A Guide to Student Broadband
As the start of another school year approaches university students – both new and returning – will be looking into their living arrangements for the coming months. And with the internet now such an essential part of student life, broadband is one of the key considerations.
But if you’ve never had to deal with this yourself before, or are concerned about keeping costs down, the multitude of broadband deals out there can be a minefield. So here’s a brief guide to the major considerations for students choosing a broadband service:
Home broadband options
There are three different types of connections which serve most homes in the UK, and for students each has their pros and cons depending on living arrangements.
ADSL – Bog-standard ADSL broadband can provide speeds of up to 16Mb, and is available across the country in most major and minor towns and cities. Only in more rural areas will this be unavailable. There’s also a huge number of ISPs providing service, so prices are very low, and it’s easy to find ADSL broadband with extras such as unlimited downloads or TV bundles.
But as ADSL isn’t that fast (remember that 16Mb speed is a maximum and dependent on your line quality and distance from the exchange) it could prove too slow for larger households when multiple users are online.
Fibre optic – BT has deployed fibre optic connectivity throughout large parts of the UK which provides speeds of up to 76Mb.
Fibre is a great option for student households as it offers plenty of bandwidth so can easily cope with a large number of users and devices. These services are now offered by many different ISPs and prices have fallen to a reasonable level – more expensive than the cheapest ADSL, but still affordable.
The only real catch with fibre is availability. While many areas have had their exchanges upgraded there are still numerous gaps in the network. Busier urban areas should come online soon as BT is still rolling it out, but as usual the more remote locations are unlikely to get access. You can find out which fibre services are available in your area by using Broadband Genie’s fibre broadband postcode checker.
Cable – Virgin Media’s cable broadband is the only major alternative to using BT lines. Their network now has a top speed of 120Mb, making it the fastest mass-market provider in the UK.
Two major advantages for students are the speed – large shared households can easily get by on a single higher-tier Virgin link – and the fact that it is the only ISP to provide broadband without a phone line (more on that next).
However Virgin is expensive so not always ideal on those stretched budgets, and they only cover around 60% of the UK population, with no current plans to expand. And even in towns with access it is not unusual to find that cable is not available on your particular street.
Can you get broadband without a telephone line?
One problem facing students is the requirement for almost all broadband services to use a phone line. This adds another £15-odd to the monthly costs, and also locks you in for another 12-18 month contract.
If available in your location, Virgin Media provides broadband without a phone line at speeds of up to 60Mb. This should be your first option, so check with Virgin to see if you can get this setup in your accommodation.
Unfortunately, if this is not possible you have no other option for fixed line broadband than to sign up for phone service at the same time. This does not have to be with the same provider as your broadband, but no company offers a phone line on anything other than a minimum 12 month contract at this time. If you’re in this situation you should inquire about their early termination fees (typically this will involve paying for the remaining months, plus some extra costs) and budget accordingly.
On a related note, most broadband services will involve signing into a contract of at least 12 months. And once again this can be problematic if you do not plan to stay in your student house all year round, or are uncertain about future arrangements.
Luckily there is slightly better news as several ISPs offer short contract options, often either rolling monthly or 3 month deals. These can be pricier, and may require you to either pay for or supply a wireless router, but the trade off is you won’t be faced with a hefty termination bill if cancelling early.
Virgin Media also proves itself the student’s best friend here – they offer a 9 month contract deal designed to fit around your term, including options for broadband only, broadband and phone and broadband and TV packages.
Is mobile broadband good enough for students?
Given the potential hassle around home broadband, contracts and phone lines some of you are probably looking at alternatives to fixed line service.
Mobile broadband seems to be the ideal solution: it’s available on anything from PAYG to 24 month contract, doesn’t need a phone line and can be carted around wherever you go.
These are all valuable plus sides, but remember that despite the lofty claims made by mobile networks about the performance of their mobile internet you will find that it is almost always significantly slower than even an ADSL broadband line.
In some areas there is high-speed 3G which can reach 10-20Mb, however most people will be lucky to exceed 2-3Mb. You also need to keep in mind the data usage limits: these are much lower than home broadband (only 15GB on the best 3G contracts) so downloading large files or streaming video can end up being expensive.
The new 4G mobile internet services have the potential to challenge home broadband, but at this time they’re both too expensive and too limited in coverage for most to consider.
Having said that, if you only require internet access for yourself and won’t be using it to frequently download large files or watch video online, then it can be a great option, particularly in your first year. Remember you can always use free coffee shop Wi-Fi and your university’s internet connection for big downloads, and keep the mobile broadband for light home use.