The technology section of The Guardian has an item looking at what 'unlimited' really means. Many consumers do get confused as to whether they are talking about bits (b) or Bytes (B), how many Meg there is in a GB (GigaByte), even now broadband providers still make mistakes in their advertising copy.
For the first few years of broadband in the UK people were able to use their connection in what most people consider an unlimited manner, and after the days of paying per minute on dial-up this was a welcome freedom. Around 2003 things started to change, and accelerated with the pricing changes from BT Wholesale in 2004 which allowed providers to offer faster access speeds for less money. Many service providers adopted usage limits, which are generally based on the amount of data downloaded (and sometimes uploaded) over a period of time, as a way of ensuring that costs did not run out of control. With improved options in the area of traffic management it seems more providers are moving back to using unlimited, but very often this is associated with a (*) which can be easily missed. The (*) generally links to something called a 'Fair Use Policy' which is often vaguely worded and allows the provider to control your download speeds. While many people see unlimited as meaning unlimited throughput, it can also be used in advertising to mean unlimited connection time - so always read the fine print.
Is the traffic management that results from fair use and acceptable policies evil as some people feel? It all depends on how it is done, some providers provide very little information making it hard for the heavier user to judge if a provider is right for them. On the other hand some provide so much information that people get immersed in trying to understand it and complain when things change. What many forget is that the Internet and usage patterns are not a constant thing, but rather a moveable feast and while largely predictable a spanner is very easy to throw into the works.
While usage patterns are changing we still have a long way to go for the majority to find usage limits of 20 to 40GB (GigaBytes) to be restricting. Some providers are adapting by excluding additional services like BT Vision and their voice over broadband services from the usage counting, but this leads into a difficult area that may lead to a two tier internet system.
So what needs to happen? We think in the first instance providers need to admit to the use of traffic management systems, i.e. make sure first line support staff know about any experiments. They also need to provide clear and easy to understand descriptions of what their policy is.
One key point when looking at services is that even providers with what look like clear usage limits may still employ traffic management to manage the network load, so it is worth researching and asking others who use similar applications to you how the provider performs at the time of day you will be online. While we all love a bargain and paying as little as possible, with broadband it is often the case that if your usage patterns are above average you may need to look at above average priced broadband packages.
Is there a moral? If there is one, then it is something like, all free lunches do come to an end one day and sometimes they can carry a sting in the tail.