Best ISP and broadband plans

Which ISP to choose, and what to look for when shopping for broadband Internet connection

Picking an Internet service provider (ISP) is never easy. The one that's right for you depends on a lot of factors — a key factor being your budget and the next major consideration being the monthly data allowance you are given. But there are lots of other little things that you should take into consideration before deciding on which company you'll give your hard-earned cash to each month. Here are the top things to consider when shopping around for an ADSL connection.

Go naked if you can

Naked ADSL plans give you the ability to sign up for an ADSL2+ service without having an active phone service. That is, you have to have a physical phone line running into your home but that line doesn't have to be married to a phone number in order for you to sign up for a broadband plan.

The advantage of this is that you don't have to pay a monthly rental fee for the phone line (the ISP incorporates this fee into the broadband plan itself). For many of us who rarely (or never) use a landline at home, it makes great sense. This can lead to a lower overall monthly fee compared to a regular broadband plan when you factor in the line rental charge. In order to be eligible for a naked ADSL service you must be connected to an exchange at which your chosen ISP has installed its own equipment.

Cost per gigabyte

How much you pay for your Internet access will depend on what type of data plan you choose. Plans can range from 5GB to over 100GB per month, although AAPT now offers an unlimited data plan. The type of plan you choose should reflect your usage needs and, of course, your budget. For many ISPs, the best value plans can be found past $50, where the cost per gigabyte drops below $1. However, not everyone can pay that much per month for an Internet service, so middle-of-the-pack plans for around $39 often offer a good compromise between data allowance and cost.

In most plans, upload data is not counted towards the quota. Some ADSL plans, such as iiNet's Naked ADSL offering count uploads as well as downloads towards the quota. This is something to be mindful of if you regularly upload videos to YouTube or use BitTorrent, for example.

Peak and off-peak data usage

So you've got a plan in mind and know how much data you want to pay for. Some ISPs split their data allowance into peak and off-peak times, and this can affect the way in which you use up your data. Be mindful of the amount of time offered for each period and the balance of the offering. Some ISPs split your data allowance in such a way that the majority of it has to be used in the off-peak period, which has been getting shorter over the years.

A typical off-peak period might be between 2am and 8am (iiNet used to have a very reasonable 2am to 12pm off-peak period until recently). If you're a heavy downloader, you'll have to schedule many of your downloads to run during the off-peak period. Some ISPs, such as Internode don't split up the data allowance in this way, and this can beneficial if you aren't a night-owl or if you work from home a lot.

Speed and shaping

Look for an ADSL2+ plan instead of an ADSL1 plan, as this will ensure you get the fastest possible speed. In some areas, ADSL2+ might not be available and you'll have to settle for ADSL1. The speed at which you can connect over ADSL2+ will depend on a number of factors: the quality of the phone line, the distance from your dwelling to the phone exchange, and your modem (make sure you have an ADSL2+ capable model). ADSL2+ has a theoretical maximum speed of 24 megabits per second, but in reality the speed you get will be anything between 1Mbps and 20Mbps. ISPs make no guarantees about the speed.

For ADSL1 services, the speed is usually up to 1Mbps. Upload speeds are generally 1Mbps, too, with real-world speed being around 800 kilobits per second (Kbps). If you reach and exceed your monthly data allowance, some ISPs will slow your speed (this is known as "shaping"). The speed to which your connection will be slowed varies, but it can be almost as slow as a dial-up connection (56Kbps) in some cases, which makes using the Web practically impossible. Keep this in mind when figuring out your usage so that you are never in a situation where you go over the limit. Some ISPs charge a fee if you go over the limit — so check the ISP's policy.

Useful bundling

The cost of a broadband plan can be more competitive if you choose to bundle other services that the ISP provides. If you need a landline it can be economical to bundle a line rental plan with a broadband plan.

Often the line rental will be cheaper than what it would be with Telstra, for example, and the broadband plans on offer will be better value with the bundle than without. A good example of an ISP that does this is iiNet. On a Naked plan, you might want to opt for an ISP such as MyNetFone, which offers a VoIP bundle with its broadband plans. This will let you call landlines and mobile phones if you have a VoIP telephone handset.

Free zones and value-added features

Free content that doesn't count towards your data quota can sweeten the deal. Some ISPs subsidise the data used by online radio stations, ABC's iView streaming and Apple's iTunes downloads. Some even offer gaming servers that won't count towards the data quota. These sorts of services can help you get the most out of your broadband connection, so find out what your prospective ISP offers.

Contracts vs. pay-as-you-go

When opting for a 12- or 24-month contract, some ISP's will offer free hardware or discounted set-up costs. Consider whether these things are worth it to you for foregoing your ability to change ISPs whenever you want. If you're a renter and you're not sure if you'll be in the same dwelling 12 months down the track, don't discount a contract as an option — relocation fees are often lower than new connection fees. If you do opt for a contract and then need to cancel, you might incur a cancellation fee.

While it may be tedious, make sure you take the time to read the terms and conditions of the plan, and make a note of the fees involved in cancelling or relocating. Bear in mind that relocation is also dependant upon your ISP having coverage in the area you move to.

Fast churn

"Churning" is the term used to describe the process of moving from one ISP to another. ISP's that support fast churn can take you off your current ISP and connect you to their network quickly and with a minimum of fuss. They can take care of the disconnection details and set you up without you having to do it all yourself (although you will have to settle any money matters with your current ISP). If the hassle of changing ISPs scares you and if you want minimum downtime, ask prospective ISPs whether they support a fast churn from your current ISP.

Bring your own equipment vs. buying from the ISP

Each method has its merits. If you're happy with your current modem and router, then don't worry, you won't have to change equipment when you apply for a new ISP (unless you're moving from a dial-up plan to ADSL2+ and don't have an ADSL2+ modem, or moving from ADSL1 to ADSL2+ and your modem only supports the former).

However, some ISPs offer equipment already configured with all the details you'll need to connect (iiNet's BoB is such a product), so all you'll have to do is plug it in and away you go. If you're sick of your old equipment, or if you're new to the Internet and don't have equipment yet, then purchasing equipment from your new ISP at the time of sign-up can be a good idea and make things easy for you. Ask the salesperson for your prospective ISP about any special deals pertaining to hardware.

Check out our guide for selecting a mobile broadband plan.

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