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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 March, 2004, 10:18 GMT
Hidden costs of budget broadband
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online technology reporter

There is no shortage of choice when it comes to broadband, but for anyone thinking of moving to a high speed net connection the number of offers available can be bewildering.

Cables
Broadband is becoming more affordable
A glut of price cuts has seen broadband come down to below 20 a month, opening up fat pipes to a new generation of surfers.

There are plenty of things to consider when searching for the best broadband deal but finding a bargain can involve a great deal of research.

The monthly cost of broadband is just the start of the story. There are sometimes set-up fees to pay, although many operators have waived these in recent months.

Slow broadband

If the idea of downloading songs or movies appeals, then broadband is a must. But consumers need to be aware that many operators have imposed restrictions on the number of downloads that can be made with extra costs if the limit is exceeded.

For anyone prepared to do their research and their sums there is a lot of options and plenty of competition
John Morewood, Telewest
Ian Fogg, an analyst with research firm Jupiter, thinks the first question people should ask is what they want to use broadband for.

True broadband is generally assumed to be something with a speed of around 512 kilobits per second (Kbps), around 10 times faster than dial-up.

But many operators are now offering broadband-like products with speeds as low as 128Kbps.

For those just after faster web access, the slower products could be quite sufficient.

"The responsiveness of browsing feels much nicer even it is only three times faster than dial-up," said Mr Fogg.

In the autumn Tiscali set the tone for budget broadband when it launched a 150Kbps service for 15.99 a month.

Cheap broadband is likely to appeal to younger people, especially students, but the fact that some operators tie users in to a 12 month contract could be a barrier for them, according to Mr Fogg.

Some of the smaller operators such as Zen and Nildram offer shorter contracts which might appeal to people unwilling to commit to a year's worth of broadband.

There is also a huge variety in the amount of features available. Some operators offer webspace, e-mail accounts and free technical support, while others have stripped the service down to the barest bones and charge premium rates for help.

Fury at BT

BT has spent a fortune on marketing broadband and has grabbed the headlines again this week with the launch of another no-frills broadband service to sit alongside its two existing broadband packages.

BROADBAND CHECKLIST
Whether the service is capped
How much the activation fee is
Technical support costs
What features, such as an e-mail account, are offered
How other users have found the service
At 19.99 a month, BT Broadband Basic is designed to tempt customers who are currently using a dial-up connection to spend a few more pounds.

But there is a slight sting in the tail, in the form of a one-off 80 set-up fee.

BT's boast to be the cheapest around has inevitably angered its rivals.

Sheffield-based internet service provider PlusNet is furious that BT lays claim to be the cheapest as it has been offering an 18.99 service with a lower set-up fee for the past 20 months.

"When BT says it is offering the cheapest broadband it is blatantly not true. Comments like that only serve to confuse the market," said a spokesman for PlusNet.

But PlusNet's 18.99 service also has its limitations, as it does not allow the use of popular file-swapping services such as Kazaa and Morpheus.

Cable has always been a good option for those that live in area passed by either NTL or Telewest.

And Telewest has just launched its own budget broadband service for 17.99 a month. At 256Kbps the service is slower than BT's, but the first 5,000 to sign up will get free installation.

Get informed

Finding the best broadband can be a minefield and consumers often have to rely on the media or word-of-mouth to find out which operators provide good service levels.

Woman on internet shopping site
All broadband products, even the slowest, are dramatically better than dial-up
Ian Fogg, Jupiter Research
For the dedicated internet browser there is plenty of information to be gleaned online.

Sites such as ADSLguide.org offer news and advice on the various providers and provide feedback from people who have used the various services.

"For anyone prepared to do their research and their sums there is a lot of options and plenty of competition," said John Morewood, a spokesman for Telewest.

The broadband marketplace is rapidly becoming as crowded and confusing as that of mobile phone tariffs but without the advantage of a one-stop high street store to sort out the best deal for individuals.

The majority of mobile users in the UK opt for simple pay-as-you-go packages, an idea which is already catching on as an option for broadband in continental Europe.

In Germany T-Online is offering users 20 hours of broadband for 10 euros, (6.60), with any extra time charged on a per-minute basis.

This option is likely to come to the UK eventually, and with operators now also offering super-fast connections there should be a flavour of broadband to suit every palate.

The most important lesson for the public to learn is that broadband, in all its flavours, is the best way to get online said Mr Fogg.

"All broadband products, even the slowest, are dramatically better than dial-up," he said.


SEE ALSO:
Low cost broadband battle hots up
01 Mar 04  |  Technology
Breathe new life into dial-up
29 Feb 04  |  Technology
Broadband prices to hold steady
06 Feb 04  |  Technology
Blair looks to broadband future
23 Jan 04  |  Politics
'New goals' needed for broadband
22 Jan 04  |  Technology


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