Is your ISP limiting your broadband speed and data allowance?

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.

Recommended Broadband Providers – see which ISPs impressed

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?

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32 replies

  1. 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.

    1. Run a speed test such as
      When testing close the other programs
      Also turn wifi off mobiles, radios etc.
      Run tests at certain intervals throughout the day.
      Do all this for a month then download loads of torrents, videos, music & stream HD video. Do the latter for weeks maybe months & see if your bandwidth slows to an almost urinary tract infection dribble of a connection during peak hours. You could test the bandwidth again but you’d know already. They be shaping your traffic.

    2. @ explan

      I have had PlusNet fibre since it came into our area in Feb 2014. I am also monitored by SamKnows who send me monthly reports showing the test results. I can assure you than neither my speed or response times have varied following the initial settling in period (around 10 days) except for an odd day here or there when there has been a problem.

      Falling speed is far more likely to be due your local exchange reaching saturation of users or you are using a wireless connection and are suffering from the growth in wireless usage in your neighbourhood. I had the latter problem and moved to 802.11ac to get away from the 2.4HHz band. I’m pleased to say that there seems to be no one else using the 5GHz band in my area (tested using an external 18dBi yagi).

  2. “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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

    1. 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!

    2. > ‘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.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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 ,

    1. 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.

    2. I have been with talktalk/Tiscali now for around 8 years, originally on the talktalk broadband I was averaging around 1 meg download speed, I recently in Jan 2015 signed up for fibre broadband upto 38meg, I completed speed checks regularly during Jan 15 and I was very happy with speeds of 40+meg, now recently in April 15, speed checks show my speed has reduced to 12meg. I have contacted talktalk and they want to complete line checks and possibly send and engineer at my expense to my home to check my lines, I thank all unnecessary because I think its talktalk that have gagged back the speed anyway. I am paying for the fibre broadband and only receiving the standard speed (17meg) that only cost £1.75 per month. Talktalk are not providing the service I was sold and that they are taking payment for providing so talktalk are breeching my contract and I will be cancelling this contract after the 28days from initial complaint. Talktalk terms state “We’ll give you the fastest broadband your phone line can handle. The top speed will depend on the quality of your phone line and where you live.” So I know my line can provide 40+meg because this was the speed in January 15.

  10. 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?

  11. 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.

  12. I’ve been with TalkTalk for a few years now, and signed up to landline and unlimited broadband. For the first couple of years, I found the speeds pretty good and was able to, for example, watch iPlayer any time of day, evening or night without any interruption. Over the last year, though, I have found the service to have deteriorated markedly. I can no longer watch iPlayer at any time satisfactorily and, in the evenings, it doesn’t even “get off the ground”. I have recently purchased a new laptop of a much higher specification but it hasn’t really made any noticeable difference. Admittedly, I live in a rural area and the nearest exchange is over a mile away but, as I said, this never used to be a problem – and I have lived at the same address for nearly 20 years. Something’s going on somewhere but no doubt TalkTalk would deny it’s their fault !

  13. John Lewis are rubbish for when I want to stream in the evenings and at 11pm they drop the internet altogether. This is unlimited! Well no way as BT never let this happen , could stream anytime , any place and will be returning to them as John Lewis not meeting their end of a contract which the customer is paying for . sort it out Muppets!

  14. My experience with EE, they refer to the speed changes as ‘traffic management’ but from my testing, a more accurate term would be ‘Traffic Capping’, there is no way I can get over 2Mb/s during the times that they say they are ‘Managing’ the traffic, except that my son is able to download a 3 GB game update on Steam, that is not throttled / capped and was going at full speed when the HTTP was down to 2Mb/s (paused download for speedtest).
    It’s looking to me like they have a completely messed up system.
    Even with it being so screwy, they still have all the most common types of usage listed as traffic managed and a catch all of all unknown traffic, will be included – I quote from EE:

    ‘We do traffic manage our off-net broadband services at peak times, which may mean slowing down some services that consume a lot of bandwidth but are less time critical, like file sharing. Typically our peak hours are weekdays between 4.30pm and 1am, and at weekends between 1.30pm and 1am. During this time you may find that we manage the following types of traffic:

    P2P / Newsgroups
    Web browsing
    Web downloads
    Unknown traffic’

    So they ‘try to cap pretty much everything anybody wants the internet for, at the time that the majority want to use it and then try to ‘CAP’ it to 2Mb/s about a third of what my line is capable of.

  15. I’ve been to sky for about two years, and my expirience is, that they are slowing it down every month, I used to have 18mbit/s down and 10mbit/s up, and now it is 2mbit/s down and 1mbit/s up, which is horrible, for a person, that download games from steam or UPlay, or play GTA Online/CS:GO (Does not even work anymore, because of that speed!) on a daily basis, I was about to switch to plusnet, but I see that there is no point in doing that, because they do traffic management..

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