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8 m UK broadband customers do not know their ISP's limits

The latest study has estimated that more than 8.1 million UK broadband customers (47%) do not know their download limits and could be at risk of exceeding the ISPs Fair Usage Policy (FUP); up from 7.5m in 2008. This is important because 39% of broadband users believe they are on a completely "unlimited" package, which is often incorrect and follows deeply misleading marketing practices.

In reality the study claims that 70% of major broadband ISPs are still prepared to disconnect people that exceed limits, despite many using "unlimited" in their advertising. Furthermore just 30% of major broadband providers are transparent by advertising the true limits of their packages.

uSwitch claims that just three of the major broadband ISPs, Sky Broadband , TalkTalk and AOL UK, actually publicise official limits. However we believe this to be incorrect because some of the other providers do this too on FUP or Traffic Management information pages, such as Virgin Media.

The devil's in the detail - examples of small print:

• "very heavy users may have their usage restricted at peak times"

• "speed limiting restrictions may be applied within peak hours, or exceeding fair usage policy can lead to suspension of service"

• "Extremely heavy users will have bandwidth restricted during peak hours. After 3 email warnings, bandwidth will be managed during peak hours"

• "Unlimited during all hours. If usage is deemed detrimental to others, a letter or email will be sent."

On the other hand uSwitch complains that complicated limits, such as those enforced through Traffic Management or Shaping policies, only serve to confuse broadband customers and do little to help them understand the real restrictions.

Many broadband users are still completely unaware as to how much their activity adds up to in terms of their overall usage. Even activities such as uploading files can contribute to their 'acceptable usage' and could cause users to breach the threshold set by their supplier.

The issue is compounded by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which still allows ISPs to describe services as "unlimited" even when there is a fair usage "cap", as long as it is detailed in the small print.

Jason Glynn, communications expert at, comments:

"The solution is easy, broadband companies should not be allowed to class their packages as unlimited if they are not. Providers are confusing consumers to the extent that broadband users do not even know if they are approaching or exceeding a download limit. The ASA and Ofcom really need to take action and actually set strict guidelines on the advertising of broadband packages. These policies are confusing enough without customers having to worry if they are going to have their service terminated. Imagine the confusion amongst UK motorists if the speed limits on our roads were described in a similar way."

Most UK ISPs would of course probably argue that use of the term "unlimited" is more about 'access' than 'speed' and should not be taken as a definition of service quality. Mind you, ISPs advertising unlimited are arguably more likely to suffer network congestion or perhaps be weaker in other areas (support, services etc.).

The study also touches on an issue that we have raised more than a few times. It warns that the governments Digital Britain plans for a universal minimum UK broadband speed of 2Mbps by 2012 will require even greater transparency regarding download limits.

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