The 'free' fairy story

'Unlimited' broadband? Yeah right.

Comment If you believe advertisements, you can now get unlimited broadband for a couple of hundred pounds a year.

Do you believe? Here's the truth: Anybody who really thinks Freeserve was free, will probably believe that TalkTalk broadband will be free "forever" too. It isn't unlimited, and it isn't free forever. You get what you pay for.

The real question is: "What on earth has hypnotised the advertising regulators into a state of mind where they're happy to permit this sort of fantasy?"

Over the next six months, my bet is that many of us are going to pay the price of falling for fairy stories. Our ISPs are going to face a stark choice: increase prices or go out of business. The reality is that bandwidth costs them money; if you're an ISP selling bandwidth to home computer users, you're paying money to a wholesaler and adding your margin. The more they use, the more you have to pay BT, and the less profit you make. And so, as people use more and more bandwidth, the profits the ISPs make get smaller and smaller.

They have no choice. Either, they increase the price (impossible, there's a contract for a year!) or they start "capping" the data you can use. They are turning the taps off.

The trouble is, many of these people are - quite dishonestly - still selling this bandwidth as "unlimited."

For example, check out Uswitch's broadband recommendations. You tell the software on its site how much you surf, and it tells you who to buy broadband from.

I filled it in, with just about every parameter showing me to be a "heavy user" - I want to spend the greatest amount of time online possible in their ratings, download more emails than they expect, play games longer than they believe possible, and spend quite a lot of each week downloading TV programmes and music. I simply couldn't have picked bigger figures than the ones I did.

It recommended Toucan, for fifteen pounds a month "unlimited" broadband, at two megabits a second. After that, it picked out Telewest, Homechoice, and finally, Bulldog.

Wow! On the strength of that, should I switch to Toucan? Not if I have my head screwed on. I happen to know that, in fact, Toucan has a "fair use policy" which would crash and burn within a week of my signing up.

For example, on Toucan's own website, you can download an Acrobat document which alludes to this. It warns that "unlimited" isn't quite what it sounds, but does it in a way that makes it sound like this is a trivial detail:

Q: "What restrictions do we impose on heavy users?"

A: "It is unlikely that you will be affected by this policy unless you use peer-to-peer or file sharing software or download high volumes of data."

What, exactly, are high volumes of data?

"Our systems monitor the level of usage by each customer. If those systems detect that a customer's level of usage is excessive, that person will be sent a notification by email and will, for the subsequent period of seven days, contend for bandwidth with other very high users and will be separated from other customers. Consequently, the speed these customers will experience will depend on the activities of other heavy users."

Not entirely unlimited, is it? But there's more:

"Note again, that excessive usage is only monitored during peak hours and the restrictions mentioned are only imposed during peak hours. Outside of peak hours, no restrictions apply."

And when are peak hours?

"Peak hours are 6pm to 11pm Monday to Friday and 12pm to 4pm on weekends and bank holidays."

Exactly when most of us would want to use it, in fact.

One of my readers, noting a rant I posted on my blog some weeks back, wrote to me this week, describing his experience with the reality of "unlimited" Toucan service. I have a copy of the letter Toucan wrote, signed by Pam Shergill, customer services manager, explaining that he's way over the "unlimited" limit:

"We monitor peak hour high usage on a weekly basis. Over the last week, your downloads and uploads have totalled 6.17 GB, which exceeds our peak hour usage thresholds:

"ToucanSurf 512Kb and 1Mb: 0.75 GB

"ToucanSurf 2Mb: 1GB"

Not unnaturally, this prompted an irate letter from the user, pointing out that if they'd made this limit clear, he'd not have signed up; and asking them to set things in motion to let him switch to someone else. Previously, he'd been with BT broadband, which had a 30 gigabyte limit per month - a limit he never approached. Now, despite being assured that he's "most unlikely" to reach the limit, and that there is "no formal limit" he's being told it's a gigabyte per week.

You can't blame Toucan for having limits on traffic. The way the wholesale price is set, an ISP would simply go out of business if all its users were heavy users. Instead, it counts on the fact that most users are going to send maybe one or two emails a day, and occasionally upload some pictures to Flikr.

What you can blame them for, is for advertising this as "unlimited".

At Uswitch, the Toucan advert is quite explicit: the service is called "2Mb unlimited" and download restrictions are "unlimited". Toucan itself doesn't quite call its service unlimited. Instead, it calls it unlimited* and the asterisk, when examined, points to the following claim: "*We don't apply any formal limits to the amount of data you up/download with ToucanSurf broadband. However, we may restrict over-use by heavy users by, for example, prioritising traffic from light users during peak periods. See our Fair Usage Policy for more details..." with a pointer to the PDF file noted above.

Not quite how I'd describe one gig a week, frankly!

I've focused on Toucan, because of the star billing it gets from Uswitch, as well as the statements it makes - statements which aren't supported by the letter it sent to a user - on its website. But it's not alone in its fantastic optimism; a google search on "unlimited broadband" will give you some results that make your hair stand on end.

It really is impossible to set a requirements list on Uswitch which would not result in a recommendation to use Toucan. For someone who actually knows what is going on, warning bells should ring when you get to the email section, and find that you get only ten megabytes of storage. All those asterisks should make your eyebrows twitch, too; but at the end of the day, surely it (and its agents) are simply misleading the innocent?

In one sense, you could argue that it's not the fault of the ISPs. They set up their business plan before the age of file sharing and peer-to-peer networks. In those days, users mostly didn't come close to stressing the network.

These days, they do. Big cable companies like Telewest and NTL routinely disable peer-to-peer traffic when the number of connections rises above a comfortable limit. The net simply can't cope with uploads! - the Margaret Thatcher plan was predicated on central broadcast technology to bring thousands of TV channels to passive viewers, and none of it was ever designed to cope with massive amounts of traffic in the opposite direction.

And broadcasters, starting with the BBC, are now offering "listen again" and "watch again" services over broadband. Services like eDonkey and bittorrent are flooding the wires with top-speed flows of hour-long TV shows from the US, because UK broadcasters don't get the latest episode for weeks, or even months, after they're aired in North America. And of course, we're downloading software, too.

All that, however, is just excuses, excuses.

The ISPs have known for six months now what usage patterns are doing, and which way the trend is running. At this stage, they know full well they are advertising "unlimited" when they cannot provide it. And Toucan isn't the only one.

It shouldn't happen. It's not fair to the users. Even more, it's not fair to honest ISPs who quote a fair price for what they provide, and find themselves left off the list because they're being undercut by people who in my opinion are, quite simply, lying. The "unlimited" people are not providing what they promise.

I'm writing to the Advertising Standards Authority about this. To me, "unlimited" broadband cannot be provided at a rock bottom price, and anybody who says it can, is being innovative with the level of honesty they are using.

And I warmly suggest you report any "unlimited" claims you see in advertisements to ASA, as well. ®

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