Broadband ‘fair use’ policies fall from favour

IPS have recognised the limitations of these blunt instruments - good news for customers.

Saturday, 2 October, 2021

In the febrile Millennial days of file sharing and digital piracy, many consumers became regular users of peer-to-peer networks.

The principles of downloading data from other people while allowing them to access your own file repositories were admirably democratic, yet also hugely bandwidth-intensive.

At a time when most households were connected to the internet via dial-up modems, such activities clogged up connections and slowed down the internet for everyone else.

As a result of this (and other excessive activities like gaming obsessives spending twelve hours per day playing Lineage online), broadband fair usage policies were imposed.

Yet today, these restrictions are rarely seen.

So what inspired the principle of imposing broadband fair usage policies in the first place, and why aren’t they prevalent any longer?

It’s a fair cop

While regular use of P2P networks might have brought the police to your door with a polite enquiry about internet piracy, file sharing was also a key contributor to network slowdown.

If Person A was maxing out their connection through streaming or gaming (even legally), Person B might find their own connection suffered as a consequence.

This related to a process known as contention ratio, which defines the number of accounts or households sharing a particular network connection.

It was unfair for 49 households’ online experience to suffer because household 50 was constantly online sharing media files with strangers around the world.

As a result, ISPs introduced fair usage policies, setting a cap on the amount of data one person could upload or download.

Users would be given one or more warnings, at which point their connection would be deliberately slowed down to reduce the effect on other households.

However, such restrictions were hugely unpopular, falling foul of net neutrality principles. Plus, they posed a problem for early adopters of streaming services like YouTube or Netflix.

As broad’ as it’s long

The ongoing increase in domestic internet connection speeds rendered fair usage caps irrelevant, as broadband replaced dial-up and full fibre in turn supplanted ISDN broadband.

Today, most broadband contracts are marketed as ‘truly unlimited’, which generally means there are no fair usage policies whatsoever.

A consumer with a 300Mbps fibre connection won’t diminish anyone else’s online experience if they choose to spend all day playing FIFA.

Consequently, it’s unlikely any mainstream ISP will send its customers an email complaining about file sharing or round-the-clock gaming.

However, some activities might still trigger an intervention, such as large-scale piracy or cryptocurrency mining.

Fair usage policies have evolved into ‘acceptable use’ policies, which effectively prohibit people from using their connection for illegal or morally dubious practices.

You’ll probably have to sign a document when commencing a new broadband contract agreeing that you won’t engage in criminal activities, abuse, spam or fraud.

Heavy domestic use shouldn’t fall foul of these stipulations, but if your PC is connected to BitTorrent or FrostWire around the clock, your connection may be flagged.

Even then, most ISPs will look the other way, while the few that might intercede generally only throttle P2P and streaming services at peak times – typically from teatime to 1am.

Satellite broadband providers are more likely to retain fair usage policies, especially since customers generally pay for data by the gigabyte.

There are rarely any such restrictions on 4G or 5G services, though again, they may be capped in terms of data usage.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!