Broadband fair usage policies

A fair usage policy is a way of limiting the amount of data or bandwidth that any one broadband connection uses, so that it does not impact performance for other broadband users. They are (or used to be) necessary because all broadband lines are shared connections.

While the individual line into a building is exclusive, once it reaches the green cabinet out on the street, it moves across onto a wider, but shared cable. This is how broadband is made affordable – and why broadband speeds are always advertised as being ‘up to’. In theory, not everyone connected to a shared line will need to use anything like its full capacity at any one time. But of course, if the total demand is higher than the availably capacity on shaded line, performance is bound to be affected.

This is known as contention and it’s because of the potential for contention that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can only offer services that provide ‘up to’ certain speeds. Contention and other factors (such as physical distance from the cabinet) means that the maximum theoretical speed won’t always be the speed you will get.

It’s also why fair usage policies were needed – to ensure that, even if they wanted to, one user could not continue to hog the bandwidth – and thus slow everyone else’s service down – for any length of time

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What are broadband fair usage policies?

In the early days of broadband services, it was quite common for there to be a fair usage policy in place for faster / higher capacity connections that were capable of downloading more data.

These were applied because there was not as much capacity in the network back then, as there is today. Services were run over the existing infrastructure, which was really built for voice rather than data.  As a consequence, if someone in a particular area used a lot of data, that would slow down performance for other users who were connected to the same main broadband pipe.

Where fair usage policies were applied, if a particular business or user was deemed to be consuming an ‘unfair’ amount of bandwidth, the ISP would start to limit what was available to them effectively throttling back their usage, so that other broadband customers could get their fair share.

This was not always a warmly-received policy by those who were subjected to it, who would see it simply as a way to force them into upgrading to more expensive, higher speed services. The users who found their broadband was no longer as sluggish as it had seemed, would – of course – take a different view.

Thankfully, due to the continued advances in technology and the investment and roll-out of fibre-based services, it’s no longer necessary for ISPs to apply fair usage policies. Today, just about all the broadband services on offer in the UK provide unlimited data downloads.

While contention can still be an issue, the fact that ISPs have to advertise services as delivering speeds of ‘up to’, means that expectations can be managed to some extent. At the same time, they are also expected to meet a decent level of service – which will be set out in your contract – that means they can’t cram too many broadband connections together on one line.

What tends to happen now is that, if an ISP finds it has higher levels of demand from one group of users or another, or particular peaks and troughs in usage, it will manage its own resources accordingly and apply more general controls at a higher level. It is still possible that you’ll get contention issues in some places at sometimes – especially if there is limited infrastructure in your particular area – but if you let your ISP know, they should be able to do something about it.

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Acceptable usage broadband

While it may not be necessary to put a limit on the data that broadband connections are using ISPs do need to monitor what they are using the connection for, at least to a certain degree. This does not mean that they are allowed to ‘snoop’ on the kind of traffic flowing across the connection. But they can look at how you are using your connection.

This essentially means that they don’t expect the connection to be used for criminal or nefarious purposes – and they may have the right to withdraw the service or inform the appropriate authorities if they think that something untoward or unlawful is taking place.

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Individual broadband fair usage policies

Every ISP will have its own approach to fair and acceptable usage and if you are unsure or concerned about what that is, you should simply ask them. Any limitations they might apply will be spelled out in their standard terms and conditions. Here we provide a quick round-up of the approach to fair usage taken by three major ISPs – BT, Plusnet, and TalkTalk.

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Prior to February 2020, BT did have some packages with limitations on data use in place. But when the COVID-19 pandemic came along it removed limits from all its packages completely. This is a permanent change, so there will be no going back to any caps or limitation – or fair usage policies for that matter.

This is also a reflection of how far the underlying infrastructure has developed in recent years. BT is the biggest ISP in the UK and if it can afford to lift limits on data at a time when everyone is going to be using the network for working from home just about every day, then really, just about anyone should be able to follow its lead.

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Plusnet prides itself on offering a simple value proposition that is easy for customers to understand. There are no restrictions on any Plusnet broadband services.

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All TalkTalk services are also unlimited and as the company also provides TV services, it has extra capacity built into its network, so there should always be enough room for manoeuvre should there be excessive demand for bandwidth at any time.

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