Sep 28

Home broadband contracts: picking through the minefield

Reading Time: 6 mins

It seems that we just can’t live without the internet these days – we do everything from communicating with friends, running our businesses and watching TV, to doing our shopping and getting great financial and consumer advice through our broadband connection.

What happens if the service you get from your provider fails to live up to the promises made when you signed up, though? Never fear. Here’s the Moneymagpie guide to avoiding the pitfalls of broadband contracts and what you can do if you are not happy with your service.

Get the right deal to start with

Getting out of an unsuitable broadband contract can be a messy, expensive and time-consuming business. The best way to save yourself all that hassle according to Michael Phillips, Product Diector at Broadband Choices, is to make sure you get a contract that is right for you to start with.

To that end, the standard Moneymagpie mantras of do your research, read the small print and shop around are really important. Our comparison page, run in conjunction with the website Broadband Choices, is a good place to look. There are, however, a couple of tricks specific to the broadband market that you need to look out for:

A need for speed

Everyone hates slow internet. That’s why internet service providers (ISPs) feature a high speed prominently in their advertising. If you look closely, however, you are almost bound to see the words ‘up to’ in small print just in front. This little bit of marketing speak often allows ISPs to get away with received speeds that are far below what is advertised. For some easy tips about how to speed up your connection.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom is trying to clear up this problem and force ISPs to give consumers a reliable measure of the speed they are likely to receive. In the meantime, there unfortunately isn’t that much you can do. Just don’t be fooled by the marketing.

Unlimited broadband is usually strictly limited

Many companies will proudly boast that their service is ‘unlimited’, with no restrictions on how much you can download.  At the time of writing this was genuinely true for Sky Broadband, but not really for anyone else.

Instead, although the advert may say ‘unlimited,’ most ISPs will operate a ‘fair usage policy.’ Just because the marketing people have come up with a way to avoid calling it a limit, be wise to the fact that there can be stiff penalties for exceeding what your provider deems ‘fair usage.’

Customer disservice

Unless you are like Moneymagpie Sarath – our IT guru – and HTML-code is your first language, it is likely that at some stage you will need technical/customer service support. Sneakily, some ISPs operate a premium rate phone number for their technical support services and, unsurprisingly, they probably won’t think twice about leaving you on hold while you are paying that premium rate. It is definitely something to look out for when you are searching for a good deal.

If you find that your current provider does use a premium rate number be aware that you can use the brilliant Say No To 0870 website to find an alternative one. All you do is enter the number you know, along with the name of the company – and the site will find you a standard rate number to ring instead.

The extras

Remember that the monthly fee is unlikely to be the only cost involved in setting up home broadband. There may be a connection fee, you may have to pay for the right modem, or there may be a charge to have your ‘free’ modem delivered to you.

On the other hand, it’s not necessarily all bad. You can get some good benefits when you sign up. For example, you could get anti-virus software for free, or save a packet by bundling phone or TV services together with your broadband. Be sure to check through all the costs and benefits before you sign a contract.

If you are unhappy with your service

So what if you are already signed up for a contract but now feel it is too expensive, too slow or the download limit is too restrictive? There are three options which you should think about before you switch.

1. Ask for a better deal

The broadband market is very competitive, and if you are already signed up, your ISP will want to keep you on board. What’s more, as technology has moved on, so prices have come down significantly in recent years. That means that if you have been with the same company for a few years, it should be quite easy to get yourself onto a better package. Just ring them up and ask.

2. Check for guarantees

Some ISPs, including O2 and TalkTalk, have offered a happiness guarantee to new customers, allowing them to cancel their contract if they are not happy with the service. This guarantee is usually only valid for a limited period, usually either 30 or 90 days. Check to see if your contract includes one.

3. Speed check

If you want to switch solely on the basis that you are not receiving the speed you were promised, then check your rights under Ofcom’s voluntary code. Under the code, if your received speed is significantly lower than promised, member ISPs are obliged to move you onto a cheaper contract at no extra cost.

You can test the speed of your connection with this very clever little gadget from Broadband Choices. All you need to do is fill in a few quick details about your connection and the test will work out exactly what speed it is achieving.

The Broadband Choices speed check is recognised by Virgin Media – who are the fastest internet provider in the UK – so it must be pretty good!

If you are still set on switching ISP then the telecoms regulator Ofcom has made an effort to make your life easier. Consumers can just ask their existing provider for an MAC (Migration Access Code) and then pass it on to their new provider to switch.

Your new ISP, particularly cable providers like Virgin Media, may not actually require an MAC, but asking for it is still a good idea, according to Michael Phillips at Broadband Choices. “The MAC is, in effect an acknowledgement from your old ISP that you are leaving them,” he says “and that acknowledgement can potentially save you a lot of hassle when you try to connect to a new provider.”

Other good tips are to get the name the person you speak to and call reference number if you are switching by phone, or write a letter to the customer services department (and keep a copy yourself) so there is no doubt that your decision to switch is final.


If you are not at the end of your contract

If you are not at the end of your contract, that definitely makes switching  more difficult, and often more expensive too. A good idea might be to contact the people at, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or Which? Legal to help you decide on your next step.

The first and probably simplest option would be to buy out the remaining time of your contract (some ISP’s instead will ask for an exit fee, typically around £60/£70). If slow speeds are part of your complaint, it may be worth trying to get onto a cheaper package (see ‘speed check’ section above) before you then pay off the contract as it will then cost you less to cancel.

Buying out your contract is an expensive solution, but unless you can show that the ISP has breached the terms of the contract, or that the terms are unfair (if you are unsure you can check out our article here), then it is unlikely that you’ll have much choice if you want to get out of it.

Ombudsman services

However, if you do believe that you have reasonable grounds for a complaint against the ISP then there are other options. Here’s what you can do:

  • Follow the company’s own complaints procedure. Make sure you have your facts to hand, including screen grabs of error messages, records of calls to customer services and bank statements that prove your case. The better you are able to present your complaint, the more likely it will be resolved or your contract terminated with a minimum of hassle.
  • If this approach is getting you nowhere, then the last port of call should be an ombudsman. There are two telecoms ombudsman services:  The Office of the telecommunications ombudsman (OTELO) and the Communications and internet services adjudication scheme (CISAS). These are free services that adjudicate in disputes between consumers and telecoms companies.

Which service you use will depend on which company you are in dispute with; each service is only able to make rulings in cases concerning member companies, but all telecoms providers are required to belong to one or the other. Resorting to CISAS getting OTELO involved is likely to make your ISP take you seriously since the company will be paying the bill. They will also be obliged to abide by the ombudsman’s ruling.

It may also be worth complaining to the telecoms regulator Ofcom. It does not respond to individual disputes, but does monitor complaint levels to identify problem areas with specific companies.

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