PlusNet to implement idle timeouts
PlusNet are notifying users of a change to the Terms and Conditions for its ADSL services. In summary, PlusNet is making these changes to make sure they are fully compliant with the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 and re-enforcing their commitment to give users reasonable notice of any chances to their service.
In addition to these minor changes, PlusNet is also making two amendments to their Acceptable Use Policy, namely the introduction of 'idle time-outs' and traffic prioritisation. These will ensure a quality of service for customers, particularly at peak times for critical applications such as Voice over IP which are very dependent on low latency and guaranteed speed connections.
Customers should note that if they feel these new terms are to their detriment then they have the choice of terminating their contract as long as they do so by 16 September. They can use the 'Contact Us' tool on the PlusNet website to do this. The ability to leave will be without penalty, other than paying for any hardware that was obtained under deferred payment terms. This means that you will not be held to a longer contract term you subscribed to, nor will you be required to pay any activation fees that were deferred over a longer contract period.
It should be stressed that the idle timeout is 30 minutes, so you will not be affected in any way if you are using your Internet connection. This provides another reason for people to remain on the Broadband Premier range available from PlusNet which doesn't have this time-out which only applies to the Broadband Plus and Home Surf ranges.
Although it is quite understandable that in order to provide a low cost service, a provider needs to minimise the costs, and one of these costs is additional central pipes which connect them to the BT Wholesale ADSL network. If there are many idle users, this is unnecessarily using capacity that could otherwise be used for other users.
PlusNet are adamant that they will always have capacity for users to log on to the system as 100% of users never login at the same time. This is not very different to phone companies which have always been contending resources both on fixed line as well as mobile communications, but this is where there is a potential issue.
During recent events, it has not been at all uncommon to find that the mobile phone network has suffered from overcrowding problems, although it should be pointed out that the contention here is quite different as it is cell based. Should a major incident occur, it's increasingly popular for users to monitor events on Internet news sites, so there is a potential problem that could arise. Only time will tell how this affects users. We should bear in mind that bandwidth has always been contended in any case so even if everyone was able to connect, the transfer rates could be very limited in such a hypothetical circumstance. It is far less common to find capacity problems on PSTN networks, so hopefully ADSL central contention will mirror this more closely. If not, PlusNet will have serious issues on their hands.
Generally we believe that many users will not notice the change, but the idle timeouts may increase the number of times that people walk up to a computer that was left turned on, and find they have to get their ADSL modem to authenticate, or reboot a router that failed to reconnect automatically. One of the main aspects of broadband is its 'always-on' nature, and we feel by enforcing a time-out it is going against the ethos of how broadband is often advertised.
It would seem that PlusNet believe by removing idle sessions it will allow them to run their network more efficiently, thus costing users less. It is also possible that the introduction of traffic management on a range of PlusNet products has led to idle sessions consuming resources on the kit doing the traffic management. These resources could then be re-used to give the active customers a bigger chunk of the bandwidth. In short, even an idle but logged in customer was being reserved a small amount of assured bandwidth, even if they were not using.
It should also be noted that there has been development of a BT Wholesale product which would allow the session limits on a 622Mbps BT Central Pipe to be doubled, but this is no longer in progress. PlusNet have already analysed their users' usage and concluded that there is a significant number of light-user and low-concurrency customers are using up this limited resource unnecessarily whilst not using the service itself. It therefore arguably seems sensible to make more efficient use of network resources in this way.
We will be watching this development just as we do with other changes in the UK broadband market. Although lower broadband pricing in general through efficiency are to be welcomed, this seems like a slightly backward step from building 'Broadband Britain'.
25/08/2005 09:02 [andrew]
Update 25/08/05 14:15 [seb]: Correction - PlusNet to charge 'exit fee'
Last night, we asked PlusNet to clarify the issue of whether users would be charged the "deferred activation" fee if they exercised their right to terminate the contract on the grounds that the terms and conditions have changed. At that time, following us taking issue with this, we were told that in fact they would not be required to pay this fee, only the deferred cost of any hardware. PlusNet has since come back to us and stated that they made a mistake and that the cost of deferred activation would indeed be chargeable in addition to hardware, although they will waive other contractual obligations requiring a minimum term.
The basis for this is that the agreement for 'deferred activation' (sometimes called 'exit fee', although in practice the deferred activation term is more accurate since it is a fee PlusNet pay BT Wholesale at the beginning) is separate from the broadband terms. We have not sought a legal opinion on this issue, however on the face of it, this seems unfair from the user's perspective. When a user made a choice to enter into a longer contract with PlusNet, they made this decision based on the various pricing and service terms. Now that the terms of the service have changed, it is not unreasonable for consumers to claim that the service is fundamentally different and is no longer fit for the purpose it was originally sold. If you feel this is the case, we would suggest you contact a Citizen's Advice Bureau and seek further advice on your rights as a consumer.
We have tended to always caution users against signing up to longer contracts and this is yet another example of how circumstances can change. A good ISP will retain its customers through its relevant combination of a high level of service and competitive pricing depending on its market position, not a long term contract.