Internet usage: Home broadband caps, allowances and unlimited broadband

These days households are increasingly likely to have a multitude of hardware hooked up to the internet. Between laptops, desktops, tablets, smartphones, games consoles and smart fridges there's an awful lot of data being sent and received from a typical home broadband connection

But this connected lifestyle places increasing demands on our broadband, which can be troublesome if your service has a limited monthly usage cap.

With a growing amount of data being transmitted the management and monitoring of usage on capped broadband services is important to avoid being hit with extra charges or a reduction in speeds. Which is why we're going to take a closer look at home broadband data usage and help figure out exactly what kind of broadband service is best for your needs.

Unlimited broadband vs limited broadband, which is right for you?

In the past many broadband packages limited the amount of data which could be used each month, preventing heavy users from overloading the networks with excessive traffic. But as broadband infrastructure has improved and costs have fallen unlimited broadband has become very common.

This is often preferred as we can pay a set fee and never have to worry about a larger bill or any restrictions. However, capped broadband packages are still readily available, and in some cases may be the preferred, or only, option. 

Price is one reason many opt for home broadband with data usage caps. Capped deals can be cheaper, so for budget conscious buyers selecting a deal which only provides the data you need each month can be a good way to save on bills. However, as prices drop across the board even for unlimited packages this is becoming less of a consideration.

In some areas you may not have a choice due to the way the UK's broadband services are split into three different 'markets' based upon the available providers at your nearest exchange. 

In 'Market 1' areas BT Wholesale is the only available provider, so prices are higher. In this situation the many unlimited broadband deals you see advertised will not be an option - your chosen ISP will still provide a service but it is almost certain to come with a data cap. Markets 2 and 3 are known as low cost areas and have a wider choice of providers.

While much of the population is now in a market 2 or 3 location there are still a few market 1 exchanges about.

We would always recommend looking for an unlimited broadband provider first. Providers such as TalkTalk now offer unlimited broadband for well under £5 per month, and there are numerous special offers which drop costs even further. Some packages are priced at just a few pounds and there are often free broadband specials for anything from few months to a year.

Pricing aside, you may prefer to avoid some ISPs because of past experiences or because they don't offer capabilities you require. In that case, a capped service might be unavoidable so you'll need to learn more about how different activities use data and, if necessary, manage usage on your broadband connection.

How much data allowance do you need?

This is something we’re asked all the time by those of you shopping for a new provider, and it can be tricky to answer as requirements will change depending on various factors.

In order to figure out how much data allowance is suitable you’ll need to consider the following:

What do you use the internet for?

Web browsing and email generally consume a very small amount of data so if that makes up the bulk of your online time you don’t necessarily need a broadband service with a large allowance. But once you start getting involved in things like streaming video and music, playing games or downloading files of any kind then you may run into problems.

How many people and/or devices are in your household?

The more devices you have connected to the broadband the greater the demand on your service. If you live alone but have a home full of gadgets the data requirements could be high, or perhaps you have a flatmate, partner or family member who puts the broadband through its paces with lots of downloading and video streaming. Remember that anything connected to your broadband - whether it's via wired or wireless - will contribute to the data usage, so each smartphone, tablet or games console will need to be accounted for.

Any special requirements?

Online backup services like Dropbox can use a large amount of data. If you keep a copy of vital files online you’ll need to take this into consideration. It’s also becoming more common to leave computers on for long periods of time, perhaps for remote access or serving files, and this again can contribute to a large amount of data usage.

What can you do with your gigabytes?

How much net traffic do programs and services use? With so many variations in configurations, services and usage patterns figuring out a really precise measure of data usage is a mammoth task, but it is possible to give a broad estimate for common services and apps that can help you decide what kind of broadband package you might require.

Our estimates are based on information gathered from both official and unofficial sources, and should only be used as a guideline. If you want to know the usage of a specific application the answer is usually just a Google search away.

Web browsing, social network and instant messaging

This is the kind of stuff that makes up a significant amount of online time for most of us and the good news is that they consume very little data, relatively speaking.

Web pages can be all different sizes of course but the average, based on the top 1,000 sites, stands at around 1246KB, or just over 1MB. With a 10GB cap you’d be able to browse more than 8,000 pages. Even taking embedded video and fancy extras like animation into account, web pages are low impact.

Instant messaging is low impact too, perhaps no more than 1MB per hour, though as usual this can vary between services and will go up if also sending/receiving files.

Generally speaking, you do not need to worry about data caps if most of your time is spent on Facebook or chatting over instant messaging services. There’s more than enough capacity there to handle many hours of browsing on all but the most limited broadband services.

Skype

Skype can use up data quite quickly, depending on the type of call you make:

  • Skype to Skype: 3MB per minute (180MB/hr)
  • Skype to landline/mobile: 1MB per minute (60MB/hr)
  • Skype video call (high quality): 3.75MB per minute (225MB/hr)
  • Skype video call (HD): 11.25MB per minute (675MB/hr)

With a 10GB usage allowance you would get just over 55 hours of Skype to Skype calling. That’s quite a lot of talk-time, but doesn’t take into consideration other activity, so it’s not hard to see how Skype could nudge you very close to the monthly limit.

Video calling in particular is very demanding, with a 10GB cap allowing for about 14 hours of chat. That’s worth keeping in mind if you want to use Skype to stay in touch with people abroad.

YouTube, iPlayer, Netflix and other streaming video services

Media streaming is among the most likely culprits for exceeding a download limit as it consumes a large amount of bandwidth in a short space of time.

The BBC estimate than one hour of iPlayer could run up to 225MB, while YouTube videos at 480p quality settings use about 250MB per hour. That's not insignificant, and rockets once you enable high definition viewing. An hour of Netflix in HD, for example, can be as much as 7GB if you opt for 'Ultra HD' quality.

With these kinds of numbers it would be very easy to quickly exceed lower data limits. For this reason we always recommend unlimited broadband for users who will be streaming video.

Streaming audio

Thanks to the likes of Spotify many of us now get our music beamed over the internet. This is useful, but it can add up to a fair bit of data usage

Spotify can use anywhere from 50MB to 150MB per hour depending on the quality level, plus another 10-50MB per hour for the peer-to-peer network service it runs on your system in the background (but this can be disabled).

At the highest quality levels a 10GB monthly limit would allow for about 66 hours of Spotify listening. It would not be hard to exceed a usage cap if Spotify is your main source of music throughout the day, so like video streaming we’d always suggest unlimited broadband as the best option for music fans relying upon streaming services.

File downloads

How long is a piece of string? Answer that and you’ll know how much bandwidth a download can consume. Typical downloads could be anything from tiny text files measured in bytes, up to enormous software packages or videos of multiple gigabytes.

Only you can say whether this will be an issue. Should most of your online time be spent on web sites and keeping in touch with friends via email and IM you might not do much more than download the occasional photo or video clip, but anyone indulging in file sharing or with interests in things like coding, music, gaming or video production could get through hundreds of gigabytes each month without breaking a sweat.

Just don’t forget about patches. Your computer will need to download regular system updates to stay secure, and while these will rarely be more than a few hundred MB there are occasionally bigger downloads, like the Windows 10 update which came in at over 3GB.

Online gaming

Good news, gamers: online play uses only small amounts of traffic. A typical online shooter like Call of Duty or Halo may not need more than 10MB-20MB per hour, and while some games will require more bandwidth it’s not usually in the same region as something intensive like streaming video. You should get many hours of gaming even from broadband connections with low caps.

But there are caveats, and they’re pretty important. First, almost every game will require a patch or ten in its lifetime and these can be sizeable, easily hundreds of megabytes if not into the gigabytes.

There’s also the fact that many gamers are no longer buying physical copies, instead downloading the latest releases from services like Steam. But a big budget title can exceed 40GB, which could be your entire monthly usage allowance gone with one game.

Given gaming’s increasing reliance upon digital downloads, multiplayer and updates, gamers will be best served by an unlimited broadband package.

Uploading photos and videos

Remember that your data allowance isn’t just affected by what you’re downloading (even though it’s often called a download limit) but by the things you send to the internet as well.

Uploading photos to Facebook or videos to YouTube can potentially use large amounts of traffic, particularly when it comes to video. Like file downloads this will depend entirely on what you’re sending, so make sure to account for this when selecting a service if you know you’re going to be uploading regularly.

Anyone planning on becoming a YouTube star would find their budding career stalled if they weren’t able to upload their work because of a data cap.

Mobile broadband data usage infographic

We put together a handy little infographic to clear up some of the confusion around mobile broadband data usage caps. They’re a much bigger deal on mobile as no network is yet doing an unlimited service with a dongle. This visual gives a simple explanation of the traffic requirements of common services and applications, and helps users figure out whether they need a high end contract with many GBs of allowance, or a cheaper limited deal.

While this infographic was focused on mobile broadband most of the numbers apply to home broadband too. Click the image here to see our infographic in all its full screen glory, and check out our guide to mobile broadband data usage if you want to know more about data limits on mobile networks.

What happens if I go over the data cap?

Exceeding the data limits on mobile broadband can result in some nasty surprises in the bill, or a complete cessation of service, but thankfully the penalties are rarely this severe for home broadband. That said, you can still end up paying extra, or put up with a greatly reduced speed. Here’s a few examples of the policies in place at some ISPs with data caps.

John Lewis Broadband

John Lewis has a 20GB cap on its cheapest ADSL broadband, and a heftier 100GB on fibre optic. Anyone exceeding this in a billing period will be offered the chance to purchase a top-up, which costs £5 per 5GB. If you don’t do this your connection will run at “restricted speeds”.

Plusnet

Plusnet Essential broadband has a 10GB limit for ADSL or 40GB for fibre optic internet. Like John Lewis, Plusnet will charge £5 per 5GB if you exceed this, however you do have the option of not paying, in which case your speed will be limited to 256Kb and access to peer-to-peer file sharing, Usenet and FTP will be disabled.

BT Broadband

BT has several packages with data caps, either 10GB or 40GB depending on your chosen service. As you near the limit you’ll receive two warning emails. If you go over, you’ll be charged £5.30 for 5GB. Unfortunately there’s no way to opt out of this and accept a reduced speed instead, so if you don’t want that extra charge on the bill you’ll have to cut back when those warning emails show up.

Unlimited broadband - what it means, and how to choose an unlimited ISP

At one point the UK’s broadband market was a bit of a minefield for anyone after an unlimited service. Thanks to some slack advertising rules providers were getting away with offering “unlimited” services then hiding limits in the small print. It took a good few years of complaining before the ASA and Ofcom told the providers to get their act together.

ISPs are no longer allowed to claim a service is ‘unlimited’ if there is a charge or restriction for exceeding a certain amount of traffic, though “moderate” traffic management is permitted. The terms ‘truly unlimited’ or ‘totally unlimited’ are allowed if there are no provider-imposed restrictions.

This is good news for anyone comparing broadband, because it means that you can now be fairly certain that when you purchase an unlimited service that’s exactly what you’re getting.

Fair use and traffic management

There are a couple of terms you’ll encounter when comparing broadband in relation to data caps which require a little further explanation.

Fair use policies (FUP) are the cause of so many complaints when unlimited broadband was a little more limited. ISPs would advertise unlimited broadband then put a cap in the fair use policy small print, where many people would never find it until they were penalised for downloading too much. Fair use policies are still used now but it’s much rarer to find an ISP not being upfront about the download limits.

This should not be confused with an ‘acceptable use’ policy, which is part of the terms and conditions and sets out rules for things like the size of email inboxes, the amount of email which can be sent (to prevent spamming) and not using the connection for piracy.

Traffic management is used by many ISPs to control the efficiency of the service by restricting or prioritising particular activities. Most commonly, it’s implemented against file sharing to prevent a minority of customers taking up a large amount of bandwidth. Traffic management policies typically take effect at specified peak times so if you’re getting slower performance from things like file sharing you can wait until off-peak hours when it’s no longer active.

As mentioned above, ISPs are permitted to use traffic management on unlimited broadband services so long as it is moderate, however there are an increasing number of totally unlimited packages which do not feature any traffic management.

For an in-depth look at this topic see our guide to traffic management.

Which broadband ISPs are truly unlimited?

Buying unlimited broadband is now easier thanks to the ISPs being (generally) a lot more honest about the limitations of their services. As we said, providers are allowed to advertise a service as unlimited if there is no cap on the data usage and only moderate traffic management, and may use terms such as "truly unlimited" if there are no data caps and no traffic management. This makes comparing broadband a whole lot simpler!

That said, there's still plenty of room for ambiguity and still occasions when restrictions can be found in the small print. This may not be a problem for many of us, but if you know you'll be consuming a large amount of data it helps to be aware so you won't run into problems later. 

Here, then, is a short guide to the data usage and traffic management policies of some of the UK's biggest providers, along with links to the relevant terms for further reading.

Package: BT Unlimited Broadband/Infinity  BT's unlimited packages are truly unlimited: they have both unlimited downloads and no traffic shaping. Lower tier options are still capped and managed.
Unlimited?
YES
Traffic management?
NO
Truly unlimited?
YES

 

Package: EE Unlimited EE does not have a fair usage cap on downloads (provided you're in a market 2 or 3 area, as explained above) but does use traffic management which operates 4.30pm - 1am Mon-Fri and 1.30pm - 1am weekends. This will slow file sharing and prioritises gaming and VOIP.
Unlimited?
YES
Traffic management?
YES
Truly unlimited?
NO

 

 

Package: Fuel Broadband Unlimited The provider formerly known as Primus used to have a 100GB fair use cap on its Saver packages but since 10/05/13 customers have a service which is unrestricted by either usage caps or traffic management.
Unlimited?
YES
Traffic management?
NO
Truly unlimited?
YES

 

 

Package: Plusnet Unlimited Plusnet once had a 60GB peak time cap with unlimited off-peak usage, but now offers completely unlimited downloads with no fair use. However, it has an intricate traffic management setup which constantly works to prioritise certain types of usage (gaming at the top, file sharing at the bottom). Check their traffic management policy for the full details.
Unlimited?
YES
Traffic management?
YES
Truly unlimited?
NO

 

 

Package: Broadband Premium Harking back to the bad old days, Post Office Broadband claims to offer 'unlimited usage' yet its fair use policy says there is actually a 100GB limit and speeds will be reduced for going over this. That's rather unfair, we feel. There is also traffic management every day from 4pm - midnight but no details about exactly what the impact might be aside from slowing file sharing.
Unlimited?
NO - FUP, 100GB
Traffic management?
YES
Truly unlimited?
NO

 

 

Package: Sky Unlimited Sky is completely unlimited and unrestricted. There is no fair usage policy and no traffic management for Sky Unlimited subscribers.
Unlimited?
YES
Traffic management?
NO
Truly unlimited?
YES

 

 

Package: TalkTalk Simply/Essentials/Plus TalkTalk updated their policies in 2013 and now offers a very liberal broadband package. There is no traffic management on any of their packages, save for the prioritisation of television services if you have a TV bundle (and that will only come into affect when streaming TV).
Unlimited?
YES
Traffic management?
YES (TV only)
Truly unlimited?
YES

 

 

Package: Starter/Essential/Premiere/VIP While Virgin does not have a limit as such, it does slow the connection of anyone exceeding certain thresholds at particular times. It's an unnecessarily complex setup so we'd recommend reading up about it on the Virgin site. On top of this, there's peak time traffic management.
Unlimited?
YES (with peak restrictions)
Traffic management?
YES
Truly unlimited?
NO