There are a multitude of ways for consumers to get connected to the internet these days, each offering a variety of benefits to the people who use them. Fibre to the home (FTTH), broadband connections, and mobile data routers are becoming commonplace features of most middle class homes as online content streaming becomes the entertainment of choice.
Many people are opting for uncapped services in anticipation of unlimited use at high speeds but quickly become disillusioned with their service when the limitations included in the fine print kick in. So, what is in the fine print, and what does it mean for your service?
Uncapped data contracts seem to promise unlimited downloads for a set price, making them appear the most desirable option, but most internet service providers (ISPs) include what is called a “fair usage policy” (FUP) or “acceptable usage policy” (UAP), often hidden in the fine print.
These policies stipulate the limitations on the speeds and availability of the connection; limitations being something that you’d not expect from a seemingly unlimited connection.
When these limitations are exceeded, the ISP can impose restrictions on your service which can severely hamper your connection’s performance, often so much that the connection becomes virtually unusable.
The fine print can include a lot of terminology that the average user may not have heard before, with terms such as “contention ratios” (also called over-subscription ratios) and “data prioritisation” appearing often.
Most uncapped data services are contended, meaning that a data “pipe” is shared between a certain number of users – the data available at a single distribution point is shared by multiple connections to that distribution point.
A contention ratio of 1:10, for example, means that the connection is shared between ten people, so a 5 Mbps connection would be shared between ten users. The lower the contention ration, the fewer people are sharing the pipe. This sharing is not necessarily equal though.
A shaped service is where the ISP places a higher prioritisation on certain types of data traffic, meaning that the available bandwidth is allocated to this type of traffic first, and everything else uses whatever is left.
If one or two users make use of the connection for prioritised data traffic, the bandwidth will be allocated to them first, leaving the rest of the users to make do with the remaining bandwidth.
As video streaming is seldom given top priority, a subscriber who expects to be able to watch unlimited Netflix may have a substandard service if there are other users taking up the bandwidth for prioritised traffic.
The FUP exists, essentially, to protect all users of a single pipe from any one user taking advantage of the whole connection all the time.
While in essence a good thing, the way it is carried out can take subscribers by surprise and not necessarily in a good way. ISPs generally adopt one of two FUP approaches.
The first is a quantity-based approach where the subscriber may utilise as much of the speed as is available for up to a certain amount of data before their connection speed is throttled down.
For example, a user may utilise as much of a 50 Mbps pipe up to a total of 100 GB, after which they will still have a service but at a vastly reduced speed – often so reduced that the service becomes unusable for things like streaming video.
Unfortunately, users aren’t always able to monitor the usage on their connection, particularly where children have free access to it, so it is possible for a subscriber to reach the limit on their FUP within the first week or two of the month’s service, leaving them with next to no service for the rest of the month and rendering their connection almost useless.
The second approach is time-based. The ISP allows each user a specific amount of time per day to use the connection at full speed. This can be in specified increments such as one hour at a time.
Each ISP has different specified increments and it is important that users take note of this in their FUP.
What makes this approach preferable to the quantity-based approach is that users still have a service for the entirety of the month and, by limiting all users equally, the reduced service is generally still usable.
Capped services are usually unaffected by FUPs and, more often than not, users receive the full benefit of the speed of their connection because ISPs want the subscriber to use up their available data as quickly as possible in order to implement post-cap charges.
They encourage use by making as much bandwidth available as possible to them. But capped services come in very user-friendly sized packages today, and a 250 GB package should be perfectly suitable for a month, giving you roughly four hours of video streaming per day as well enabling normal browsing and email.
If you decide to opt for an uncapped service, you need to familiarise yourself with your ISP’s FUP before signing up to ensure you aren’t left with a useless service for the better part of a month due to the FUP kicking in. You also need to make sure you know what the contention ratio is and whether it is high or low.
Finally, it makes sense to select an ISP that offers the flexibility to allow you to change your contract where required. You should have the freedom to choose – and use – as you need to so that you don’t find yourself without data when you need it most or worse, paying crippling top-up charges because you reached the limit of your FUP.