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What’s the best internet service provider (ISP) for me?

A selection of shopping bags

When most people are choosing an internet service provider, they either ask their friends for advice or opt for a famous name. But this is not the best strategy for finding an ISP that's right for you, as we explain here.

Wendy M Grossman | 9th September 2010

In most cases, picking an ISP that can supply broadband to your home means choosing between the two most common types of broadband: cable and ADSL. In some situations – primarily rural areas where cable doesn't penetrate and the telephone exchanges are too far away – you may need to look into other forms of broadband, such as satellite links.

The key question you need to answer before choosing between cable and ADSL is whether you need to be able to accept in-bound connections. If you plan to run a web or email server at home, or need to be able to connect to your main desktop machine when you're travelling (as many small business owners might), you will need ADSL. Otherwise, you can use either.

Broadband speed?

At this point, most people go for either the cheapest or the fastest-sounding connection. But the cheapest supplier may have hidden costs and advertised speeds are notoriously deceptive. You can get a better idea of the actual speeds your neighbours are getting from the main suppliers by using tool such as speedchecker.co.uk

Broadband speeds vary according to a number of factors - the raw speed the network can carry to your home, the number of people in your area who may be allowed to share that speed (the raw speed of most home connections may be shared by up to 50 people), and the time of day (more people are at home using the network in the evenings).

Cap on data usage?

But speed isn't everything. Another area where advertisements can be misleading is the use of the word ‘unlimited’. Check whether the service you're thinking of buying actually has a cap on how much data you're allowed to download, and whether it applies to all hours or just selected peak times. This is especially important if you frequently watch video across the web - streaming services send you a lot of data.

Also, of course, check what equipment you will need to buy, set-up/installation charges, and the length and terms of any contract you're going to be asked to sign. You should also avoid signing up with any ISP that prohibits you from using an email address it doesn't supply because you do not want to have to change your email address should you decide to change ISP.

Investigate smaller ISPs

There are some additional fine points to consider when choosing an ISP.

There is really only one cable supplier in the UK at the moment - Virgin Media. But BT supplies ADSL wholesale to dozens of small ISPs and there are also several ISPs that have taken advantage of rules requiring BT to allow other companies to site equipment in BT's telephone exchanges (‘local loop unbundling’). It can be advantageous to sign up with a smaller ISP - for a little extra expensive - if that ISP offers a personal service.

If you travel a great deal and need consistent and reliable email access, you may want to subscribe to a service that provides Wi-Fi hotspots. Around the UK, the most common providers for this are BT Openzone and T-Mobile.


Wendy M Grossman

Wendy M Grossman

Wendy M Grossman is a freelance technology writer and author living in London and is founder of The Skeptic magazine.