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3UK is to start limiting mobile broadband traffic from Monday, throttling P2P application and restricting video streaming on overloaded cells.

From Monday morning a congested cell will automatically limit peer-to-peer traffic and reduce video streaming to 400Kb/sec per customer, in an attempt to share out the available bandwidth between users.

The company is branding the steps an attempt to improve the "customer experience", and say they'll only be applied in congested areas. Differential levels of service, with different tariffs, will come later.

The idea that everyone gets the same service is outmoded and customers should be at liberty to pay for faster connectivity or take a discount deal with more-limited speeds. The technology to do that exists today, but 3 won't be deploying it initially: for now the emphasis is on throttling down those perceived as using an unfair proportion of the available bandwidth.

Bandwidth is a limited resource and 3 would much prefer to support 200 users on a cell with only a few hundred kilobits each, than 20 users downloading video files while the rest can't get at their email - though the 20 users concerned might not feel the same way.

More granular control over data rates is obviously going to be an important revenue source in the future. The flat rate (effectively) unlimited tariff is encouraging exactly the kind of price war that voice bundles were designed to defuse: it's in the operator's interest to make pricing too complicated to compare, but flat-rate data makes that difficult.

Chopping up the allowance by application, and allowing customers to pay for greater speeds and priority access, will make things much more complicated. Those prepared to spend a few days working out the details will probably save money while the rest of us just pay more for the convenience of not having to think about it.

3 hasn't gone that far, at least not yet, but it's certainly the first step down that road. ®

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