There are now tens of millions of broadband connections across the UK, and demand shows no sign of slowing down.
That puts internet service providers (ISPs) under a lot of pressure as they have to maintain an acceptable level of service for millions of home and business users all over the country.
One way broadband providers can manage demand and keep things flowing smoothly for everyone is traffic management. This is also referred to as 'broadband throttling'. But this can lead to unexpected issues for broadband subscribers who aren’t aware of such policies, and how it can affect their internet connections.
In this guide, we'll explain what traffic management is and tell you which providers use it.
Traffic management: the key points
What's broadband throttling, and how does it work?
Providers can deliberately slow down internet access. There are various terms for this, including 'throttling' and 'traffic shaping', but all fall under the umbrella of traffic management.
As data is transferred, ISPs can slow it down or prioritise certain types of traffic. Usually, broadband providers choose to prioritise video and voice calls at specific times of day and limit file sharing.
With traffic management, the connection still works, but users will experience throttling as a reduction in performance. You might find:
- Videos start buffering
- Web pages take longer to load
- Download and uploads take longer
Why do broadband providers use traffic shaping?
A congested broadband network can slow things down for everyone.
We're now using our connections for much more demanding behaviour such as streaming video, internet telephone calls, and large file downloads. As a result, networks have had to deal with a lot more data.
To handle this without everything grinding to a halt, traffic management may be used to restrict or prioritise certain types of traffic, sometimes even limiting the speed of all connections.
When traffic shaping kicks in and how, depends on the broadband provider. Each has different definitions of what they consider 'peak time' and how they approach this.
Typically, traffic management takes place between 8am to 11pm, and mainly affects file sharing. This is because this consumes more bandwidth per user than any other online activity. Voice calling and online gaming may be prioritised to improve their performance.
So, at busy peak times when everyone is using the internet at work or streaming Netflix, ISPs will slow some traffic to ensure a satisfactory service for everyone.
Why is my broadband slow? Am I being throttled?
It’s a possibility. First, make sure you’ve not exceeded any data usage limits for your broadband package. Use your provider’s online management tools or check your email to see if you’ve been notified about a violation of a usage limit. Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you’re on an unlimited package, but you can double-check to see if there’s a sneaky fair-use cap in place instead. Fortunately, these are rare these days.
The next step is to check the ISP’s traffic management policy to find out when it’s active and what kinds of things are affected.
If you’re outside peak hours or not doing anything which should fall under the policy, then the issue lies elsewhere, so it might be a question for tech support. For more information, you can read our guide on troubleshooting broadband connection problems.
What are the pros and cons of broadband traffic management?
Broadband traffic management isn’t something that necessarily sounds positive, but it’s in place to help us all. If you don’t use the internet much and want a cheaper broadband deal, a package with traffic management could be an option.
That said, there are pros and cons to broadband traffic management. Let's go through some of them.
No one wants to have to pay attention to what tasks they’re doing and when. Especially if you’re working from home. Depending on what you’re doing, broadband traffic management could mean that some tasks take longer, especially file sharing.
We suggest going for a truly unlimited broadband service. These don’t tend to cost much more and you won’t have to deal with traffic management at all.
Which broadband ISPs use traffic management?
Policies vary between providers, so you’ll need to do some research if traffic management is a concern to you. You should be able to find the information on your provider's website. Most use a standard format to display this information, so the traffic management policy should be clearly defined.
If you're having difficulty tracking down the terms on a provider's site, it may be easier to find them by carrying out a Google search.
Remember that some ISPs have a fair usage policy, which includes a cap on data usage each month in addition to traffic management. Exceeding their monthly download limit can result in your connection being throttled until the next billing period, or you might have to pay for additional data.
Home broadband traffic management policies
Every ISP approaches this differently, but here’s some information on how the big players handle traffic management.
None of BT's packages have any speed restrictions, even for peer to peer file sharing.
Sky Broadband Traffic Management Policy
- Affected packages: Sky Connect
- Peak times: 5pm to midnight
Only Sky Connect packages have traffic management. This is particularly applied to tasks that use a lot of bandwidth, especially HD video streaming.
TalkTalk Broadband Traffic Management Policy
- Affected packages: None
- Peak times: n/a
All TalkTalk packages are completely unlimited, even at peak times.
Virgin Media Broadband Traffic Management Policy
- Affected packages: None
- Peak times: n/a
All Virgin Media packages are truly unlimited and don't have traffic management.
Broadband traffic management might not be an attractive addition to any broadband package, but it serves a purpose. In general, we encourage people to go for a truly unlimited package, as these don’t have any traffic management policies hidden.
But for some people, a package with traffic management may not be a huge problem. These deals tend to be cheaper, so if you don’t use the internet very regularly, and you're trying to save money, it can be a great choice.
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