At the beginning of 2010, BT promised it would deliver 21st century broadband to most of the UK by the end of the year. The telecoms giant was also preparing to wire up the have-nots of Cornwall with a mixture of fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) and fibre to the home (FTTH) broadband in early 2011 (for more information, see www.tinyurl.com/btcornwall). Virgin Media has also continued to investigate how it can provide rural locations with faster broadband, famously using telegraph poles to carry its cables to parts of Oxfordshire. However, for many of us, these speed hikes failed to materialise and it was a matter of making the best of existing broadband connections.

Promised exchange upgrades to local loop unbundling (LLU) have taken longer to materialise than was originally predicted. Many readers commented in our Broadband Survey about overdue upgrades; several said that more than a year after their service provider promised it, a speed hike was only now looking likely.

Even so, the results of this year’s annual Macworld Home Broadband Survey are largely positive, with thousands of readers expounding the delights of being able to surf the web smoothly and at will, without page-load delays and connection interruptions. Almost all your shopping and associated research seems to be conducted online these days, while online gaming, web-based learning and internet radio are commonplace.

As well as keeping in touch by email, on social networking sites, via instant messaging and by chatting over webcams, many survey respondents said BBC iPlayer, YouTube uploads and music-streaming sites are also keeping you entertained. No wonder bandwidth and unlimited monthly downloads have become such a prized commodity. Considering the aspects of your current ISP you’d change, fast, unlimited downloads with no cut-offs (ideally with no traffic shaping) were a common wish.

Here, we look at what else this year’s Macworld Home Broadband Survey has revealed, and see what conclusions we can reach about ISPs and the services they provide.

AOL Broadband 3/5
www.aol.co.uk

A stalwart of dial-up and home-broadband access, AOL is now owned in the UK by The Carphone Warehouse. It’s sold in £10 and £15 per month subscriptions, and sometimes bundled with landline telephone calls.

Almost exclusively used by PC owners, AOL is popular for blogging, instant messaging, making Skype phone calls and listening to internet radio, with online shopping and social networking the two biggest uses. BBC iPlayer can be a problem on AOL, but it still polls highly among users.

The 5-8Mbps service gets a poor report for its connection speeds though, which presumably accounts for its lowly 78 per cent satisfaction score. Another worry was that while most users said they enjoyed unlimited downloads, we had widespread reports of unreliable connections and random disconnections, as well as a lack of help from customer service. It’s a sorry tale we hoped would no longer tarnish the broadband market. Connection reliability came in at just 67 per cent – a very poor show.

Given that both AOL and the other ISP that got a less-than-glowing report, Tiscali, both come under the TalkTalk/Carphone Warehouse umbrella, we’re hopeful someone at head office will take a long look at these results and conclude that there’s more important things than getting teenagers to prance about with sparklers in the name of marketing and entertainment.

Be Broadband 5/5
www.bethere.co.uk

Discerning broadband customers who want an ADSL2+ connection and are in an area where it’s available would do well to choose Be. Part of the O2 network, Be is an LLU provider that focuses on connectivity and speed, with above-average upload speeds of up 1.3Mbps.

More of its users hammer their bandwidth streaming video, watching BBC iPlayer and enjoying online audio than any other ISP, so it was reassuring to find that connections are rock-solid and speeds up to scratch. More than 65 per cent said speeds are usually up to expectations or not far off. Of course, some demanding users want even more speed, but who doesn’t? Only a handful of customers have apparently chosen the cheaper £13 per month, 12Mbps service; most Be users go all-out for the fastest web access they can. Since Be offers an ‘Unlimited’ 24Mbps connection and largely manages to deliver on this promise, this makes sense.

A big pull for current Be customers is the option to choose between a modest setup fee and no-strings contract, and a free setup with a 12-month minimum term. Most ISPs look to sign up customers for 18 months or more to get good-value deals.

Although it’s not available in every part of the country, if you can get it, the 100 per cent overall endorsement of Be’s existing customers – for the fourth year on the trot – suggests you should.