Uncapped ADSL fair usage policy comparison

Mweb recently landed itself in hot water with consumers when it informed a portion of its customer base that it would be clamping down on excessive usage of its uncapped ADSL services.

In essence, subscribers that displayed excessive downloading behaviour would have their speeds throttled, Mweb said.

According to the Internet service provider (ISP), it had to change the way it enforces its acceptable use policy (AUP) because the methods it had been using were no longer effective.

“Previous discretionary methods such as sending warnings to abusive customers have not proved to be effective in managing this behaviour,” Mweb said.

Mweb’s decision to do an about-turn on throttling users raises an interesting question about how the AUPs (also called fair use policies, or FUPs) of different uncapped ADSL ISPs compare.

The table below summarises the FUPs used among various ADSL providers use, comparing them to the FUPs they had in place in November 2011:

ISP IPC/wholesale provider FUP type 2011 FUP
Afrihost MTN Business Load-based, prioritised Load-based (IS)
Axxess MTN Business Load-based, prioritised Rolling window (IS)
Cybersmart Cybersmart Load-based, prioritised N/A
Mweb Mweb Load-based, rolling window excessive users Load-based
OpenWeb IS and others Load-based, prioritised Load-based
Telkom Internet Telkom Load-based Specific, time-based
Web Africa Internet Solutions Star-rating system Specific, rolling window (WA)

It should be noted that the summaries above are not only based on an ISP’s stated FUP, but on feedback from them as well.

All the ISPs above have fairly open-ended FUPs that let them rate-limit “non-interactive traffic” services such as peer-to-peer traffic and even normal downloads if their network is under load.

Afrihost, OpenWeb, and particularly Web Africa offer detailed explanations on their websites as to how they manage traffic on their networks, though no specific percentiles or usage limits are given.

Afrihost, Axxess, Cybersmart, and OpenWeb FUPs

When asked how they enforce fair use policies, it emerged that Afrihost, Axxess, Cybersmart, and OpenWeb have the same general approach: real-time/interactive protocols remain unshaped, while non-realtime/non-interactive services may be rate-limited.

According to the ISPs, protocol shaping only kicks in during their busiest times. As the load on their networks decrease, they relax the restrictions on non-interactive services.

There are some differences in the ways these limits are implemented, and there does seem to be some disagreement between the ISPs on what constitutes as “non-realtime/interactive” use.

In particular, Cybersmart boss Laurie Fialkov told MyBroadband that they found that customers prefer knowing what they are getting, so they gave peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic a constant throughput during busy times.

Cybersmart’s home uncapped users get about 10% of their line rate on P2P traffic between 08:00 and 00:00 and full speed thereafter, while business uncapped users get around 20% of their line rate.

Afrihost and Cybersmart also disagree on whether normal HTTP downloads should be prioritised or not.

In Cybersmart’s books, HTTP downloads initiated from the browser are considered an interactive service and receive priority.

Automated HTTP downloads such as software updates get around 15% of the line rate between 08:00 and 18:00 on home uncapped. Cybersmart’s business uncapped customers can get 25% of the line rate between 08:00 and 18:00 for automated downloads.

Afrihost, on the other hand, considers any HTTP download a “non-realtime protocol” which may be shaped during busy times.

Axxess, Afrihost, and Cybersmart also said that they consider the historical usage of a customer in some cases. Very heavy users may see their non-interactive or non-realtime traffic more aggressively shaped than other users.

OpenWeb differs in this regard, saying that it does not shape customers based on usage at all, but on how busy the network is.

Web Africa

Although Web Africa’s general approach to FUP-enforcement is similar to that of the ISPs above, they provide very specific details on how various protocols are shaped.

Different uncapped products receive different priority, which Web Africa names after precious metals. These are summarised in the table below:

Protocol/bandwidth profile Silver (Home uncapped) Titanium (Business uncapped) Gold (Business uncapped pro) Platinum
Browsing Medium Good High High
Voice over IP High High Very high Top
Gaming High High Very high Top
Video & audio streaming Good High Very high Very high
Secure web (HTTPS) Good High Very high Very high
Security (VPN) Good High Very high Very high
File transfer Medium Medium Good Good
Peer-to-peer Best effort Best effort Best effort Best effort
Other Medium Good High High

Web Africa then uses the star rating system from Internet Solutions to classify uncapped customers based on their average usage. Heavier users receive a lower star rating, which translates to a more heavily shaped service during busy times.

Average usage is monitored every hour, from which Web Africa says it establishes a customer’s usage patterns. Your current star rating is then displayed in Web Africa’s DSL console.

Web Africa CEO Tim Wyatt-Gunning explained that the star-rating system is common to IS uncapped products. Customers like Web Africa can set their own parameters, he added, though they try and keep them in line with IS.

The effect of a user’s star rating on Web Africa’s uncapped ADSL account is summarised in the below table:

Usage-based shaping Star Rating
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

In addition to the table, Web Africa offers the following explanation of the star-rating system on its website:

  • 5 Star: Great usage on all services, torrents and news server downloads may be slightly slower dependent on network load.
  • 4 Star: Voice services (Skype) and gaming will be great, along with general browsing. Downloads will be slightly slower.
  • 3 Star: Voice services (Skype) and gaming will be good. Your YouTube videos will take slightly longer to load, general browsing and mail will still be quick.
  • 2 Star: General browsing, mail and online video will perform slightly slower. Voice and gaming services will be good, downloads will take some time.
  • 1 Star: General browsing, mail and online video will perform slightly slower. Voice and gaming services will be functional, downloads will take some time.

Mweb FUP

The new way in which Mweb is enforcing its FUP has been discussed in some depth previously.

In essence, Mweb said that it is going to automate policy enforcement across the top 3% of its subscriber base. It will be doing this by applying temporary speed limits to users with excessive downloading behaviour based on a 30-day rolling window, Mweb said.

2011 uncapped ADSL vs 2013 uncapped ADSL

Much has changed in the almost–3.5 years since we last compared the FUPs of some of South Africa’s ADSL providers.

While the way Mweb enforced its FUP remained relatively unchanged over the years, it recently announced a major change in the way it would deal with heavy users.

However, Mweb is not the first ISP to change the way it enforces its FUP.

Internet Solutions, which provides ADSL services to a number of ISPs, changed from using a 10-day rolling window to its new star-rating system.

Axxess and Afrihost switched away from Internet Solutions as their ADSL provider to MTN Business, and in so doing, changed (to a lesser or greater extent) how they manage their uncapped services.

Telkom and Web Africa also moved away from very specific FUPs that limited users to lower speeds based on certain factors, to more general policies. In Web Africa’s case this came with foregoing their own IPC in favour of using Internet Solutions as their ADSL provider.

The fact that most ISPs now have the same general approach to enforcing fair usage on their ADSL networks makes it quite difficult to compare FUPs across providers.

While it is interesting to know the details of how different ISPs enforce their FUPs, it doesn’t really give an indication of how the network will perform for users.

Unfortunately this knowledge can still only come from experience, which at this stage translates to spending hard-earned cash.

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Uncapped ADSL fair usage policy comparison