There are several factors that will influence your choice of ISP, these include your geographic location and the amount of online activity you are likely to have.
ADSL, Cable and Broadband
Firstly you need to understand a few terms, ADSL, Cable and Broadband. Loosely speaking any high speed internet connection is termed "broadband", this phrase simply means a high speed internet connection. In the UK there are two main types of broadband connection, ADSL and Cable.
If you live in one of the areas that can get Cable TV then you will be able to take advantage of the high speed internet connections offered by Telewest and NTL. The benefits of cable internet services are that the suppliers often bundle TV, telephone and internet services in packages that reduce the overall costs of these services.
Cable services are proving to be very stable and provide good value for money from the feedback that we have seen. Connection speeds have been growing and customers have been given speed increases at no extra costs when taking out the top packages. If you live in a cable connected area these services should be on your list for comparison.
ADSL stands for Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line and is available on pretty much every UK BT exchange. If you have a BT line, even if you route your calls and pay your line rental to another company, you will be able to receive a broadband ADSL connection.
There are a bewildering range of ADSL packages through a myriad of providers on the market and some shopping around and understanding of the products available will get you the right package for you at the most competitive price.
When researching the market you will see a lot of talk of 1Mb connections or 8Mb connections, these relate to the speed at which information can be downloaded from the Internet. If you were around in the good old days of dial up modems and 56k (or 33K!) modems then cast your mind back to the time it took to download a page from the internet, a 3MB MP3 file would usually take 15-30 minutes to download. The first ADSL services allowed connection to the internet at 512k, ten times faster than the old modems - now a 3MB file could be downloaded in a minute or three, a huge increase in speed. Connections are now reaching a blistering 24Mb with faster services still to come.
The top speed you can get from an ADSL provider is determined by your distance from the BT exchange that your phone line is connected to. BT made some advances in technology recently that has allowed higher speed connections to reach further from the exchange but if you are more than a couple of Kilometres from your serving exchange then you can expect to be able to get a 1Mb download service at best.
At the end of this article there are a couple of sites where you can check which services are available in your area and also the majority of service providers will have a tool on their site where you can enter your postcode or telephone number and find out what services are available to you.
With ADSL2 or ADSL2+ services being released soon faster ADSL services will be available and these will also be open to customers further from the BT exchange.
Finally, if you really do live in the middle of nowhere, there is a final option available to you. Satellite broadband services are available anywhere in the UK from a number of providers. Installation and equipment costs are higher so these should only be considered if absolutely necessary.
Despite the dizzying speeds of fast internet connections many ISPs are selling the cheaper packages in their portfolios with capped download quotas. Often the amount of data you can download is set and going over this amount can either mean you are charged for extra data or your connection is limited to the likes of a 56k modem - very annoying!
If all you do is email and view web sites then a limited package should be fine. If you download music or videos or use online video conferencing etc then you may want to look closely at the terms and conditions of any package you are tempted to sign up with. Several ISPs are labelling their packages as *unlimited downloads! Look closely in the small print for the * and you will find that it is unlimited "within reasonable use" or "within fair use" - i.e. not unlimited at all so be careful when choosing a supplier.
Packages and equipment
When looking to sign up for an ADSL connection look at what special offers are available. To get online you will need an ADSL modem or router and these are often given away free on sign up. Also look out for connection charges, some ISPs are charging £25 or sometimes £50 connection charges, sometimes this is worth it though as you often get what you pay for.
If the package you choose does not come with a modem as part of the package these can easily be purchased from PC World, online retailers like http://www.ebuyer.com or try searching for ADSL modem in http://www.ebay.co.uk - at the time of writing there are over 300 listed and they tend to go for less than £10 plus postage.
Changing ADSL provider is pretty simple. Just contact your current provider and get a MAC (migration authorisation code), pass this to your new provider and wait for the service to switch! Don"t forget to cancel your old service and also be prepared for some down-time, this is not always the case but just in case...
Just in case
If your work depends on having an internet connection then it is wise to make sure you have a backup! Most laptops still come with an old fashioned 56k modem built in and if you use a desktop PC then a 56k modem can be purchased for less than £10 if you shop around. Once you have your modem installed you can sign up for a dial up PAYGO (pay as you go) account where you pay only for your time on line at 0845 local call rates.