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How To Choose A Broadband Provider

written by: John Lister•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 11/28/2008

With many firms competing to offer broadband internet services, it can be confusing trying to decide which is best for you. We detail some important points to help you compare the services on offer.

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    Actual speed

    The speed each provider advertises for a particular service can be misleading, particularly as the rules on advertising vary from place to place. The actual speed which you’ll get can vary greatly between two providers offering the same supposed maximum speed. For this reason, you should look for comparison sites which measure the genuine speeds users have achieved with a particular provider. One source of information for this is sites which offer a broadband speed test to users.

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    Minimum term

    Check the terms and conditions of a deal carefully. Many providers will have a minimum period during which you either can’t change to another provider or can only do so by paying a hefty cancellation fee. This term is often 12 months but can be more in some cases, and may even start over if you change to a different price plan. In some places the term covers a particular phone line rather than a customer so if you are planning on moving home, it may be worth exploring mobile broadband deals rather than a fixed line.

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    Contention ratio

    With most broadband providers, you will be sharing part of the line between you and the internet with other customers. This keeps costs down and works on the basis that not all customers will be using their connection at the same time (and those who do may not be using it to full capacity). However, if firms underestimate demand, it can slow down access for users at busy times.

    Contention ratios (which tell you how many people share a particular part of the line) are not particularly useful as standalone figures because the method of working them out varies from place to place and not all firms make the details public. But if you can find the details, they are a useful shortcut for comparing different providers in your area.

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    Reliability

    Surveys often find many users (particularly small businesses and self-employed people) value reliability more than speed. It’s very rare that a broadband provider will be able to literally avoid any connection problems ever, but reliability does vary.

    When researching this issue, be wary of putting too much faith in internet forums and complaints sites as this can give a misleading picture: people very rarely bother to post comments to say their connection is working fine. It’s best to try to find reliability rankings from surveys based on as large a number of customers as possible.

    Look carefully at claims by a company that it offers a particular level of guaranteed ‘uptime’ as these figures can give a misleading impression. For example, a 99% uptime sounds impressive until you realize that would allow almost four days a year without internet access, or more than 90 minutes a week.

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    Support

    Check to see what support a company offers, particularly the costs of telephone help lines. Cheaper deals may only offer online help (either through a live chat service or web pages with help manuals), but remember this will be of little use if you have a problem with your connection and don’t have an alternative method of getting online.

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    Equipment

    Some broadband deals come with free or cheap equipment such as a wired or wireless router or a wireless adaptor for a desktop computer. You should take this into account, though remember that such equipment is relatively cheap these days and may not outweigh the costs of a more expensive monthly subscription.

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    Data limits

    Many firms have limits on the amount of data you can download, either in a particular period of a day, or over an entire month. These limits are often listed as Acceptable Use Policies or Fair Use Policies. Breaking these limits can mean your access is slowed down or even cut off completely for the rest of the month. You may instead be charged a hefty fee for any data you download beyond your limit.

    For many users this isn't a problem, but those who download a lot of video content or watch online television should check these limits carefully. You may wish to try a program such as DUMeter to see how much data you currently use.

    Some firms also have a limit on uploading data. You need to pay particular attention to this if you use peer-to-peer programs (such as Bit Torrent) or play a lot of online games.