Uncapped ADSL: What you should know

More South African broadband subscribers than ever are experiencing the freedom of uncapped broadband thanks to MWEB which shook up the market with its affordable uncapped ADSL services in March.

Affordable uncapped ADSL is widely heralded as one of the most significant developments in the local broadband market since the launch of ADSL back in 2002, but when the euphoria about affordable uncapped broadband services subsided many users realized that they should have read the fine print.

Most local uncapped ADSL accounts are accompanied by strict Fair Use Policies (aka Acceptable Use Policies) which may include speed throttling or even services being cut off.

Many service providers are up-front about exactly what constitutes fair use when it comes to their ADSL accounts, but others are less forthcoming about what consumers can expect from their uncapped offerings.

Here is a list of things to ask an uncapped ADSL provider before putting pen to paper.

Contention Ratio

The “contention ratio” of a broadband service is a measure of how many people you share bandwidth with.  The higher the contention ratio, the more people share bandwidth and the worse your speeds will be.  Contention ratios of between 20:1 and 50:1 are standard for international broadband services.

Fair Use Policy/Acceptable Use Policy

A Fair Use Policy or Acceptable Use Policy tells subscribers how much data they can use in a specified period of time (typically monthly).  If a subscriber exceeds this limit, their service may be throttled or even discontinued.

Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) describe what the service can be used for instead of stipulating strict usage limits, but it often boils down to the same thing.

Shaping (aka port priotitization)

Most uncapped ADSL accounts are shaped during business hours, which means that certain traffic (typically HTTP, SMTP and FTP) are given priority over other traffic (typically torrents and other P2P protocols). 

Here ISPs aim to make sure that most subscribers experience good speeds and latency when engaging in standard online activities like web surfing, online banking or checking email during periods when bandwidth usage is at its highest.


Throttling (bandwidth throttling) limits the speed of a certain connection.  Many local ISPs start throttling – hence limiting speed of connectivity – of uncapped ADSL subscribers who exceed a certain monthly usage limit. 

International bandwidth provisioning

Access to more affordable international bandwidth courtesy of SEACOM is one of the driving forces behind the less costly ADSL data, but it may come at a price.  Unlike SAT-3 which has built-in redundancy through the SAFE cable system, SEACOM is a standalone system without any built-in backup.

Over the last few weeks numerous ADSL subscribers have felt the impact of SEACOM downtime, and users may be well advised to ask their ADSL ISP whether they have SAT-3/SAFE backup if they make use of SEACOM bandwidth.

Rolling thresholds

Certain uncapped ADSL accounts have running thresholds which are similar to fair use monthly usage limits (only difference is that it applies to shorter time periods) where speeds will be throttled when exceeded.

Uncapped Express+ accounts, for example, have ‘10 Day Rolling Thresholds’ of 5GB, 10GB and 20GB for 384 Kbps, 512 Kbps and 4 Mbps respectively, where speeds will be throttled when you exceed the threshold.

Upstream bandwidth provider

While some ISPs like Web Africa, Cybersmart, Vox Telecom, MWEB and G-Connect provide their own ADSL bandwidth using Telkom’s IPConnect service, smaller ISPs purchase bandwidth from an ‘upstream provider’ like Internet Solutions, Telkom/SAIX or Neology.

Not all bandwidth providers are equal, and ADSL users will be well advised to familiarize themselves with the different upstream providers and whose bandwidth they are actually using. 

Uncapped ADSL << anything else consumers should know about?

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Uncapped ADSL: What you should know