Traffic management is a fact of life. If you buy Internet services from someone, chances are you're going to be affected to a degree by a fair use policy or some form of traffic shaping.
This is because ISPs don't actually buy enough capacity for every customer to hit their maximum speed at once - home broadband services would cost a small fortune if they did.
It's very unlikely that everyone will be online at once and need maximum speed from their connection, so providers play a game of averages and buy just as much bandwidth as they think they can get away with for the number of customers they have.
Evenings and weekends are always going to be busier than daytime or the small hours of the night, when people are at work, at school, or asleep, so many ISPs fix the game in their favour by restricting your online activity at these peak times.
Some broadband activities - like P2P downloads, Skype, or online gaming - are more intensive than others - and your ISP can detect different types of traffic and throttle them to a lower speed so there's enough for everyone to be streaming iPlayer or regular internet browsing and email without noticing a slowdown.
Sky is the only major ISP with no traffic management policy, which carries its own risks in areas where they have over-subscribed without buying enough capacity.
What about P2P file-sharing site blocking?
Legal action by copyright owners and their representatives such as the BPI and the MPA has forced the UK's major ISPs to block the most popular file-sharing sites.
BT, Virgin Media, Sky, TalkTalk, EE and Plusnet now all block access to a large number of illegal file sharing and streaming sites including The Pirate Bay, Popcorn Time, Newzbin2, Kickass Torrents, Fenopy, H33T, Download4All, Movie2k to name a few.
The legal battle against pirates has even seen the UK's largest ISPs forced to block access to proxies providing backdoor entry to the Pirate Bay et al.
BT says that it no longer shapes traffic on any of its broadband services. According to the traffic management page on BT’s site, gaming, VoIP calls, streaming, P2P and Newsgroup traffic is neither blocked, slowed down or prioritised. Even at times of high network congestion, BT won’t slow down heavy users.
That said, BT is among the many ISPs that has been forced to block access to sites like The Pirate Bay, Kickass Torrents and ‘Netflix for Pirates’ service Popcorn Time. So while legitimate P2P activity won’t be blocked, if you were hoping to acquire content and not have to pay for it, tough luck.
While Virgin Media does shape traffic, the cable ISP says the majority of its customers - 95 per cent - are not affected by its speed bumps. Only seriously heavy users will see their connections hobbled if they cross a certain threshold at at peak times.
As of February 2014, Virgin Media no longer throttles download speeds at peak times. If you exceed the usage limits during peak time hours, the only thing that’ll be curtailed are your upload speeds.
Virgin Media's maxium upload speeds are 10 per cent as fast as the download speed - for example, customers with the up to 100Mbps product normally get top upload speeds of 10Mbps.
Virgin Media traffic management Upload allowances: over 30Mbps services
Weekdays 4:00pm-11:00pm. Weekends 11:00am-11:00pm.
|Package||1 hour threshold||Upload speed reduction||2 hour threshold||Upload speed reduction|
|Up to 30Mbps||750MB||1024Kbps (50 per cent)||1000MB||768Kbps (63 per cent)|
|Up to 50Mbps||1000MB||1536Kbps (50 per cent)||1350MB||1152Kbps (63 per cent)|
|Up to 60Mbps||900MB||1536Kbps (50 per cent)||1200MB||1152Kbps (63 per cent)|
|Up to 100Mbps||1250MB||3072Kbps (50 per cent)||1600MB||2176Kbps (65 per cent)|
|Up to 120Mbps||2200MB||6144Kbps (50 per cent)||2950MB||4352Kbps (65 per cent)|
|Up to 152Mbps||2250MB||6144Kbps (50 per cent)||3000MB||4352Kbps (65 per cent)|
Sky Broadband was for some time unique among the UK’s major ISPs in that it doesn’t apply any kind of traffic management at all, now others are following suit.
Nothing is prioritised or de-prioritised at any time of the day or any day of the week, including P2P services like BitTorrent. Heavy users are not throttled at peak times.
This applies to all of Sky’s broadband services, whether they’re ADSL-based Sky Broadband Unlimited and Sky Broadband Lite or FTTC-based Sky Fibre and Sky Fibre Pro. Even Sky’s off-network product Sky Broadband Connect.
As of May 2013, TalkTalk put the kibosh on traffic management of its Essential and Plus broadband services.
While no specific types of traffic are shaped - nothing is prioritised, P2P, gaming and VoIP traffic are all treated equally - although TalkTalk TV susbcribers will find around 4Mbps of their connection is set reserved for TV when their YouView box is streaming channels like Sky Sports, Sky Movies and so on.
Other than that, no traffic is slowed down, blocked or prioritised.
EE’s unlimited broadband services are exactly that - there are no applied restrictions on how much you can download - but EE does apply traffic shaping at certain times of day. Unlike Virgin Media, traffic will be prioritised or slowed down regardless of a household’s activity.
EE doesn’t specify to what degree it slows down or speeds up traffic but reveals the types of traffic it shapes on its network at peak times.
EE weekday peak time hours: 4:30pm-1:00am
EE weekend peak time hours: 1:30pm-1:00am
- Peer 2 Peer (P2P) - slowed down
- Newsgroups - slowed down
- Audio streaming - slowed down
- Video streaming - slowed down
- Music downloads - slowed down
- Video downloads - slowed down
- VoIP (voice over IP) - prioritised
- Gaming - prioritised
EE applies this traffic management policy to all of its services, whether they’re unlimited ADSL services or superfast FTTC-based products.
As well as this, EE Broadband also applies restrictions to NetBIOS, stopping connections to non-EE SMTP email servers on port 25 as a preventative anti-spam measure.
Direct Save Telecom’s fair usage policy is fairly straight forward – all of the home broadband packages are totally unlimited, except for the Basic package, which has a 20GB data cap. Business packages are also unlimited, barring the Teleworker package, which has a 6GB data cap.
Despite mention of traffic shaping tools on certain, unoptimised networks the company’s site states that none are currently in use.
As Plusnet’s advertising likes to drone on about, it’s good, honest, straight-forward broadband, and that ethos runs through to the company’s traffic management policies too. Kind of.
All of their unlimited packages are just that, there are no hidden caps or rate limits in force. The company does, however, operate a fairly rigid traffic ‘prioritisation’ system, which basically means they do manage traffic.
If you’re using an online gaming service or VoIP service, such as Skype, then you can expect to be given highest priority on their network, while those using catch-up TV services or just browsing the Web will be given second highest billing.
If, however, you’re using BitTorrent you can expect to be downgraded to the lowest priority, so don’t go expecting your Linux distros to download at lightning speed.
Fuel only offer one broadband package and it’s unlimited. There is a rather tenuous addendum in their T’s and C’s which states that:
“7.3.6 You undertake not to use the Services: in any way that would in Fuel Broadband's reasonable opinion materially affect the use of or access to the internet of any other person (including substantial data transfers during peak times).”
They neglect to mention what counts as substantial though, which could be cause for concern if you’re a heavy user.
When does everyone apply traffic management?
|ISP||Traffic management times|
|Virgin Media||4:00pm-11:00pm weekdays/11:00am-11:00pm weekends|
|EE||4:30pm-1:00am weekdays/1:30pm-1:00am weekends|
Quick Reference: What is managed?
|ISP||Traffic management targets|
|TalkTalk||4Mbps capacity reserved for video streaming for TV customers|
|EE Broadband||P2P, Newsgroups, music and video streams and downloads (throttled), gaming and VoIP (prioritised)|