How to compare unlimited broadband deals
If your household makes the most of everything the internet has to offer, from browsing to gaming, listening to music to watching TV, an unlimited broadband deal can provide the best value for money.
Our comprehensive guide reveals exactly what you need to know about unlimited broadband, including information on fair usage and traffic management, to help you identify what level of service is most appropriate for you.
Why choose unlimited broadband?
Heavy internet users, such as large families with multiple devices; avid online gamers or those regularly downloading or streaming HD video are drawn to the freedom that unlimited broadband purports to offer – the ability to download as much as you want without fear of reaching a set limit and incurring inflated penalty charges.
Yet as ever, the devil is in the detail and despite being peppered throughout providers’ advertising, ‘unlimited broadband’ is often not quite what it seems. In reality, if we all downloaded to our heart’s content, services would become incredibly sluggish (particularly during peak times at evenings and weekends) so most providers have put controls in place to limit excessive usage and ensure consistent performance for all.
These restrictions come in the form of ‘fair usage’ terms and ‘traffic management’ policies, which can cap your downloads if you’re using the service excessively or restrict your speeds at certain times of day. Ultimately, this means some ‘unlimited broadband’ contracts do in fact have limitations, and these can be buried in the small print.
It’s worth noting that only the heaviest users (around 5% of all UK households online, according to Virgin Media) are likely to fall foul of these limits, such as those downloading over ten movies or so per week, streaming content for more than six hours every day or frequenting peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing sites.
Data limits vary from provider to provider, although a small number do offer 100% truly unlimited data deals. Next we’ll take a look at the different options and the limits to look out for to help you find a deal specifically suited to your usage levels.
What are my options?
Over the past couple of years, broadband providers have become more transparent regarding download limitations thanks to a voluntary code of practice launched by independent government advisors, the Broadband Stakeholder Group in 2011. Among other measures, this requires providers to offer consumers clear, understandable and comparable information on their limitation practices.
That said, we’ve already done the hard work for you and waded through the small print to reveal the fluctuating levels of ‘unlimited broadband’ in the market. First up, we’ll run through the two key policies to watch out for – fair usage and traffic management.
What is fair usage?
The basic goal of a fair usage policy is to restrict excessive downloading by any one user at peak times to maintain consistent performance for everyone else. While it may seem misleading to restrict usage on what is advertised as an ‘unlimited deal’ (and it is, to a degree), it is a necessary requirement for some providers to ensure stable internet access for all.
This is because many people share a single local telephone exchange (used to deliver broadband), so if a heavy user is constantly downloading it will slow down the speed for other nearby users who are online at the same time.
The main bone of contention stems from the fact that previously, some providers weren’t always upfront about their fair usage policies, leading to consumers taking out unlimited deals only to be unexpectedly penalised when they took full advantage. Fuelling further confusion, what actually constitutes fair usage varies between suppliers, with limits set at different levels.
What is traffic management?
Like fair usage policies, the goal of traffic management is to stem ‘congestion’ caused by heavy users and high data activity at peak times. However, when traffic management is applied, overly excessive users can see their download speeds reduced - although this isn't triggered by the breaking of any specific download limits. This allows the providers to control traffic at busy times that would otherwise hamper internet performance for other households.
Again, just to confuse things, the terms of traffic management policies vary between providers, but the aim is always to limit any action that slows the network at busy periods, therefore preventing ‘traffic jams.’
The most common traffic management policy is to prioritise time-sensitive activity during particularly congested periods of the day to ensure maximum performance when it is needed most. For example, John Lewis prioritises VoIP, email, gaming and web browsing, and cuts speeds for data heavy, less time-sensitive activities, such as P2P file sharing and software updates.
Will the restrictions affect me?
As we’ve mentioned, only the heaviest users are likely to find themselves affected by these limitations – equivalent to about 5% of the UK internet population. The thresholds to breach fair usage or enter traffic management are pretty generous across the board so the majority of users can surf and download at a reasonable level without experiencing any reduction in service.
However, now that just about every demographic is downloading more, it is certainly an important factor to bear in mind when comparing deals - particularly if you're fond of data-intensive activity. It's also worth noting that uploading activity is also covered, and as such excessive uploads can indeed be subject to fair use and traffic management policies. This fact is particularly relevant as we all become ever more dependant on cloud computing.
Despite this, it remains the case that you can still be a heavy internet user and avoid traffic management by simply restructuring your most data-hungry activity to off-peak times. It’s the internet equivalent of jumping in your car an hour earlier or later to avoid the morning rush hour.
How do providers compare?
Now let’s take a look at the highest level of unlimited products available from each of the main broadband providers. Note that other non-unlimited products from these providers may be subject to traffic management and data caps.
No fair usage or traffic management policies.
- Sky (Broadband Unlimited and Fibre Unlimited)
- TalkTalk (Essentials unlimited broadband)
Subject to traffic management policy during peak times.
- Plusnet (Plusnet Unlimited)
- EE (Unlimited Broadband and Unlimited Fibre Broadband)
- Virgin Media (upload speeds only)
- John Lewis (Unlimited Broadband)
- Fuel Broadband (Unlimited Broadband)