There’s a vast array of broadband offerings available from companies both big and small these days, all competing for your business. The first things most people look at when choosing an ISP – monthly cost and data allowance – are undeniably important. But there are a few other things you should be taking into account to help make sure you make the right choice.
1. There’s more than one way to connect
If it was just a case of everyone offering the same basic internet service, then it’d be simple. But it’s likely there’s options available to you that could make your internet faster or cheaper than you’d initially think.
The NBN is making its way across the country faster and faster, and there is already a huge number of areas and buildings that have access to it. If you can get it, you’ll want it, as it’s designed to meet the growing data needs of modern life – as well as giving you more control over your choice of ISP. Check the NBN rollout map to see if your area has coverage already – and if you’ve just moved into a new apartment or a home in a new estate, look for the tell-tale white NBN box that indicates that the fibre’s already arrived there. In some city areas, Telstra and TPG have also set up their own fibre networks running to the basement of apartment buildings to provide high-speed access. Check with your building manager if you’re unsure.
In a large percentage of metropolitan areas, there’s also the option of cable internet, offered by both Telstra and Optus using Foxtel’s pay TV cables. While not designed for internet usage initially, it can potentially be as fast as the NBN. However, choosing cable internet does have the downside of limiting your choice of ISP. Those pay TV cables are progressively being moved over to the NBN, and once that happens you’ll be able to choose any ISP you like.
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2. Look at the data allowance carefully
When shopping around for an ISP, you’ll see quite a few asterisks next to the offerings of what look like huge monthly data allowance. The fine print always spells it out, and a common thing to overlook is the separation of data usage into “peak” and “off peak”. Just like with electricity rates, you can be pretty sure that those “off peak” hours aren’t going to coincide with when the vast majority of people would actually be using the internet. And yet you’ll commonly see half the monthly data allowance restricted to these “off peak” hours, which commonly tend to be between 2:00 am and 6:00 am. Unless you have a way of using that data unattended (scheduling off-peak downloads of large video files, for example) it’s going to go unused, and that 500GB/month just became 250GB/month at the same price.
If you’re opting for an “unlimited data” plan instead, check the fine print to see if there are any restrictions on just how much data you can actually use. ISPs with unlimited plans used to get away with using the word while quietly slowing your connection down when you reached a certain limit, but the ACCC intervened to make sure that what’s advertised as “unlimited” does mean unlimited. But there’s still going to be some sort of “fair use” policy, so be sure to always read the fine print, no matter how dense and dull it looks! Some ISPs also over-sell their service compared to its capacity in peak hours – which can cause the infamous “evening slowdown” – a problem that’s thankfully been solved by the reputable internet providers.
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3. Some ISPs have a hardware advantage
When you get ADSL connected through many ISPs – especially smaller ones – you’re more often than not going to be connected to Telstra’s broadband hardware at the phone exchange. There’s no real technical disadvantage to that but some of the larger ISPs offer an alternative solution. Some years ago, it became possible for ISPs to grab space at phone exchanges and install their own broadband hardware, and the larger ones – including Optus, TPG, iPrimus, Internode and others – leapt at the chance.
Your ISP connecting you directly to their own hardware takes Telstra out of the loop when it comes to your internet connection. This helps the ISP generate considerable cost savings that they can pass on to customers in the form of cheaper monthly access fees. It also gives them more direct control of your broadband connection, which can be invaluable if you need to troubleshoot speed issues or other technical problems down the track.
Some ISPs can take this even further by using their hardware to provide a home phone line connected and billed directly through them, saving you money on both line rental and calls if you still need a landline phone at home, with internet and home phone often offered as a specially priced bundle.
It’s a competitive market, and savings for the ISP more often than not means savings to you as well!
4. Your ISP is in control of how fast your net access is
It’s not just about getting the fastest possible connection from your home to the internet. Even with the best hardware in the world, you aren’t going to enjoy blazing-fast downloads if your network gets congested. Imagine signing a two-year contract only to discover that at peak times, everything slows to a crawl and you can’t even get through a half hour show on Netflix without constant buffering.
It’s up to each individual ISP to make an educated guess about how many of their users are going to be online at peak times, and how heavily they’ll be using their connections. They then have to buy the appropriate amount of capacity to make sure they can offer the bandwidth needed to deliver everyone’s data at a reasonable speed. They also have to make sure that they don’t have more users on the service at one time than their pipes can handle.
While you’d probably think that smaller, less well-known ISPs would be the most likely to scrimp on such things, the well-publicised problems that iiNet had at the launch of Netflix in Australia showed that high demand can take even the largest of ISPs by surprise.
What you ideally want is an ISP that can provide a fast, reliable service without signing up too many customers for their network to handle. And there’s no easy answer to finding that. Your best friend is research, and the best place to do that is the forums over at Whirlpool, which for years have been the go-to for anyone wanting to discuss their internet service and complain about any problems that arise. So it pays to have a browse through the forums and see what people are saying about the ISPs you’re considering.
5. The best things in life are free!
Many ISPs offer a selection of sites and services “unmetered” – that is, no matter how much data you download while using those services, it won’t count towards your monthly limit.
For example, iiNet offers unmetered Netflix streaming, taking advantage of their ability to host a Netflix server on their own network. That’s a biggie for a lot of people, allowing you to binge in HD for as long as you like and never make a dent in your download allowance.
iiNet’s “Freezone” extends beyond Netflix, too, also offering unmetered downloads from iTunes, unmetered gaming on your Xbox, and more.
For gamers, Internode and iiNet offer unmetered downloads from PC gaming service Steam. With modern PC games clocking in at huge sizes – over 60GB for Grand Theft Auto V for example – that can be a very useful thing indeed.
Telstra’s Bigpond, meanwhile, offers a mammoth list of unmetered content, including its own streaming services, the AFL web site and all of the AFL team web sites, Bigpond Movies and Music and more.
There’s no one-stop shop for unmetered everything – if that’s what you’re after, you’re better off going for an unlimited-data plan, which are becoming the norm anyway. But if you know your usage habits and choose the right ISP, you might just find yourself with a bit of a bargain.