Who offers the best broadband in Birmingham?

simon chandler
By Simon Chandler

fibre broadband

BIRMINGHAM is the second biggest city in the UK, home to some 1.1 million people.

And given that it also has the second largest wider metropolitan economy in the UK, it stands to reason that demand for broadband must be particularly high.

Yet however high it may be, the "Venice of the north" is connected by a wide range of internet service providers (ISPs), making the task of choosing an ISP less than easy.

Fortunately, this guide will offer an overview of the broadband providers and services available in the city, as well as an evaluation of who is the best, so that choosing one just might become that little bit easier.

Virgin Media

Section menu
Virgin: the biggest Brummie network
How good are the Openreach ISPs?
Hyperoptic: good but hard to find
Which network is best for 4G broadband?
Conclusion: think before you buy

In contrast to most other cities in the UK, the biggest broadband network in Birmingham in terms of coverage is not Openreach, but rather Virgin Media.

Virgin's network covers just over 87% of the Birmingham metropolitan area, while the Openreach network covers just under 75%.

That said, the two networks evidently serve slightly different areas of Birmingham, since superfast broadband (offering speeds of 24Mb or higher) is available in around 96% of the wider city as a whole.

But for those who think they might prefer Virgin Media, it's worth going over just what they offer, and just what their pros and cons might be.

First of all, Virgin offer by far and away the fastest speeds of all the "major" ISPs, speeds which they deliver via a combination of fibre optic and coaxial cable.

This combination is important, since in contrast to the mixture of fibre optic and copper - which Openreach-based providers use - it provides more reliable speeds. This is because broadband signals tend to weaken less over coaxial cables than over copper wires, which are a bit more fragile.

In other words, the speeds Virgin provide don't degrade as much as they would do if they were delivered using copper, and for those who are wondering, here are what the main packages offer:

Package Broadband Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
virgin media Vivid 50 + Talk Weekends Up to 50Mb
Unlimited
12 months £20 £27
for 12 mths,
then £40
virgin media Vivid 100 + Talk Weekends Up to 100Mb
Unlimited
12 months £20 £34
for 12 mths,
then £45
virgin media Vivid 200 + Talk Weekends Up to 200Mb
Unlimited
12 months £20 £39
for 12 mths,
then £50
virgin media Vivid 300 + Talk Weekends Up to 300Mb
Unlimited
12 months £20 £44
for 12 mths,
then £55

Of course, advertising is one thing and reality is another, but fortunately Ofcom collect data on the speeds actually supplied by ISPs. Their latest study had the following to say about the actual performance of Virgin Media's packages, which for the sake of comparison are put alongside BT's where applicable:

Advertised Speed Average over 24 hours Average at peak times
(8-10pm weekdays)
virgin media Up to 50Mb 46.1Mb - 49.6Mb 38.2Mb - 45.4Mb
bt Up to 52Mb 47.7Mb - 48.6Mb 46.9Mb - 47.9Mb
virgin media Up to 100Mb 87.7Mb - 95.2Mb 72.6Mb - 86.1Mb
bt Up to 76Mb 57.9Mb - 60.7Mb 57Mb - 59.8Mb
virgin media Up to 200Mb 169Mb - 177.2Mb 143.7Mb - 155.4Mb

Source: Ofcom, November 2016.

One other significant bow to Virgin Media's string is customer service, since aside from having the fastest speeds of all the big ISPs, they've consistently ranked well in Ofcom's complaints tables.

broadband complaints

Source: Ofcom, Latest telecoms and pay-TV complaints, September 27th, 2017

They're not quite up (or down) there with Sky for the fewest number of complaints, but they at least scored below the average, showing that fewer customers feel the need about the service they provide.

Of course, providing good service to those who are on their network is one thing, but it's necessary to underline that Virgin Media don't cover 100% of any part of Birmingham.

As the table below shows, their coverage is fairly extensive. However, it's never complete, with the below parliamentary constituencies having below 90% coverage:

ConstituencyVirgin Media coverage
Erdington84.65%
Ladywood66.3%
Sutton Coldfield75.66%

Source: thinkbroadband.com

Customers in these three areas would be advised to use the postcode checker below to confirm whether Virgin Media is available in their areas. Yet the same advice would also apply to all customers in general, if only because no area in the city is entirely covered by any single provider.

Postcode:
Enter your postcode above to check availability in your area.

Openreach ISPs

Relevant Guides
Broadband review: Virgin vs BT Infinity
The best broadband on a budget]
Best router: who wins?
Hyperoptic against Virgin Media

Next up are the providers using the Openreach network, which is owned by BT but operated by what is in the process of becoming a legally separate company.

That a variety of ISPs all use the same underlying network essentially means that they provide fundamentally the same underlying connection.

However, they all have a slightly different approach to traffic management. Plus, the customer service they provide is all different, as well as obviously the price.

As such, the choice of which Openreach ISP to go for is an important one, although before customers make this choice they should remember that Openreach's coverage isn't quite as extensive in Birmingham as Virgin's.

For example, the following constituencies have coverage below 80%:

ConstituencyVirgin Media coverage
Edgbaston73.48%
Ladywood57.87%
Northfield64.50%
Perry Barr76.26%
Selly Oak65.59%

Source: thinkbroadband.com

Accordingly, anyone in these areas might want to use the following postcode checker if they're tempted by an Openreach ISP.

Postcode:
Enter your postcode above to check availability in your area.

BT

First up is BT, who are quite comfortably the biggest broadband provider in the UK, with over nine million subscribers (the next biggest is Sky, with a little over six million).

The size of their customer base might partly because of their greater familiarity with the public, yet they wouldn't be able to keep such a base for very long if they didn't provide a solid internet service.

Accordingly, they sell a range of three basic broadband packages, running from standard ADSL broadband to superfast fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) broadband, each of which has something to offer different kinds of customers.

Package Broadband Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
bt Unlimited Broadband + Weekend calls Up to 17Mb
Unlimited
18 months £9.99 £23.99
for 18 mths,
then £40.99
bt Unlimited Infinity 1 + Weekend calls Up to 52Mb
Unlimited
18 months £9.99 £29.99
for 18 mths,
then £47.49
bt Unlimited Infinity 2 + Weekend calls Up to 76Mb
Unlimited
18 months £9.99 £39.99
for 18 mths,
then £53.99

To see prices in full and by postcode see our BT broadband search here

Yet once again, headline speeds are all well and good, but what customers care about more are the speeds they actually receive.

This can always vary from place to place and according to how far someone is from their nearest telephone cabinet, for example. However, as a guide, here are the latest averages taken by Ofcom, with BT's compared against Sky's for good measure.

Average download speed during period
Advertised speed 24 hours Peak time:
8-10pm weekdays
bt Up to 17Mb 9.1Mb to 10.8Mb 9.0Mb to 10.6Mb
sky Up to 17Mb 10.1Mb to 11.5Mb 9.9Mb to 11.4Mb
bt Up to 52Mb 47.7Mb to 48.6Mb 46.9Mb to 47.9Mb
bt Up to 76Mb 57.9Mb to 60.7Mb 57.0Mb to 59.8Mb
sky Up to 76Mb 54.3Mb to 59.9Mb 53.6Mb to 59.1Mb

SOURCE: Ofcom, November 2016.

What such comparisons reveal is that, while someone going for a more basic "up to" 17Mb broadband service might be better off choosing Sky, those looking for faster 52Mb and 76Mb may be better served by BT.

Yet either way, it's not only relatively fast average speeds that BT offer, but several welcome extras that come with subscription.

At the top of this list is the BT Smart Hub, which is provided to all customers signing up for either their Infinity 1 or Infinity 2 packages.

BT claim it offers the "UK's most powerful wi-fi signal", and while such a boast is always open to question, the hub does sport seven antennae, which gives it greater range than any previous BT router.

Added to this, it automatically connects devices to the channels with the least amount of congestion, ensuring that customers get the fastest speeds available where they are.

Yet it's not the only thing that comes with a BT service. BT also offer free access to the five million or so wi-fi hotspots they have situated throughout the UK, as well as free internet security software, free call blocking, and cloud storage between 200GB and 1000GB. There's even the option of adding BT TV to the subscription (for extra), enabling customers to watch BT Sport.

Sky

By contrast, Sky may not be quite as comprehensive when it comes to offering a dedicated broadband service. Still, they more than make up for things with their TV packages, as well as their high level of customer service.

Like BT (and every other Openreach provider), they provide the same range of broadband packages, running from "fast enough for most everyday uses" to superfast.

Package Broadband Contract terms Upfront price Monthly price
sky Broadband 12GB + Talk (only available with Sky TV) Up to 17Mb
12GB
12 months £9.95 £23.99
sky Broadband Unlimited + Talk Up to 17Mb
Unlimited
12 months £19.95 £18
for 12 mths,
then £28.99
sky Fibre + Talk Up to 38Mb
25GB usage
18 months £29.95 £20
for 18 mths,
then £28.99
sky Fibre Unlimited + Talk Up to 38Mb
Unlimited
18 months £29.95 £25
for 18 mths,
then £38.99
sky Sky Fibre Max + Talk Up to 76Mb
Unlimited
18 months £29.95 £30
for 18 mths,
then £43.99

Compare more package options and check availability for Sky broadband here.

Sky often run special discounts for these packages, making them fairly competitive on price (at least for the period during which deals last).

On top of this, they can often be had at better value if customers also take their TV from Sky, with the main TV packages shown below.

Package Channels Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
sky Original bundle 275+ (240 free to air, 11 HD) 18 months £20 £20
for 18 mths,
then £22
sky Variety bundle 315+ (240 free to air, 11 HD) 18 months £20 £25
for 18 mths,
then £32
sky Box Sets bundle 365+ (240 free to air, 50 HD) 18 months £20 £31
for 18 mths,
then £38

That such packages give customers a massive variety of programming is already enough to make Sky attractive to six million customers.

Yet Sky are also known for their superior customer service, having racked up the lowest number of complaints (according to Ofcom) for many consecutive quarters.

In fact, it's partly for this reason that the won the Best Overall title at the most recent Choose ISP Awards.

TalkTalk

After Sky, TalkTalk are the next most popular ISP in the UK, with just under four million subscribers as of writing.

While they've had their difficulties with cybersecurity in the past, that they've been able to retain this number of customers is a testament to their ability to offer broadband at very reasonable prices.

They even beat the prices offered by Plusnet (more below) in certain cases, with the table below outlining their main packages.

Package Broadband Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
talktalk Fast Broadband Up to 17Mb
Unlimited
12 months Free £19.95
for 12 mths,
then £25.50
talktalk Faster Fibre Up to 38Mb
Unlimited
18 months Free £27.50
talktalk Faster Fibre (up to 76Mb) Up to 76Mb
Unlimited
18 months Free £30
for 18 mths,
then £32.50

Generally, the introductory prices they offer aren't any better than Plusnet's. That said, when it comes to the standard prices customers have to pay once their initial deal is over, they do a little bit better.

For instance, the standard 17Mb package offered by Plusnet asks customers to pay £27.98 a month once the initial 18-month deal has finished, while the corresponding package offered by Talktalk has a standard monthly fee of £25.50.

Taken over a single year, this £2.48 price difference works out as a saving of £29.76. This arguably makes TalkTalk better on price for those who don't want to switch providers every time they come to the end of a special deal.

Still, it needs to be pointed out that TalkTalk aren't necessarily the best on speed, with the following data from Ofcom showing that their averages don't compare so favourably to Plusnet's:

Overall average Peak (8-10pm weekdays)
TalkTalk up to 17Mb 8.6Mb to 10Mb 8.6Mb to 9.9Mb
Plusnet up to 17Mb 9.6Mb to 11.4Mb 9.5Mb to 11.3Mb
TalkTalk up to 38Mb 30.8Mb to 32.8Mb 30.6Mb to 32.6Mb
Plusnet up to 38Mb 31Mb to 33.5Mb 30.1Mb to 32.7Mb

Source: Ofcom, November 2016

That said, the gap is fairly slight, so anyone who prefers the slightly better standard prices of TalkTalk won't probably notice any major difference.

Plus, they also have the option to take up a 24-month contract with TalkTalk, something which would protect them from price rises for longer than they'd be protected elsewhere.

Added to this, they'd receive all the standard things they'd expect from a broadband package: free wi-fi router, totally unlimited data usage, a free nuisance call blocking service, and free internet security software.

Plusnet

And lastly of the four most well-known Openreach ISPs are Plusnet, who despite being owned by BT offer better value for money and slightly better customer service.

As can be seen below, their range of broadband services are standard, going as they do from "up to" 17Mb ASDL broadband to 76Mb FTTC broadband.

Package Broadband Contract terms Upfront price Monthly price
plusnet Unlimited + Line Only Up to 17Mb
Unlimited
12 months Free £18.99
for 12 mths,
then £27.98
plusnet Unlimited Fibre + Line Only Up to 38Mb
Unlimited
12 months Free £22.99
for 18 mths,
then £32.98
plusnet Unlimited Fibre Extra + Line Only Up to 76Mb
Unlimited
12 months £25 £29.99
for 18 mths,
then £37.98

To see prices in full and by postcode see our Plusnet broadband search here.

As stated above, their standard prices aren't quite as good as TalkTalk's, yet their promotional and standard prices markedly better than BT's and Sky's.

For instance, BT's 76Mb package has promotional and standard monthly fees of £44.99 and £56.49, respectively. By contrast, Plusnet's promotional fee for their 76Mb service is £29.99, while the fee after the first 12 months is £37.98.

Compared to BT, this enables a considerable saving of £144 in the first year, while in the second year alone the saving would be £222.12.

So clearly, if a customer wants to save money, they'd be better off going for Plusnet than for BT (or Sky).

And while their standard prices aren't quite as good as TalkTalk's, the Ofcom table above relating to complaints reveals that Plusnet have fewer customer service issues than their low-priced rival.

On top of this, they've recently relaunched their brand, removing the traffic management policies which had previously been one of the few negatives of taking broadband from them. Without such management, customers can use their internet connections in the knowledge that their speeds won't be throttled or controlled in order to make room for increased traffic.

Are there any other providers?

While this takes care of the biggest and most well-known ISPs available in Birmingham, there is at least one other provider worth mentioning.

This is Hyperoptic, who provide fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP, or "full fibre") broadband capable of 1Gb speeds, and who connected their first premises in Birmingham in October 2015.

So far, unfortunately, only around 1.57% of the wider Birmingham area has access to an FTTP network, yet this is expected to grow in the years to come as demand for Hyperoptic increases.

This low percentage is largely the product of how, of the city's ten constituencies, only one has any FTTP coverage.

This is Ladywood, which as the place where the first Hyperoptic building was connected (Queen's College Chambers), now has FTTP coverage of 10.78%.

All the rest have 0% FTTP coverage, all except Edgbaston that is, which has 1.28% coverage.

As such, the vast majority of people in and around Birmingham aren't able to get Hyperoptic at the moment, although people in Ladywood and Edgbaston might want to refer to the following postcode checker, just in case.

Postcode:
Enter your postcode above to check availability in your area.

And if they are one of the lucky few in touching distance of Hyperoptic's network, they'll be able to benefit from the following packages.

Package Broadband Contract term Upfront price Monthly price
hyperoptic 30Mb Fibre Broadband & Phone Up to 30Mb
Unlimited
12 months Free £19
for 12 mths,
then £25
hyperoptic 150Mb Fibre Broadband & Phone Up to 150Mb
Unlimited
12 months Free £29
for 12 mths,
then £38
hyperoptic 1Gb Fibre Broadband & Phone Up to 1Gb
Unlimited
12 months Free £49
for 12 mths,
then £63
hyperoptic 30Mb Fibre Broadband Up to 30Mb
Unlimited
12 months £40 £18
for 12 mths,
then £22
hyperoptic 150Mb Fibre Broadband Up to 150Mb
Unlimited
12 months £40 £28
for 12 mths,
then £35
hyperoptic 1Gb Fibre Broadband Up to 1Gb
Unlimited
12 months £40 £48
for 12 mths,
then £60

They'll also be able to benefit from prices which, for a provider offering gigabit speeds, are surprisingly competitive, being cheaper in several categories than Virgin Media's (their closest rival in terms of speeds).

On top of this, Hyperoptic offer excellent customer service, as evidence by how they've won the ISPA gong for Best Superfast Broadband five years in a row.

As a result, for those who can, Hyperoptic is possibly the best ISP in the city. As for all the rest, they can at least register their interest on the provider's website.

4G broadband

Relevant guides
EE mobile broadband review
Weighing up Vodafone's mobile internet
O2 score high for customer satisfaction
Who provides the best coverage?

However, for those individuals more interested in mobile rather than home broadband, it's a good idea to look at the 4G services offered by the four main networks.

Luckily for people in Birmingham, their 4G availability is relatively good compared to other cities and areas, coming in at around 77% (London has only 73.6%).

As for which network is the best, RootMetrics' UK report for the first half of 2017 found that the four networks are in fact closely matched.

In terms of overall performance - which measures network reliability, speed, data, texts and calls - it gave EE and Vodafone joint first position, although the others weren't far behind:

Birmingham network overall

Source: RootMetrics, State of the Nation H1 2017

Usually, at least with regards to performance across the entire UK as a whole, EE usually comes out on top of RootMetrics surveys, winning most individual categories as well.

Yet in Birmingham, it's pipped to the post in the individual categories of reliability and call performance, although RootMetrics gave them joint first nonetheless (since the difference is marginal).

Birmingham call performance

Source: RootMetrics, State of the Nation H1 2017

Birmingham network reliability

Source: RootMetrics, State of the Nation H1 2017

While the difference between EE and Vodafone, and sometimes Three as well, is quite fractional, it would at least seem that O2 are almost always lagging behind a bit.

On the other hand, OpenSignal's coverage map for Birmingham shows that, while EE has the best and widest 4G coverage in the city, O2's is no worse than Vodafone's or Three's.

All three of the latter operators have more red spots of weaker 4G signal than EE, as illustrated below.

EE coverage

Source: OpenSignal, EE 4G LTE Cell Coverage Map, Birmingham

O2 coverage

Source: OpenSignal, O2 4G LTE Cell Coverage Map, Birmingham

Three coverage

Source: OpenSignal, Three 4G LTE Cell Coverage Map, Birmingham

Vodafone coverage

Source: OpenSignal, Vodafone 4G LTE Cell Coverage Map, Birmingham

So, on the basis of all the above, EE might just about be the best network in terms of coverage and performance, although Vodafone are quite close behind.

Nonetheless, O2 are known for having more loyal customers than all the other operators, something which shows how they often have better customer service and offer better special promotions.

As such, those who want good treatment from their operator as well as a good phone signal might still want to give O2 a think.

Verdict: who provides the best broadband in Birmingham?

With the foregoing overview of all the main broadband providers out of the way, it's time to summarise what has been discussed and come to a conclusion on just which provides are the best in Birmingham.

Well, as tempting as it is to side with the provider offering the fastest speeds and pick Hyperoptic, it's clear that their level of coverage is still painfully small.

Conversely, Virgin Media are the network with the biggest reach in the wider Birmingham area, and they offer speeds of up to 200Mb and 300Mb, as well as decent customer service.

This is perhaps enough to make them the best provider overall, although they're beaten on price by a number of other ISPs.

These include Plusnet and TalkTalk, with TalkTalk in particular offering the lowest prices over the long term. However, given that Plusnet rank a little better in terms of customer service, and also don't have any cybersecurity horror stories behind them, they are perhaps the ISP of choice for customers on a budget.

And as the review of mobile broadband has shown, EE and Vodafone are more or less joint best networks in terms of performance, yet Vodafone in fact attract more customer complaints.

Mobile complaints

Source: Ofcom, Latest telecoms and pay-TV complaints, September 27th, 2017

And while O2 may be better for customer service and special offers, this may not be a comfort for those who struggle to get the best possible signal in certain areas. Therefore, the best provider for mobile broadband would have to be EE, given that Vodafone can't quite keep their customers as happy as EE.

Yet even with these verdicts, this review should have made clear that different providers bring different benefits to different customers. Because of this, it always pays a customer to consider just what they want from their provider and, in the end, make that choice for themselves.


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