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Is Platform management a Fair Usage Policy re-spun?
Thursday 28 April 2005 05:12:00 by Sebastien Lahtinen

PlusNet announced its Fair Usage Policy (FUP) some time ago and was selling products based on it since 4th April until Thursday last week. For now the Premier range is on hold until later this morning, when a full announcement is expected. This latest range of changes has caused a flood of questions and a fair degree of anger from PlusNet customers at the moving goalposts. This is a sudden and unexpected u-turn from one day when customers are told that a Fair Usage Policy is the only way forward with the current BT Wholesale pricing structure, to a few weeks later when PlusNet believes the FUP is no longer appropriate.

The main change is that the Premier range is now going to have one price point (at least until new products are launched), which is £21.99 for a 2Mbps connection or whatever your line will support up to that speed. There is no specific usage allowance, but rather a vague policy that users who exceed a reasonable usage level in a persistent manner may trigger PlusNet into action. PlusNet's Marketing Director told us this could be up to 400GB per month on a 2Mbps line if used mainly off peak (which makes use of existing capacity and not increasing PlusNet's operational costs) but this was not made clear on the PlusNet FAQ.

The action that PlusNet will take is not 100% clear, but we understand it to mean that users who are identified by PlusNet may well see higher apparent levels of contention compared to other PlusNet customers, and potentially be assisted in finding an alternative broadband provider.

One disappointment for many is the news that the BT IPStream Home Max product that is rate adaptive between 2Mbps and 8Mbps, is not likely to be available for £21.99. PlusNet are considering a higher price for the Premier services faster than 2Mbps services, due to the removal of the FUP - Many had understood they would get a free regrade onto something approaching 8Mbps in speed when it was launched.

We have seen worried users who regraded onto the Premier range, since this was unmetered between 1am and 8am, who are now concerned their usage patterns may fall foul of the new system. Those people who elected for a Premier product costing more than £21.99 are allowed to regrade down to the standard £21.99 fee now, but PlusNet are not doing this regrade automatically so users on higher priced services will pay more on the basis they might be able to get onto a faster service in the future. This may mean that people who miss the news or any PlusNet emails on the matter could be paying much more than they need to for many months. Those that paid a regrade fee to change their usage allowance will get that £14.99 refunded, but any fees paid for speed regrades will not be refunded.

In response to our query as to what change prompted such a quick change in policy, a PlusNet representative said:

"It became obvious that fair usage was not going to be implemented, it was important to communicate it as fully and as quickly as possible. If it is the right thing to do then it is irrelevant when a policy is changed. All regrades are being refunded and all the signups to these accounts are better off under contention in any case since we would generally consider the peak hours to be from 4pm to midnight."

Marco Potesta (Marketing Director), PlusNet plc

As always we would urge caution when comparing service providers as each provider will try to market their services as the best. PlusNet is quoting the 30:1 contention figure in e-mails but from the e-mails we have seen it has not been made clear that this applies only to PlusNet's BT central pipe contention and this contention is not guaranteed throughout BT's network. This means that a user on the 30:1 service could well experience higher contention if virtual paths from their exchange are overloaded. PlusNet do mention this in the FAQ on their website, however we believe that using a headline figure in this way makes it more difficult and time consuming for consumers to compare services.

What PlusNet have not mentioned in the FAQ, is that they already run Premier services at 30:1 on the central pipe. Therefore, in our view this is nothing more than a marketing exercise which makes the product sound better than another quoted at 50:1 by other providers, which could possibly run at even lower central pipe contention. The only benefit to users will be PlusNet guaranteeing the central pipe contention as part of the service. Changing product ranges and associated terms with great frequency is not going to inspire confidence.

We do believe that some method of limiting usage is required, whether this is by a cap, usage based charging, contention, fair use policy or whatever you want to call it. In the end they are all designed, one way or another, to ensure that a small number of users do not abuse the service and slow it down for everyone else. Contention is a reality in consumer broadband and the only way in which we are going to see faster services being launched. Our concerns with PlusNet isn't the principle of what they're doing, but the way they are going about doing it. Ultimately there are criteria PlusNet will use to determine who is an abuser. We would like objective criteria to be published for everyone to see so that customers know what they're buying and so that they know each of them is getting treated in the same way.

PlusNet have confirmed that they already have users connected on 4 and 8 Mbps trial platforms. At the time of publishing we do not have any information as to when these will be provided on live services but we would encourage users to watch for announcements over the next couple of days before making any choices to regrade to a lower speed service. The question has never been whether PlusNet's service is good, but how it is marketed.

The PlusNet FAQ suggests the new system is not a change in contract. The question is - will the majority of consumers see it that way? More importantly if this aspect can be changed, what else can be altered at another later date?

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