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Fair use of broadband: is it really fair?

Did you sign up for an “unlimited” package only to read the fine print and find out your bandwidth may be capped? Most companies that sell an “unlimited” service also have what’s called a “fair use policy,” which can end up imposing limits on your downloads.

If you’re one of the millions of people who download high-resolution music, movies, and photos, then this could affect you. While you may not be downloading anything like 20GB per month right now, the looming surge in legal movie downloads is just one way this will change.

what to look for

In a nutshell, fair use is the broadband industry’s attempt to keep cyber traffic low. The policy was designed to protect people who might be affected by your download.

If you have an ADSL line, you probably share your connection with the rest of your street. Because ADSL uses BT’s old copper cable network, there is a limit to the capacity they can carry.

The problem is that if you’re a heavy downloader, you could be slowing down the broadband connection of up to 50 other people. And if you’re regularly impacting other people’s Internet, your ISP might decide something needs to be done.

On the other hand, the contention rates for the 2.2 million cable customers (Ofcom, 2006) will be much lower, so they will share with fewer people.

It’s when you use it, not how

Your ISP is just trying to ensure everyone has a good user experience. Those most likely to be affected by the fair use policy are:

  • Peer to peer network users who upload and download a lot of movies and music.
  • Online players.
  • People who work from home and connect remotely to the office.

If any of these apply to you, try reducing your internet usage or try downloading in the wee hours when fewer people will be online on your street. That way, you can still download as much as you want, without causing trouble for anyone else.

Typical sanctions

Most ISPs will ignore large downloads for a month or two, and then contact you to ask you to reduce your usage. However, if you continue to exceed the limits, they will likely take action.

This could take the form of slowing down your connection and therefore limiting how much you can download, restricting your usage at peak times, charging you for your excessive usage, or restricting your use of peer-to-peer sites.

In extreme cases, they can terminate your contract, cutting off your Internet connection until you can get a new connection.

If after you’ve signed up for an “unlimited” package and something like this happens, you don’t have to just accept their decision. There is something you can do.

dispute and resolution

Contact Othello, the telecommunications industry watchdog whose job it is to investigate customer complaints. 33 percent of ISPs are members of the body, so it is always advisable to use a company that is registered, in case you have any problems. Click here to check if your provider is a member.

Othello also charges members to be investigated so it will help your case to get them involved.
If your ISP is not a member of Othello, try Ofcom, the UK’s independent regulator, who may still be able to help.

“I have to face the facts; I’m a download addict”

If you know you download heavily, then it might be time to admit that you need to cut back.

But what counts as a big download? The average 12-track album is about 0.48 GB, while a downloaded movie can be up to 1 GB. Apple’s new movie download service, while currently only available in the US format, is 2.5 GB in size.

You have to be realistic: if you’re doing a lot of downloading, you need a robust package. Save on the hassle and cost of calls to your ISP’s customer service center.

So what is the correct package?

Why go through the hassle of a fair usage agreement and risk incurring the wrath of your ISP when you exceed your limit? Try a high-end package where unlimited really means unlimited.

Some of the best providers for heavy downloads right now are Telewest and ntl. Since they don’t rely on the old copper network and have fewer people sharing lines, you’re less likely to run into fair use issues. You can also try Be There Broadband, a high-end download network for broadband users.

Fair Use Offers

There is nothing wrong with these offers, but you should be careful and watch your download.

Use a discharge compressor

If you can’t bear to slow down your downloads, but don’t want to spend more to upgrade your package, you can try using a download compressor like OnSpeed, which increases your connection speed by compressing files. The software costs £24.99 for a 12-month subscription (although you still have to pay your ISP for your connection).

However, it cannot compress file downloads or uploads, such as QuickTime, MP3, AVI, MPEG files, exes, or streaming media, so it is more useful for people who have already had restrictions on their connection, as it can increase broadband speeds up to five times.

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