In this guide we'll explain how to spot when a free broadband deal does pop up, how to get more for less - and what sort of help is available for those struggling to get online at all.
Skip ahead to look at:
- The main providers offering free broadband deals,
- Subsidised schemes for people in receipt of certain benefits,
- Social schemes for those without access to standard broadband.
First though, let's take a quick look at why broadband can no longer be advertised as free broadband anymore.
No longer 'free' broadband
Providers used to commonly run adverts offering free broadband on a fairly regular basis: it was rare not to see the likes of Sky, TalkTalk or Plusnet offering connections seemingly free of charge for 12 or even 18 months at a time.
But since the end of October 2016, there's been a distinct lack of adverts boasting of "free broadband" - because of a change in the rules regarding how broadband prices can be advertised.
But the new advertising rules haven't put an end to free broadband deals; they've just made them less immediately obvious - and less common - than they once were.
Free broadband: if you pay for a phone line
Even with the new ASA rules in place, there will still occasionally be offers like these advertised:
At the time of writing, this deal has been available from Sky for about three months - and Plusnet had not long ended an offer in which they were selling their up to 17Mb broadband for £18 a month on an 18-month contract.
Neither of these sound like they're offering free broadband. But advertised prices must now include the cost of line rental when it's required - and Plusnet's line rental costs £17.99 a month, while Sky's is £18.99.
For those in the know, then, these two deals both offered the equivalent of free broadband (or for 1p per month in Plusnet's case, if we're being pedantic).
As we said at the beginning, these kind of deals are much less frequent than they once were - but they haven't completely disappeared.
We don't list line rental separately in our comparison tables any more, but to make it easier to spot just how much the broadband part of a package costs, here's what the biggest broadband providers charge for line rental, and how much they charge when we add standard (up to 17Mb) broadband:
|Offer: Reduced price for 24 months
|Offer: 10% off for EE pay monthly mobile customers + 5GB extra data for EE pay monthly mobile customers
|Unlimited + Line only
|Offer: Reduced price + No setup fee + Exclusive offers and discounts for Plusnet customers
|Broadband Essential Plus
* TalkTalk no longer separately list how much they charge for line rental as the price is included in the package price. To keep this article as accurate as possible we've decided to leave out the last known line rental amount.
There are more deals available in our full comparison table here.
Take a quick look at the difference between the cost of the line rental and the total monthly price for each provider: with the exception of BT, most charge around £10 for their broadband when it's not on special offer.
Now bear in mind that most broadband providers charge about the same or less for line rental than those listed above.
It's not as easy as having it spelled out to us that broadband from X provider costs just Y amount for so many months, but with a little bit of maths and prior knowledge we can see fairly quickly how cheap the broadband part of any deal is.
Bundles, sweeteners and being upfront
Remember that the more services we're willing to take, the better the deals we're likely to find, such as cashback offers, bill credits, vouchers, and even "free" something or other for a certain period.
Here are some of the deals being run by the main providers:
Get this offer
Sky Stream Entertainment + Netflix just £19/mth with free setup (worth £39.95)
Offer ends 31 March 2024
18 month minimum term. No setup fee. £26/mth after 18 months. Prices may change during the contract period.Get this offer
Get this offer
Sky Glass with Sky Entertainment & Netflix from just £36/mth
Offer ends 31 March 2024
48 month minimum term on Sky Glass. 18 month minimum term on Sky TV. £10 setup fee. Prices may change during the contract period.Get this offer
Get this offer
NOW Entertainment just £4.99 a month for 12 months with TalkTalk TV and broadband
24 month minimum term on broadband (required). Monthly-rolling contract on TV.Get this offer
Get this offer
£200 Bill Credit or an Xbox Series S with selected Virgin TV bundles.
Hurry! Offer ends in 5 days!
18 month minimum term. No setup fee. Prices vary depending on package chosen. Price will increase each year from April 2025 by the RPI rate of inflation announced in February each year plus 3.9%.Get this offer
Get this offer
Virgin Media M250 broadband, just £27/mth for 18 months
18 month minimum term. No setup fee. £60/mth after 18 months. Price will increase each year from April 2025 by the RPI rate of inflation announced in February each year plus 3.9%.Get this offer
Many providers also offer upfront line rental payment options, which can make a substantial difference to overall cost.
Time the search right, and combine enough offers, and it could be possible to get the holy grail of broadband for practically nothing.
Subsidies and social schemes
Most of the time then, the best we can hope for is a way to substantially reduce the costs involved with getting online. We look into some of the tricks that can be used to help cut costs in this guide.
But there are a couple of schemes designed to help get as many people online as possible by reducing costs for those in rural locations or with low incomes.
Possibly the best known and certainly the most widely available of these schemes is BT Basic with Broadband.
Available to people on certain benefits, it bundles a BT landline, £1.50 of inclusive calls and a 12GB a month data allowance on an up to 17Mb broadband connection for just £9.95 a month.
Those who are eligible don't have to pay for connection costs (except in only very extreme circumstances) or for the delivery of their BT Home Hub; as long as they stick to certain types of call they'll never pay more than £10 on top of the £9.95 monthly charge.
Being from BT, it's available nationwide. Click here for more detail on what's included, who's eligible, and how to apply.
Free basic broadband
At the time of this update, one ISP has just started to provide completely free "basic" broadband (up to 2Mb) to people in connected buildings, regardless of whether they take any of their other services.
Social tenants in the Hyde Housing Association developments being connected to Hyperoptic's FTTP network will have access to 2Mb broadband free of charge, with the option to sign up to one of the ISP's other packages (reviewed here) on a month by month basis if they wish.
Up to 2Mb wi-fi should also be available in all communal areas of the developments.
This may seem somewhat slow given Ofcom's assertion in 2014 that households need a connection of at least 10Mb, but until and the Government's commitment to raising the universal service obligation to match that by 2020.
But the emphasis is not so much about the speed of connection as having free and convenient access to a reliable connection in the first place: Hyde Group's Shaun Holdcroft says that 23% of social tenants are offline compared to 14% in the wider UK population, and yet many of the services they need are becoming digital by default.
The other downside is the limited availability of the scheme: while Hyde and Hyperoptic have spoken about extending their partnership to more developments in time, at present the rollout is limited to just eight, all of which are in London.
Free satellite broadband setup
Hyperoptic tend to focus on high density developments; at the other end of the density scale are people in such rural locations their only real option is satellite broadband.
Given that getting online this way requires rather more than a modem being posted to us and a little bit of work at our local exchange, the setup costs are significantly higher - and then users can expect to pay much more per month for the service itself.
That means that getting and staying online is likely to add up to more than the maximum £400 a year that the Government believe basic access should cost, so depending on where we live in the UK there are two schemes that help make it more affordable.
The Welsh Government provide grants to those who aren't in a superfast area providing that the new connection will be at least double the speed of the best currently available at that address.
Those after a connection with an average speed of 10Mb can get £400 in help with costs; those who want at least 30Mb may be eligible for £800.
In the rest of the UK, those who can't get more than 2Mb according to this BT line speed checker, and whose area isn't slated for inclusion in a superfast connection project in the near future, can apply for the UK Government's satellite broadband subsidy scheme.
Prospective applicants will need to check if their local superfast scheme is taking part in the programme. If it is, they can expect to have their equipment, installation and activation fees covered, usually to the tune of around £350.
In neither case, however, is the broadband itself free.
'Free' broadband - again
The other option is to take advantage of free wi-fi. We don't mean stealing the neighbours' - no, really, don't do that.
Instead, infrequent users who don't mind nipping out for a coffee to download their emails could do worse than taking a look at our guide to free and cheap wi-fi to find out more.