Unlimited broadband is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but all too often it comes with caveats that have made us all wary of trusting ISPs who promise a limitless service.
Things have improved lately - completely unrestricted connections are now available from Sky Broadband and BT, among others - but it's still not unusual to find ISPs selling an unlimited package with important details hidden in the small print.
A common cause for complaint is that while unlimited broadband may not have a data cap it frequently includes traffic management, which can affect the performance of your connection for certain activities.
On some ISPs this may only come into effect at specific times of the day, while others implement a permanent policy. But there’s no consistency in these practices and finding the details can be a hassle.
In an effort to make things clearer for consumers the Broadband Stakeholder Group has implemented a voluntary code of practice. We spoke to BSG CEO Pamela Learmonth about the code, and what it means for consumers.
Broadband Genie: What is traffic management?
Pamela Learmonth: The term traffic management is used to cover the range of technical practices undertaken by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to manage traffic across networks. It is a fundamental tool to support the efficient operation of the internet and ensure a good experience for consumers.
BBG: Why do we need a ‘Voluntary Code’ to cover it?
PL: Major ISPs developed the voluntary code because although they were all individually providing information about traffic management they felt it would be important and useful to supply the information in a consistent fashion so that comparisons could be made between ISPs. The code commits them to do this through publishing consistent Key Facts Indicators tables that summarise their traffic management practices.
BBG: What in particular should people look out for when looking at the Code for a particular ISP? It’s a very technical document.
PL: The KFIs set out information in relation to three main uses of traffic management – traffic management that is always used to block, slow down or prioritise certain types of traffic; traffic management that is used to ensure compliance with data usage caps or download limits; and traffic management applied during peak hours to help manage congestion over networks at busy times.
Consumers should look at this information alongside what they think is most important to them in choosing a product that supports their use of the internet.
BBG: What happens if an ISP changes their traffic management policy? Would users be notified, and is there any recourse if this happens and it impacts on their service?
PL: The code of practice commits ISPs to ensure that the information they provide is current and that ISPs will keep customers up to date about changes to traffic management practices that have a significant impact on their broadband product as quickly as reasonably possible using the most appropriate method.
BBG: Is the information checked regularly by you, to make sure it is up to date?
PL: The BSG publishes a list of all the KFI hyperlinks on its site which we try to keep regularly updated. However Ofcom is ultimately responsible for monitoring that ISPs are providing transparent and accurate information about their traffic management practices. Ofcom published an infrastructure review report in November 2012 stating that it was satisfied that the KFIs accurately reflected traffic management practices of ISPs.
BBG: As network capacity improves, is traffic management likely to become a thing of the past?
PL: As network capacity improves, it is likely that usage of these networks also improves. Accordingly it seems likely that traffic management will continue in order to support the efficient operation of the internet.