How to switch broadband mid-contract

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Friday, 16 March, 2018

Reliability issues or disappointing broadband speeds can be very problematic, so how do you switch broadband mid contract?

If you’re locked into a long-term contract with a broadband provider who’s unable or unwilling to provide a satisfactory level of service, it may be tempting to walk away and look for an alternative provider.

But is the law on your side? And will you have to pay out for the privilege?

Compulsory and voluntary agreements

The law is vague about what constitutes an unacceptable level of service, and broadband providers don’t always make it easy to check their policies.

Few broadband providers will readily admit that bad service constitutes a breach of contract.

While people love to reference the iconic Sale of Goods Act, it was replaced in 2015 with the Consumer Rights Act. This stipulates products or services must meet three criteria:

  • They must be of satisfactory quality
  • They must be fit for purpose
  • They must be as described

In terms of broadband, proving one (or more) of these statements depends entirely on personal circumstances.

If you run a business from home it’ll be easier to argue daily outages render a broadband service unfit for purpose than if you’re simply an avid online gamer.

The circumstances in which you can legally leave a financial contract are limited:

  • Ofcom suggests you can switch broadband mid-contract without penalty if you’ve been without service for “some time”
  • If your contract contains a key promise that’s been broken – like failure to deliver a new broadband WiFi router within a certain period of time – you may have grounds to walk away
  • If broadband speeds fall far short of those promised, you may have protection through a voluntary compensation code of practice that some ISPs have signed up to

The latter point is interesting.

Customers may leave their broadband contract without being penalised if speeds fall below a minimum threshold, which varies from one postcode to the next.

Seven ISPs have signed up to this code, including Hull-only KCOM and niche providers Daisy Communications, XLN and Zen.

Of the big beasts only BT Business, Virgin and TalkTalk are members.

From May 2018, the rules are becoming much tougher on broadband speeds.

ISPs will have to indicate the likely speeds half their customers will be able to get at peak times.

Failure means you can switch away without paying a penalty.

Find out when your contract starts and ends

Before making a decision to switch broadband mid-contract, find the date when your contract actually started. This has a major impact on your rights and any challenges you may face.

If you’re still in your 14-day cooling off period

By law, consumers are entitled to a 14-day cooling off period if they signed up for broadband in what’s known as a “distance contract”.

This covers email, phone or written agreements – basically, any contract that didn’t involve a smooth-tongued salesman brandishing a pen under your nose.

If you are still in this period, you’re entitled to walk away without penalty.

Announce your intention to leave your broadband provider in writing, by saving emails and social media messages, or taking screen grabs of live web chats.

To take a screen grab on a PC, hold down Ctrl + Print Screen; on a Mac, it’s Command-Shift-3. Android and Apple smartphones use a variety of different methods.

Keep documentation in an easily accessible place, so you can refer to it if a dispute arises.

If you’re part way through an existing contract

Most broadband contracts lock customers in for a minimum term of 12 to 24 months.

You can confirm your broadband contract start date by logging into your online customer account, or by studying the small print in any paperwork you received when the service began.

If someone other than you signed up for your broadband and you can’t find any documentation, the ISP’s call centre should be able to help you once you confirm your circumstances and contact details.

Your provider has to say what fees will be paid if you cancel during the minimum contract term, and whether you need to return any equipment they provided you with.

Always send hardware like wireless routers back by recorded delivery, to ensure they’re received safely. If you’re leaving one broadband provider for another, their hardware, like routers or set-top boxes, won’t be useful any more.

Less than three months left on your contract

By this point, it might be worth gritting your teeth and seeing out your contract, since a dispute could take longer to resolve than the amount of time left on your contract.

You can always sign up with a new provider in anticipation of your scheduled end date.

If prices increase mid-contract higher than inflation

Under UK law, you can cancel a broadband contract without penalty if your contract is significantly different from the one agreed with the salesperson.

This might also apply if you were strong-armed into signing a contract, under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.

However, these are fairly exceptional circumstances.

If your original contract period has already expired

If your original contract period has already ended, you might have been moved onto the provider’s standard tariff without even realising it.

Since December 2012, it has been illegal for residential or small business customers to have their contracts automatically renewed.

It can still happen, however. A provider might claim a notification of renewal went missing in the post – one of those “you don’t have to do anything if you want to stay with us” letters.

It’s much more likely you’ll have been switched to a default package – usually a one-month rolling contract.

This should have been clearly stipulated when you first signed up with the broadband provider, like the standard variable rate that kicks in when a fixed-term mortgage deal ends.

Most broadband providers provide a table on their website outlining the standard monthly costs after a contract period ends.

If you’re on a rolling 30-day contract, which is often the default package after a fixed-term contract has ended, you can simply serve 30 days of notice and go elsewhere.

How much does walking away mid-contract typically cost?

Broadband providers don’t advertise this, since every case gets judged on its own merits.

Customer accounts tend to involve unique characteristics (such as the level of technical problems encountered, or the physical distance from Openreach pavement cabinets), so no two contracts are identical.

As a general rule, cancelling without the provider’s agreement will leave you liable for the cost of all the remaining bills on your contract.

This is usually required as a lump-sum payment before you’re allowed to leave.

It’s unusual for additional fees to be levied on top, which makes calculating likely exit costs easy.

Work out how many monthly payments are left and add them together.

Will my new broadband provider be willing to help pay?

Some broadband providers will reimburse part of the cancellation fee of an existing account, to secure your business and make you a customer now rather than in the future.

However these payments may be spread over each month of your new contract, so you’ll still have to find any upfront exit fees for your old provider in advance of switching broadband mid contract.

New providers tend to be less generous than they would be for customers without the excess baggage of past relationships – you’ll almost certainly miss out on any advertised incentives.

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking a new provider if they’ll assist with the cost of leaving.

Companies known to help with exit fees include Sky, Virgin, BT, Vodafone and EE.

Any restrictions on who to switch to?

No. But there’s something to be aware of when choosing your next broadband deal.

Unless you’re switching to (or from) Virgin Media, almost every broadband provider uses the same Openreach network.

If your existing provider isn’t willing to release the line to your new provider, you can’t take landline-based broadband with anyone else until your account is closed.

Switching to Virgin is probably the best solution to Openreach issues anyway, since almost every other landline-based ISP uses Openreach’s physical infrastructure outside your home.

It also means you don’t have to wait for the line to be freed up to go elsewhere, as Virgin uses its own network via underground fibre cables.

You could even get Virgin installed while attempting to close your existing contract, or get an Openreach line installed while negotiating your departure from Virgin.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!