Broadband News

'Unlimited' - a word that means different things to different people

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.


Is it too much to ask, for ISPs to specify exactly what people will get for their money ? IE usage limits, minium speeds expected under normal circumstances, any off peak allowances, and exactly what they mean by a Gigabyte and whether or not upstream traffic is counted in their limits ?

Proper choices could then be made without fear of being conned, or locked unto a long term contract which is inappropriate.

  • shaunhw
  • over 14 years ago

I'd like to see a legal requirement for that limit to be in the same size font and colour as any mention of "unlimited".

Oh, and I'm willing to pay more for a premium service - and this currently means going to a business provider (and precious few of those).

  • Dawn_Falcon
  • over 14 years ago

Only when the ASA show that they have looked up the meaning of "unlimited" in the dictionary will things start to become sensible.

  • Sandgrounder
  • over 14 years ago

Yes I think proper legislation is needed under fair trades act to let the consumer know the exact legal meaning of "unlimited" and "fair usgae policy". Also adverts like "unlimited broadband for 9.99" as being aggressivley pursued by Tiscali at the moment should be banned. The internet is a realtively new thing and many people are being conned into signing up contracts they don't understand. I use Pipex which as I see has started to introduce tarffic management in the evenings as can be seen from my speed graphs. That's fine - but tell us about it, don't lie and say we don't.

  • devsen
  • over 14 years ago

Another problem we face is that content is expanding as authors expect us all to have the bandwidth able to cope with huge architecture of some sites. It seems starnge that they want to impose limits on usage but fail to provide tools for us to be able to monitor our usage throughout a month. As ever we are left to guestimate our usage by most providers who then cynically screw down our speed to a crawl. "Unlimited" is a misleading term and should be barred from use.

  • warweezil
  • over 14 years ago

Its interesting that the countries who have invested in optical networks japan and korea have no limits even at 100mbps while the countries who just rely on old networks uk and the us have limits. People still wonder why internet use/video on demand in japan and especially korea is far higher.

  • Dryheat
  • over 14 years ago

I find the 'free lunch' statement quite insulting. Is the consumer in the wrong to expect his/her 1mb connection to perform likle a 1mb connection? Should the consumer be happy that his/her 1mb connection performs worse than a o.5mb connection? ISPs are allowed to grossly mis-represent their products and all we get thrown in our face is the days of the 'free lunch' are over. Whatever.

  • kenneth_lad
  • over 14 years ago

I agree with Dawn_Falcon that any qualification to an offer should state the qualification with no less emphasis than the offer itself. There's no need for (yet more) legislation. It's already unlawful to mislead and the ASA should intervene more often when breaches of their code arise.

What I'd like to know is how I can measure my usage over a period of time. At the moment, I have really no idea how to measure my usage.

  • Chrisandrea
  • over 14 years ago

problem we have is our regulators are too interested in 'business interests' that they cant regulate properly. Anyone daring to state unlimited should be made to honour it and not have any kind of limits on the service.

  • chrysalis
  • over 14 years ago

No such thing as a free lunch - especially when it's offered by Tiscali.
Tiscali sneaked in their FUP for existing customers with "pre-FUP" unlimited usage contracts by not mentioning it was in the "small print" when they upgraded their speed, then immediately sent warnings over usage(suspect they couldn't do it with their existing packages because they didn't have the FUP clause.

  • SteveToplek
  • over 14 years ago

I am limited to 40GByte a month.I have never reached my limit and see no normal way that this would occur.My max download speed peaks at about 470Kb.I don't complain because I am happy to get Broadband out in the middle of nowhere.ISPs can never guarantee download speeds while there is a physical link involved.
Anyone who believes and advertisers blurb without checking the small print is asking for what they get.I'm with BT and have no complaints.

  • johnsizeland
  • over 14 years ago

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