Managing traffic across millions of broadband customers is big business, both in terms of the potential savings broadband providers can make and the companies selling the hardware and software to make it possible. In Utopia there would be no need for traffic management as networks would be large enough that congestion would not be noticeable and issues like lag and jitter that affect VoIP and gaming would not occur.
Alas, back in the real world the UK has had a few years of traffic management practices and consumers have a poor view of it in general. The bad opinion many have of traffic management is because of the sometimes draconian or underhand ways in which it is used, and people will have many tales of support agents denying its presence for only a few weeks later a press release to appear explaining new traffic management techniques that it has previously trialled.
Move now across the large pond to the United States and you stumble into the big debate over net neutrality. On one hand we have some calling for all net traffic to be treated equally, the FCC saying management is OK so long as providers are open and explain it to customers, and broadband providers trying to balance network costs against profit margins and having to increase product prices.
The ideal of all network traffic being treated equally sounds great, but while this seems a good idea, it may mean that at the time of day when the networks are busy that providers simply implement blanket speed restrictions (not unlike the current Virgin Media system which appears to not analyse the traffic type). Alternatively providers may simply do no management and allow the network protocols to fight it out amongst themselves, causing gaming, VoIP and streaming traffic to get packets dropped when a network fills up.
It would be interesting to see UK broadband providers forced to come clean on what type of traffic management it carries out, and finally explain what they really mean by 'unlimited', i.e. to publish a usage figure that if you go over this amount of usage in a month your provider may contact you to discuss what is extreme usage in their view, or you may see your maximum download speed throttled back.
Current broadband product advertisements do mention things like fair use policy, but what proportion of the public read these, and more importantly understand them? For many when deciding between a number of unlimited packages it is simply a case of which one looks the cheapest or picking the top one from a comparison site search engine.
What the public is generally not told is that while you may see a broadband product advertised for around £5 to £10 a month with unlimited usage, the fact that many other providers with clear limits can only sell broadband for £10 or more with just a 1GB usage allowance reveals a lot about the sort of usage these unlimited products expect. In short, they plan their network on people only using about 2 or 3GB a month and if you go beyond this sort of usage you may find things slowing down for no obvious reason due to stealthy traffic management, or worse, their network is so congested that you find yourself staying up late just to get a bit of online gaming in.