Have you signed up for an 'unlimited' package only to read the small print and find out that your broadband can be capped?
Many of the "unlimited" broadband plans on offer actually have a fair usage or traffic management policy applied, which can end up imposing limits on your downloading or throttling your speeds. Sky (www.Sky.com), Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com), Plusnet (www.plus.net) and BT (www.BT.com) are among the providers who deliver "truly unlimited" broadband with no download limits or throttling on some, or all, of their packages. EE (www.ee.co.uk) offer packages with no fair usage policy applied but will use traffic management during peak hours on certain types of traffic such as Peer2Peer downloads.
If you are one of the millions of people who download music and movies or catch up on missed TV using services like the BBC iPlayer, a fair usage policy could affect to you. While many people can live comfortably within the limits of fair usage (which is often fairly generous), the rise of digital distribution of movies and games, internet television and popular legal peer-to-peer networks are massively increasing the amount we download.
What to look out for
Put simply, fair usage is the broadband industry's attempt at keeping cyber traffic down. The policies are designed to protect the people who might be affected by the heavy downloading of others.
You probably share your broadband connection with around 49 other people because most home broadband connections have a contention ratio of 50:1.
So the problem is that if you're a big downloader, you could be slowing down the broadband connection of up to 49 other people. And if you are regularly affecting other people's internet, your ISP might decide that something needs to be done.
It's when you use it, not how
While it may seem unfair if yours in the broadband connection being throttled, your provider is only trying to ensure that everyone has a good user experience. Those most likely to be affected by a fair usage policy are:
- Users of peer-to-peer networks uploading and downloading lots of films and music
- Online gamers
- People working from home and remotely connecting to the office
- Any other heavy downloaders
If any of these apply to you, try cutting down your internet usage, or if possible try doing your downloading in the small hours when less people will be online in your street and some broadband providers relax their policies. That way you can still download as much as you want, without causing problems for anyone else.
Lots of broadband providers now use traffic shaping as a way of controlling users' downloads during peak hours, which is another reason to set your PC to download overnight when your speed is less likely to be throttled.
Most ISPs with fair usage policies will ignore over-sized downloading for a month or two, and will then get in touch asking that you curb your usage. If, however, you continue to exceed the limits they are likely to take action.
This could take the form of throttling your connection, therefore limiting the amount that can be downloaded, restricting your usage at peak times, charging you for your excess usage, or restricting your access to peer-to-peer sites.
In extreme cases, your contract might even be terminated, cutting off your internet until you can get a new connection.
If, having signed up for an unlimited broadband package, and anything like this does happen, but you don't think you've been excessively downloading, there is something you can do.
Dispute and resolution
If you feel that you've been wrongly penalised for your downloading you should first try to resolve the issue directly with your provider. If this doesn't work you could get in touch with Ombudsman Services: Communications, the telecommunication industry's watchdog, whose job it is to investigate complaints by customers. Ombudsman Services: Communications also charges its members if they're investigated so it will help your case to get them involved.
The majority of broadband providers are Ombudsman Services: Communications members, but if yours isn't, try Ofcom, the independent regulator for the UK, who should still be able to help.
For more information, check out our guide to broadband consumer rights.
How do I keep track of my monthly downloads?
Keeping an eye on how much you download can be difficult and becomes a particular problem if you have a wireless network and use more than one computer on the same broadband connection. However, you can install a broadband download monitor, which not only allows you to keep track of how much you download, but also lets you set warnings to avoid exceeding limits. Many providers will notify you when you approach your download limit giving you a chance to reduce your usage in order to avoid excess usage charges or throttling.
"I have to face facts; I'm a download-a-holic"
If you know that you're a big downloader, it's worth looking into how you can cut down your activity.
But what counts as a big download? The average single track MP3 is about 5MB, while a DVD quality movie is 4GB. So if you're downloading 10 DVD quality movies every month, plus surfing the internet, downloading music, playing video games and uploading pictures to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, the chances are that you're exceeding your fair usage policy.
Ultimately, you need to be realistic - if you know you'll be doing a lot of downloading, you need a package with truly unlimited downloads. It will save you aggravation in the long run and will mean that you won't be charged or have your broadband throttled to curb your behaviour.
So what is the right package?
For light and moderate users, most fair usage policies are generous enough to browse and download without worrying about incurring extra charges.
TalkTalk (www.Talktalk.co.uk) offers unlimited broadband with a fair usage policy. Its TalkTalk Plus package also has no restrictions on streamed content like BBC iPlayer or online gaming applications. Visit www.Talktalk.co.uk to switch online.
BE (www.Bethere.co.uk) also offers unlimited broadband with a fair use policy. As BE is a very popular supplier among tech-heads and gamers, it's likely to be generous. Visit www.Bethere.co.uk to switch online.
O2 (www.O2.co.uk) describes its "The Works" package as truly unlimited, but it is subject to a generous fair usage policy. It is also subject to a degree of traffic management albeit only on peer-to-peer file sharing at busy times. Video watching and streaming and file sharing at non-busy times are completely unrestricted. Visit www.O2.co.uk to switch online.
If you're a prolific downloader, why go through the hassle of a fair usage deal and risk incurring the wrath of your provider when you exceed your limit? Try a truly unlimited package instead.
Virgin Media (www.Virginmedia.com) cable packages range from up to 30Mb to 100Mb. There's no usage limit for downloads, but Virgin Media does manage traffic at peak times of the day. Go to www.Virginmedia.com for more details about Virgin Media packages and to switch online.
Orange (www.Orange.co.uk) broadband also comes without a fair usage policy. Like Virgin Media, it uses traffic management measures during busy periods to ensure speeds remain consistent for all users. To switch to Orange, go to (www.Orange.co.uk.
Unlimited broadband deals
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(free for 6 months)1st year cost: £102.95
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Fair usage deals
There's nothing wrong with fair usage deals, especially if you have more modest usage requirements. Even so, you should be careful and keep an eye on your downloading - if your provider doesn't publish the limits of its fair usage policy, you might not know when to stop.