With a raft of ISPs pushing ever-cheaper deals for home users, there’s one offer that stands out from all the rest. It certainly talks the talk, but can The Carphone Warehouse’s TalkTalk walk the walk?

This article appears in the August 06 issue of PC Advisor, available in all good newsagents now.

We all know that trying to keep up with the latest trends is one of the fastest ways to empty a savings account. Progress costs money – and products have a shorter shelf life than a bag of bean sprouts.

Here at PC Advisor we get batches of new processors every year, graphics cards every six months and myriads of motherboards at frequent intervals.

It’s not often that an upgrade comes along that could genuinely save people money. So when one does, it’s not surprising that it gets our attention. We are referring, of course, to the latest raft of super-cheap broadband deals – in particular TalkTalk, The Carphone Warehouse’s broadband service. It’s due for launch this summer, and it’s free.

Gift of the gab

As you’ve probably guessed, the broadband service isn’t completely free to anyone, in the same way that you don’t get the free toy without buying the Happy Meal. In this case, you need to subscribe to the Talk 3 International calling plan to qualify. The good news is that TalkTalk is promising to supply customers with a connection up to 8Mbps (megabits per second).

The whole service is being priced at an eyebrow-raising £20.99 per month, which is in line with most standard 8Mbps broadband-only deals. Out of this charge, £11 is the mandatory line rental so, in effect, the service costs an amazing £9.99 per month. And the company has thrown in a load of freebies, including a modem, free local and national calls to any number starting 01 and 02, and free international calls to 28 countries.

TalkTalk will provide customers with a healthy 40GB monthly usage allowance, which should keep most people relatively happy.

The offer isn’t totally without its annoyances, though. You have to sign up for an 18-month contract, which is a full six months longer than the industry average. And while we’re grumbling, we’ve got some concerns over what TalkTalk classes as ‘peak’ time: from 8am up until midnight. There’ll be certain bandwidth restrictions during this period, so if you like to download half of the internet on a daily basis, you might want to consider an alternative ISP that isn’t quite so strict.

Bone of contention

The other factor to consider when choosing any broadband package is ‘contention’, the ratio of how many users will share the same connection at any one time. If you have a contention ratio of 50:1, up to 50 people will be sharing the same theoretical bandwidth. Contention ratios from most ISPs are typically set to 50:1 for home use and 20:1 for business.

If you’re looking into very low-cost options, it pays to do your homework. Contention ratios may be given the squeeze in exchange for those lower charges. It’s pleasing to see that TalkTalk’s figures have remained competitive in this respect – it uses the standard 50:1 ratio of its peers, allowing users the opportunity to make a dent in that 40GB monthly usage limit.

The response

An offer this good, coupled with plenty of effective advertising, was always going to provoke a response from the competition. First to blink was PlusNet, which recently unveiled a broadband/calls package to be released at the same time, matching TalkTalk’s pricing. PlusNet, which did well in our May 06 ISP reader survey, is one of the few ISPs to offer a monthly rolling contract. It’s good to see that it has extended it to its broadband and calls package, too. At the time of writing, information regarding call charges and other information wasn’t available, so it remains to be seen which firm has the edge for consumers.

Rather than trying to match TalkTalk’s offer, other ISPs have adopted a more cynical, defensive view of the deal. Tiscali, the UK’s third-largest provider, is keen to point out that nothing is free, drawing attention to the possible down sides of moving away from BT.

There are noises about the stability of TalkTalk’s business model – it will require vast numbers of customers to make it a viable proposition – but there’s been an extraordinary amount of interest in the offer, and we don’t see that as an issue. Trying to keep up with demand for the service is much more likely to be TalkTalk’s big problem.

As usual, only time will tell.

Whether or not TalkTalk’s free broadband deal manages to live up to its lofty ambitions is one for future debate – and probably one we will take up in our next PC Advisor ISP reader survey. Personally, we think TalkTalk ought to be commended for putting its neck on the block, putting value before profit. If TalkTalk can pull it off, expect to see other ISPs following its example.