Broadband Usage Limits Explained

Of the many different phrases that you’ll find within the terms and conditions of your broadband access package the most vague and confusing can often be “Download Allowance”, “Fair Usage Policy”, “Acceptable Usage Policy” and “Traffic Management.”

In truth there is actually a lot of ‘overlap’ with these terms but, in short, all four are used to both protect your ISP from illegal activity on its network and to stop the excessive usage by a small group of users from impairing the service provided to others.

These four terms are very often lumped together in both people’s minds and in the terms and conditions of broadband contracts although while they are all terms to describe limitations placed on broadband services they are in fact quite different from one another.

Download Allowance

This is the maximum amount of data that you are allowed to download in any given month. It is very easy and commonplace for people to drastically underestimate the actual download allowance that they will need when they are selecting their broadband package. The tendency to opt for speed above all other considerations can often result in users opting for the false economy of paying for a broadband package with a lower download allowance only to find themselves being penalised later when they exceed it.

What this means for you

Your download allowance is part of the terms and conditions of your contract of service with your ISP. If you exceed your allowance you will very likely be penalised in one form or another (see below) so give careful thought to what level of usage you will be placing on your broadband access package BEFORE you sign up for one.

If you are going to be using your broadband access for light browsing, emailing and social networking then you’ll probably be fine with a 2GB monthly download allowance.

If you’re likely to be a heavier user who logs on for long periods every day and who downloads music from sites like iTunes then consider a larger monthly download allowance of 10GB.

If you are aiming to use your broadband connection to download TV shows and movies, especially those in high definition then you really should consider paying the extra for an unlimited download package.

Fair Usage Policy

A fair usage policy is a condition of service that lets your ISP restrict your access to the service if you go over a predetermined monthly download allowance (see above). Many supposedly “unlimited” broadband packages are actually very clearly limited by a fair usage policy.

The logic behind this is that your ISP believes that every one of its customers should be able to enjoy an uninterrupted and fast broadband service. To this end if your ISP feels that you are using more than your fair share of its bandwidth then your service may be capped or throttled, i.e. limits will be introduced to your account that will ether slow it down or cut it completely.

What this means for you

If you exceed your monthly download allowance a number of things may happen. First of all it is very likely that your ISP will contact you via email or phone to make you aware of the situation. Whether this happens or not you can expect your internet access to become limited, with your download speed dropping significantly or even being stopped entirely.

Some ISPs will automatically change your account to one with a higher download allowance after one or two occurrences of you going over your monthly limit. They will, of course, increase your subscription fee to match so the moral of the story is to sign up for a large enough monthly download allowance to begin with or to switch to a more suitable package should you need to.

Read our guide to switching broadband providers »

Acceptable Use Policy

The Acceptable Use Policy is a method used to restrict broadband internet access in the event of it being used in ways that are illegal or likely to cause interference to other users’ connection.

This of course relates to, amongst other things, the illegal file sharing of copyrighted materials such as music, TV programmes and movies.

What this means for you

If you are deemed to be using your broadband internet access service in unacceptable ways, whether that be for downloading films illegally, for sending out spam email campaigns or if you’re just using it a lot more than a ‘normal’ user would be expected to then you can expect your connection to drastically slow down or even be severed entirely. You won’t have much room to appeal either, as you will have been warned about such behaviour in advance within the terms and conditions of your broadband contract.

Traffic Management Policy / Network Management

Both of these terms are used to describe a process in which an ISP reduces or “throttles” the connections of its users. This throttling is applied to those users who download a very large amount of data, such as those sharing files via services like BitTorrent. In other instances throttling is applied across the board at the busiest times of the day, especially early in the evening.

If you are uploading and/or downloading a large amount of data, for example HD movies or TV shows, then your online activity is going to slow down the online experiences of your neighbours and other subscribers to your ISP. In these instances traffic management may be employed to stop your activities from inconveniencing other users.

What this means for you

If your ISP decides that you are putting too much strain on its bandwidth by downloading too much data then you can expect your connection speed to be reduced, or “throttled”.

Traffic management like this is mainly used to limit the connectivity of the top few percent of users at peak time, usually 5pm-midnight Monday to Friday and noon-midnight Saturday and Sunday although ISPs frequently exercise its right to reduce connection speeds at other times.

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