Why the distinction?
For a long time there was no formal definition of what 'unlimited' meant in terms of your broadband service. ‘Unlimited’ was used as a marketing term for broadband with no advertised usage cap and was proven to sell well, but there were no strict regulations holding providers to particular standards.
Because of this, it was standard practice to have a ‘fair usage policy’ hidden somewhere on the provider’s website that placed a ‘reasonable usage’ limit on services sold as ‘unlimited’. This would mean that when the user went past this hard-to-find or secret limit they’d be given a warning and then if they didn’t desist they’d be cut off or charged a large bill for the additional data.
Unsurprisingly lots of people felt this was unfair and misleading. Complaints about ‘unlimited broadband’ being secretly limited used to be one of the most common reasons people contacted our broadband experts, but there was very little we could advise disgruntled customers to do except go with a provider with a large upfront advertised usage limit.
This all changed when, after listening to customer feedback, Sky Broadband were the first to challenge this industry standard practice of secretly limiting ‘unlimited broadband’. In September 2008 Sky launched the first ever truly unlimited broadband service, with no fair usage policy. For the first time people could choose an unlimited broadband provider and know that their download allowance really truly would not be limited. It was understandably popular with customers and Sky gained a good reputation from heavy users and busy households alike.
Sky’s decision to go ‘truly unlimited’ also served to publicise the fact that other providers’ unlimited broadband wasn’t what most customers assumed. Complaints and campaigns about the misuse of the term ‘unlimited’ increased and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) brought in new regulations to ensure that ‘unlimited’ was not used in a misleading way.
As a result of these rules, which came into force on the 1st of April 2012, broadband suppliers can no longer charge customers or suspend their service for excessive usage. However they are allowed to apply ‘traffic management’ restrictions, but only if these restrictions are made clear to customers.
One of the other requirements of the ASA regulations on ‘unlimited’ was that websites about broadband needed to make a clear distinction to show when restrictions applied to services sold as unlimited. To show this distinction to our visitors, we opted to take Sky’s lead and show the restricted packages as ‘unlimited’ and Sky’s products as ‘truly unlimited’.
Soon after these changes took place, other broadband providers started to follow Sky’s lead. First Orange Home Broadband (now EE Home Broadband) then TalkTalk removed their unlimited restrictions, and more recently providers like BT and John Lewis Broadband have followed suit.
What is unlimited broadband?
Today packages sold as ‘unlimited broadband’ have no usage cap, allowing you to download and upload as much data as you like without needing to worry about exceeding an agreed limit and perhaps incurring a large bill or having your service suspended until the next month.
However, 'unlimited' broadband packages can still have traffic management that restricts your Internet speeds at peak times, especially if you are a heavy Internet user or live in a busy home with a family or housemates. For example Virgin Media applies traffic management slowdowns for an hour to upload speeds if your upload data usage exceeds a certain threshold in the previous hour. It also slows down both downloa peer to peer file sharing services (such as bittorrent) and newsgroups during peak hours.
Ofcom rules require your provider to make their traffic management policy clear and easy to find, and ASA regulations mean that you should be aware when these restrictions apply before you sign up.
Another type of even more restricted service is also sometimes promoted as ‘unlimited’, usually by mobile broadband providers. This sells ‘unlimited browsing’ or ‘unlimited web’, where only the viewing of web pages is unlimited while heavy ‘fair usage’ limits and restrictions apply to other types of traffic, such as video streaming, Skype calls or online radio. The ASA regulations require these restrictions to be clear, but look out for possibly misleading caveats after the word ‘unlimited’.
What is truly unlimited broadband?
'Truly unlimited' broadband has no usage cap and no traffic management tied to usage volume, meaning you will always receive the fastest service your line and type of broadband will support, so you can use the Internet as heavily as you wish with no associated penalties.
Even if you, your family or housemates are heavy downloaders, regularly play online games, or watch a lot of films and television online, you’ll never have penalties applied to your service no matter what time you go online. While there is usually some drop in speed at peak times due to the number of people using the service, your speed will never be artificially reduced.
Why choose truly unlimited broadband?
With truly unlimited broadband, you don't have to worry about how much you use the Internet, meaning potentially less stress and more freedom when you go online. You know you'll never be artificially slowed down for using your connection too much.
Those who use the Internet heavily will benefit greatly from having no usage cap or speed limiting. This includes:
Television and Film Streamers
Those who use services like On Demand, Netflix, LoveFilm, NOW TV or Sky Go to watch TV shows and movies online can rapidly hit traffic management policy allowances at peak times, especially when watching high definition content. With increasingly improving video stream quality and more and more people watching these services on their TVs, games consoles, computers and tablets, this is now one of the most common ways that households hit usage limits. A person who regularly streams HD movies can easily use 100GB of data in a month, and this figure can be multiplied in a household where family members or housemates are streaming on multiple devices.
Those who regularly play MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games, such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online) and other games that require a lot of Internet use can find that they will rapidly hit download caps due to the bandwidth involved. A fast broadband speed is also required and therefore having your Internet speed restricted at peak times, as can occur with packages which are not truly unlimited, can be a big problem.
Truly unlimited broadband means you can play as much as you want without being penalised for it, and also lets you play at peak times without worrying about being artificially slowed-down by your provider.
Those who download large files and/or download on a regular basis can reach download limits very quickly. This is the case for anyone who uses torrents, especially if you download movies or other large files. A 40GB limit can sound like a lot - but that can met solely by downloading 10 high-quality films in one month, not even accounting for other Internet usage, and it can all quickly add up.
Unlimited broadband removes this restriction for you, meaning you don't need to worry about how much you download every month, and the lack of traffic management you gain from a truly unlimited service means you won't have your download speeds cut at peak times, helping you avoid the need to wait as long for your files - and it is worth noting that traffic management, even on 'unlimited' packages, tends to target heavy downloaders more than other Internet users due to their volume of data usage, making truly unlimited services the ideal choice for habitual downloaders.
When various members of a household share an Internet connection, that means that connection's download limits are divided out amongst the people in the house, meaning less for each person. A 40GB download cap will only be a 10GB download cap per person in a house where 4 people all use the Internet equally. Larger households and busy homes with several heavy Internet users - like the streamers, gamers and downloaders described above - will therefore suffer from having download limits that might not be a problem if they were applied to each person individually. Student households, flatshares and large families are likely to be at a disadvantage due to this.
Truly unlimited broadband means that this is no longer an issue, letting everyone sharing the connection use the Internet as much as they like without needing to worry if, for example, your flatmate's online gaming means you won't be able to download a music album without hitting the cap, causing further problems.
Peak Time Internet Users
Even those on 'unlimited' broadband packages can encounter traffic management restrictions at peak times, slowing down their Internet service. For those who mostly access the Internet during peak times, such as professionals with busy schedules, this can seem like a restriction in your service. This will only apply to heavier Internet users, but if that includes you, and you are online the most during weekday evenings, then you may wish to consider getting a truly unlimited package and being sure of getting the fastest speed available at those peak times without your provider slowing things down.
Uploaders, Video Content Creators and YouTubers
Although most usage comes from downloading and consuming content, there’s an increasingly large number of Internet users who create and upload their own content. The largest file uploads are usually videos, with even relatively short YouTube-length videos producing large files at full HD resolution. Upload speed is usually proportionally slower than download speed, but equally upload traffic management usage caps are usually smaller. If caps are based on relative usage, with fewer people uploading heavily, it’s easier to be in the top few percent of heaviest uploaders, and this becomes even easier to achieve with a superfast connection with up to 10 or 20Mb upload speed.
Cloud Backup, Sync and Drive
Cloud services like iCloud, DropBox, Google Drive and SkyDrive are increasingly popular. They can be used to keep all your different devices in sync with the same files, or keep your pictures and videos available wherever you go. It can also be used as backup or even in the place of your local harddrive. The latest versions of Windows and OS X even save to the cloud by default.
What you might not realise is that cloud services are usually also saving those files on your desktop computers, and every time you change a file on your tablet it also gets downloaded on your desktop. Any files changed on your desktop computer is automatically uploaded to the cloud and downloaded to all your other devices. All this upload and downloading is happening over your broadband connection, even though your devices might all be in the same room. If you don't have a truly unlimited connection this frequent file syncing could be counting towards your usage allowance or your traffic management threshold. As such, truly unlimited is best for the cloud.
Other things to consider
So you’ve decided that you want a truly unlimited broadband service, but there’s still other things to take into account when deciding which provider and what type of service to choose.
If you would benefit from truly unlimited broadband for the reasons described above, it’s likely that you’d also benefit from a superfast broadband service offering speeds well in excess of the 24Mb limit of standard phone line broadband.
It used to be the case that you had to choose between truly unlimited or superfast broadband, as Virgin Media’s high speed cable services are subject to a peak time traffic management policy. However many fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) services with speeds of up to 38 or 76Mb (depending on the type of package you choose and your distance from the street cabinet) now also offer truly unlimited usage. In fact most of the truly unlimited providers listed above now also offer superfast truly unlimited fibre services.
If your telephone exchange and street cabinet have been upgraded to support fibre to the cabinet services, it’s well worth investigating upgrading to a faster truly unlimited fibre service, especially if you have a busy home.
Differences between providers
Not all providers are equal, here are some other factors to consider:
- Bundled services - the quality and value for money of the TV or phone packages bundled with your broadband
- Extras and exclusives - whether the service comes with extras like free wi-fi when you’re out and about, or exclusive perks like access to streaming services
- Network congestion - how overloaded services get at peak times, some budget providers may cut costs this way causing slowdowns while bigger names invest more in maintaining capacity
- Reliability - how often the service develops technical faults or experiences downtime
- Customer service - how good the help you receive is when something goes wrong
- Setup and line rental - how much installation costs are (particularly a factor with fibre broadband) and how much your monthly line rental is
- Contract length - how long you’re tied into this service before you can switch, especially important if you might wish to upgrade to a fibre service later
Ways to compare truly unlimited broadband
There’s a dedicated Unlimited Broadband tab and any tab can be sorted for usage by clicking that heading; for example here’s the Fibre Optic tab sorted by usage, and here’s the TV Bundles tab with truly unlimited deals first.
You can compare the reliability and customer service of providers by reading our customer reviews and you can look at relative speeds of the different providers by looking at the national average speeds for users of our broadband speed test.
You can also compare packages offered by truly unlimited broadband suppliers by clicking the ‘All Deals’ tab on their provider page.