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What is an internet Fair Usage Policy?

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What is a fair usage policy?

A fair use policy (FUP) is part of the terms and conditions in the contract with your internet service provider (ISP). They aren’t always made obvious outside of the contract, but they contain restrictions on how your broadband connection can be used.

In this guide we're going to concentrate on how fair usage policies can be applied to data limits.

Fair Use Policies: the key points

  • A Fair Use Policy (FUP) is typically intended to limit how much bandwidth a heavy user can consume to ensure normal operation of the network for the majority of customers.
  • A FUP is most likely to impact file-sharing.
  • Unlimited broadband can still have a fair use policy.
  • Some broadband deals are truly unlimited. They don’t have any data usage caps or fair use policies.
  • Breaking a fair usage policy could result in a penalty, such as a reduction in broadband speed.

What’s the difference between fair usage and a data limit?

A fair usage policy isn't the same thing as a data usage cap or data allowance, even if they sound similar.

A data cap or allowance is a specific amount of data you can use in each billing month period. There’s usually penalties, such as additional charges or reductions in speed, for exceeding the limit of that billing cycle.

The existence of a data limit should be made clear when you sign up for a broadband service. Any broadband packages will either be advertised as 'unlimited' or state a specific figure that says how much data you can use each month.

In contrast, fair use policies can be vague and don't specify a limit. They’re deliberately broad because they're generally intended to prevent a small number of users from consuming an excessive amount of bandwidth, which could impact internet connection for everyone else. They’re intended for placing restrictions on all tariffs and subscribers.

What does “acceptable usage” mean?

Dig into the terms and conditions, and you may also find an Acceptable Use Policy or 'AUP'.

This term can be used instead of fair use policy. Or it can be a separate part of the contract which explains how the connection shouldn’t be used for illegal or potentially dangerous activities such as spamming, hacking, and piracy.

In some cases, a provider will bundle all these terms under one heading, so you may find that usage limits are explained in a subsection of a broader fair use or acceptable use policy.

Who is affected by a Fair Use Policy?

Fair use policies are typically intended to combat unusually high data usage outside the norm (those who download or upload large amounts of data frequently).

This is most likely to occur when using file-sharing services, such as BitTorrent, as this can easily result in very high traffic usage.

But it's possible you may be impacted by an FUP with anything that involves frequent transfers of lots of data. For example, using an online backup service to archive files may involve moving a huge amount of data and could breach a broadband provider's fair usage policy.

Infrequent or one-off data transfers probably won’t be an issue. A FUP also won’t come into play for the things most of us do day-to-day such as web browsing, social media, email, and video or audio streaming.

Fair usage policies are often vague, so you may not know there’s a problem until the ISP notifies you.

How to avoid breaking a Fair Usage Policy

The simplest way to avoid breaking a fair use policy is to choose a broadband provider that doesn’t have one! Many don’t have a fair use policy for data or any other kind of data usage or speed restrictions.

Unlimited broadband services without fair use or traffic management (a feature used to slow down certain types of traffic) are what we call “truly unlimited”. Truly unlimited deals offer the fastest speed your line can support, with no restrictions on how much you use the broadband, and no risk of being hit with penalties.

But don’t assume that a broadband service that is advertised as being unlimited doesn’t have an FUP. While providers are no longer allowed to hide a data limit in the terms and conditions and still call the service unlimited, they can still have a fair use policy.

  • Which providers are truly unlimited?

    Here are some of the providers you’ll find on Broadband Genie which are truly unlimited:

    • BT - No fair use limit or traffic management.
    • Plusnet - No fair use limit or traffic management.
    • Sky - No fair use limit or traffic management.
    • TalkTalk - No fair use limit. Traffic management is only used on TV bundles to prioritise TV streams.

    To find out more, read our guide to internet data usage and unlimited broadband.

If your provider does have a fair usage limit, it shouldn’t be hard to avoid problems. They’re usually meant to stop very high and frequent data usage patterns. So if you are doing something which involves lots of downloading or uploading of large files, don’t do it for too long, or very often.

Unfortunately, your provider probably won’t offer much detail, privately. Read the terms and conditions, and give technical support a call if you have any questions.

File sharing is a common culprit for excessive usage. If you continually use the Wi-Fi connection to transfer enormous amounts of data, your provider will soon crack down if there's an FUP in place. And of course, downloading or sharing pirated files can result in legal issues too. But as long as you’re not continually file-sharing, you should be safe.

What happens if you break a Fair Use Policy?

Your broadband provider will notify you if you’ve breached their terms of service. If it’s your first offence, they may just issue a warning; otherwise, you could face some kind of penalty or surcharge.

The penalties for breaking a FUP will depend on the provider. Read the terms and conditions to find out more, though often there will be no specific details made public.

Breaking a fair usage policy could mean:

  • Restriction of speed. Your connection may be intentionally slowed down. This might only apply for a few hours, but it could last the rest of the month.
  • Moving you to a different package. The provider may say you have to move to a different, and likely more expensive package, more suitable for your usage.
  • Cancellation of service. Cancelling your contract altogether is possible, but would be an extreme response following repeated breaches.

What happens if someone else in my home breaks the FUP?

If the broadband contract is in your name, but you share the connection with housemates or family, you'll still be held responsible for any breach of the terms and conditions or any other misuse of the connection. Your provider can’t tell who in a household is responsible, and the bill payer will always be the point of contact.

If you've been penalised for a breach and feel it is unfair, you should contact the provider immediately and see if it can be rectified. If necessary, submit an official complaint.

Expert Summary

A fair use policy may sound like a problem, but it’s generally something that will only affect a few people. If you’re spending a lot of time downloading or uploading large files, this could go against any usage policies.

If you do get hit by a fair use policy, there are a few different things that could happen. You could have your data limited for a few hours, the rest of the month, or even longer. This isn’t necessarily much of an issue, but it could be annoying. However, you could also be moved onto another package if you keep going over. This will usually be pricier, as you’re clearly using more data than a cheaper package can accommodate.

Broadband Genie deals checker

Don’t worry though, with general internet use you should be fine. But if you’re concerned, you should ideally go for a truly unlimited broadband package, something we always recommend where they’re available. You can use our Deals Checker to see what broadband providers are and deals are on offer in your local area.

Meet the author:


Matt has been working with Broadband Genie since 2009. A lifelong tech enthusiast, he has 20 years of experience writing about technology for print and online.

Specialist subject: The technicalities of broadband

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