Fixed-line broadband

LLU providers (ISPs with their own equipment in the local exchange, as part of the local-loop unbundling process) and cable providers may offer faster speeds than those reselling lines, but they come with their own problems.

Bandwidth throttling and data caps

As if the speed issue wasn’t bad enough, broadband customers are now finding their connections are being lopped in half simply because they have the cheek to download games demos, movies or music – the very services ISPs promote in their advertising. This ugly new practice is innocently referred to as “traffic shaping” or “traffic management” by the ISPs and, more realistically, “bandwidth throttling” by the poor souls on the receiving end.

Cable provider Virgin Media was one of the first ISPs to introduce traffic management, although it’s far from alone. The ISPs claim this is a necessary step to prevent a small percentage of heavy downloaders having a negative impact on speeds for the rest of its customers. However, you don’t have to be downloading movies 24/7 to fall foul of Virgin’s traffic cops.

Here’s how it works: any customer on Virgin’s 2Mb/sec Size M package will have their connection speed halved for four hours if they download more than 350MB between 4pm and midnight. For people on the 4Mb/sec connection that limit is raised to 750MB, while those on 20Mb/sec can download a far more generous 3GB, although their speed is quartered if they step over the mark.

How easy is it to breach Virgin’s downloads limits? The playable demo for new racing title Colin McRae: Dirt clocks in at 833MB, instantly pushing customers on Virgin’s two cheapest packages over the limit. Internet TV service Joost claims it downloads around 320MB an hour, causing problems for the Size M customers. In other words, it’s ridiculously easy to break the cap.

Yet Virgin claims only a tiny fraction of its customers are harmed by traffic shaping. “95% of customers won’t be affected by this. It really targets the top 5%. The feedback we’re getting from customers is quite positive,” a Virgin Media spokesperson told us.

To be fair to Virgin, at least it’s open about the restrictions on its service. Most ISPs bury details of traffic restrictions into their fair usage policy, while still bandying around terms such as “unlimited broadband” in their advertising. Orange recently fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for the third time for using the words “unlimited downloads” to describe its service, without mentioning the 40GB monthly download cap. “We had received assurances from Orange on those [previous two] occasions that the company would ensure it included a reference to its fair usage policy in its ads. We were concerned that Orange had failed to adhere to its assurances,” the withering ASA assessment reads.

“Orange makes every effort to ensure our adverts are clear and accurate; however, on this particular occasion, we mistakenly omitted details on our fair usage policy,” the company told PC Pro, when we asked why it kept misleading customers. “We’ve since ensured all executions of our current campaign include the correct information, informing customers that a fair usage policy applies to unlimited downloads and unlimited calls with our home broadband service.”

Solution: Take great care to check the fine detail of the contract and any fair usage policy before committing to an ISP. A recent survey by Moneysupermarket.com found that 55% of the people signing up for broadband failed to check the small print for restrictions and extra charges. Many ISPs take particular exception to file-sharing services, such as BitTorrent, and will close or choke the speed to particular ports to limit the bandwidth devoted to them. Again, check before you sign up, as there’s nothing you can do once the contract is signed.

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