Choosing an ISP (Internet Service Provider)

ispTo connect to the Internet you need an Internet connection provided by an Internet Service Provider, commonly known as an ISP.

ISPs  provide users and businesses with access to the Internet, and associated services.

ISP Origins

The first companies to provide Internet access were the fixed line telephone companies e.g. AT&T, BT etc.

These were followed by mobile phone providers, cable TV and satellite TV providers.

The Table below shows some of the best known ISPs in the UK and their origins.



BT (British Telecom) Fixed line telephone
Virgin Media Cable TV
SKY Satellite TV
Orange Mobile Phone Provider


ISP Packages

The packages offered by ISPs tend to strongly reflect their origins.

Traditional fixed line phone  providers tend to be strong with fixed line connections like ADSL and fibre broadband.

Whereas mobile phone providers tend to be strong in mobile Internet access via 3G and 4G.

Cable TV and satellite TV companies tend to emphasize their media offerings as opposed to their broadband offering.

Evaluating Broadband Packages

The first step is to review the services you currently use and the current providers.

Do you currently have

  • Satellite or cable TV ?
  • A landline ?
  • A mobile phone provider ?

Most people will have at least one of the above with many having all three.

Because most broadband providers will bundle services it is usually cheaper if you can use a single provider for all of your services when possible.

For example, If you currently subscribe to a cable TV service then you may find it cheaper and easier to get your broadband package through them.

If you don’t currently have a telephone land line, but instead use a mobile phone to make phone calls then you may find a mobile data plan is your best option.

What Do you Want To Do or Want to do Online?

Are you getting broadband so that you can

  • Surf the web and send/receive emails
  • Watch movies
  • Watch sport
  • Get catch up TV
  • etc

Your intended use will have a big impact on the type of package you choose.

For example Mobile only broadband currently isn’t a good option if you want to watch films or sport online.

Evaluating ISP Services and Features

When looking at broadband plans and packages you will be confronted by a selection of features. Some of these will be important to your needs whereas others won’t be.

Here is brief description of the most important ones:

Download and Upload Speeds: Everyone wants a fast Internet connection and connection speed is probably the most common metric that people use when choosing an ISP.

ADSL speeds vary depending on your telephone line and distance from the exchange.

The advertised speed is seldom the speed that you actually get.

The download speed that you receive is usually much lower than that advertised by the provider.

See Understanding Internet connection speeds.

If you want to do online backups then the upload speed is going to be critical.

Cost and Contacts– You would think that this would be easy to evaluate, but because of the many different ways that ISPs structure their pricing, introductory offers, and service bundles this can be very difficult metric to use as a comparison.

You also need to be wary as many ISPs offer introductory rates at a big discount.

These rates revert to the normal rate when the contract term is up.

If you let it lapse you finish up paying the higher rates (personal experience).

The best approach seems to be to take out a new contract when the old one expires to take advantage of the new introductory offers.

Download Caps and Traffic Management – Many of the cheaper packages will have some form of usage cap. If you exceed this usage it can become very costly especially for mobile providers (3G and 4G).

Some don’t actually cap your usage directly but will use active traffic management during busy times which can result in very slow connections for some types of traffic like downloads. You usually find this buried in the small print.

Equipment Provided – Most IPS will provide you with free Router/Hub and filters, which is all you need to establish a connection.

However some will impose an equipment charge if you cancel the contract.

Reliability: Although many UK ISPs use the BT infrastructure for the connection from the exchange to the home/office.(ADSL and fibre)

The connection from the BT exchange will then pass through the network infrastructure of the ISP before going out onto the Internet.

How well they have provisioned this will have a great impact on your overall connections speeds,quality and reliability.

This not only applies to the basic connection, but also to any additional services that you use. e.g. email.

Customer support: Do they provide phone, email, or chat customer support? How quick to they reply and how well do they answer your questions? Do they use premium rate phone lines? .

Wi-Fi Roaming -Many ISPs allow you to connect to their networks using Wi-Fi when traveling.

Some use public chains like Costa Coffee as mobile Wi-Fi access points. Others use their other customers networks as mobile access points. See Public and Mobile WI-Fi for more details

Other Services – This is probably the most important factor for many with Internet TV and sport usually being the most important. They also offer cloud storage, email addresses etc.

You should be wary about using and relying on services like email and cloud storage as they make it difficult to switch ISPs at a later date.

ISP Payment Plans

There are two standard plans available for most type of internet connection.

  • Monthly flat rate- Various levels from unlimited to capped download  limits.
  • Pay as you go – You pay only when you use the service. Available with dial up internet (no longer common ). It is also a common method for mobile broadband access.

Pay as you go mobile Internet can be quite expensive and are really only suitable for occasional Internet access.

Using Multiple ISPs

If you require access while traveling then you may also need to take out a mobile broadband package as well as a home package.

In which case you may have two ISP accounts. See Pay as You Go Broadband.

BT and other providers provide mobile Wi-Fi access as part of their home broadband package at no extra cost.

This does mean that when traveling you may be able to access the Internet by using these mobile Wi-Fi Hotspots.

These mobile Wi-Fi hotspots don’t have the almost universal coverage provided by mobile broadband networks but are very useful- See BT WiFI Overview

UK Broadband Providers

There are 4 main Broadband providers in the UK:

Although there are many broadband providers in the UK there are only a small number of infrastructure providers.

This is similar to most countries as they all tend to use the services of the old telco using equal access laws

All other providers must use the infrastructure provided by these infrastructure providers. They are in fact virtual broadband providers.

BT BroadBand

ADSL Broadband

BT provide the familiar telephone connection to most UK homes, and these same telephone wires are used to provide broadband using ADSL technology.

BT provide their own broadband services using these telephone lines, and must also provide access to these lines to third party providers.

Other providers that utilise these BT lines are:

  • SKY broadband
  • Talk Talk broadband
  • Virgin National Broadband

BT Infinity

This is the fibre optic cable version of BT broadband, and is in the process of being rolled out across the UK.

There will be two versions available, they are fibre to the premise (FTTP -the fastest) and fibre to the cabinet (FTTC).

According to BT most homes connect to the BT exchange via a street cabinet and very few connect directly to the exchange.

There are approximately 5,600 exchanges and 90,000 street cabinets in the UK.

With FTTP  the fibre connection is from exchange to home, but with FTTC the exchange to cabinet uses fibre, but the cabinet to home connection (last mile) uses traditional copper phone lines.

Other providers will utilise BT fibre network in the same ways as they use the current BT copper phone lines.

Virgin Media

Virgin Media took control of the old cable TV operators (Telewest and NTL) and so have their own physical cable infrastructure which is capable of providing higher speeds than ADSL over telephone Lines. However access to the cable network is limited.

In order to provide national broadband coverage Virgin media uses the BT telephone  lines and ADSL in those areas that aren’t served by their own cable network.

EE and Other Mobile Phone Operators (Vodafone,T-Mobile,O2,Orange,3)

Although there are many mobile phone service providers there are only 5 that own and operate their own network.

All of the other mobile operators (virtual operators) must use the infrastructure provided by the mobile network providers (Vodafone,T-Mobile,O2,Orange,3).

Note: Orange and T-mobile are now both owned by EE (Everything Everywhere). (since 2010). EE is now part of BT (2016)

Mobile phone operators offer mobile broadband using 3G, and the newer 4G networks.

Although dubbed mobile broadband and sold by the major operators for mobile use it can be used to provide Broadband in the home by using a Mobile router or hub.

Because of the high speeds that will become available with 4G networks, I expect this to start to become popular as a home connection solution, and not just as a mobile solution.

Common Questions and Answers

Q- Do I need a landline to get broadband access?

A- No you can use the 3G and 4G mobile networks with a mobile data plan. However using mobile networks for Internet access tends to be much more expensive and slower than fixed line usage. However if you only use the Internet occasionally they might be the better option.

Q- Do I need a smart phone to use 3G/4G  mobile networks?

A- No you can get 3G/4G dongles that fit into a USB port of your laptop or a Mi-Fi hub. See Internet and Networking devices

Q- I don’t need frequent access to the Internet and so a fixed broadband package would be a waste. Are there any alternatives?

A- Not for fixed line broadband but you can use pay as you go mobile broadband and you wont need a telephone line.

Q- I’ve seen free broadband package being advertised. Is there a catch?

A Probably.! Broadband provision is very competitive and you will find many tempting offers to lure you in. You should read the terms very carefully as often they aren’t really free in the long term.

Q-How many devices can Use my Internet connection?

A- Normally there is no real limit imposed by ISPs, but the more devices you have accessing the Internet through a connection the slower the access for each user will be.

Q- The Broadband package is advertised as X Mbits/s but I am only getting Y Mbits/s

A- Broadband providers advertise the fastest download speeds possible over the connection. However you will rarely get the advertised speed because it varies according to your distance from the telephone exchange and other factors- See How fast is my Internet

Q- I’m Using BT ADSL will switching to Talktalk ADSL be any faster?

A- No : BT is the only UK provider of Telephone connections (except for cable). Therefore all other Broadband providers must use the BT provided telephone lines for the broadband connection. See UK Broadband Providers

Q-The broadband offer is for unlimited broadband. Is it really unlimited?

A- Perhaps – You usually have to read the small print for this as some providers will use traffic management techniques.These have the effect of slowing down your Internet connection, usually at peak time.

Even if they don’t actively do traffic management your connection may become slow due the way they have provisioned their own network.

Q-I’m using my mobile phone to Connect to the Internet over 3G can I share the connection with my Laptop?

A-Yes you can share the connection using a variety of techniques the most common is tethering. You can also purchase mini GSM/Wi-fi hubs which allow you to share the connection with several Wi-Fi equipped devices.

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