The Genie guide to ‘free’ broadband
Free broadband eh? That would be nice! But you do see it advertised, so does it actually exist? Well, as you might expect, the answer is yes and no – it was never going to be that simple.
The following guide is going to start with a few examples of genuinely free broadband, past and present, before looking at some of the more likely scenarios that will see a ‘free broadband’ placed on a product in the UK.
Is broadband ever really free?
Free broadband isn’t a myth – genuine examples do exist. For example, when Orange entered the market in 2006 it offered free home broadband to anyone taking up mobile packages with it – and was promptly and predictably overrun. The initial service was terrible but it attracted a million customers, showing what a good freebie can do.
More recently in the US, Google has been offering free broadband internet to customers on its newly established fibre optic broadband network. However, coverage is very limited (just a few cities) and the free service is slow and limiting; clearly the hope is these customers will eventually upgrade. And for Google, if it gets people online who previously weren’t, at least they’re being exposed to Google’s products.
But these examples of broadband for nothing are few and far between – so how come we see so many adverts for it? The answer is that there’s free, and then there’s free...
Free broadband internet activation or installation
Most commonly the word ‘free’ is going to mean there's no setup fee - either no upfront payment for the installation of your broadband, or more likely its activation. The two are different, so it’s important not to get them confused:
- Installation: You’ll have this charge if you need a new line into your home, so it’s most likely on new builds or if you’re getting Virgin Media/BT Openreach for the first time, having had the other for some time. This involves engineers coming to your home and can be an expensive one-off fee (sometimes more than £100).
- Free activation: ‘Activation’ simply means connecting your line to the right supplier at the telephone exchange. It does not involve an engineer coming out and is a very simple process. The standard cost for this is a one-off fee of around £20-50, which is often waived for contract customers.
You’ll find details of any free upfront deals or installation offers in the ‘extras’ section below each deal in our comparison tables above. If you don’t see it mentioned, we’d advise you to click through to the broadband deal and read the small print before making your final decision, especially if you’re specifically looking for the cheapest broadband deal.
Unfortunately we’ve seen the word ‘setup’ used to describe both by different internet service providers, so again be sure to read up on the details if you see this phrase used in an advert.
Limited time special offers
The other common usage of ‘free broadband’ is with limited time offers. These will also be mentioned in the ‘extras’ areas of each product (above) and tend to refer to the monthly fees on a deal being waived for a certain proportion of the tariff.
For example, you may see ‘free broadband for the first six months’ advertised – normally on the longer 18 or 24-month contracts. These can be very good offers, but do remember to look at what you’ll be paying once the free period is over; sometimes these deals don’t work out cheaper than simply going with a budget provider (see the section on how to compare free broadband deals below).
Finally, ‘free’ also often applies to both hardware and software that comes with your deal; generally a free Wi-Fi router and often some level of free virus protection software. But there may be a small charge for posting the router, and if you opt for a short term ("no contract") deal the router will likely come at an additional cost.
How to get free broadband - comparing free deals
Armed with this knowledge you should be able to approach our comparison tables with confidence and find the best deal for you. If you’re new to broadband comparison though, here’s a quick breakdown of how to use them:
- Monthly price: What you’ll pay per month for your broadband (important – this is just the broadband and does not include the monthly fee for your telephone line rental).
- Contract: How long you’re signing up or. The longer the deal, the less flexible your situation will be – but you’re likely to be paying less per month for your broadband.
- Speed: This is the fastest the exchange can offer you. For a more accurate picture, you’ll need to give a supplier your telephone number (as speeds can vary due to distance from the exchange). Check out our broadband speed guide for more details.
- Data limit: This is your monthly download limit. If it says ‘unlimited’, again, be sure to read the small print; you may face traffic shaping or other penalties for excessive use.
- Effective cost: This is an important column to look at as it takes into account any limited time offers and averages out the cost you’ll pay over the whole length of the contract to save you doing the maths.
Before you start your comparison, we strongly advise you narrow the product list by adding your postcode (don’t worry, we don’t use or retain this information). Unfortunately not all deals are available in all areas – you can only buy Virgin Media’s cable products in around 60 per cent of the UK, while BT’s gradual upgrading of its exchanges sees max speeds range from 7 to 76Mb, depending on your location.
Broadband and phone line rental
An important point to keep in mind about any 'free broadband' offer is that you will almost always have to pay phone line rental as well. So while you may not pay anything for the broadband service itself there's going to be an additional cost - typically £12-£18 - for the phone required to operate the broadband.
Broadband without a phone line is rare, but does exist, however in those cases you will probably not find any free deals, as the provider still needs to make money somewhere.
Other ways to save
One great option is putting all your connectivity on one bill.
All the biggest broadband providers now offer television as well as home broadband and landline services; and the more you get on one bill, the more you’ll save – both in financial and convenience terms.
If you have all your services from one supplier that’s not only a single bill, but also a single point of contact for customer services and technical support. For the latest prices, head over to our broadband and TV bundles page.