‘Unlimited broadband’ is a phrase freely thrown about by providers, but in many cases an ‘unlimited’ package isn’t quite as unrestricted as you might expect. However, this doesn’t necessarily present a problem...
You could be forgiven for thinking a broadband package advertised as 'unlimited' is a simple concept. You can use the internet as much as you like with absolutely no extra charges, no limits and no restrictions right? Erm, no.
Confusingly, unlimited broadband packages come in two varieties - 'unlimited' and 'truly unlimited'. And to complicate the situation further neither phrase has an official definition, so different providers use them to mean different things. We'll attempt to clarify things though…
Video: Unlimited broadband - What is it and do you need it?
What is 'unlimited' broadband?
Unlimited broadband is a broadband package that has no usage caps, but does have either a fair usage policy or a traffic management policy, or both, applied. These are policies that limit the amount you can download at certain times or throttle the speed at which you download during peak hours. This is often applied to specific types of traffic, usually peer-to-peer downloading, which is most commonly done using BitTorrent.
Are traffic management or fair usage policies a problem for you?
Whether traffic management or fair usage policies are something you want to avoid depends on what you use the internet for. The vast majority of web users won't actually be negatively affected by these policies - in fact they are likely to help you to get a better service.
This is because we all share our broadband connection with other people - up to 49 others in fact. And the way the people who share your connection use the internet has an effect on the broadband speed you get, hence why your connection is likely to be slower in the evening when more people are online at home. If a handful of those people are simultaneously downloading a lot of stuff and have packages with no traffic management, then your connection could slow down.
Traffic management policies are often put in place so the provider can deliver a reasonable user experience to everyone rather than simply cater for the heaviest users at the expense of everyone else.
Providers with these sorts of traffic management policies can prioritise certain types of online traffic - such as catch-up TV - so your episode of Downton won't suffer from buffering because someone up the road is simultaneously downloading 100 high-definition films. Hooray.
What this means is, if you are an average downloader you have no reason to fear fair usage and traffic management policies.
However, if you have a sizeable date appetite and have a high-level of peer-to-peer activity, are a hardcore online gamer or work from home and have to connect to your office remotely for long periods, then you may want to consider a 'truly unlimited' package instead.
Just to complicate matters further, not every provider's traffic management policy prioritises one customer's usage over another's. Plusnet has a traffic management policy, but it only prioritises traffic on your connection so that if, say, you're downloading a lot of music, it doesn't cause what your other half is watching on BBC iPlayer to buffer.
Under such a policy, the quality of your connection will not suffer to serve the needs of your provider's other customers.
What is 'truly unlimited' broadband?
We define 'truly unlimited' as broadband packages with no usage caps, no fair usage policy and no network-wide traffic management. This means even the heaviest downloaders can download any amount, at any time, without giving it a second thought.
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Who is 'truly unlimited' broadband good for?
If you are a prolific downloader, work from home via a remote connection, or have a big family or lots of housemates who are all likely to use the internet a significant amount at the same time, then you are most likely to benefit from a truly unlimited package.
Although a truly unlimited package won't protect you from the speed drop that affects all broadband connections at peak times or when a lot of people are using the same connection, it does mean your activity will not be artificially slowed at any time by your broadband provider.
What truly unlimited broadband packages are available?
Several providers now offer truly unlimited broadband packages according to our definition - with no fair usage policy and no network-wide traffic management.
What unlimited broadband packages are on the market?
Virgin Media does not limit the amount of data you can download, but to protect the service for the rest of its customers it does manage the speed at which the heaviest downloaders can upload or download during peak times.
TalkTalk has no traffic management on its unlimited broadband packages but does apply a fair usage policy which it is worth checking before you sign up if you think your data appetite is more 'all-you-can-eat buffet' than 'dressing-free salad'.
If you want to see what is available where you live, pop your address into our postcode checker and we'll show you the options.