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Fair usage policies

By Claire Nottage | Thursday, November 24th 2022

A Fair Usage Policy does exactly what it says – it enforces fair usage among all broadband users so that everyone can enjoy the same standard of service.

With the greater data capability offered by fibre broadband, Fair Usage Policies have become less necessary, with most providers offering truly unlimited broadband packages as standard. However, all providers also enforce what is known as an Acceptable Use Policy. This guide looks at the details of both.

What is Fair Usage?

A Fair Usage Policy puts limits on how much downloading you can do in a month as part of your broadband contract. This is different from a data cap, and is not going to limit general usage, such as streaming films or downloading music. Rather it refers to very intensive, bandwidth-consuming usage that can have a negative effect on other users paying for the same service.

Restrictions on file sharing

Torrenting (also known as file sharing) involves downloading bits of a file, such as a movie, then sharing the bits with other people to form a complete file – and illegal copy. Technically not an illegal activity because you only download one bit of the file (although this is arguable), it also uses a lot of bandwidth, affecting other users’ experiences.

Limitations on heavy downloading

Even legally downloading or moving extremely large quantities of files onto backup systems could slow down the connection for other users. This would be deemed as unfair usage and would result in speed restrictions being placed on you by your provider.

What is traffic management?

Also known as traffic shaping, or throttling, this is a method used by internet providers to monitor and control the flow of data and prevent individual households from slowing down the network, thereby ensuring all subscribers can enjoy a stable connection. Providers do this by slowing your broadband speeds if you are thought to be engaged in an online activity that uses up a lot of bandwidth, such as file sharing or running software updates.

In contrast, traffic management can be a good thing if you are engaged in a Zoom or Skype call, for example, or if you are streaming TV, since these activities are given higher priority and providers will do what they can to ensure you can watch your TV show or enjoy your FaceTime call without interruption.

Does unlimited broadband come with a Fair Usage Policy?

The majority of broadband packages are now advertised as ‘unlimited’ – in other words, there is no data limit attached to the package and you can download as much as you want. However, some packages do still have a Fair Usage Policy attached to them. Truly unlimited broadband refers to packages that have no limitations at all on usage; in other words, no Fair Usage Policy and no traffic management.

What happens if you break the Fair Usage rules?

In general, a provider will simply slow your connection right down in order to stop your activities and ensure other users get a decent speed. This is likely to only be for a few hours but could continue to the end of the month. Alternatively your provider might insist you move to a different – and potentially more expensive – package that is better suited to your requirements. Or it might cancel your contract altogether, but this drastic action is only likely for severe repeat offenders.

Which providers have a Fair Usage Policy?

Most providers no longer have a Fair Usage Policy or use traffic management because the capacity offered by fibre optic cables is much greater than that offered by traditional telephone wires.

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What is an Acceptable Use Policy?

Along with limitations on excessive downloading that disrupts the online experience for other users, all providers also have an Acceptable Use Policy to which users must adhere when they sign a broadband contract. This policy stipulates all behaviour that is deemed unacceptable and, if breached, allows the provider to take appropriate action in response. These behaviours largely include the following

  • Downloading, possessing or sending illegal material such as images of child abuse
  • Sending or distributing material that is defamatory, malicious, abusive or offensive
  • Circulating threatening material or invading the privacy of an individual
  • Promoting or engaging in criminal activities such as terrorism or human trafficking
  • Deliberately disseminating viruses, worms or other harmful forms of software to cause damage to networks and computers
  • Engaging in illegal network monitoring or data theft
  • Sending unsolicited emails known as spam
  • Committing fraud by deliberately misrepresenting yourself with the intention of deceiving others
  • Infringing copyright or intellectual property rights by downloading or copying files
  • Deliberately disrupting the network to prevent other users from accessing the service

What action can a provider take if the Acceptable Use Policy is breached?

This depends on how the policy has been breached. In most cases, providers will contact you to find out more information and issue you with a warning. In more serious cases, a provider will suspend or terminate your service and if necessary report you to the police for engaging in illegal activities or even take legal action against you if you have caused damage to the network or its reputation.

Frequently asked questions

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a concept that argues for all users of the internet to be allowed the same levels of usage with no limitations in place for any activities.

How much downloading can I do?

You will not be penalised for occasionally downloading a film or video game. If you are downloading extremely large files on a daily basis then this may get the attention of your provider who might investigate or slow down your speed.

What is contention ratio?

Contention ratio refers to how many households are connected to a single line. If one or more of those households engage in extremely heavy downloading, the connection speeds of all the other users will suffer and slow down.

Do satellite broadband providers have a Fair Usage Policy?

Yes, satellite providers do employ Fair Usages Policies and traffic management to control the bandwidth available to customers at busy times.

Do 4G or 5G home broadband packages have a Fair Usage Policy?

Although many 4G or 5G home broadband packages come with a data usage limit, they do not have a Fair Usage Policy attached.

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