs to take proactive actions (for example, sending out a BT Openreach engineer to your premises) to resolve the fault. If you don’t use one of the best ISPs, you may spend many hours trying to communicate with a call centre in India, and then find you are given incorrect advice. Since ISPs can be charged by BT Openreach (including BT Broadband) to investigate faults on their behalf, it is no surprise that so many ISPs will do whatever they can to close down an issue without proper investigation.
Traffic shaping has been rife among UK ISPs, trying to maximise profitability while keeping prices low. Traffic shaping is the deliberate slowing down of a broadband connection by an ISP, usually performed at peak times. Its fundamental purpose is to save the ISP money, so that it doesn’t have to invest in substantial core network capacity in order to cope with the peaks in traffic demand. The downside for broadband users is that their broadband throughput speeds can be substantially reduced in peak times.
Fortunately, we have found that ISPs that do not apply traffic shaping are not necessarily more expensive than ISPs that do perform traffic shaping. While BT Broadband used to implement traffic shaping, we understand that it no longer does this, although we do not recommend BT as its level of customer service can be dire.
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, our current recommendation is to opt for one of the Office Broadband services offered by Xilo, which are based upon IP Stream Max Premium. Xilo will provide fantastic UK-based customer services, 832kbps uplink connection speed, no traffic shaping and priority through BT’s network.