Student broadband: how to get the best deal

student broadband

STUDENT households have more to think about than most when it comes to sorting out their internet connections.

Students are more likely to be moving within a year, which understandably makes them less attractive to providers.

They're also more likely to be heavy downloaders - all those online resources take up GBs even before factoring in a steady stream of movies, games and music - which means unlimited deals are a must.

On the other hand, because they're sharing the cost of a connection, student households can get great broadband fairly cheaply per person.

Here are the three things we think student houses need to consider before signing on the dotted line.

1. Contract length vs. tenancy length

Most standard broadband contracts last 12 months, and fibre contracts often last 18 months. But many student tenancies are shorter than that - or at least, not everyone will be there for the whole period, and may well begrudge paying for months when they aren't present.

Don't get too hung up on getting a shorter contract when it comes to standard broadband at least. A 12-month contract will often be cheaper and less fussy than a short or no contract deal overall because it'll come with free setup, free hardware and, often, a big joining discount.

With a short or flexible contract, however, there's often an upfront fee for joining - and some no-contract ISPs will insist on their customers buying their own router, which can add significantly to the total cost.

The plus sides of a flexible contract include there being no threat of hefty early termination fees and the ability to leave for another provider if the service isn't good enough.

Furthermore, the number of providers offering flexible deals and contracts has risen over the past few years, with some of them specifically aiming at the student market by offering streaming devices as well as lower prices - click here for our full guide.

But how do they compare with the deals offered on standard contract terms?

Let's compare one of the cheapest, most widely available, unlimited no-contract options - from Plusnet - with the identical package offered on contract, assuming a 12-month term:

Package Contract term Upfront cost Monthly price Total: 12 months** Total: nine months**
plusnet Unlimited + Line Only (30 day contract) 1 month £50 £23.99
for 12 mths,
then £31.48
£365.76 £274.32
plusnet Unlimited + Line Only 18 months Free £18.99
for 18 mths,
then £27.98
£245.88 £184.41 (not including cancellation fees)

**Calculations correct at time of writing

Do note mention of the 12-month contract above. Depending on the introductory offer they're running, Plusnet will sometimes bump their minimum ADSL contract length up to 18 months long.

When they're selling 12-month contracts, it's almost worth taking the hit and paying for the extra three months even if no one will be in the house for them.

Broadband contracts
Our definitive guide

But if the current offer is based on an 18-month commitment, students thinking of signing up for "free" broadband face paying for nine months of service that they don't need, or the above-mentioned termination fees.

This isn't the only case of the "shorter contracts aren't always cheaper" principle: for up to the minute prices on these and many more ISPs, check our full search here.

At the time of this update there's one big exception to this rule: Virgin Media sell student specific nine month deals that tend to appear from around July each year.

In previous years BT have also offered nine-month student contracts, usually for roughly the same price as their standard deals.

Virgin Media's student contracts are for broadband alone, and cost £1.75 per month more than the than their standard 12-month deals.

Virgin Media
Their broadband reviewed

But because they're three months shorter, that means student households will save between £81 and £130 compared with the total price payable during a standard contract, depending on which speed connection they opt for - which includes their up to 200Mb deal.

2. Factor in phones

The vast majority of broadband deals require customers to pay for line rental as well as broadband because ADSL connections are delivered through (active) phone lines.

BT line rental has recently increased to £18.99 a month. They're pretty much always the most expensive provider in the market, but many of the others hover around a similar or slightly reduced mark, so it's a significant extra expense that's worth bearing in mind.

But while a landline can be handy, many student households prefer not to use it at all since: a) everyone has a mobile anyway and b) a phone bill is a housemate argument waiting to happen.

With that in mind, students are often well served by the cheapest landline deals that come with broadband packages. The fact that not many offer inclusive calls doesn't matter when people aren't using the phone anyway, and taking both services often gives a discount overall.

Once upon a time there were providers like Primus - reviewed here - whose line rental cost way less than most others.

But since they relaunched as Fuel Broadband - who we look at here - they've gone for a much simpler, much more standard, line rental deal.

That said, their broadband is still pretty cheap, and they often throw in student friendly incentives such as offering new subscribers Amazon Fire Sticks.

If freebies are just going to cause more house arguments, concentrate on slashing the cost of the line rental, which we look at here.

Home phone free

There's only one way to go completely home phone free, though: broadband only deals from Virgin Media.

Since it's a purely cable connection there's no need for an active phone line.

The problem is that Virgin Media services are far from universally available, although student heavy towns seem to have better coverage than most. Carry out a postcode search in the review we link to above.

The only other way to go home phone free is with a mobile broadband connection, which we look at here. That will usually be unsuitable for sharing, although some 4G deals are becoming increasingly usable.


The final thing to consider when looking at student broadband is usage allowance.

This is less of an issue than it used to be, as the majority of providers now concentrate on selling unlimited packages.

But for those on flexible or rolling contracts, which are more likely to come with data caps, trying to work out how much data everyone in the house will use is a bit of a mugs game.

Never mind the streaming and downloading of videos and music, and the odd bit of gaming; most courses will ask students to download large PDF files at home, which will quickly eat through a small allowance.

We've provided a guide to data usage here, along with how different providers deal with those who go over their allowances.

Penalties for exceeding data caps can be monetary - and quite steep - or come in the form of a throttled connection. Those who consistently go over will usually be asked to move to a more expensive deal so it's worth getting this right first time.

Frankly, it's often easier and cheaper in the long run to go for an unlimited package - just check the length and terms of contract.

P2P and gaming

This also takes care of households that do a lot of P2P downloading and/or a lot of online gaming.

That said, such users will instead need to think about their provider's traffic management policy and/or fair use policy: heavy use could result in even an unlimited service being severely slowed or stopped.

Information on these can be found in our full product reviews and in this article on broadband fair use policies.

To sum up

To sum up: think about, but don't panic over, year-long contracts; don't forget to factor in home phone, and look out for usage allowances.

Happy student broadband hunting! Let us know how it goes in the comments below.


13 September 2011

You should probably add that high speed Virgin broadband is only available in cable areas - otherwise you get a much worse deal. Also BT Infinity is not a bad deal if available, because especially large student houses will definitely need the speed.

I worked for nine months at Tiscali/Talk Talk (don't touch them with a bargepole!) so I do know what I am talking about.

3 September 2011

I would add caution to the praise given to O2.

I say this only because although O2 began as almost a re-branded Be product (O2 own Be) their current product
is akin to other mass providers. The legacy O2 broadband is not available to new or returning customers. I have
had both and Be are outstanding.

5 July 2011

I'm looking at providers at the moment. Sharing as a 5 bed, and we often play games or stream movies via sky player. I've had problems with ADSL connections in the past where streaming movies can be very stop-start and becomes impossible to watch when others are using internet at the same time. Has anyone experienced this with O2? I know that Virgin doesn't suffer this problem as bandwidth is better on optical lines, but looking for a cheaper option.

19 April 2011

Hey, just to validate this claim, I've had O2 for 2 years in a student house, no problems and great customer service when I was starting up.. Thumbs up for O2! :)

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