Byline: JO THORNHILL
EVERY household in Britain to have broadband internet access within three years - that is the ambitious aim of the Government. But before you get connected you must find the best internet service provider - and that means getting to grips with confusing deals, contracts and bundled packages that may include phone and television offers.
Broadband is different from old-style dial-up internet access because it allows more information to be passed more quickly down the phone line using a modem.
As well as surfing the internet more easily, it allows faster downloads of photographs and other files that friends and family might email, for example.
You can also download music, television programmes and films far quicker. And you have the bonus of being able to receive phone calls at the same time as being online.
But broadband deals can be confusing and depend on where you live, the speed of access you need, how much you intend to use the internet at home, whether you want to lock yourself into a long-term contract, or take advantage of discounts on shared phone and television deals.
Research suggests that despite widespread choice and intense competition, millions of internet users do not bother to shop around or switch when their contracts with internet service providers (ISPs) come to an end.
But this apathy means they often miss out on hundreds of pounds worth of savings each year. Online comparison services, such as those offered by thisismoney.co.uk, can help guide internet users through the options.
Competition is fierce for high-speed broadband, with The Carphone Warehouse offering up to 8Mb (megabit) per second broadband for only [pounds sterling]6.49 a month. The 8Mbps is usually more than enough for typical home internet usage, such as email, web surfing, downloading music and storing photographs. In reality, few homes can actually get an internet download speed of 8Mbps, even though this is what the ISP might claim, but experts say that speeds of between 2Mbps and 4Mbps are usually enough. Test your broadband speed at thisismoney.co.uk.
Carphone's deal means you must also take its phone package, but this includes free calls to UK landlines in the evenings and at weekends, making it one of the most popular broadband packages, with almost three million customers and an eight per cent share of the market, according to telecoms regulator Ofcom.
AOL offers 8Mbps broadband from [pounds sterling]4.99 a month for the first three months followed by [pounds sterling]14.99 a month as standard. O2 broadband starts from [pounds sterling]7.34 a month if you have an O2 mobile phone contract, or [pounds sterling]12.23 a month for non-mobile customers, while PlusNet charges from [pounds sterling]9.75 a month.
Consumers must still pay monthly line rental to BT of [pounds sterling] 11.50 ( rising to [pounds sterling] 12.50 from April, or [pounds sterling] 11.25 if you pay by direct debit) and most of these deals must be taken for a minimum 12- month contract term.
WITH such good value deals on offer there is no reason to stick with expensive broadband providers. Liam Reese, 34, and fiancee Amanda McCutcheon, 31, a PA in a bank, from Surbiton, south-west London, have just switched from BT to PlusNet, bringing their monthly bills down from [pounds sterling]17.99 to [pounds sterling]9.75.
Liam was also attracted to the Plus- Net deal because it offers free installation and a free wireless router, which enables him to use his laptop anywhere in the house away from the modem. The savings could be more than [pounds sterling]100 a year. Customers who do not sign up to the 12-month contract but want a one-month rolling contract must pay a [pounds sterling]40 installation fee. AOL and O2 do not charge for installation, but other ISPs do, including The Carphone Warehouse, which has a fee of [pounds sterling]29. …