Uncapped ADSL fair use and throttling in South Africa

Uncapped ADSL services have attracted controversy since the term “uncapped” was first used to describe the offering in South Africa.

Whether due to service providers marketing post-paid usage-billed broadband as “uncapped”, degrading network quality, or pricing, complaints have followed the services for years.

In 2010, MWEB changed the uncapped broadband landscape in South Africa when it launched affordable uncapped ADSL accounts that used shaping to manage traffic volumes rather than throttling.

While some warned that MWEB’s uncapped ADSL prices were not sustainable, other Internet service providers soon followed suit – driving prices even lower.

New classes of uncapped ADSL accounts emerged: cheaper home uncapped services; premium uncapped ADSL for more demanding users; and business uncapped packages.

However, the honeymoon did not last.

Uncapped services came with a fair use policy (FUP) – which is also called an acceptable use policy (AUP) – and soon service providers had to implement these policies more strictly as subscribers stretched the capacity of their networks.

This resulted in a consumer backlash, especially when MWEB announced it would throttle heavy users. Subscribers then demanded that ISPs reveal the usage thresholds at which their speeds would be decreased.

Several years on, we asked some of South Africa’s largest ISPs how they handle their uncapped ADSL accounts now.


 

MWEB

Derek Hershaw Mweb
MWEB CEO Derek Hershaw

MWEB’s usage thresholds are much the same as before, though the price of its 4Mbps Premium uncapped ADSL account has come down.

The ISP said only downstream usage (downloading) is counted towards the threshold.

Usage is measured over a 30-day rolling window and should you exceed the thresholds listed below, your speeds may be throttled.

MWEB Uncapped ADSL account usage thresholds
Standard accounts Price Threshold R/GB (before AUP)
2Mbps R199 ±70GB R2.84
4Mbps R239 ±110GB R2.17
6Mbps R359 ±150GB R2.39
10Mbps R539 ±250GB R2.16
Premium Accounts Price Threshold R/GB (before AUP)
1Mbps R199 ±100GB R1.99
2Mbps R369 ±200GB R1.85
4Mbps R539 ±400GB R1.35
6Mbps R699 ±600GB R1.17
10Mbps R999 ±950GB R1.05
Prices listed are for MWEB’s account-only options

Webafrica

Web Africa

Webafrica classifies uncapped subscribers into various categories based on their usage, and applies throttling and shaping rules accordingly.

Home uncapped subscribers are rated according to a 5-tier “Star Rating” system (5 being the highest), while Business uncapped users are classified into one of three categories based on their usage patterns.

Usage for both home and business uncapped accounts is measured over a 10-day rolling window, and traffic between midnight and 06:00 is not counted towards the usage.

Web Africa noted that deprioritisation will usually only take effect when the network is under load, so a low star rating will not always mean you will see degraded performance if there is spare network capacity available.

Network load is higher during office hours, so you may expect slower performance for non-crucial services and protocols during that period on a lower star rating.

The table below details the rating system Webafrica and Internet Solutions uses to determine how to shape home uncapped users.

Webafrica Home Uncapped Star Rating
Service/protocol 1 2 3 4 5
Voice over IP Good High High Very High Top
Gaming Good High High Very High Top
Video & Audio streaming Medium Medium Good High Very High
Secure web (HTTPS) Medium Medium Good High Very High
Security (VPN) Medium Medium Good High Very High
File Transfer Best effort Medium Medium Medium Good
Peer-to-peer Best effort Best effort Best effort Best effort Best effort
Other Best effort Medium Good Good High

The next table summarises the category system Webafrica uses for its business uncapped accounts.

As with its home uncapped product, usage is measured over a 10-day rolling window.

Webafrica business uncapped categories
Category Great experience Affected Harshly Affected
Description Great usage on all services and usage types High volume protocols throttled to 10% line speed between 06:00 and 18:00 Severe traffic management. All usage types affected. Throttled to 5-10% of line speed.
Users impacted Around 95% Around 5% Less than 0.1%
Why you would be placed in this category Your usage within a 10-day rolling window falls within average usage patterns. Your usage within a 10-day rolling window was flagged as being very high in hours 06:00-18:00 and/or 18:00-00:00. High usage from midnight to 06:00 does not affect your category. Your usage within a 1–day rolling window was flagged as being extremely high in hours 06:00-00:00. High usage from midnight to 06:00 does not affect your category.

Different accounts are further grouped under bandwidth profiles, which assign priorities to specific types of Internet traffic.


Telkom Internet

Telkom shadow logo

One could argue that Telkom Internet’s basic “SoftCap” product is a kind of uncapped service.

While these accounts do come with a “cap”, the ISP doesn’t cut you off – throttling your speed instead. Usage from midnight to 07:00 does not count towards the cap.

On its uncapped accounts, Telkom Internet’s fair use policy is more generic. Those with higher usage patterns during peak periods will be subject to Telkom’s fair use policy, the ISP said.

Similar to its SoftCap account and Webafrica’s uncapped services, Telkom said uncapped subscribers who schedule downloads for off-peak periods between midnight and 07:00 will be able to generate a lot more usage.


Afrihost

Afrihost adsl

Afrihost said it doesn’t implement thresholds on uncapped accounts, and instead uses shaping based on overall network demand.

The ISP said it analyses subscriber usage patterns, including the amount of data moved and the period over which data was moved, and indexes them accordingly.

Therefore, a client who uses 100GB in a day would be considered a heavier user than a client who moved 100GB in a week.

An algorithm then determines which users should be shaped, from heaviest first to lightest users last, in order to meet demand.

When overall demand decreases, users are unshaped using the same index – from the lightest users first to the heaviest users last.


Cybersmart

Laurie Fialkov
Laurie Fialkov

Cybersmart said it does not implement a straight-up usage-based indexing or threshold system.

Instead, its thresholds are based on the profitability per user.

Its acceptable usage policy kicks in when the rate per Gigabyte it recovers from subscribers is too low to be sustainable.

“Obviously as bandwidth prices drop, that will naturally adjust the thresholds – assuming we do not have to drop prices,” said Cybersmart.

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Uncapped ADSL fair use and throttling in South Africa