How many times have you been told 'life's not fair'? Well not here.
At Choose we're egalitarian folk and we like to see everyone get a fair deal, especially when it comes to their unlimited broadband's fair use policy (FUP).
Unfortunately, some providers are more fair than others.
The basic principle behind all fair use polices is that when one user starts downloading massive amounts of data it slows down the other people sharing the network.
Therefore, broadband providers build a get out clause into their unlimited broadband contracts: use as much data as you like but don't be a bandwidth hog. Fair enough.
There are two problems, however.
First, there's no clear definition of a bandwidth hog (it's actually strongly debated too). Every provider has their own take and many seem to make it up as they go along.
Second, throttling is traffic management's bluntest instrument. When providers do it badly users can find their connections severely slowed or, in extreme cases, cut off altogether even before they overstep the (often blurry) mark.
In short, we think it's worth heavy downloaders knowing which providers are the fairest of them all before they sign up.
We've arranged the UK's biggest providers offering unlimited deals alphabetically below, along with a short explanation of their policy and whether we think it's a fair one.
Note that these are assessments for unlimited broadband deals only: where providers have both capped and unlimited deals we're only talking about the latter.
We've also noted any traffic management restrictions that may apply during peak hours, as these are often listed separately by the providers who use them.
For more on the individual packages we compare unlimited broadband options by price and download speed in our unlimited table - which you can find here.
All clear? Here's the list.
We say: very fair
Fair Use: If this list was ranked, not sorted alphabetically, Be broadband wouldn't move places.
This provider is exceptionally relaxed about downloads. There is a fair use policy in place, but this is to prevent illegal or otherwise misuse of the network and only to prevent detriment to other customers from excessive usage as a last resort.
Traffic Management: Be say they do not throttle or shape traffic at any time. You can download and upload as much as you like 24/7.
Be have a reputation for fairness among their (geeky) customers and its well and truly deserved.
We say: very fair
Fair Use: As of 1st February BT are now offering 'totally unlimited' use on their unlimited broadband packages.
Prior to this, BT had already claimed of have dropped the old 100GB/300GB soft limits for unlimited broadband users altogether.
BT also specify that usage of BT Vision will receive additional bandwidth so that it doesn't get in the way of normal browsing, and that neither BT Vision, BT Digital Vault or BT Broadband Talk will count towards a users usage allowance.
Traffic Management: With the move to offering truly unlimited, BT no longer manages traffic on its unlimited packages.
Previously though they were only managing peer-to-peer software during peak hours, which was 4pm to midnight on weekdays and 9am to midnight at the weekend.
We'll be interested to see how this move plays out for BT, while it's not a far jump from their old policy, previous research into traffic management, undertaken back in 2011, found that 74% of BT traffic was being slowed in some way.
Truly unlimited broadband is often reserved for ISPs with smaller customer bases, more able to provide quality over quantity.
Something which recently caught Sky out due to increased demand for their truly unlimited service.
For now though the terms are certainly fair so we've gone with a fair ranking.
We say: very fair
Fair Use: Eclipse don't have a fair use policy as they either offer set download limits or truly unrestricted unlimited usage.
Traffic Management: They do however have a policy on peer to peer file sharing.
P2P is throttled to 448Kbps (about 0.5Mb) during daytime hours, that's 9am to 11pm.
Eclipse say that anyone who wants to use P2P should do so between 11pm and 9am when they say it won't be restricted at all.
Sounds very fair to us.
We say: fair
Fair Use: EE broadband have recently taken over Orange's home broadband deals, the standard packages are similar but they're also now offering fibre broadband.
Orange switched to 'completely' unlimited at the beginning of 2012, and EE have adopted this approach on both their standard and fibre unlimited deals.
Out of area customers, those on a Market 1 or 2 exchange, should note that their respective available broadband from EE is capped at a mere 20GB (as opposed to unlimited for Market 3 exchanges), exceeding this in a month will incur a one-off charge of £5.
Note also however, this policy is different than for the 40GB capped fibre deal, where exceeding the data cap once triggers a reminder, exceeding it twice within 6 months and customers will be upgraded to the unlimited fibre deal.
Traffic Management: EE do manage traffic at peak times on all packages - that's from 6pm to 11.30pm on weekdays and 5pm to 11.30pm on weekends. During these periods they slow peer-to-peer and newsgroup traffic, and prioritise VoIP and gaming over other activities.
We say: fair
Fair Use: O2 share a network with Be and, like them, is one of the vaguest, but fairest, providers around.
After a brief experiment with usage caps of 100GB and 250GB for its All Rounder and The Works deals, O2 have switched back to advertising 'unlimited'.
A fair use policy is still in place but O2 do seem to stay true to the 'fair' part: no secret limits or reports of punitive measures here.
Traffic Management: O2 do manage the network to slow streaming and P2P traffic during peak times of 4pm to midnight on weekdays and 12pm to midnight at weekends.
O2's cheapest package, The Basics is restricted most, watching videos and streaming will be limited to just 0.8Mb at any time, and P2P to 0.05Mb at busy times and 0.1Mb at any other time.
Unlimited The All Rounder and The Works have no restrictions on watching videos or streaming, but The All Rounder restricts P2P usage to 0.1Mb at busy times and 0.25Mb at any other time.
We say: fair
Fair Use: Plusnet have recently starting offering a 'truly unlimited' broadband package, and true to their word there is no rate limiting (slowing down) and no fair use policy in place.
Traffic Management: However, Plusnet are well known for the very detailed way they manage traffic, or traffic prioritisation as they like to call it.
Plusnet prioritise VoIP and gaming traffic on Unlimited, after that it's Browsing & Email, Streaming, VPN, FTP and download servers, then download sites, and lastly Peer-to-peer and Usenet traffic.
We say: unfair-ish
Fair Use: Primus Max is the budget broadband provider's only unlimited deal.
Users are limited to 100GB a month and Primus operate a 'three strikes and you're out' policy to repeat offenders.
Go over the FUP after two warnings and the provider warns that they'll start, "reducing your capability to consume bandwidth at times of congestion and or peak hours, without any further notice to you."
We say: unfair
Fair Use: The Post Office's FUP takes us back to the bad old days: for 'unlimited' it's pretty limiting.
As of June 2012, as a result of the CAP guidelines on advertising unlimited, the policy states that users may be restricted when usage exceeds 100GB a month.
The Post Office then promise punishment with some very explicit rules: going over 100GB two months in a row or five non-consecutive months in a year and users get a warning; excessive use for three consecutive months or sixth months in 12 months and they reduce speeds across the board.
There's no word on how far they reduce speeds or for how long, however.
If you've been affected let us know what happened in the comments below.
We say: very fair
Fair Use: Here's an easy one: Sky broadband unlimited doesn't have a fair use policy and doesn't manage traffic.
Since they bought this policy in, we've haven't seen a single substantiated complaint about it.
However, as we mentioned above, it has been recently reported that Sky has fallen prey to a surge in demand for its broadband service, probably due to the promotion of its lenient fair use.
Sky has said it's working to increase capacity at exchanges in effected high demand areas though, so far namely Doncaster, North Wales and Bristol.
Traffic Management: Only Sky's out-of-area Connect broadband package has a traffic management policy; basically it prioritises email, browsing, gaming and VoIP traffic, and may restrict P2P, newsgroups and large downloads at busy times: 4pm and 11pm weekdays, and all day at the weekend.
Sky also say that very heavy users who regularly download large amounts may have their speeds slowed down at peak times. They say this should be fewer than 5% of customers.
As mentioned though, this traffic management policy doesn't apply to Sky Unlimited or Sky Lite customers.
We say: fair
Fair Use: TalkTalk broadband's fair usage policy is in the form of a long but somehow still fairly vague paragraph on their website.
In, for example, one sentence they note that they can slow any one on a connection which is "not consistent with the usage we would typically expect on that customer's current package" a vagueness that could rival even the Post Office.
Traffic Management: In the past, TalkTalk have always claimed just to throttle the top 0.5% of users and now they aren't publishing any upper limits or warnings at all.
The provider claims to slow just P2P traffic during peak periods of 6pm to midnight on weekdays and 6pm to midnight at weekends.
We say: unfair
Fair Use: Tesco broadband's fair usage policy notes that 'excessive' users will be warned to moderate their downloads and then, if the excessive use continues for two more months, their broadband services will be suspended or withheld.
So what constitutes excessive for Tesco?
Well, the FUP gives 100GB as an example. Not only is that fairly small as soft limits go Tesco have left the door open to stop even those that download less than that amount.
Traffic Management: Tesco's FUP also reserves the right to restrict the speeds of those undertaking bandwidth heavy activities - although they do say this won't apply to "normal use such as browsing, emailing, VoIP or iPlayer".
All in all, heavy downloaders beware.
We say: unfair
Fair Use: Tooway satellite broadband usually imposes usage caps on all their deals, recently, though, they've been experimenting with unlimited deals and with fair usage policies.
The fair use policy is very complex, limiting the amount users can download every week, every two weeks and every four weeks. When users exceed these limits their speeds are reduced on a scale, the more they use, the slower the service.
It is also very restrictive: so-called 'unlimited' can be restricted after a user gets through just 3GB in an hour or 13GB in a month.
Those signing up to an unlimited Tooway service will be subject to this FUP until 28 February 2014. Note that Tooway deals with usage caps are subject to similar restrictions.
We say: unfair
Fair Use: All Virgin Media's cable broadband deals are notionally unlimited but, as of 2 April 2012, even the top 100Mb deal is subject to traffic management if users go over the usage limit.
Traffic Management: The following limits apply in the daytime and are halved in the evenings between 4pm and 9pm:
|Deal||Off peak (10am-3pm) limit|
|Broadband M: 10Mb||1,500MB (1.46GB)|
|Broadband L: 10Mb||3,000MB (2.9GB)|
|Broadband XL: 20Mb
Broadband XL: 30Mb
|Broadband XXL: 50Mb
Broadband XL: 60Mb
|Broadband XXL: 100Mb
Note: we include package names as well as speeds because the policies for users who have had speed upgrades from Virgin are different.
Once the limits above are reached, connection speeds are cut by 75% (so if your speed is 10Mb, 2.5Mb) for those on 10Mb or 20Mb deals. Those with speeds of 30Mb or more are slowed by 50% (so if your speed is 100Mb, 50Mb).
These reductions last for five hours, even if you exceed the limit 10 minutes before peak time ends.
So whilst Virgin Media is very up front about this policy, it has come in for some stick from customers, particularly gamers.
Unrelated to individual usage, Virgin also manage, by slowing it down, peer-to-peer and newsgroup traffic for all users between the hours of 5pm and 12am during the week, and 12pm to 12am at weekends.
Over the past year, most broadband providers have had to become a lot more upfront with their fair use and other traffic management policies largely because the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) started asking them to publish a standardised table of their restrictions.
However, we'll continue monitoring them here - 'truly' unlimited has come and gone before - and it'd be great to add your experiences so that we can give as full a picture as possible. Comment below or drop us an email, especially if your broadband provider has informed you that you've exceeded an unadvertised usage cap.
This article was first published 16 September 2010, it was last updated 1 February 2013.
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