Web traffic management, traffic shaping, bandwidth management - it all sounds a bit complicated. But it’s actually a pretty fundamental part of broadband, and it can have an affect on what speeds you get.
So what is this horribly jargon-sounding practice, and what does it mean for your broadband? Read on and we'll take you through the basics.
What is traffic management?
Web traffic management is when broadband providers adjust your download or upload speeds for certain tasks at certain times, to make sure that everyone using the line has a stable connection.
Lots of people are usually connected to a provider's line, and all of them need to use the internet at once for all kinds of things. But lots of users can put a strain on the line's capacity - and that can mean rubbish internet for everyone connected to it.
Instead of letting everyone's connections slow down, some providers instead manage the data travelling on your broadband to keep it all stable.
Traffic management used to be crucial back when lines couldn't handle a huge amount of capacity - especially when we still used dial-up connections - but it's less common now that we've got more high-powered lines in place.
How does traffic management work?
Your provider uses software to see what kind of data is being transferred, and chooses whether to prioritise that activity or slow it down.
Certain activities are put in a sort of 'fast lane'. They're prioritised, and have access to greater capacity and faster speeds. Others are put in a slower lane, to stop them dragging the connection down for everyone else.
Nonetheless, the speed you'll get for any kind of activity still depends on how many other people are using your provider's internet in your area, and what they're using it for.
Of course, traffic management isn't usually happening all day - only at 'peak times', usually evenings and weekends. This is when more people are at home and using the internet so there's a bigger strain on the network.
Activities that are more likely to be prioritised include video calls (including Skype and FaceTime), TV streaming, and online gaming. In other words, things that rely on a stable connection.
Activities that are more likely to be slowed down include file sharing, anything 'peer-to-peer', and software updates. These are considered non-critical and can work just fine without mega fast internet.
Pros and cons of traffic management
The main advantage of traffic-managed broadband is that you'll always get stable speeds - even when loads of other people are connected in your area, and even when you're doing something intensive like gaming, talking on Skype, or streaming video.
On the other hand, it's no good if you do a lot of peer-to-peer sharing or download big files during peak times, as these are more likely to be slowed down.
Which broadband providers manage web traffic?
Post Office is sort of vague about its traffic management policy, but as far as we know it restricts peer-to-peer file sharing at 4pm-midnight.
SSE's traffic management policy simply prioritises some activities, so they'll get fast speeds; and slows down others, so they don't take up too much bandwidth.
Activities that are prioritised include software updates, VoIP (such as Skype), web browsing, and use of VPNs. Then at the other end of the scale, peer-to-peer downloads are slowed, as is streaming on four devices at once. So, if you're all watching iPlayer on the family telly, your speeds should be consistent - but if four of you are all watching Netflix or listening to Spotify on your own individual gadgets, you may need to let it buffer for a bit.
Once upon a time, Virgin Media was notorious for its throttling of download speeds, but we're pleased to say that's not the case any more.
It does, however, manage web traffic for uploads. This means it'll only affect things like Skype calls, posting to social media, adding your files to cloud services, and file sharing - and only during peak times. That's 4pm-11pm on weekdays, and 11am-11pm at weekends.
Rather than choosing activities to prioritise, Virgin Media looks at the amount of data you've uploaded in the last hour. If you've gone over a certain threshold, your upload speed is slowed down for an hour. If you keep on uploading stuff and reach the second threshold before the next hour is up, your speed is then slowed for two hours. If not, you'll get your normal speeds back again.
This doesn't apply to its Gamer package, though, which has no traffic management at all so you can play to your heart's content.
Take a look at Virgin Media's website for up-to-date details on its traffic management.
Almost all wireless and satellite providers
If you get wireless or satellite broadband, there's a very good chance your broadband will be subject to traffic management. Both are prone to iffy connections as it is, so traffic management is often vital to keep things stable for everyone.
Take a look in the terms and conditions of your contract to see if and how traffic management may affect you.