Download Limits and Fair Usage Policies

Find out everything you need to know about ISP's fair usage policies and download limits. To compare available tariffs, use the postcode box below:

So you may be one of many consumers who pay for unlimited broadband. However, while your downloads may be unlimited, you may well find that at certain times of day, you may find your speed throttled.

Fair use policies that ISPs sometimes impose on your broadband package could be what’s slowing your connection down, so here’s what you need to know about download limits and fair use policies to help you get the best deal when shopping for broadband.

What is a broadband fair use policy?

Fair usage policies are a way for broadband providers to provide the fastest average broadband speed to as many customers as possible at peak times – which are 8-10pm according to the regulator, Ofcom. However, the way they do this is by limiting your internet usage at those times. So if you tend to browse, stream films, or play games at those times, your ISP may be slowing your connection down so that all the other people who share your internet connection can do all of the same things as fast as possible. This may explain why you experience a slower connection than you think you’re paying for.

This sharing of internet connections works according to what is known as a ‘contention ratio’, and it can see as many as 50 people sharing the same line. It’s a good idea to check with your ISP about what their fair usage policy is, and what their contention ratios are. Remember that providers tend to group people according to usage, so if you download a lot of the time you will be grouped with other people who also use the internet for downloads.

Limits on Unlimited Tariffs

The key thing to remember is that whether or not you have unlimited downloads will be subject to this fair use policy, so while you may have a theoretical speed of 24Mbps, your speed will be limited at peak times so that the performance of the rest of your group is not as affected.

This may be frustrating if you bought a high-speed packages because you expected it to be fast when you need it to be, without realising that your ISP will likely limit your speeds just when you need it most!

If your ISP classes you as a heavy or excessive user then you will likely be subject to some slowdown due to the fair usage policy. Heavy or excessive users are those who tend to upload and download large files, such as movies and music, on a regular basis. These users take up excessive bandwidth, slowing the connection down for everyone else.

Generally, after a couple of months of really heavy use, ISPs will notify you if they feel that your usage is excessive. This notification will usually point you in the direction of their specific policy on 'fair usage' and suggest that you refrain from uploading or downloading large files at peak times.

What counts as fair usage?

This varies between ISPs, but ordinary day-to-day surfing, checking e-mails and making the occasional download will not get you into trouble with your ISP. Downloading large files worth several gigabytes every day will certainly draw their attention to you. So make sure you keep an eye on the amount you download, and if your ISP classes you as a heavy or excessive user, change your internet usage pattern so that you are not uploading or downloading at peak times, for example by downloading large files overnight. If you don't take heed of their warnings, your ISP will slow down the speed of your connection at peak times and in some serious cases, your ISP may terminate your internet connection.

What is a download limit?

A download limit is often the way in which broadband is advertised by the ISP, for example they could set a limit of 15GB. Put simply, it is the amount you are allowed to make use of your Internet connection in a month, similar to mobile phone data. When these limits are in place, you can only download a certain amount of information via your internet connection per month.

Download limits tend to be measured in gigabytes. Broadband providers set limits of how many gigabytes you can download per month, these sizes range from 1GB to about 40GB.

Many providers also offer broadband packages with unlimited downloads, this means that you can download as much as you want without the worry of reaching your download limit, however, this is still subject to a fair usage policy.

Do I need unlimited broadband?

If you’re likely to be using the internet heavily, for gaming or downloading lots, then it is likely you will need unlimited broadband, stopping you from having to worry about going over your download limit.

However, this is still subject to the fair usage policy of your ISP, so it is worth checking individually with them about what their fair usage policies and download limits are, to decide what sort of broadband deal would be best for you, depending on your usage patterns.

In general, fair usage policies are far less common than they used to be and none of the big four providers (BT, Sky, Virgin Media and TalkTalk) apply them to their current unlimited packages.

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