Plusnet traffic management: How does it work?

Sheffield-based broadband provider Plusnet talks to broadbandchoices.co.uk about why it manages broadband traffic, what it does differently and what it means for customers.

At the end of last year, Plusnet, the Sheffield-based broadband and phone provider well-known for its Yorkshire-themed television adverts, launched two new unlimited broadband packages.

However, like the unlimited broadband offered by most major providers, Plusnet's Unlimited Broadband and Unlimited Fibre Broadband packages are traffic managed, despite not having a monthly allowance like regular broadband packages.

But why do broadband providers manage traffic? How does Plusnet traffic management differ from that of other providers? And how does it affect its customers?broadbandchoices.co.ukput these questions and more to Plusnet.

Why traffic management?

While many broadband users now have an idea of what traffic management is, Plusnet believes the practice has a bad rap.

This is because many believe it is used by broadband providers to be stingy with broadband download speeds or to stop broadband users from performing certain types of intensive online activity, such as downloading films.

According to Kelly Dorset, head of products and digital care at Plusnet, the purpose of traffic management is to "ensure your internet connection is performing as you wish it to".

In his view, the way Plusnet uses traffic management means you get a faultless experience online, even if your broadband connection is being used for everything from browsing the web on a smartphone to playing an online multiplayer game on an Xbox at the same time.

Plusnet traffic shaping

Plusnet

manages, or 'shapes', broadband traffic by prioritising certain types of traffic to ensure there is enough bandwidth, or data, available at peak times for each activity to be performed without interruption.

For example, when a broadband connection has reached bandwith capacity, Plusnet give streaming games and video high priority on that particular connection to ensure they don't buffer or lag. Downloading has the lowest priority because it isn't as time-sensitive and can still be performed with less bandwidth, even though it slows the process down.

In comparison, TalkTalk

and Virgin Media

) manage traffic by restricting the speed of those who use the internet heavily during peak times, ensuring the service others receive isn't affected.

However, Plusnet's traffic management only comes into play if you're using more bandwidth than your broadband connection can handle at one time, rather than because you exceed a set usage threshold at a particular time.

So, even if you're using all of your 16Mb connection to download movies and music when every other Plusnet customer is online, this will only be slowed down if you then start using Skype, as this will be given priority because its performance is more likely to be affected by a lack of bandwidth.

Throttling

So, traffic management is used by Plusnet to ensure that each activity performed on a particular connection receives enough bandwidth to work.

This means you don't wind up being able to download every box office hit from 2012 simultaneously in a jiffy, but unable to watch Eastenders on BBC iPlayer without Jack Branning jittering at the same time.

In contrast, both TalkTalk and Virgin Media use traffic management to slow broadband of heavy users and ensure every user on their network is receiving a decent speed.

Doesn't this mean an unscrupulous broadband provider could use traffic management to throttle speeds across its network regardless of usage, enabling it to sign up more customers thus make more money, and then blame the poor performance on high traffic levels?

Not according to Dorset: "If you were to slow down services based on numbers alone, you'd affect the experience of customers needing the maximum line speed for their internet activity to perform properly. This would cause massive dissatisfaction and customers would leave."

Fair usage

While it may be futile to use traffic management for nefarious purposes, it is used by providers to enforce fair usage policies by throttling the bandwidth of serial heavy users who have ignored warnings to curb their usage.

However, traffic management should only be used moderately to restrict users' speeds on broadband advertised as unlimited according to Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) guidelines, with Virgin Media changing its traffic management policy after being warned not to "misleadingly" advertise unlimited broadband last month.

Dorset emphasises that traffic management shouldn't only be seen as a punitive measure, saying that the use of it on Plusnet's unlimited packages is "all about the protection of your experience and not about slowing you down".

Slow broadband

So, is traffic management why your broadband is slow? In a word, no, because, as Dorset says: "There could be a myriad of reasons for a slowdown in broadband speeds."

These range from your router being in the wrong place to the distance between your house and the local telephone exchange, so don't assume traffic management is to blame if anything you're doing online gets a bit sluggish.

If you're a Plusnet unlimited broadband customer, it's quite likely you won't notice even if traffic management is used on your connection because, Dorset says, Plusnet's traffic management is designed to "protect the activities you need to see work in real-time," like gaming and streaming video.

Broadband without traffic management

While for the vast majority of broadband users traffic management is not likely to be an issue, for those who are very heavy internet users and are only able to use their home broadband in peak hours it could be. So, is it a necessity?

"Without traffic management, and without sufficient bandwidth available across their network, a provider is at risk of being unable to handle a network event," says Dorset.

What he means is, without traffic management, time-sensitive activities like watching a film on Netflix or playing World of Warcraft would be unprotected should a broadband outage, such as that which hit some TalkTalk customers in February, or a surge in web traffic, like the one that accompanied Felix Baumgartner's space jump last year, occur.

BT

and Sky

) are the only providers in the UK that offer unlimited broadband without a fair usage policy or traffic management at present. How are they able to do this?

Dorset says only that "other providers will take actions based on their own business requirements and costs" when it comes to ensuring each customer has enough bandwidth.

One of these actions is likely to have been Sky investing in technology enabling it to keep its network free from traffic management, although the provider has recently suffered from capacity issues.

Plusnet traffic management

Plusnet has had a "great reaction" to its unlimited broadband packages, according to Dorset, with even the provider's "very technical customers" happy with traffic management as it allows them to stream without buffering while downloading at peak times.

Less technically-minded Plusnet unlimited broadband customers haven't even noticed it, he adds: "It works in the background to protect the broadband experience they want - that's the real point of it."

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