Is your ISP limiting your broadband speed and data allowance?

by , Technology Researcher Broadband 15/04/2014
Broadband-blog

The UK broadband market has never been so competitive. Every day seems to bring a fresh avalanche of adverts, inserts and junk mail promising ever faster broadband packages combined with unlimited data allowances.

But are these promises too good to be true? In the past ISPs have been accused of misleading their customers by applying traffic management to their supposedly unlimited packages. We investigate whether this practice is still taking place.

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What is traffic management?

To ensure that networks operate efficiently, ISPs can restrict traffic on their networks or give priority to some types of traffic over others. This process – known as traffic management – usually takes place during busy periods and can result in your internet speed being seriously reduced.

ISPs can also manage their networks by applying a fair usage policy – a clause that allows them to limit your apparently unlimited connection if you use a lot of data over the course of each month.

Why do ISPs apply traffic management?

On the most basic level, the fact that more of us are using the internet – and using it for longer – means that the internet is increasingly congested. Traffic management can alleviate this and ensure that the activities of a few, very heavy, users don’t spoil the experience of the majority.

Prioritising certain types of activity, for example reserving higher speeds for interactive games that really need them, can also improve our online lives.

Which ISPs use traffic management?

Traffic management is far less common than it used to be.

None of the big four ISPs (BT, Sky, Virgin and TalkTalk) apply fair usage policies to their unlimited broadband packages so, in this respect, do genuinely offer unlimited allowances.

Speed restrictions are also less prevalent than they once were. BT and TalkTalk don’t apply any restrictions to their current packages while Sky doesn’t apply them to customers in the Sky network area (restrictions are only applied to out of area customers signed up to the Sky Connect deal).

Even Virgin Media, which has been criticised in the past by the Advertising Standards Authority for claims about its unlimited packages, recently stopped applying traffic management to downloads (though it still applies upstream traffic management).

But not all ISPs have the same approach and some smaller providers, such as Plusnet, John Lewis Broadband and Tesco Broadband, do apply speed restrictions on their packages.

Will I be traffic managed?

Most people don’t need to worry about traffic management, as it won’t be applied to them – ISPs typically estimate that only around 5% of their customers are affected. Traffic management is really reserved for heavy internet users, not people that only check the odd web page or send a few emails.

However you shouldn’t necessarily assume it won’t ever happen to you. If any of the following apply to you then it’s worth checking your ISP’s policies:

  • You regularly stream TV shows and movies
  • You play Massively Multiplayer Online games, such as World of Warcraft
  • You download large files and/or download on a regular basis
  • You upload large files, especially videos
  • You live in a large household with multiple internet users

Which? expert view – ‘a complicated topic with no easy answer’

Jon_Barrow_headshotIt sounds obvious – if you buy an unlimited package then it’s only fair that you should be allowed to use it however you wish. Yet you could also argue that it would be unfair if the activities of a few very heavy users spoiled the online experience for the majority of people.

It’s a complicated topic with no easy answer.

What’s simpler to acknowledge is that it’s a good thing more ISPs now have enough bandwidth that they’re able to remove speed restrictions from their packages. If you’re a heavy internet user then we’d recommend you consider one of these providers when taking out your next deal.
Jon Barrow – Principal Researcher

More on this

Broadband package reviews – we rate the UK’s biggest ISPs
Speed up slow broadband – our hints and tips should get your network up to speed
Fibre optic broadband – is a superfast connection worth the cost?

23 comments

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Uncle

Without doing tests to the line how do you know if it is your ISP or something else that is causing slow web browsing? Perhaps it is the web sites visited, the age of your computer, firewalls, virus checkers, having too many tabs open, programmes working in the background etc. etc., Nobody seems to raise these.

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Ian

“Even Virgin Media, … still applies upstream traffic management”

One person’s experience is not definitive, but I depend heavily on upstream data bandwidth for a number of services, like Skype video calls and cloud backup. One month I uploaded 140 Gb of data to backup a second PC. I’ve always found my Virgin cable connection runs reliably at full speed.

What I don’t do is run a torrent server. If I did, bearing in mind such things are frequently used to host pirated content, I’d expect more than throttling. Every now and again there’s an upgrade or a fault and my external IP changes. A couple of times the test web server I run was hit by a few thousand torrent requests aimed at the previous holder of the address.

I also realised after one recent upgrade that older WiFi hardware can’t manage more than 11Mb or 23Mb – to get the best from a fast connection you have to use a wired connection or fast WiFi.

My family and friends often bring their computers to visit because their non-Virgin Internet experiences are often truly dreadful. Forget throttling, in the countryside 1Mb download is a good service, and it is frequently far worse. They are amazed by my reliable 50Mb down / 3Mb up connection and use visits as an opportunity to upload photos, service websites, install software updates, download iPlayer programmes for later viewing etc. etc.

No, I don’t work for Virgin, but I’ve been a happy broadband customer for many years.

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polpalm

I’m afraid that’s not quite true regarding Virgin. I’m on their fastest Fibre package and they still “traffic shape” after 16;00 (I think I’m never home in time to test the switch point) weekdays and after 12;00 at weekends.

All a bit of a farce really.

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Ian

Like I said – one person’s experience. Maybe it is area dependent? My daughter in London thought she was getting Virgin cable but is actually on dodgy ADSL. Much of the capital doesn’t seem to have fibre yet – those golden pavements must be too expensive to dig up.

It is 19:45, the world is home from work and hitting the internet, and the usually reliable Ookla speedtest is showing 50.48Mb download and 3.08 upload on my 50Mb connection. About what I usually get. (for an unbiased test don’t test to a Virgin server!)

Before I sussed out the wifi adaptive bandwidth issue I thought I was being choked, but it was my wifi choking not Virgin.

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terfar

I don’t mind a Fair Usage clause to stop a user continuously downloading at full speed, But as a user with the occasional need to download multi-gigabyte files, I don’t expect to be throttled on an UNLIMITED service. I do usually try to start them after 11pm and leave them running overnight as peak demand seems to be from 4pm when the brats get home from school until they get put to bed.

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Dave

I have now used four different service providers and know that I can expect around 4.5 to 5.5Mbps download where I live, depending on the time of day. However when I was with PlusNet I never reached these speeds (I check speeds on a regular basis). When I first started with PlusNet speeds were around 2Mbps; after many complaints it crept up to 3Mbps then slowly fell again to less than 1Mbp. I am not a heavy user by any means (surfing and e-mails). I got the impression that they deliberately `traffic managed` to encourage me to spend more to get a faster speed. I changed to another provider instead and immediately obtained a speed of 5Mbps. I changed to PlusNet as it was a Which recommended provider – which from my experience I now find unbelievable!

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terfar

I’ve witnessed this before. If you live in a village or small town remote from a major BT exchange, BT tends to hog the local bandwidth for its own customers. A colleague tried Talk Talk and Eclipse Internet and never got better than 2 Mbps. His neighbours on BT were receiving 3.5 Mbps. So he switched to BT and hey presto!

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xrayspex

> ‘BT tends to hog the local bandwidth for its own customers’

is not allowed by the regulator, Ofcom, as anti-competitive.

BT Wholesale, who own & run BT’s kit & network, must be even-handed towards all ISPs including BT Retail, who sell the Broadband.

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Jon

I had this experience with BT and so …. I changed to Plusnet which seems to be about 10% faster 3 months in, not spectacular but I’m paying a quarter what I paid to BT so I’m not complaining.

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Mick

Felt the same with Plusnet for about six months then CHOKE

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terfar

Strange to have that problem with Plusnet. I switched to Plusnet fibre as soon as our area was fibre enabled (last February). After around 10 days my speeds settled at around 47up/11dn and have been consistent ever since.

I have a SamKnows monitor installed and the monthly reports indicate that there hasn’t been any change.

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Irishguymanc

People in the UK continually complain about traffic management policies of companies but are unwilling to pay the price for fast fibre broadband, I have l found that you get what you pay for and if you compare our prices to US customers ours are really cheap for what we get. Everyday I see people moaning about slow speeds but when they are offered faster speeds for more money they won’t pay. People need to get real and realise that fibre networks are expensive to build and maintain.

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terfar

Yes the UK broadband is much cheaper than the USA. But there’s good reason: the USA is 40 times the size of the UK with a population only 5 times the UK. So many miles more cables and microwave links are required in their infrastructure.

And FTTC isn’t really that much more expensive. It only requires a single fibre (along existing trenches) to each cabinet to serve hundreds of local subcribers whereas conventional ADSL requires a separate copper pair from the exchange to each subscriber. So the upgrade is a single fibre, a new cabinet and the mux. Admitedly it’s not cheap, but it isn’t the overhead that it’s made out to be.

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sangfroid

I know, UK customers are such complainers. I pay for a 16mbps line with unlimited download from UWDC (Utility Warehouse) living <500metres from the exchange and frequently receive as little as 0.05Mbps for 48 hour periods. I should be shot for thinking that my ISP is taking my money and not providing the service that I pay for.

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Alan Hove

I was forced to switch from BE to Sky recently and my speed has gone down from 8+ mps to around 2. OK, so the cost is around £5 cheaper but it’s a duff service. Roll on fibre here in Hove (new cabinet just installed at the end of the street) and I can dump Sky.

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terfar

BE were my old ISP and they were superb: excellent speed and great customer service. However, when fibre came to my area they were unable to offer it. And they sold out to the enemy.

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xrayspex

Perhaps Sky don’t have LLU kit at your exchange whereas BE did. So you are now on Sky Connect, their resold BT ADSL Max product. You need to check.

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Alan B

I think you’re probably right, although the bumph they send through a year ago said that I would receive the same service, and even now they are saying that they can see I’m getting 8mbps which is patently untrue. Hopefully fibre will reach this area of darkest Hove – when BT can pull their fingers out – and I can have that instead.

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Ross

We thought we were being throttled in the evening as we were having problems getting Netflix or Apple TV to stream without juddering. Turned out that we were plugging our phones in to charge and they were backing up to the cloud whilst on standby. Simply overlooked but caused a bit of a headache at the time until we sussed it.

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alan

TalKTalk cap your speeds as ive noticed with there so called superpowered fibre so I don’t recommend you going with this isp you will have problems of reguards to speed will be restricted and will slowly reduce over the months ,

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Spogg

Alan, I have had the same issue of Superpowered fiber broadband (TalkTalk max up to 76 meg) gradually slowing down. I can get about 42megs but over several monthes it slowly reduces to about 20. Last time an Openreach guy came and made a phone call and it went back up to 43. Now (21.9.14) I have a call opened for the same issue for a second time.
I have a suspicion that this slow-down is intentional though undeclared. My guess is that they slowly reduce the speed until you complain.

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Andy Mennell

I live about 700m from BT’s headquarters for its entire Broadband operation, and my speed is 1.2Mb max. I had to use a different supplier to even get that. When I was a BT customer they throttled me down to 50K during the evenings. I wish the Government would look after people and let them pay according to the actual rate they get. The technology exists already to show how much data has been transferred each month, why not bill according to that?

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m4chine

what utter nonsense virgin media apply traffic managment to downloads and for heavy users restrict your speed nearly all the time especially during peak hours even on the so called super fast 100mb
speeds are limited and the daily download limit is terrible meaning on a normal day if you download at full speed for 30mins you are restricted for 1hr if you continue to download then further speed restrictions apply im on 100mb and usually get restricted to 10mb within a couple of hours 1mb per instead of 10 mb pretty poor service

- A Which? moderator altered this comment due to use of offensive language.

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