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‘Unlimited limits' still baffle Broadband users

23rd October 2008 Print
Eighteen months after the unlimited broadband debacle first hit the headlines and around nine out of ten broadband users (86%) still don't understand the limit on their service.

New research from reveals that 6.2 million broadband customers wrongly believe they have an unlimited broadband service and a further 7.5 million do not know what their limit is - a total of 13.7 million confused customers. This has led to almost 1 million consumers nearly reaching or exceeding their limit in the last year alone, an issue that could be avoided if providers clearly stated their ‘unlimited limits'.

However, it seems providers are taking action at last. Last month, Sky laid down a gauntlet for other broadband providers by launching the first completely unlimited service, Broadband Max. They have completely removed the fair usage policy from the terms and conditions, becoming the first provider in the UK to offer the only truly unlimited broadband deal.

This really is an exception as more than half (56%) of all major broadband providers are still using the term unlimited and still baffling broadband users as they do set limits on their packages. Just two providers actually publicise official limits.

With over 16 million broadband connections in Britain bandwidth usage is growing. Video applications and services such as the BBC's iPlayer become more popular with consumers the unlimited issue is only set to continue. Unfortunately, broadband users are completely unaware as to how much their activity adds up to in terms of their overall usage. Even activities such as uploading files can contribute to their ‘acceptable usage' and could cause users to breach the threshold set by their supplier. This means that broadband customers are in danger of having their services limited, suspended or even terminated by their provider.

Tim Wolfenden, Head of Communications at, comments: "The solution is easy, broadband companies should not be allowed to class their packages as unlimited if they are not. Providers are confusing consumers to the extent that broadband users do not even know if they are exceeding a user limit. Broadband usage levels have gone through the roof as more and more consumers are using things such as on-demand TV services. With so much reliance on broadband, having the service disconnected could feel to someone as serious as having their electricity cut off. As providers aren't choosing to be fully transparent about this issue, people need to be savvy when choosing their broadband packages and pay close attention to the small print."

The issue is compounded by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). They currently allow providers to describe their services as ‘unlimited' even if there is fair usage cap, as long as it is detailed in the small print. However, consumers are none the wiser as over 10 million broadband customers have never read their fair usage policy and a further 1.8 million do not know if they have read it or not. These consumers could get a nasty surprise if they inadvertently break the rules and max out their so-called ‘unlimited' service.

Fair usage policies are referred to in the terms and conditions of a broadband contract. It is within this small print that broadband companies get away with classing their packages as ‘unlimited'. Most ‘fair usage policies' generally state that a company has the right to limit a customer's broadband service when usage is ‘excessive'. But on closer inspection few companies actually define the term ‘excessive', making it impossible for a broadband user to know the exact point that they will go over the limit.

The devil's in the detail - examples of small print:

‘very heavy users may have their usage restricted at peak times'

‘speed limiting restrictions may be applied within peak hours, or exceeding fair usage policy can lead to suspension of service'

‘Extremely heavy users will have bandwidth restricted during peak hours. After 3 email warnings, bandwidth will be managed during peak hours'

‘Unlimited during all hours. If usage is deemed detrimental to others, a letter or email will be sent.'

Tim Wolfenden continues; "The ASA and Ofcom need to take firm action and actually set strict guidelines on the advertising of broadband packages. Broadband policies are confusing enough without customers having to worry if they are going to have their service terminated. It would be great if all providers could follow Sky's lead and remove fair usage policies altogether. In the meantime, broadband companies need to make clear and define these limits that they hide in the small print to make sure customers are fully aware of all the details when they sign up."