We show you which of the recent rash of 'free broadband' deals are worth signing on for, investigate the perils and pitfalls of such deals, and suss out what's in it for the ISPs.

When Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk launched its ‘free broadband for all' offer in April 2006, students of modern history could easily have been forgiven for feeling a touch of techno déjà vu.

Eight years earlier the market for dial-up web access was turned on its head when Dixons Group teamed up with Leeds-based hosting provider Planet Online to offer subscription-free internet access to customers buying home PCs from Dixons stores. Instead of the standard monthly subscription fee, revenue was derived from a portion of the standard telephone line charges. The ISP was called Freeserve and was in large part responsible for driving internet access uptake in the UK.

Many predicted an impact of similar magnitude when TalkTalk introduced its free broadband offer. Until then, most broadband contracts were for one year only - after a 12-month period the customer was free to switch to an alternative provider. To qualify for the offer, broadband customers would have to agree to sign up for the company's phone service for 18 months.

Rival ISPs had no choice but to respond in kind, and there was a rash of imitations. If TalkTalk lit the torch, Orange and Sky subsequently blazed
a trail with rival free-broadband offers.

BT, meanwhile, has announced plans to offer a similar service when its 21st Century Network is switched on in 2008.

On the face of it, the offers seemed excellent value for money. But the reality fell short for some customers. There were reports of users being left offline for up to six months, while others complained of appalling technical support.

TalkTalk admitted over-stretching its call centres. It was "overwhelmed by demand".

"For about 20 percent of customers there is some kind of problem with the phone exchange, the line or something else," confessed the Carphone Warehouse's chief executive, Charles Dunstone.

"There is no point trying to pretend everything is all right. Our business exploded and we compressed the problems everyone in the industry has had into a few months.

"It has given customers nightmares and I just can't ignore complaints."

Following this teething phase, however, reports of dissatisfaction appear to have died down. As the market moves from what marketers call ‘early adopters' to ‘early majority', it could be the perfect time to make the most of these deals. Nearly 18 months on from TalkTalk's free broadband offer, companies can better gauge the ongoing levels of demand and can plan their level of call-centre support accordingly.

PC Advisor readers recently voted TalkTalk's Talk3 the best phone and web bundle on the market. What's more, in response to poor signup rates following multiple service complaints, TalkTalk has now introduced a free 30-day broadband trial. Customers are able to cancel their contract in the first month, penalty-free.

The deals explored:

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In this month's PC Advisor podcast, we discuss the emergence of 'free laptops', 'free broadband' and 'free software', and check out the best deals available to UK consumers. PLUS: find out why technology vendors are so keen to give their wares away, and
learn how to avoid the pitfalls inherent in such freebie deals.

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