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What is broadband traffic management and traffic throttling?

There are now just under thirty million broadband connections across the UK, and demand shows no sign of slowing down.

That puts internet service providers 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 companies manage demand and keep things flowing smoothly for everyone is traffic management. This is also referred to as 'broadband throttling' or 'traffic shaping'. Normally, this practice is tucked away into the small print when you sign a broadband contract as a new customer, so it might not be immediately obvious.

If you're having issues with slower speeds during certain times of the day, you're probably being affected by throttling.

Read on to find out more about traffic management, why it's used and most importantly, which providers use it.

Traffic management and broadband throttling: the key points

  • Traffic management can be used to restrict internet speeds.
  • It most commonly affects file sharing.
  • Some providers are truly unlimited and don't use traffic management.
  • Broadband traffic management is sometimes referred to as 'traffic shaping'.

What's broadband throttling, and how does it work?

As part of traffic management, your broadband provider can deliberately slow down internet access and prioritise certain types of web 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 and a reduction in performance. If you're being affected by broadband throttling, 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, ISP 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, broadband providers 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 your broadband provider'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 throttling doesn't sound nice, 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 will likely end up being more affordable.

That said, there are pros and cons to traffic shaping, too. Let's go through some of them.

Pros and Cons of Broadband Traffic Management
Pros Cons
  • Stops a small number of people affecting the internet experience of everyone else.
  • Prioritises tasks such as video calls.
  • Makes sure we all have access to news and social media during major events.
  • Some tasks can take longer.

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.

If this bothers you, 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.

Here are some of the current best unlimited broadband deals:

Dynamic deal panel

Which providers use broadband traffic management?

Policies vary between providers, so you’ll need to do some research if traffic management is a concern for 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 broadband providers 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.

Internet service provider / ISP traffic management policies

Every broadband provider (ISP) deals with traffic shaping differently. Here are some notes from popular providers.

It's worth knowing that none of BT's packages have any speed restrictions, even for peer to peer file sharing, or at peak times.

Is Sky throttling my broadband?

  • Affected packages: Sky Broadband 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.

Other Sky packages, including Sky Superfast and Sky Ultrafast, have no traffic management or data usage limit.

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.

Does Vodafone throttle broadband?

  • Affected packages: None
  • Peak times: n/a

Vodafone broadband packages don't have traffic management.

ISP traffic management: expert summary

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. Nowadays, many of the larger broadband providers don't use broadband throttling as standard.

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.

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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