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Crave Talk: Which 'free' broadband ISP is best?

'Free' broadband ISPs are popping up everywhere, but are they as good as they seem? Crave has pitted the contenders against each other

There's been a flurry of Internet service providers (ISPs) offering 'free' broadband over recent months. Carphone Warehouse's TalkTalk was the first to lay down the gauntlet, quickly followed by Orange, BSkyB and more recently Namesco.

More ISPs are likely to follow suit, but in the meantime we thought we'd look into which of these services is worth investing in and just how 'free' they actually are.

So-called free broadband ISPs aren't actually free. To qualify you'll usually need to pay a monthly fee for an accompanying service such as a mobile phone, digital television or a landline talk plan. How much you'll end up spending depends on the individual ISP, but it can be confusing, particularly when you factor in whether you actually need the accompanying services. Here we'll outline what you get for your money.

The Carphone Warehouse's landline telephone business was the first to delve into the free broadband market. Unsurprisingly, its broadband service is heavily linked to its phone service: to qualify you'll need to subscribe to the Talk3 or Talk3 International calling plans, which cost £8.99 and £9.99 per month respectively, plus the (minimum) £11 you already pay to BT for line rental. There's also a £29.99 installation fee. For your money you'll get an 8Mb service with a high 40GB usage allowance, but you'll be tied into the contract for 18 months.

TalkTalk is the priciest of the free broadband services, but it could be the best value for those who make lots of telephone calls. You get an unlimited number of calls to local and national UK landline numbers at any time of the day for up to 70 minutes at a time. The Talk3 International plan gives you unlimited international landline calls to 28 mainland countries worldwide. At its cheapest, TalkTalk's free broadband services comes to a total of £407.81 over the 18 months you're tied to the service.

Following Orange's acquisition of Wanadoo, the company has launched a free broadband service to its existing mobile phone customers that pay in excess of £30 per month. The broadband package is equivalent to the one that previously cost £17.99 per month from Wanadoo. It's an 8Mb service, though it has a rather low usage allowance of 2GB per month. To its credit, there's no installation fee, and you also get a free Wi-Fi-ready Orange Livebox that acts as a broadband modem and router.

The cheapest deal we could find was the £30 per month Canary plan, which gives you 325 anytime minutes, 150 texts and 300 evening and weekend minutes. The total price over Orange's 18-month minimum contract period comes to £360 -- less than TalkTalk's £407.81, but without the benefit of international calls, and with a smaller usage allowance.

Sky's free broadband offer is tied heavily to its television service. To qualify, users must subscribe to a Sky TV package, the minimum price of which is £15 per month. Users can then choose from one of three broadband services, of which only the 'Base' package is free. You'll need to pay a £40 activation fee and will be tied to a 12-month contract, but for this you get a variety of funky television content. The main drawback is the miserly 2GB usage allowance.

The final ISP on our list is the only truly free broadband ISP, but even this has its drawbacks. Namesco will charge you a £60 setup fee and gives you a paltry 512Kb connection with a 2GB usage cap. This may not seem a great deal, but there's no monthly fee and you're only tied into the service for one month at a time. The total cost for the year is therefore £60, but if you want to continue using the service at the end of the year, you'll need to pay £10.95 per month. The download speed is comparatively low and it doesn't let you download much, but if you're a casual user who doesn't want to sell your broadband soul for 18 months, it's probably the best solution.

All the 'free' broadband services are definitely worth investing in, but you should work out beforehand which one is right for you. If you use your landline a lot, particularly for international calls, TalkTalk is worth checking out, while if you're looking for a new mobile phone or make a lot of calls on the road, the Orange deal is hard to beat. Those looking for some entertainment should consider investing in the Sky TV package, while more casual users should definitely check out the Namesco deal. -Rory Reid