If it wasn't already obvious, the Covid-19 pandemic has made clear just how important it is to have a good home internet connection.
But if you’re looking to improve your Work From Home life - or even your streaming video binge - there are a few things to consider, and watch out for, when choosing a new service.
Home out of range?
The first thing you need to do when weighing up your broadband options is to see what - if any - services are available in your area.
Broadband coverage is slowly improving in Ireland, but there are still plenty of homes and businesses that do not have access to a connection.
According to the Department of Communications at the end of last year, almost 553,000 premises were not served by a commercial provider - representing more than 23% of all premises in the country.
As a rule of thumb, the more rural the area the fewer broadband options it is likely to have.
Assuming you can get online in some way, you can see how your home fares by putting your address or Eircode into comparison services like Bonkers.ie or Switcher.ie.
If you’re in one of the homes without a connection, you could hang tight for the National Broadband Plan to come your way, though in some cases it will be 2027 before that connection is up and running.
In the mean-time the only option for some may be mobile or satellite-based broadband - which have their own challenges. Others may simply have no option at all.
Need for Speed
Assuming you have providers to choose from, the next step is identifying which offer is best suited to your needs.
Speed tends to be the major differentiating factor when it comes to broadband - but knowing what speed you’ll need can be hard to figure out.
For some context, Netflix recommends a connection of *at least* 5 megabits per second (5 Mbps) when streaming HD video.
That would also be the kind of baseline you should be looking for if you’re going to be doing a lot of video conferencing, or even regularly sending and receiving large files via email.
And you should also take account of the number of people who might be online in your home at any given time - and how many devices are connected.
That 5 Mbps might just about handle your favourite box-set, but it will start to creak if you want to check something on your phone at the same time… and it will fare even worse if someone in the next room is gaming online too.
But even if you know what speed you want and find a provider offering that, take the headline figure with a pinch of salt.
That’s because the speed quoted by providers is usually a maximum - and what you’ll get on a day-to-day basis will often be considerably slower.
A number of factors can influence this; including the type of connection used (ADSL - which runs through your phone line - is far less reliable than fibre, for example). Your distance from a network exchange can also affect speed. As can your neighbours’ browsing habits - because providers often split one connection between multiple homes (known as 'contention’).
That’s a long way of saying that you may need to look for a connection well in excess of the minimum you think you’ll need - though, if you can, ask neighbours for their experience with providers to give you an idea of what speeds are actually like on-the-ground.
You also shouldn’t automatically go for the fastest speed on offer, either.
As speeds rise, so do prices - and it may be a waste to pay for something that you don’t currently need.
High in Fibre?
But if high speeds are important, fibre is considered the gold standard.
Existing services here are already offering speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) - theoretically enough to download a high definition episode of a TV show in seconds.
These connections are also far less prone to slowdowns during busy periods and are generally more reliable for connection-intensive uses like gaming.
However ‘fibre’ is also an often misused term, with some providers guilty of applying a generous definition to it in their marketing.
If you want the best possible connection, you need to ensure it’s ‘Fibre To The Home’. That means that the entire line between your network and your router is made up of fibre optic cabling.
Eir and Siro are the two main providers of FTTH at the moment - with the latter selling its services through a number of other brands including Sky, Vodafone and Digiweb. However these services are largely concentrated around the country’s main towns and cities - with the same companies offering poorer connection types where fibre is not available.
Some providers may use the word ‘fibre’ in their marketing, but in reality only promise ‘Fibre To The Cabinet’ (meaning your nearest network exchange) or ‘Fibre to the Curb’ (meaning a telephone pole or duct outside your house).
The problem with this is that a lower quality cable is then used to complete the connection, which slows everything down. As the saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Recent guidance by the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland means that providers need to make clear when their broadband is only ‘part fibre’ like this - so pay close attention to the wording of any marketing you see.
But a fast connection will only get you so far - especially if your provider has a tight cap on the amount of data you can transfer each month.
Data limits are fairly common on broadband packages - even on services described as ‘unlimited’ - and in theory they help to stop heavy users from impacting on others.
However some may also be relatively easy for a ‘normal’ user to hit - and, much like speeds, it’s hard to know in advance what you’ll need for your own usage.
For their faster connections, the likes of Vodafone, Sky and Eir offer a 1TB usage limit - which is roughly equivalent to 333 hours of Netflix*.
Caps tend to be smaller for mobile connections - for example Eir Mobile caps data at anywhere between 10GB and 80GB depending on the service the customer is signed up to.
It is also worth checking what your provider will do if you do manage to break the monthly allowance.
In some cases a network may simply issue a warning - or slow your connection temporarily. However some also reserve the right to charge users per additional megabyte of data transferred - which could get expensive very quickly.
Some networks have removed data caps, and/or opted to waive excess data fees during the pandemic.
In a bundle
Most providers will also offer to bundle other services in with a broadband connection, which can offer savings when compared to multiple, individual services. And there is a lot to be said for having to deal with just one monthly bill as opposed to three or four.
However bundles can also be a sales trick to get you to spend money on something you don’t really need - like when a supermarket encourages you to buy two items in order to get a third for free.
When considering bundle offers, ask yourself what services you actually want - and what they’re worth to you.
For example, do you still need a landline phone, or has that been gathering dust in recent years?
Do you need a TV service, and if so what channels - and extras, like being able to pause live TV or easily record programmes, would you like to have? If you’re happy with having just the ‘main’ channels, perhaps those needs can be met through free services like Saorview Plus or Saorsat, alongside the online players you’ll be able to access through your broadband connection.
Once you are clear in what you want, check the ‘broadband only’ price against the bundle price to ensure you’re comfortable with the extra you’ll have to pay for the additional services.
The big print giveth and the small print taketh away
Another common sales trick is the ‘introductory offer’ - which can make a service seem like an absolute bargain.
Sometimes these deals can mean savings for the customer - but often they make little difference in the long term, or worse, end up costing you money.
For example - say you’re deciding between two providers, one offering you broadband for €50 a month, and another offering you a ‘special price’ of €30 per month. The latter is clearly the more attractive.
But the small print tells you that the ‘special price’ is only for the first three months, after which it reverts to the normal €60 per month.
Over the course of the year, that ‘special offer' has cost you money.
Providers tend to require you to sign up to a 12 month contract, but some special offers may also tie you into a longer deal - so again pay attention to the small print.
And avoid getting dazzled by any of the other bells and whistles that might be offered by a company, like a small One4All voucher or a customer rewards programme. Think of these only as the nice little extras that they are; they’re certainly not sizeable enough to justify paying over the odds for a connection.
Making the move
Once you’ve settled on the provider and package you want, there are a few steps you should take to make the switch happen.
Firstly, dig out a recent bill from your current provider - as having your account details handy will make everything much easier.
Check that you are out of contract with your current provider. If you are not you may have to pay a fee to be released early, which could undermine any savings you can expect from your new deal.
Then ring your current carrier to tell them you want to cancel - the chances are they’ll make some kind of offer to you in order to change your mind.
This offer might include a price cut, or a free upgrade, which could be worth hanging on for - but again bear in mind the tricks around ‘special offers’, and be aware that agreeing probably requires you to sign up to a new, year-long contract too.
Assuming their offer isn’t good enough, you’ll probably have to serve out a notice period before you are disconnected - often around 30 days. They may also require you to return their equipment once your service is terminated.
You can then start the ball rolling with your new provider. It can take a few weeks for them to get out and set you up, but ideally you’ll be able to time it so you’re not paying for both services for more than a few days.
Depending on who you’re switching to and from, there may also need to be some handing over done between your old and new providers - for example if both are using your telephone line for your connection.
Meanwhile, if you are keeping a landline you can also transfer over your existing number to your new provider at no additional cost.
Unfortunately there is no specific requirement for this whole process to be completed within a certain amount of time, however the regulator ComReg does oblige providers to transfer telephone numbers within a ‘reasonable’ timeframe.
If you do feel either side is dragging their feet, however, don’t be afraid to make a complaint to the regulator - and let the providers know you’re doing so too.