The Check Small Print Guide is to help you understand the importance of checking the small print in your broadband contract so that you are aware of the potential pitfalls and at the same time a better understanding of the broadband providers commitment to you in terms of services they should deliver.
Not only should this help to avoid the pitfalls or hidden charges that exist in almost every broadband contract, it should also better prepare you if you have any problems with your provider that you are in dispute with.
Broadband Contracts Explained
In recent years, broadband has quickly become the preferred way of going online for the UK’s internet users. More than two thirds of net users have broadband connections, according to recent figures from the UK's Office of National Statistics.
Even more significant, 57% of broadband internet users go online every day, with the average time spent in front of a computer running to almost half an hour a day.
But as broadband use continues to grow sharply, so does the level of dissatisfaction with the service received by many users. Surveys regularly show that anything up to 25% of all broadband users are unhappy with the service they receive – and that percentage is growing.
The problem for many users is that when they sign up for a deal, they often don’t realise that they are entering into a legal contract with their broadband provider.
A contract works both ways: on the one hand, a user’s obligation is to pay his or her bills on time and not default on payments. Failure to do so can lead to penalties being imposed.
On the other hand, a broadband provider also has obligations as well: it must provide a service to you at an acceptable level, (i.e. a service level agreement) and meet its own side of any contract with customers.
So if the position is so clear, why is there still so much dissatisfaction?
Part of the reason is that most broadband contracts have a wide range of quirks contained in the small print, ranging from the charges you may face for exceeding your download capacity, to levying contract "cancellation fees" – even where a provider says there is no minimum contract.
Yet most users fail to spot these quirks in their contracts before they sign up. A survey by moneysupermarket.com recently found that the majority of people signing up for broadband (55%) fail to look for extra charges and catches contained within contract small print and many fall foul of them.
This guide will take you some of the various quirks and show you how to spot them. This will then allow you to steer clear of those providers whose contracts you don’t like.
It will also give you guidance on what to do if you are unhappy with any aspect of the contract you have signed – including who to complain to.
The small print when you sign up to broadband
Few of us bother to read the small print in any contract, but before you sign up to any broadband deal, it is vital that you do so.
After all, you are likely to be spending hundreds of hours online. And failing to understand exactly what is involved in your contract may means poor quality service – or paying excessively for a deal.
So what are the things you should be looking out for? Here are a few tips:
Set-up fees/upfront charges: Some providers will ask you to pay a set-up fee to cover the cost of installing the equipment in your home. Virgin Media, Talk Talk, Sky and Be ask for between £20-50 in one off set up fees.
Direct Save Telecom goes even further, as well as asking for a £40 set-up fee, it also asks for the first two months’ subscription upfront – at a cost of £33.90 – taking the total upfront charge to £73.90 before you even go live with broadband.
Charges for exceeding the download capacity: Some providers impose a charge if you exceed the agreed download capacity of your deal. BT, PIPEX and Madasafish charge 30p per GB, £2.70 for 3GB and £2 per GB respectively for exceeding your download capacity.
Sky and Orange will upgrade you to a new deal with a bigger download capacity and start charging you at the higher rate, but they will notify you of this.
Non-direct debit charges: These tend to hit people from lower income backgrounds the hardest as they may have reduced access to personal banking. The major brands levying this extra fee include Virgin Media, TalkTalk and BT, charging between £3.50 and £5 a month for non-direct debit payments. Vodafone at Home gives you no option but to pay by direct debit only.
Helpline call charges: Several providers provide 0845 or 0870 numbers that charge 3.65p (evening) to 7p (daytime) a minute, (AOL, Direct Save Telecom, Talk Talk, Tiscali).
However BT and Orange charge the highest amounts for making a technical support call, up to £1.05 and 50p a minute respectively. Vodafone at Home is the only provider that allows you to call customer service or technical support for free - but it has to be on a Vodafone mobile phone.
Free calls to UK landline charges: Free calls to UK landlines is a very attractive reason why people would want to switch to a broadband/phone deal. But be aware that these "free calls" offers only apply to numbers starting with 01 and 02. Meanwhile, making calls to 0845 numbers – used by many banks and businesses – continue to be charged at national rates.
The small print when you move home or leave your broadband deal
For many broadband users who find themselves in a contract they don't like, the thought of escape is uppermost in their minds.
But then they discover that the cost of ending the contract and moving to a better deal elsewhere is so high that it would cost them at least six months' worth of benefits from the new contract.
Here are some of the charges you could end up paying:
Late payment fees: Namesco, BT, Directsave Telecom and Virgin Media all charge late payment fees, ranging from £7.50 - £25, offering limited flexibility for people to pay when they can afford to.
Direct Save Telecom not only charges a £14.95 disconnection fee for late payment. You also pay a £14.95 administration fee for insufficient funds for a direct debit. Namesco charges a fixed £25 for any non payment or late payment.
Moving home charges: Madasafish, Namesco and Be*** all charge at least £50 to reconnect you once you have moved.
Contract termination fees: Cancellation fees are uniform across all broadband providers. The standard cancellation policy is that you have to pay off the remaining monthly subscription fees of the contract period - this could be anything up to 18 months.
Be aware however that if a provider says there is no minimum contract that doesn’t mean you won’t pay a cancellation fee. Some, such as PlusNet, Direct Save Telecom and Be Broadband, will charge a fixed cancellation fee of between £47 and £80 within the first 12 months.
Contract termination - equipment fees: BT charges a £45 equipment fee if you cancel your contract. Eclipse is probably the worst, charging £51 plus VAT for unreturned equipment.
What other small print quirks are there?
BT offers 250 wi-fi minutes a month for free but if you look in the small print this is for the first year only after which a monthly charge kicks in.
Pipex is entitled to charge the customer for internal relocation.
Vodafone at Home charges £25 per month for its service – but the fee rises to £35 per month if the customer cancels their combined mobile phone contract.
Eclipse, Orange, Tiscali and Virgin Media will request a security deposit upfront if the customer persistently defaults payments.
TalkTalk may request a deposit or impose credit limits before allowing the customer to use mobile and international services.
BT may ask the customer to pay an upfront deposit before receiving his or her broadband service.
What can I do next?
In theory, signing a contract with any service provider – including broadband – ought to be like marriage: you live happily ever after.
Unfortunately, things do not work out like that in practice. There may well come a time when you feel the service you receive is not what you signed up for, or the charges you are paying are too high.
This is even more likely to be the case in a situation where broadband suppliers vie with each other to come up with better deals all the time.
So what should you do when faced with a problem? Here are some tips.
If you think your provider has broken its contract with you, you need to be sure you are right in that view. So read your contract and check the small print carefully.
Approach your provider – by mail or phone - and tell them about the problem.
Keep a record of everything, including phone conversations and the name of the person you speak to (and their title). If you are sending letters, make sure they are posted by recorded delivery.
If you are unhappy with the provider's response, you can contact the Office of the Telecommunications Ombudsman (OTELO) , whose job to sort out disagreements between public communications providers and their customers. OTELO’s website has masses on useful information on what to do next.
Alternatively, you may want to use the Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (CISAS) , whose service is free to members of the public. CISAS also has details on its website of all companies that are members of to its arbitration service (http://www.cisas.org.uk/members.asp) .
Another great source of information and advice is our own website, particularly our forum . It is likely that other users will have encountered the same or similar problems to yours and will have tips to offer on what to do next.
Also on our forums is an Ask the Experts section, where you can pose a question to our broadband experts and we will try to offer you advice or help.
Finally, we regularly receive requests from the media for help with stories they are writing. They often want to interview people about their experience with various broadband providers. It is worth checking into the Case Studies section of our forums to see if your experience matches a request for a case study. We offer generous rewards for every case study you take part in.
Whatever you do, let us know what happens. We want to improve our service to you and find out more about providers and how they treat their customers.
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