The BT group

As the country’s biggest broadband provider, BT sets the standard for the rest of the industry to follow. Unfortunately, the standard it sets is one of the most byzantine traffic-management regimes of any of the “big six” ISPs.

The problem is further compounded by different rules for different parts of BT. The company has acquired rivals such as PlusNet and Madasafish over the past few years, but each has a different set of rules, which we’ll address in turn.

BT Total Broadband

First, it’s important to point out that what we discuss here concerns only BT Retail customers – people who buy their broadband connection directly from BT. Those who get their broadband from an ISP that uses the BT Wholesale network will be governed by their ISP’s own rules.

BT Retail insists on making customers pay if they creep over their download caps. From 1 April, the company almost doubled the charges for excess bandwidth from 58p to £1 per gigabyte – we’ve checked, it wasn’t a joke. Those charges apply to customers on Option 1 (10GB monthly cap) and Option 2 (which was recently increased from 15 to 20GB), while Option 3 customers are on an “unlimited” service.

BT says it will send customers a warning email when they hit 80% and 100% of their monthly allowance, but unlike even much smaller ISPs such as Zen Internet, it doesn’t provide an online usage checker.

Music download

Even if you stay well within your monthly allowance, BT will still manage the traffic on your connection. The company uses deep-packet inspection technology to choke peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic during the peak hours of 4pm to midnight on weekdays, and pretty much all day (9am to midnight) at weekends. This will slow down anything from downloads on the Sky Player, to music service Spotify, to BitTorrent clients. BT customers planning hefty downloads would therefore be well advised to schedule downloads overnight.

The speed of streaming video is also limited to 896Kbits/sec for customers on the cheapest Option 1 package. BT insists this doesn’t harm customers watching video on iPlayer, Channel4.com or ITV.com, because they stream at only up to 800Kbits/sec, although the new HD iPlayer streams are far beyond its remit. In short, if you want a seamless streaming service, avoid Option 1.

BT claims it manages the traffic across the network to give everyone a fair crack of the whip at peak times. However, Thinkbroadband.com’s editor, Andrew Ferguson, suggests it’s also a cost-cutting measure. “Real-world experience suggests that BT has more capacity in its exchanges than it actually offers for links out to the internet,” he said. “It uses deep-packet inspection to control traffic flows, potentially reducing its costs.

“The side effect of this is the increasing number of people whose peak-time speeds drop drastically, and they change provider (even to another BT Wholesale one) and things improve, showing the limiting factor is BT Retail.”

PlusNet

If BT’s traffic-management system seems complex, PlusNet’s is positively befuddling. Traffic is broken down into different tiers, ranging from high-priority Platinum to bottom-of-the-list Best Effort. It then further muddies the water by applying different tiers to different activities, depending on which package you subscribe to. So, for example, peer-to-peer traffic is granted mere Best Effort status on the cheap PlusNet Value package, Gold on the mid-range PlusNet Pro service, and relegated back to Bronze on PlusNet Unlimited accounts. Confused? You should be.

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