Dear Dominic, My internet is much slower in the evenings. When I called my provider to ask why, they said it was because of “traffic management”. What does this mean?
Robert, via email, 12 July 2010
Our expert Dominic says...
One of the main reasons why broadband is slower at peak times - such as in the evenings - is because of network congestion. When so many people try to get online at the same time, lines become crowded and it can take longer for web pages to load, videos to download and the BBC iPlayer to buffer.
Average broadband speeds generally drop by around 1Mb at peak times, but some people experience much bigger differences in their download speed. And if you don't have a fast, stable connection to start with, peak time traffic can wreak havoc on your internet.
On top of this, some broadband providers also apply traffic management measures that can slow you down even more.
Traffic management is designed to stop heavy downloaders from clogging up the network and slowing everyone else down at peak times.
If you download or upload a lot of data over a long period of time, your activities might affect people wanting to do everyday things like surf the net and check emails. If this is the case, your broadband provider might slow down your connection so that you can't use as much data.
Traffic management is also designed to ensure that time-sensitive applications like Skype and online gaming are prioritised - a slow connection could mean that these types of programs simply become unusable.
How much is too much?
One broadband provider can have a very different traffic management policy to the next, which is why it's so important to compare packages to make sure you're getting a service that will suit your needs.
For example, customers on Virgin Media's (www.Virginmedia.com) L Broadband package comes with speeds of up to 10Mb and "unlimited broadband" downloads, subject to a fair usage policy. But even though it offers "unlimited" downloads, it does apply traffic management.
This means that if you reach the cap of almost 3GB between 10am and 3pm, you'll have your speed cut by a massive 75% for the next five hours.
On the other hand, the cable provider's XXL 50Mb broadband package comes with unlimited downloads and no traffic management.
While the vast majority of people won't download anything like this amount in one day, as our habits change and people download more, increasing numbers of consumers could fall foul of their traffic management policies. For example, one high-definition movie download could be as much as 4GB.
Traffic management is not the same as a fair usage policy. Although it does depend on how much you've downloaded, traffic management is usually applied on a daily basis, rather than once you've exceeded a monthly download allowance.
However, you should still keep an eye on your monthly download limit. If you've got a set download allowance you might be charged for going over your limit, while fair usage customers - who've usually signed up to an "unlimited" package could have their speed throttled if they regularly download too much.
Packages without traffic management
A number of providers offer traffic management-free broadband packages. Virgin Media and Sky broadband's (www.Sky.com) top packages both offer truly unlimited downloads, while BE broadband (www.Bethere.co.uk), whose packages are designed with heavy downloaders in mind, promises never to use traffic management on its Unlimited or Pro packages.
Track your downloads
The best way to steer clear of your provider's traffic management policies is to make sure that you've read the small print and know exactly how much you're allowed to download.
Keep an eye on your downloads to ensure you don't go over your limit.
If you still find that you're being slowed down at peak times, talk to your provider to find out if you can upgrade to a more suitable package.
But it might simply be time to accept that you're a heavy downloader and need a package that can accommodate this. Switching broadband provider can save you money as well as getting you a faster, more suitable broadband package.