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There is no such thing as "unlimited broadband"
Monday 10 May 2010 04:03:28 by Sebastien Lahtinen

In the 1990s, we paid a monthly charge for Internet usage as well as incurring 'per minute' call charges. Soon, companies like Freeserve started to offer 'free' Internet access which didn't incur a monthly fee, although they received a small cut of the call charges from the telecommunications company. At this point, we still had to pay on a per minute basis, and as such the Internet was something you would use when you needed it, and then disconnect.

Soon after, we saw unmetered dial-up services take off, where for a monthly charge you weren't incurring additional per-minute costs. And then, we had broadband. This was initially sold as an 'all you can eat' service, but too many users were tempted to 'download the internet', so various limits have come into force. Today, 'unlimited broadband' is all the rage and some providers are even offering free broadband, although to qualify you need to buy additional services.

Unlimited broadband

The concept of 'unlimited broadband' is really a misnomer as such a product does not exist in the consumer market as all services are designed to provide users with fast speeds when they need it, but assume that users cannot be online 24x7 downloading at maximum capacity; to provide such a service would cost significantly more than the average consumer would be prepared to pay.

All broadband services are limited, in one of three ways:

1. Traffic Shaping - Many broadband service providers implement 'traffic shaping' or 'traffic management' techniques which can slow down traffic depending on the user's track record on usage (e.g. slowing down heavy downloaders), traffic type (e.g. prioritising real-time video traffic over operating system updates) and time of day. Whilst this is often seen as a negative, it can help providers to offer cheaper services as they can load more users onto a single pipe, whilst ensuring that the activities most sensitive to speed or quality problems such as Internet telephony are given priority access to the network. Traffic shaping is akin to a bus lane which gives public transport priority over private cars on the road.

2. Traffic Charging and Caps - By charging users for actual usage, possibly even at different rates during peak and off-peak times, service providers are giving the user an incentive to control their own Internet use. Many users don't like the fact their monthly bills can vary, but often traffic charging can be as simple as picking the "low use" or "high use" plan with the service provider (which has a "cap" or some concept of a fair usage policy). This ensures the provider can cater for different markets at different price points, without degrading service levels for everyone. Traffic charging is a bit like the M6 Toll Road or the London Congestion Charge.

3. Congestion - The providers who promise 'unlimited' broadband with no traffic shaping are effectively opting to allow network congestion to limit the users' behaviour. Imagine if all motorway speed limits were withdrawn—it wouldn't mean that the M25 would be any faster during rush hour.

It is of course possible for broadband providers to decide how much to 'contend' their network by–in other words, how congested will they allow their Internet links to get. Providers focussing on price as their primary selling point are more likely to over-contend their networks, whilst those offering high value services (including services targeted at businesses) would generally provision more capacity per user.

Traffic shaping is often seen as a bad thing, but it ensures that traffic that relies on good connectivity gets priority, so your iPlayer stream will continue to work without pauses, even when the network is congested.

Consumers on an unlimited broadband package will often still be subject to a fair usage policy which sets out reasonable limited to an unlimited service. These are often set out in the fine print, and most users won't be affected by them, but it is important that you check the details before signing up to a broadband service.


Posted by cyberdoyle over 7 years ago
As people use more the ISP has to buy more, and this cost has to be passed on, it is only logical. Until we all have fibre we will always be using a scarcity model instead of an abundance model. The copper phone network was designed by the victorians for voice. It is time to move on?
Posted by useful over 7 years ago
I disagree with this article. I am with bethere for over 2 years & it is truly unlimited. The speed is not comparable to Optic fiber. It is advertised as 24mb/Sec, but I get constant 12mb/sec. to be diplomatic, I am not a light user.
Posted by ian9outof10 over 7 years ago
@useful, Be is the same as all the other ISPs. It uses a "congestion" based model, where the amount of use dictates the speed.

The good thing is, they just happened to build a good network, with fast links everywhere.

The problem is, it won't last. Sooner or later it will become to popular, or o2 will add extra users and drag the speed down.
Posted by tcrooks3843 over 7 years ago
As very high capacity extends further away from the backbone towards the home what is going on towards efficient packaging of data through better HTML, codecs and other compression techniques that deliver more with less?

The biggest growing demand for capacity is going to be for cloud computing upload speeds? Something that demands a more even ratio than the 10:1 they we typically get now? Not much sign of this coming to homes as yet.
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
Yet again Chris shows she does not understand how networks work.

Virtually all the core networks are fibre. Traffic shaping etc. is nothing to do with the copper local ends. When will she understand this?
Posted by Locky over 7 years ago
im a very heavy user i get 6 MB/s almost 24/7 on virgin 50 meg, no traffic shaping, i would call that fairly unlimited ?
Posted by c_j_ over 7 years ago
Thank you Seb.

@useful, @Locky, @commanderzendo (another thread), etc:

It's *always* limited by something somewhere. Your ISP may not publish a limit, your ISP's customers may generally not yet have hit that limit, but there is always a limit. Bandwidth isn't free, especially if you have to buy it from BTwholesale.
Posted by docki over 7 years ago
@ Locky

Me too, but Viring have openly admitted that as of yet they dont have any way to monitor usage. They also admit that people downloading 24/7 cripples the network. On 20mb and below they can see your usage. God only help them if they do bring out 100mbps although the upload will be totally naff. I saw the ifinity checker yesterday quote someone as being able to get 12.3mbps upload. VM if they do 10 will need to bump 50Mbps to 5 + to survive.
Posted by Locky over 7 years ago
i am able too to get bt infinity, but 18 month contract is a nono especially with bt, i dont think they will impose restrictions on the 50 meg anyways for the premium they are charging it will drive people away ? for now its unlimited, if they do decide to change i will be sure to cancel my contract
Posted by jrawle over 7 years ago
As I'm always saying, it's about time they banned the use of the word "unlimited" to describe broadband. Instead, ISPs should have to show a summary box, similar to that for credit cards, which sets out exactly how the service is operated.
Posted by cyberdoyle over 7 years ago
Somerset, I do understand, I run a network ffs. you gotta get to the fibre, and getting through the obsolete copper in the exchanges makes it all a joke. And expensive. And limited.
Posted by gromit69 over 7 years ago
This is nothing to do with the transport medium and lots to do with capacity at the core.
Vigin have just under 4 million cable broadband subscribers ( Assuming that they all take out 20Mb/s lines, for a 1:1 contention ratio the core has to deal with 4m x 20Mb/s
Thats 80,000Gb/s
The trick with trffic management is to make it so that it's not noticed. O2 seem to do this very well, but other less so...
Posted by gromit69 over 7 years ago
Forgot to mention that everything connected to the core needs to be running at 1:1 too...
Posted by junipurr over 7 years ago
Good, Fast, Cheap.. pick 2 (you can't have all 3). Big/fast core networks cost enormous amounts of money to build - have you seen the price of 10G interfaces on core boxes like the Juniper T/MX series and Cisco 7600/CRS-1's???
Posted by junipurr over 7 years ago
We know our customers traffic pattern and as such engineer to have 3 times the capacity required to handle the largest peak during the week (1pm on a Thursday for us). This is continually reviewed and if traffic patterns shift (e.g. new app like iplayer) we adjust accordingly. When big streaming events come along like olympics/elections/world cup etc you don't get caught with your pants down regards capacity ;)
Posted by Capn over 7 years ago
Heard several people on Be saying they can use about a TB/month with no problems. Not sure if Be would be able to support everyone using that much but isn't LLU bandwidth considerably cheaper?
Posted by pigfister over 7 years ago
@ useful and others regarding o2. i am on the home package and my speeds are atrocious reaching as low as 0 at peak times, their traffic shaping for ftp, p2p ect kicks in at 12pm and runs to 12am, i have constantly complained over the last year but i can either hav a mac or lump it according to the techies at o2 is this is now company policy, expect the same for LLU very soon.
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
CD - not a huge network! Where is the obsolete copper IN the exchanges?

Traffic shaping is nothing to do with the ADSL access, do you agree?
Posted by pigfister over 7 years ago
also 10gig is the allowance on the o2 home package, if they can screw over us now 02 ipstream are at capacity expect the same once they dupe enough ppl onto LLU.
Posted by m101dream over 7 years ago
There is such thing as unlimited as i have a BT option 3 unlimited broadband and i assure you it is unlimited . Am not a light user more of heavy user average 100GB data and my internet gets capped from 4pm - 12am Midnight therefor after midnight my speed returns to fast 7mbps. the morale of the story is do your downloading at night when all are sleep
Posted by AndrueC over 7 years ago
@Cyber:No - you don't seem to understand. The bottleneck being talked about in this article is the core and possibly transits. The 'obsolete' copper is in fact helping the situation by preventing end users from further swamping the ISP's networks.

That doesn't mean that copper is a good thing to have in a network but it *does* mean that for the purposes of this article it is irrelevant to bring it up.
Posted by AndrueC over 7 years ago
@m101dream:So it's unlimited as long as you limit yourself to night time. Strange definition of 'unlimited' you have there.
Posted by devsen over 7 years ago
At last someone in thinkbroadband has posted this important comment about broadband and ISPs, I remember saying something similar in the forums about couple of years ago before I finally ditched Tiscali and was shouted by some who felt that they were getting something called "unlimited" - in the real world there are always limits.

At present I do like the adverts by the big ISPs offering £7 - 8 unlimited broadband - with 'for the first three months" written in small letters and "12 months contract" written in even smaller letters :-)

Posted by russianmonkey over 7 years ago
There's pretty much limits to everything nowadays, whether you know about them or not.

Insurance limits you to a certain amount that you can claim. They also limit themselves to certain types of claims.

And the problem is if everyone went fibre, then the speeds would go pretty high, thus lump more pressure on core networks and in turn, cost more money which people won't be prepared to pay just yet.
Posted by herdwick over 7 years ago
if cyberdoyle thinks she understands I'm afraid she is deluded. Take this as an example

" you gotta get to the fibre, and getting through the obsolete copper in the exchanges makes it all a joke"

what does that even mean ? Copper is no more obsolete than dairy farming. Virtually no DSL line is a restriction in comparison to the available network capacity behind it at the ISP due to the contention this whole item is about.

But its just another excuse for cyberdoyle to drone on about fibre, her 4M highly contended fibre at that.
Posted by TonyHoyle over 7 years ago
"Am not a light user more of heavy user average 100GB"

That's light use. I probably use more than that in background chatter from the network.

"my internet gets capped from 4pm - 12am Midnight"

So it's not unlimited then. Or, to be frank, actually usable - even a business is going to want to use the line after 4pm, and for a home user.. stuff that.

Posted by c_j_ over 7 years ago
"another excuse ... to drone on about fibre"

Consider a properly managed properly regulated national FTTP rollout, with bandwidth for rent to anyone who wanted.

We could replace much or all of today's:
. voice phone infrastructure
. DSL infrastructure
. cable (broadband+TV) infrastructure
. terrestrial broadcast infrastructure
. satellite broadcast infrastructure

And there'd be new possibilities too.

Instead, "the market" gives some areas 6+ sets of duplicate competing infrastructure, none of which is "unlimited".
Posted by cyberdoyle over 7 years ago
well said c_j
that's what I mean, ubiquitous abundance rather than all these bottlenecks which mean capping, throttling, contention and congestion.
As long as there is copper in the transit then we will never know the power of real connectivity. Telephone exchanges are called that for a reason. Bring on the light.
Posted by mishminx over 7 years ago
'Unmetered' was the dial-up version of 'unlimited'. In that regard nothing has changed and it will be much the same with fibre. A great hype will be followed by a great many terms and conditions. Cost cutting, reduced service, dodgy terms and pernicious marketing.
Posted by gromit69 over 7 years ago
I completely agree with you about a decent fiber roll out getting rid of a big chunk of data/voice/media connections to the home.
However, I really can't see the broadcast medium going away soon, purely because it's incredibly efficient at what it does - distributes the same data to a large number of nodes.
I'm sure IPTV will eventually change TV viewing methods, but I can't see radios in cars disappearing any time soon...
Posted by kevin42 over 7 years ago
nope - I disagree with this article. I am a heavy user with O2 - I get a very fast connection which is reliable and never slows down with congestion. Their unlimited is, for me, WYSIWYG. They do ask users to be responsible and I try to avoid high load times for heavy upload/download.
Posted by useful over 7 years ago
Here is the link guys :)
Posted by CARPETBURN over 7 years ago
I agree with useful. Dunno what this story is about im also a LLU customer (though NOT with o2 or be).
I have never seen any Traffic Shaping from my ISP, I can use all types of protocol and its not shaped. There is no fixed monthly cap or charges for over xxx amount and i certainly have never ever seen any type of congestion, no matter what time of day i use the service.
LLU services are still the best you can have today they are not restricted like BT wholesaled rubbish.
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
cd - please explain 'copper in the transit'. You really do need to understand the engineering behind networks.

Do you agree that that copper local ends have nothing to do with traffic shaping?

And fibre has to be connected together in buildings like... telephone exchanges.
Posted by CaptainHulaHoop over 7 years ago
problem is most people want it all
they want fast internet, dirt cheap. u get what u pay for, if its sold to u cheap costs need to be saved elsewhere
Posted by CaptainHulaHoop over 7 years ago
cyberdoyle is an idiot
copper in exchnages has nothing to do with this.
do u thin that copper is used to link from the exchanges to internet servers? get real!!! as soon as the line goes to the dslam its on fibre, and virgin is the same(ish) copper to their equivilant of a dslam(cab) then fibre..

its all to do with the back haul network, and because of the numbers of customers on a CP to make any noticable difference to their capacity costs huge ammounts of money...
smaller CP's have an easier time than the larger ones as they have a lot less people to deal with..
Posted by c_j_ over 7 years ago
"I really can't see the broadcast medium going away soon, purely because it's incredibly efficient at what it does - distributes the same data to a large number of nodes."

Car radios aren't good at TV (or indeed at DAB, apparently). TV uses rather more bandwidth than radio but there's still enough bandwidth down a fibre to provide a handful of simultaneous TV channels (or more) to every premises, be they broadcast or "on demand". It's only slavish adherence to historic (and now largely irrelevant) market rules that stops it being done sensibly. There'd still be limits somewhere though.
Posted by Sloany666 over 7 years ago
I am with sky and I pay for 20mb and get 20mb and yes it is unlimited no matter how much download and upload.

I was with BT business before paying for a unlimited service and being slowed down for most of the day all the time and getting to pay £28 per month I now only pay £10 and get a better service, the only thing I miss is the uk only call centre.
Posted by otdon over 7 years ago
as for me I like control my bandwidth with proteMac Meter
Posted by mattbibby over 7 years ago
I disagree with the third point... if speed limites were removed on the M25 it would become alot faster, because a car only takes up so much physical space?
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
No explanation from Cyberdoyle yet...

matt - it's the gaps that matter.
Posted by Somerset over 7 years ago
For those that need to know:
Posted by prlzx over 7 years ago
Re: Broadcast media (over the air) just to put into context the Winter Hill transmitter broadcasts ~160Mb/s and the 2 new Muxes could add a further 48-80Mb/s (depending if DVB or DVB-T2)
Posted by prlzx over 7 years ago
... link for ref:

hard to match that in efficiently reaching same number of households via internet, not sure if full IPv6 support would make multicast easier to implement.
Posted by nredwood over 7 years ago
Posted by chrysalis over 7 years ago
sorry seb, misleading article. It may be big boys like VM, talktalk and BT suffer from these problems but isps such as O2 (LLU), BE, sky (LLU) and ukonline (LLU) are true unlimited use products.
Posted by chrysalis over 7 years ago
also you have worded the article to indicate there either needs to be congestion or traffic shaping, again not true. an isp can choose to have enough capacity so that whilst users are contended they are not congested (2 different things) having a uncongested backhaul that is fast on EVERYTHING is better than traffic shaping.
Posted by BroadbandVideo over 7 years ago
<Traffic shaping is often seen as a bad thing, but it ensures that traffic that relies on good connectivity gets priority, so your iPlayer stream will continue to work without pauses, even when the network is congested/>

Average bit-rate in the UK is 2Mbps -iPlayer streams at 800kbps and 1.8kbps - so why DOES iPlayer buffer if traffic shaping is so good? Even folks with > 2Mbps experience buffering during peak periods.
Posted by BroadbandVideo over 7 years ago
IP multicast is only relevant for live events and has nothing to do with IPv6. For multi-casting to work the routers need to be configures to allow multi-cast traffic through. However, the bigger issue is that if content is multi-cast it will pass over n networks owned/provided by n ISPs etc - this affects how traffic is priced/monitored. Multi-cast is only really viable in closed garden scenarios.
Posted by BroadbandVideo over 7 years ago
BT are planning something called content connect. This a supplementary service which is designed to bypass the main core of 21CN. It's a separate network which delivers video content onto metro node caches/media servers
Posted by drone69 over 7 years ago
I`m another Sky BB user who gets unlimited 20meg no matter the time of day or amount I`ve downloaded. Can`t expect anything else considering they want people to swith to HDTV and also download HD content from Skyplayer.
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