The short answer is that you can indeed avoid line rental, but you might want to be careful what you wish for.
There are two ways of getting broadband without relying on the national network of copper and fibre-optic cables that carry phone lines and the web in tandem. But the costs of work out around the same.
Nearly all of us connect to the internet via BT’s telephone network. It has been upgraded in recent years to allow fast, fibre connections to those green cabinets by the side of the road, although the last leg of the journey is still via old telegraph wires to your house.
Broadband companies who use this network, which is nearly all of them except Virgin Cable, are compelled now to advertise all-inclusive monthly rates for their service – so the days of hidden £15-a-month charges for line rental are gone.
But if you want to do away with the charge altogether, and if their cables pass your house, you can opt for Virgin’s separate network. It’s the one they also use to deliver cable TV.
Virgin is fast – just how fast depends on which package you choose – but it is not £15 a month cheaper than anyone else’s. Nor is it universally available, and if you don’t live in a fairly built-up area, you will probably find can’t access it.
Using your mobile phone to access the internet does away with the need for a cable altogether. This way, your Sim card takes the place of a fixed wire. For occasional use, you can use your handset to generate a portable wi-fi hotspot, which is better than paying for internet access in a hotel room, for instance. It doesn’t always work: not all tariffs allow it, and those that do will deplete your monthly data allowance. But you can try it by looking for the tethering and hotspot options in your phone’s settings menu.
For more permanent mobile broadband, you will need a separate device with its own Sim card. For £20 a month, EE will supply you with a mobile router with a 30GB data limit and a two-year contract, and other deals are available from O2, Vodafone and Three.
All have the benefit of portability, but unlimited data deals are hard to find, and you will need to make sure that there is a decent mobile signal wherever you plan to connect. In urban areas, mobile broadband is likely to be significantly slower than the fixed line variety, and you shouldn’t expect it to handle high definition video streaming. In some rural parts of Yorkshire, though, the available fixed-line broadband may be slower still.
The balance will change in the future. EE has just launched the first 5G mobile broadband package, which is very much faster but costs at least £50 a month plus an upfront fee. In a few years’ time, though, we may all connect this way.
Until then, the telephone network will remain for most of us the unwanted baggage that comes with a broadband bundle, and the line rental the tip you pay the porter. In advertising it as a separate cost, the internet companies haven’t done themselves any favours. But once you consider that you won’t pay significantly less for a rival service, you can start to think of it less as a surcharge and more as a free phone line.