TV/Broadband/Phone together - reviewing the options

Posted on 23 March 2008 in Shopping (6 comments)

As work had a few tickets to share around, I recently spent part of a day at IPTV World Forum 08 - a conference about IPTV. That's TV delivered via broadband to your home.

The bits of the conference I saw were, to be frank, not of huge interest to me, not being particularly about content, but about infrastructure and "moving forward". But a number of talks were about bundling - putting several packages together and selling the whole lot to the user. For example, broadband and telephone. Or broadband, mobile and TV. There's various reasons to do this - mostly because companies are less likely to lose you if they sell you lots of things, but also because it stands the chance to be cheaper.

This made me wonder what the market was like in the UK for such bundled packages. Currently we get almost everything in the house from separate suppliers (with the sole exception is gas and electricity which are combined.) Could I go start bundling my TV, broadband and phone and save some cash?

What I have right now

Before looking around, it's worth pointing out who I do business with right now:

Telephone
Phone calls are with TalkTalk/Onetel/TalkTalk Onetel or whatever they decide to call themselves on the particular email or piece of paper they've sent me that week (basically TalkTalk bought Onetel UK, but didn't integrate the two businesses together, and nor did they do a brilliant job of rebranding it - the customer website uses all three of the above). The package (currently known as Talk1) gives free phone calls at weekend, at no cost which is great as 95% of my phone calls are during the weekend. Plus I get to phone other Talk Talk customers free at any time (woo - now if only I knew some) I also get line rental from them as it is cheaper than BT's (and because BT wanted to start charging for voicemail if you didn't make phone calls through them.)
Cost per month: £10.50 (£126 for the year)
Broadband
I've been with Plus.net for donkeys. Currently I'm on their Option 2 which gives me 8Gb usage allowance per month (about three times what I use) plus unlimited overnight usage. The speed is up to 8mb - mine currently comes in around 4mb.
Cost per month: £14.99 (£179.88 per year)
Television
Freeview, Freeview and Freeview! Yep, there's no subscriptions. But that also means no services like "Catch Up TV" or video on demand which I'd be reasonably interested in at the right price. Channel lineup is fine - although maybe having Sky One or FX would be a vague benefit - but only if a bargain could be had. I have a Humax PVR which will record around 100 hours of TV from Freeview. Frankly if I was to add any new non-Freeview channels, a PVR element would probably be essential so that I could record off non-Freeview channels. Size of the PVR probably not a huge concern as the Hummy will still be in use probably. I do have a standard Sky box with free-to-view viewing card. However it is usually switched off at the mains.
Cost per month: £0. Hard to beat that!

In total that works out as £305.88 per year.

For phone and broadband, I picked the above due to good packages at good prices at the time. They represented some of the best bang for the buck at the time, and importantly meet my needs. Downgrading is frankly, not an option on any of the above.

The competitors

For the record, the plan is only to look at bundled TV/broadband/phone providers only, who are available in my corner of London. The list is:

  • BT Vision
  • Sky
  • Tiscalli TV
  • Virgin Media (fibre optic network)

To offer the fairest comparison, I'll look at the total cost per year for the first year (so that any one-off set up costs are included), and ongoing monthly costs.

BT Vision

New kid on the block from a big company. BT Vision offers a Freeview PVR and TV on demand in the form of film, sport, TV and so on. The box is free after paying a £30 connection fee. BT Vision makes money off the pay-TV packages which mostly consist of older-run programming like series 4 of Curb Your Enthusiasm at 99p per episode. Not exactly the most compelling TV proposition - there's no premium channels, so if you want stuff from Sky One, forget it.

That aside, the fact that you get a free PVR is compelling. The catch is that you need to have BT Broadband and phone. There's multiple options - three calling plans, three broadband packages. All made more confusing by an ordering process that tries to force you to take a pay-TV package as well.

After some battling with the website, line rental plus free weekend calls came in at £10.50 per month. BT broadband option 1 (up to 8meg speeds, 5Gb download) comes in at £8.95 for the first six months, then £17.99 after that - and that's on an 18 month contract. So that's £19.45/£28.49 combined. (Following this?) Then you have to order BT Vision. Oh and there's so many loopholes and footnotes that goodness knows quite what setup costs there are, and what you actually get.

Even the pricing policy seemed to make no sense. Trying to get the same options as above in a combined "BT Value" option actually came out as more expensive, as it tried to persuade me to pay £22.90 per month for the first six months, then a whopping £37.94 after that. Err. Yes. A Value option looks more expensive. No, I've no idea what's going on there either.

If I've worked it all out correctly, then first year would cost £226.39, with each subsequent year being £341.88. But it's probably not right. If you've already got BT broadband, then maybe BT Vision's worth a punt. But personally, the whole thing game me a headache.

Sky

Sky are another company who go for plenty of options - their See Speak Surf package is available in four prices starting at £19 - however this only offers 2mb broadband - the first package with up to 8mb is at £26 a month, but adds in all the standard TV entertainment mixes (the Variety, Kids, Knowledge, Music, Style and News mixes).

However there is the option of creating a custom bundle. "Bods's Package" therefore comes with 1 TV mix, Sky+, 8meg broadband, free UK evening and weekend calls and phone line rental. However, importantly, being satellite based, there's next to no catch up TV options, or video on demand bar the very limited Sky Anytime service.

Sky's "Bods's Package" comes out as £31 a month, with a whopping £129 one off set up costs. So in the first year, that's £501, and £372 per year after that.

Tiscali TV

Originally a separate company called Homechoice, and London based, Tiscalli TV is being rolled out nationwide. Since the relaunch under the Tiscali brand, prices have fallen and new options added.

According to the website, "Tiscali makes it easy" and frankly, when it comes to their packages, they're not wrong. There's just two bundles. Both contain free phone rental, free weekend calls, up to 8mb unlimited broadband, free box and wireless router and the same TV package. The only noticeable difference between the two is that "Option 2" package offers free phone calls all the time.

The TV package is based around Freeview (and indeed many of the TV channels are delivered via normal TV signals) but also adds extra channels including Paramound Comedy 1 and 2, Sky One, Sky Two, Sky Arts and FX, as well as some on demand channels and Catch Up TV. The set top box includes Freeview, and some channels in the package actually get to your TV via normal TV signals.

Option 1 (with free weekend calls) comes in at just £15.99 per month for the first three months, then £19.99 after that. There's a £30 set up fee.

Tiscalli+ - the PVR option - costs a one off £50. It appears to have an 80Gb capacity and will record up to 50 hours of programmes.

Over the first year that works out as £307.88, and £239.88 after that.

All in all, a very aggressively priced package from a company who are clearly trying to make an impact.

Virgin Media

Virgin Media is perhaps the most interesting one of the pack - fibre optic cables, and its own version of the BBC's iPlayer coming soon. The company also do a number of bundle offers - 2 for £25, 3 for £30 and 4 for £40.

With one snag. The broadband is only a 2mb connection. Here we have the most sophisticated broadband network in the country, and yet all the bundles are on a relatively slow connection. The only bundle to include a faster speed is the Very Impressive Package which comes in at a whopping £85 per month and is way beyond what I want.

That is, if you just look at what bundles they promote as actually it's possible to get other bundles and offers if you add things individually - and boy are there a lot of options.

For broadband, I'd need the "Broadband: L" spec which is £17 a month for the first 6 months, and £25 after that. It's a 4Mb connection, with plans to raise to 10Mb. "Broadband: L" is sold with a "Phone: M" at an extra £2 per month - this gives free weekend calls. £19 a month then, raising to £27.

Want TV? Well "TV: M" covers the Freeview channels plus a small number of extras and comes free with "Phone M" but only if you pay full price for "Phone M" which is £11 a month. And then you lose the £17 a month broadband offer. Suddenly you're on £36 a month for the whole lot.

And the PVR? In this case, V+ is then an extra £5 a month and thus the whole thing is £41 a month. However as the TV package doesn't give me anything much beyond Freeview, there's no real point in getting V+. Indeed, if it wasn't for the video on demand capabilities, there probably wouldn't be much point in getting a TV package in the first place.

Set up costs - including an online discount, and discounting the V+ option is £30.

First year, the costs would be £462m going down to £432 for each subsequent year.

Confused? Well I was by the end of it. Far too many options, too many packages and too many conditions.

Comparisons

Well with all that said, lets look a the figures.

 Current ProvidersBT VisionSkyTiscaliVirgin Media
PackageTalkTalk: Talk1
Plus.net: Option 2
Freeview
Custom PackageCustom PackageOption 1Custom Package
Broadband speedUp to 8mb [1]Up to 8mb [1]Up to 8mb [1]Up to 8mb [1]Up to 4mb [1]
Phone callsFree weekend callsFree weekend callsFree evening weekend callsFree weekend callsFree weekend calls
TV Included in priceFreeview channelsFreeview channelsFree channels + 1 premium setFreeview channels plus several premium channelsSimilar to Freeview channels
Free catch up TV? [2]NoNoVery limitedYesYes
Paid on demand TV/FilmsNoYesYesYesYes
Minimum contract1 month18 months12 months12 months12 months
Cost for year 1£305.88£226.39£501£307.88£462
Cost for year 2£305.88£341.88£372£239.88£432

Notes:

  1. Current broadband speed via ADSL ~4mb - similar results would be expected with all DSL providers.
  2. Selection of programmes from BBC and Channel 4, from last 7 days. Currently no ITV or Five services exist on any platform.

Conclusion

What rather surprised me was that only one company managed to beat my current selection, and offers more than I currently get. Tiscali TV beats the rest for my personal circumstances hands down and actually offers a compelling proposition with its selection of premium channels thrown in at the basic price. After the first year, it would offer me quite a saving.

In comparison, the other three options look rather expensive - especially Virgin Media. It may have the best technology in the form of its fibre-optic network but the prices aren't convincing at all. The low speeds in its standard bundles was, frankly a bit depressing to see.

Tiscali also wins on the simplest package front - simply by not offering too many choices. There are additions that can be made, but they're kept away from the headline figures. Sky on the other hand, offer lots of choices, however still manage to keep the process reasonably simple at trying to put it all together.

Black marks must go to Virgin and BT Vision - Virgin's pricing was in parts incomprehensible with prices raising and falling seemingly at random. They could easily simplify that. BT's attempts to put some sort of "Value" package that was more expensive than other seemingly valid combinations is rather worrying.

Proposition wise, Virgin also seemed rather lacking in the TV department - offering little for the price beyond what was currently available on Freeview. BT Vision also looks like it needs to do better.

The two things that's not measured in all this are equipment (I do have personal experience with Sky and Virgin's boxes, but not BT Vision's or the latest Tiscali+ box) and customer service.

Of course in all this, a lot depends on your own circumstances and desires. Frankly, it's impossible to review all this for anyone else but myself. Different needs may bring about different results - especially if you're after more premium TV content or currently have a slower broadband speed. However I was vaguely surprised that most of the bundled options didn't seem that competitive - I was rather expecting some better deals.

The ultimate question is actually whether to change or not - money is of course not everything. But then, everyone likes to get more for less...

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Your Comments

Kirk said:

Plus, if you have BT Vision, you need a HomeHub.

My housemates wanted BT Vision, I didn't want a crap bit of white plastic powering my internet. (Or BT Vision). But hey, it's here anyway, and it works OK. I don't thing the pricing is that bad or complex really - I can go and find a bill if you like...

Posted on 24 March 2008 at 1:40 AM

Andrew Bowden said:

A lot is always on the way it is presented to the user when they're doing research - and that's where BT Vision are falling down. If you've got BT Broadband already the process looks quite simple. However when you're a potential new customer, then the website gets very messy and confusing - especially given the number of footnotes and conditions BT have on their website - one screen I saw had eight! Sometimes I fear BT spend too much time resting on their laurels, and forgetting that actually a lot of people have abandoned them over the years (like myself!)

Posted on 24 March 2008 at 8:31 AM

George W said:

Hey Andrew

If you ring Virgin and are nice, they will normally make a package for you. I'm on 20Mb/768k up, V+, phone and XL telly, for 35 quid/ month. They have a fair amount of leeway, especially if you're brand new to 'em

HTH

george

Posted on 28 March 2008 at 12:57 PM

Ray Cathode said:

TalkTalk up to 8Megs free broadband with a Talk2 international plan would cost you a total of £16.39 pm or £196.68 pa which includes 40GB useage per month and line rental. It includes free international calls to 36 destinations and is the cheapest broadband provider.

Tiscali have serious network capacity problems compared to TalkTalk.

TalkTalk's main problem is customer service but if, like most customers, you don't need it, then Robert's your father's brother.

Posted on 30 March 2008 at 10:49 PM

Andrew Bowden said:

One of my mum's friends was on the list to get TalkTalk broadband for a whopping 15 months and was still waiting last time I heard. Certainly my own dealings with TalkTalk (as opposed to TalkTalk Onetel) have been less than desirable (they were very unhelpful when I was trying to track down someone a while back because I'd suddenly stopped receiving phone bills and couldn't find the "correct" phone number - how was I supposed to know that I "wasn't" a TalkTalk "customer"?)

I have heard of Tiscali problems - I know plus.net tried to use their network for some customers and had huge problems a few years ago. However being based on the old Homechoice network, I was wondering if their London network would be a bit more stable!

Not that I've made any attempts to do a move from my current suppliers.

Posted on 31 March 2008 at 9:14 AM

Adam L said:

Agree with George - give virgin a ring. 4Mb ("soon" to be 10), 24/7 free calls (nominally £10/mo) for £32/mo here.

Also note from a colleague who moved from homechoice to virgin: the TV sucks up your bandwidth. Buy a freeview/freesat (!) PVR, and just get phone/broadband from virgin to get a competetive quote. You get basic TV for free.

Posted on 7 April 2008 at 8:47 PM

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