With many of us now signing up for the delights of unlimited broadband, it looks like we’re getting a great deal, with seemingly endless data at our disposal. Scratch below the surface, however, and the small print is slightly different.
Many providers do indeed offer unlimited broadband, but if you use a lot of data – more than expected from a domestic household – then your connection may, be rather limited. When this happens, it means your provider is implementing a fair usage policy (FUP).
Read on to understand why FUPs exist, why your connection could be curtailed and what broadband providers consider to be fair usage.
If we're all sharing a certain network and using a similar amount of data, everything's hunky dory. But when an individual downloads or uploads vast quantities of data, the network slows down for everyone else.
This is why the FUP exists – to prevent users from using more than their ‘fair share' of data. The problem with this model is that it's not often clear what our fair share is. Plus, all providers have a different definition of fair.
While most of us won't ever be affected by FUPs, it's still worth knowing which providers will take action and to what extent, especially for those who love to download and upload.
Contention ratios are the number of people who share the same internet connection – up to 50 people per line. The FUP will limit someone who continually downloads so that everyone else sharing the connection won't be affected.
Providers implement a FUP so that as many of their customers as possible will enjoy the highest quality broadband. This means that while you may have an unlimited 100Mbps connection, you'll likely receive a considerably lower speed at peak times.
A heavy Internet user is generally someone who regularly uses file-sharing software to upload or download huge files such as films and music. These activities take up a great deal of bandwidth, meaning the connection slows down for other users.
Often, a broadband provider will notice when someone's using a lot more data than everyone else and after several months will inform that person they believe their usage to be excessive. They'll then refer them to their FUP before suggesting that downloads and uploads are performed at less busy times.
If you simply use your connection for browsing, checking emails and occasionally downloading, you won't be contacted by your broadband provider for using too much bandwidth. However, if you're constantly downloading high-definition movies and TV shows, you're likely to receive a reprimand.
Check how much you're downloading. If you think you could be considered a heavy user, simply change the times of day you use the internet so that you're not compromising everyone else's connection at peak times.
If you don't comply with your internet service provider's FUP (assuming it has one), your speed could be curbed at peak times. In extreme cases, it may even terminate your connection. You have been warned.
Your provider wants you to take them with you, which is why most will try to make the moving process as simple as possible. Here's what moving with some of the most popular suppliers looks like:
Like BT, Sky lets its unlimited customers enjoy traffic-management-free broadband. This means no speed restrictions, no matter how much you upload or download.
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TalkTalk also offers customers a cap-free and unlimited connection. There's no extra charges or reduced speeds, even at peak hours.
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In the past, Virgin Media used to throttle downloads, but after listening to disgruntled customers the provider decided to scrap this policy. Now, although there's no limit to how much you can download, the provider still limits uploads. This means that you can stream as much as you like, but things like uploading photos and using BitTorrent or FaceTime will be affected.
Between 6pm-11pm daily, Virgin Media will monitor how much data you upload. If you exceed the (unspecified) threshold during this period, your upload speed will be slowed down to 65% of the usual level, returning to normal at 11pm.
Note that the above traffic management policies don't apply to those on VIVID 200 Gamer or VIVID 300 packages, who're free to upload as much as desired.
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All Plusnet's unlimited broadband customers enjoy just that: an unlimited, unmanaged online experience.
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SSE applies traffic management throughout the day and prioritises time-critical activities such as gaming and VoIP, meaning your download speeds will vary.
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All of NOW's broadband products are unlimited and free from traffic management. So you'll enjoy a consistent speed, regardless of how much you upload or download.
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Post Office says its broadband is totally unlimited and it won't artificially reduce your broadband speed at peak times.
However, in somewhat contradictory fashion, Post Office operates a FUP. It'll monitor the level of uploads and downloads, scrutinising ‘time-excessive usage' as well as the amount of bandwidth used. The provider also keeps an eye on ‘high bandwidth users' and those who use peer-to-peer file sharing services.
It's not clear what constitutes excessive usage or how high a bandwidth is too high, though.
As for enforcement, well, it sounds pretty stern. If Post Office thinks you've breached its FUP, it'll notify you by email. It may also suspend or cancel your connection as well as investigate the alleged breach. Your speed may be reduced, although Post Office doesn't mention by how much.
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If you found this article helpful, take a look at our full list of broadband guides and advise we have available.