There is no unlimited

20 May

Lots of UK ISPs offer ADSL (Broadband) packages that have an “unlimited bandwidth” option but this is nowhere near realisticly unlimited. As I have mentioned in “iPlayer and BitTorrent: The truth about so-called unlimited broadband” you are likely to get the same throughput (bandwidth) as a cheaper “limited” package but with a decreased quality to stretch it out over the month. New technologies are exposing this “unlimited” bandwidth and showing us that simply is not there.

“The Ofcom Consumer Panel has called on regulators to pull their fingers out and demand that ISPs are more honest with us about the limitations of broadband.

“The group wants a new mandatory code of practice to force providers to qualify their dodgy ‘up to’ speed claims, which accompany virtually all broadband marketing. The slowdown effects of contention, distance from the exchange, and network status should be made clear, it argues.”

Your “up to” 8 Meg line might run effectively at 4 Meg, or maybe only 64 Kbps and this is within the product description. That “up to” is a way of ISPs promising you everything but then not having to give you anything. If you try to complain that the speed is not as advertised they will tell you that your speed is reliant on the conditions of the cable and your distance from the exchange. What they do not tell you is that if they are unable to provide what they offered you will need a damn good solicitor to sue them for breach of contract because the terms and conditions say that whatever they offer you get whatever you get. Sorry.

The full truth is even more shady. You have no actual way of knowing how fast an effective speed (after network errors, throttles, shaping, resets, delays and network lag are taken into account) you get. Your ISP can choke the effective speed down to save the budgeted bandwidth for business users (who pay better).

In “The truth about so-called unlimited broadband” I examined how the BBC had braught this issue to a head:

If you live in the UK you will be sure to be aware that the BBC (known fondly as Aunty) has launched it’s own peer-to-peer media player. The BBC’s iPlayer uses software called Kontiki (similar to BitTorrent) which also powers “Sky Anytime” and “4od”. This enables the BBC to off set the massive requirements of distributing it’s “free” media by having the consumers take part in providing the stream.

Kontiki is basically a peer-to-peer system and so like BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer programs it sends lots of data accross the network.

Plusnet, according to Bob Pullen from plusnet (see my blog post for more on that), tells me that plusnet do not offer an unlimited package and that they use a “quality of service” system to give priority to things like Aunty’s iPlayer while thier site says peer-to-peer traffic is down at the bottom of the priority list. Take from that what you will.

ISPs have to transmit the packets through their networks and they do not really like it. The issue here is that the previous monopoly (BT) charge ISPs in a bizzar way. When ISPs get connected to the BT network the only cost to BT is the man power and connection equipment. Once it is set up it is effectively cost free but for the ISP the cost is just starting as they are charged for every packet of data that passes through that connection.

This increase in bandwidth usage is not so sudden and should have been easily predictable by the ISPs but they have been caught with their pants down. What they should have been doing is investing heavily in scalable solutions so that as the demand increased so could they. Woops no – they are worried that if you use what you paid for they will go bust.

What ISPs see as an answer is called “traffic shaping” – they throttle the bandwidth so that the connection speed might be 7.5 Mbps but your effective speed is sometimes likely to be more like 0.4 Mbps. When it comes to peer-to-peer they get even more aggressive and attempt to block your use of such services (such as peer-to-peer services iPlayer or BitTorrent) using a range of techniques that can include data fraud and spying. Some ISPs may actually “spy” on every packet of data you transmit through their network and when they see peer-to-peer packets they inject extra data into the steam as it passes through which is a “reset signal” that disconnects you from peers.

This inspection is not so different to automated wiretapping and definitely threatens your privacy. This may or maynot be against the law but this has never been tested. One answer is to use an encrypted connection whenever you can but not all sites have https support and not all peer-to-peer clients support it but as the ISPs get more aggressive in not giving you what they promise so to the users are getting smarter.

This is not an issue that is going to go away and without strong calls for increased transparency over the methods used to “shape traffic” ISPs will do whatever they like. Where does this leave us?

Well… it leaves us asking more questions and seeing few answers. I’m going to quiz Bob as he has stepped up to join in so keep an eye on me here and else where as the answers start to arrive (or fail to).

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