A fair usage policy is part of your broadband contract that explains how your provider may limit your broadband speed, especially at peak times, and also the steps that they will take if they believe that your internet usage is ‘excessive’.
Most providers these days offer unlimited broadband, which means that there is no cap on the amount of data you can stream or download, but all of them will still have a fair usage policy (sometimes referred to as an internet usage policy or fair use policy).
Providers implement fair usage so that as many customers as possible can enjoy the fastest possible broadband speeds. This means that, while you may have an unlimited 59Mbps connection, it could be slower than that during internet peak times when lots of people are using their broadband at once. Providers call this process ‘traffic management’.
Traffic management is when your broadband provider will slow down (or ‘throttle’) your broadband speed to allow for all customers to get the same speed.
This used to be common practice, but complaints and push back from customers meant that most providers won’t throttle back your speed anymore.
The only scenario in which your provider would purposely slow down your broadband speed is if you are using it excessively and not abiding by the fair use policy.
Fair use is all about using your internet in a way that does not affect other customers.
You may have found yourself in the common (and frustrating) situation where you are streaming a movie and suddenly the picture quality gets worse or the movie stops completely.
This will be because either lots of other people are using the broadband at the same time, or (less likely) because your provider has throttled the connection to allow for all customers to get the same speed.
This usually only happens at internet peak times (roughly 8pm-10pm) and doesn’t last very long, but it is the kind of scenario covered in the fair usage policy.
However, if you are streaming lots of HD or 4K video, downloading large files or uploading large files a lot of the time, you could be slowing down the broadband connection for other people on a regular basis.
Generally, after a couple of months of very heavy usage, your provider will notify you if they feel that your usage is excessive. The communication will likely provide you with a link to the fair usage policy and ask you to download and upload large files in off-peak hours (usually during the evening after 11pm).
In extreme situations, where the usage continues to be excessive and affecting others, providers reserve the right to cease your broadband connection completely.
If you are a regular broadband user, and just use your connection to browse the internet, stream TV/films and play video games, it is unlikely you will ever breach the fair usage policy.
But if you are a heavy user, you may experience throttling of your broadband speed, and potentially further action from your provider.
Here are some of things that you can do to ensure you do not breach the fair usage policy, if you think you might be reaching those levels of demand:
Avoid downloading or uploading illegal content, such as movies, music and video games – breaking the law is a surefire way to have your connection speed reduced or terminated completely.
Avoid downloading and uploading files during internet peak times – schedule your biggest upload and download of files for the evenings when less people are using the internet, ideally after 11pm.
Reduce the number of devices using your broadband connection at the same time – if you have several laptops, tablets, phones and game consoles all streaming or downloading content at the same time, this may also lead to your usage being classified as excessive.
This differs depending on who your provider is, but most will provide you with ample warnings (most likely emails) and give you plenty of opportunity to change your internet usage.
Should your provider believe that you have not responded properly to their warnings, it can permanently throttle your connection speed down, put a cap on your download limits or terminate your connection completely, depending on the severity of the issue.
But in most cases, you will get an email so just adjust your usage slightly to adhere to your provider’s fair usage policy.
There has been much discussion over whether fair usage policies are actually fair themselves, and whether some providers are using them in the most ethical way, so it is important to read your fair use policy and make sure you know your rights.
If you have been penalised for a breach of your fair usage policy and don’t believe that was appropriate, you should first try to resolve this with your provider, but if this does not work there are two official bodies that you can take your complaint to.
Broadband providers have different approaches to managing traffic on their networks, so check out our guide below to find out who does what.
BT offers truly unlimited packages and doesn't impose any restrictions via traffic management. Read BT’s approach to traffic management on its website.
As it is owned by BT, it doesn’t impose download limits or usage caps, and promises not to throttle speeds.
Its packages are truly unlimited, with no download or data caps, but some packages (for example, Sky Broadband Connect) are subject to a Network Management and Acceptable Usage Policy.
It does not limit line speed, usage or downloads, but some of its older products have ‘traffic prioritisation’ applied to them to provide capacity to all customers.
Traffic prioritisation isn't applied to Unlimited, Unlimited Fibre, Unlimited Fibre Extra, Business Unlimited or Business Unlimited Fibre.
Its unlimited packages are truly unlimited, and it says it won’t reduce broadband speed at internet peak times. However there is a ‘Fair and Acceptable Use’ policy that says it will monitor the network for ‘time excessive usage’ to identify very high bandwidth users and those using peer-to-peer file sharing services.
TalkTalk offers customers a cap-free and unlimited connection. It does not impose traffic management, but does say that it may suspend, restrict or disconnect services if a customer’s usage exceeds what it would expect from a ‘typical’ customer.
Its unlimited broadband has no monthly data usage cap, but it does sometimes moderate the speeds for ‘the top 5% of customers who are downloading or uploading an usually large amount’.
Currently all fair usage policies are governed by EU legislation and this is unlikely to change soon. But be sure to check back with us whenever you are changing your broadband provider or adjusting your broadband package for the latest and most up to date guidance on fair use.