Broadband fair usage policy explained

When you are shopping around for broadband you may have heard of something called a ‘fair usage policy’. Here, we tell you exactly what a fair usage policy actually is and how it could affect your internet use.

Even if your current internet service provider (ISP) offers unlimited broadband, they will most likely operate a fair usage policy. This could mean that your provider be policing the actual amount of data you download, but providers will also use broadband traffic management so that the actions of one heavy broadband user do not affect the experience of others.

What is broadband traffic management?

If you are streaming a lot of HD video, downloading many large files or uploading large files, you could be slowing down other people’s broadband connections. If your home broadband is consistently affecting others users, your provider may restrict your connection during peak times.

This is called traffic management. Broadband providers tend to use this during peak hours, such as 5pm to 8pm, to ensure that all users have a consistent experience. It may seem unfair if you are affected by this, especially if you are paying for a ‘superfast’ broadband product, but in fairness to providers, they are only trying to ensure a consistent experience for all of their customers.

You are particularly at risk of traffic management, or in violation of fair usage policy if you are:


  •     Using peer-to-peer networks (like torrents) and downloading and uploading large files
  •     Remotely connecting to work from home and using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks)
  •     Streaming large files over a long period of time
  •     Uploading large files to services like YouTube or Vimeo


Broadband traffic management is tied to something called a “contention ratio”. Contention ratio shows the ratio of potential demand to actual bandwidth.  If you have 50 users trying to use one connection, for example, the contention ratio is 50:1. As everyone on your street or in your building is trying to use one connection, the contention ratio for your area can be very high. At non-peak times of the day, like early afternoon Monday to Friday or midnight to 6am, the contention ratio will naturally be much lower.

When your broadband provider could enforce fair usage policy

If your connection appears to be slowing others down consistently, providers are likely to enforce the fair usage policy. Traffic management tends to come into play if you are using your connection heavily at peak times. If you are downloading an HD movie at 6pm, for example, it’s possible that your connection could be slowed down by your provider.

Implementation of the policy can take different forms. Firstly your provider will probably start to ‘throttle’ your connection. This limits the amount of data you can download and restricts your usage at peak times. You can tell if this is happening as you will see that websites take longer to load than usual without apparent technical issues.

In other cases, your provider may even attempt to charge you for your excess usage or restrict your access to certain websites. This is especially true if you regularly use peer-to-peer services as they are often associated with piracy.

Virgin Media have disclosed exactly what their traffic management/fair usage policy actually entails. If you are paying for a broadband connection on the 30MB tier or above, you will not be subject to traffic management for download speeds. This means if you have a 30MB connection or above, you can download as much as you like. Virgin Media will apply traffic management to upload speeds, though. The provider applies fair usage to upload speed once the upload threshold has been exceeded. The minimum period of traffic management for users affected by this is 60 minutes and this policy can affect users Monday to Friday from 4pm to 11pm. Weekends are also affected from 11am to 11pm.

For customers who have a connection below 30MB, a more draconian traffic management policy applies. Both uploads and downloads are restricted during peak times throughout the week.

Other providers who state that they use traffic management will most likely operate a very similar policy.

How to avoid your broadband becoming affected

There are many ways to avoid your connection being stung by a fair usage policy or traffic management.

Try to schedule your heaviest downloads, such as HD movies or digital games, overnight. Traffic management and fair usage policies generally stop around 11pm, so if you can schedule your downloads to start after that they should come down a lot faster.

If you upload large files, such as HD video to YouTube, this should also be scheduled for after 11pm. This is admittedly harder to do as you can’t always schedule this sort of operation; you sometimes have to manually push the ‘button’. If you start the upload process around 10pm, you should avoid the worst of traffic management, depending on the type of connection you’re paying for.

What will happen if you break the fair usage policy?

Everyday users, who use their broadband to download and upload a lot of content at all times, will find they are the most at risk of breaking fair usage policy.

While broadband providers will ignore the odd month of consistent downloading and uploading, you may be penalised if it’s a common occurrence.

If you have breached the fair usage policy, you may experience:

  • Your download speeds become slower during peak times
  • You could incur extra charges on additional usage
  • Your broadband service may be cut off completely

Having your connection cut off completely by your provider only happens in very extreme cases. Luckily there are ways to avoid falling foul of fair usage policy and appealing a decision should the worst happen.

Tips on how to control your broadband usage

If you’re an average broadband user, it is unlikely that a fair usage policy will affect you.

One way to avoid excessive broadband consumption is to choose a package that comes with a monthly data allowance. These types of packages are ideal if you only go online to browse social media or send e-mails. However, if you do go over your monthly allowance, you will be charged for the additional data you’ve used. We would advise only going for a package with a data cap if you’re absolutely certain you will not exceed it.

Avoiding peak times to download multiple files will mean you’re less likely to slow down other broadband users on your street. However, if you want to download just one standard definition film that is around 2GB in size during a busy time of day, you shouldn’t be penalised.

The fair usage policy is put in place by providers to ensure all broadband users receive the best online experience, without being affected by heavy downloaders.

Or get an unlimited download package

The definition of truly unlimited downloads means that there are no usage caps or traffic management restrictions if you are a heavy broadband user. Basically, your download speeds will not slow down, even at peak times.

We recommend getting a truly unlimited downloads package if you:

  • Have a large house with many people using multiple connected devices
  • Enjoy downloading many HD quality films, music libraries and other content
  • Play online games, especially during peak times, for long periods of time

When you are looking for your next broadband provider and package, check the small print to ensure your deal offers truly unlimited downloads. A truly unlimited package could be more expensive, but if you get a lot of use from your broadband connection the extra cost could be good value for you.

Disputing a provider decision

If you have found yourself on the end of a wrongful penalty from your provider, there are various things you can do to appeal the decision.

First of all you should attempt to resolve the issue directly with your provider. Providers are not entirely unreasonable and it’s quite likely that if a mistake has been made they will reverse the decision. However, sometimes bad things happen and you may need to take things a step further to get your issue resolved.

If your provider won’t listen to you there are two official bodies that you can take your complaint to.

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