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Posted on April 18th, 2013 by Barry Collins

What are the acceptable limits of “unlimited” internet?

Frustrated computer user

For years we’ve argued against the sheer ridiculousness of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) allowing fixed and mobile ISPs to advertise services with stated limits as “unlimited”. Recently, the ASA has upheld complaints against both Virgin Media and T-Mobile when advertising “unlimited” services, claiming that the limits they imposed went beyond the permitted “moderate restrictions”.

The networks have told us that they’re confused about what they can and can’t advertise as “unlimited”; broadband customers are confused; we’re confused. So we asked the ASA to define exactly what counts as a “moderate restriction”. It sent us the text of a Help Note, that’s designed to clear this all up:

Providers of ‘unlimited’ telecommunications services must be able to demonstrate that a provider-imposed limitation is not contrary to the average consumer’s expectation of a service advertised as ‘unlimited’.”

How many hours of traffic management would be reasonable? Nobody knows

We’d argue that the average consumer’s expectation of a service marketed as “unlimited” is that it imposes no limitations whatsoever, but the ASA operates on a higher linguistic plane than the rest of us.

“Providers should be able to demonstrate that limitations imposed on the speed or usage of a service do not prevent or hinder users from carrying out lawful online activities, such as streaming content, at or close to the consumer’s normal connection speed.

Where they affect download speeds, for the downloading of large files on peer-to-peer protocols, for instance, providers should be able to demonstrate that the effect of a traffic-management policy or mechanism is not beyond what consumers would reasonably expect.”

Wooly phrases such as “close to the consumer’s normal connection speed” and “what consumers would reasonably expect” are as (deliberately?) ambiguous as the “moderate restriction” phrase they’re meant to be clarifying. However, the ASA does provide some firmer guidance on what is and isn’t acceptable.

“Virgin’s traffic management policy included a flat reduction of certain users’ speed by 50% and they did not provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that this was not beyond consumers’ reasonable expectations of a restriction that can be described as “moderate”.”

As a result of that adjudication, Virgin Media reduced its traffic throttling from 50% to 40%, according to a report from Thinkbroadband, but even the ASA isn’t sure if that’s good enough to meet its own criteria. “The ASA has contacted us and the 40% throttle level has not had approval,” Thinkbroadband reported. “It appears the jury is still out on whether the 40% reduction in throughput counts as a moderate reduction in speed.”

“[Likewise, regarding T-Mobile’s] slowing down of peer-to-peer activity between the hours of 8am – 2am, T-Mobile had not provided evidence to show that the restriction was moderate and in line with consumers’ reasonable expectations of an ‘unlimited’ service.”

How many hours of traffic management would be reasonable? Nobody knows.

Utter confusion

With the ASA failing to provide anything but vague, meaningless guidelines, is it any wonder that ISPs complain they don’t know what they’re allowed to advertise, and are made to look bad when the ASA upholds complaints against them? An ASA spokesman told us:

“We appreciate that ISPs/networks might be frustrated that we haven’t comprehensively set out what ‘moderate’ is or what the expectations of the average consumer are.

“That said, the Help Note was, as you’ll appreciate, fundamentally intended to raise the bar on the use of the ‘unlimited’ claims as a direct response to consumer concerns about their proliferation in marketing for products that many did not feel were ‘unlimited’ in practice. The fact that there is going to be a period where there are several ASA rulings setting a precedent on this issue is testament to this.”

The only thing the ASA has “raised the bar” on is Orwellian doublespeak.  

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23 Responses to “ What are the acceptable limits of “unlimited” internet? ”

  1. Nelviticus Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 11:59 am

    That’s a bit unfair on the ASA. They’re not lawmakers, after all. How would you define ‘unlimited’? If you had infinite bandwidth and infinite speed you could download the entire Internet in zero seconds, so anything else could pedantically be labelled ‘limited’. ‘Unlimited’ can never truly mean that, so would you ban the word altogether?

  2. Chris Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    to me unlimited means “Download as much data as you can, within the physical limits of your network connection without any traffic management”

    that means the household at the top of the road would be able to download more data than me as they are closer to BT Infinity’s box.

  3. AlphaGeeK Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    @Nelviticus: Don’t be ridiculous. It’s simple, unlimited should mean as fast as their infrastructure can go with no shaping or caps AT ALL.

    Let them sell ‘limited’ services for a lesser amount of money. Unlimited should mean that.

    I appreciate that the ASA are not lawmakers, so why don’t we stick to something we can all agree on, the dictionary.

    Unlimited: Adjective – Not limited or restricted in terms of number, quantity, or extent.

  4. What ? Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    That comment makes no sense. No-one is saying that the isps should provide infinite bandwith / speed, but rather they should not advertise something as unlimited and then for example limit the quantity of data one is able to download or traffic shape. Being able to deliver the advertised speed would also be a plus….

  5. David Wright Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    P2P networks… When I was a tester for SUSE, that involved a 4GB BitTorrent file twice a week. Just because a protocol can be used for illegal purposes doesn’t mean that is its only use.

    Just look at the Jaguar Mk II. That wasn’t banned, once bank robbers took a liking to it and the Range Rover hasn’t been banned, because it was a favourite of ram raiders in the 90s…

    @Netviticus – the problem is, the word unlimited is defined. Given that there are physical limits (maximum line speed due to distance from exchange and the technology used), then “unlimited” should mean that if the user runs their connection at 100% load 24/7, that is within the definition. If the connection is throttled or otherwise made artificially slower or packet shaping is used, then that isn’t unlimited. It is very simple. (In other words, what AlphaGeeK said.

    It looks like Telekom is now starting to go limited, after over a decade of no limits. (I used to regularly run up over 200GB a month, without downloading anything illegally, now it looks like 80GB is going to be the limit – unless you use their Entertain HD streaming package, that doesn’t count as traffic.

    Glad I switch to Osnatel.

  6. DaveyK Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    It’s very simply. If a service has no limits, no usage restrictions, no throttling etc, it should be allowed to call it unlimited as it is without limit. If there are any Fair Usage Policies, throttlings etc, then the service clearly DOES have limits, and so allowing it to be called “unlimited” is plain, 100% wrong.

    It’s incredibly simple, yet the ASA are basically allowing ISPs to lie, so long as they don’t lie too much – in a nutshell!

  7. David Artiss Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    Nelviticus’ lack of knowledge on the word “unlimited” and defence of the ASA makes me think he must work for them ;)

  8. David Artiss Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    On a different note, I completely agree on PC Pro’s stance on this. Anything other than completely unlimited should not be allowed to be labelled as “unlimited”.

    The ASA are being purposefully wooly about it. However, saying that this is even causing the ISPs problems is a moot point – if they didn’t spend their time trying to get around the wording and dropped using the word for a service they’re not providing then it wouldn’t be a problem.

    Nonetheless the ASA need to get their head from out of their backside and give some firm guidelines, whatever they may be.

  9. Mark Thompson Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    ASA need to draw a line under their previous decisions and “re-define” unlimited as exactly that. I’m surethe ISPs would come up with some other hyperbole to describe their premium offerings.

  10. Mark Thompson Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    (Contd) but at least it wouldn’t be as misleading as the current nonsense they are permitted to spout.

  11. Jonathan Gray Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Surely the solution to this is quite simple. The definition of ‘unlimited’ should be where no limits are place upon the service by the service provider. This would prohibit traffic shaping or throttling or other measures which would impede data flow as these would clearly constitute ‘limits’ on the users connection.

  12. Jono Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Easy – Unlimited means UNLIMITED. That’s what any reasonable person would be expect. No shaping, no data cap, no ‘fair use’ just a guideline to the max up and down speeds you can expect. Unlimited = without limits. Listen up, crazy ASA fools!

  13. Steve Smith Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    It’s dishonesty, pure and simple. People know what ‘unlimited’ means: networks knowingly and inaccurately apply the term to services that are not unlimited as a marketing strategy. The effect is temporary and the strategy is self-defeating: by now most people know that ‘unlimited’ is a meaningless term when used by companies like Virgin Media, so the effect of the lie is mitigated. Furthermore, acquiring a dodgy reputation in one area of business risks a knock-on effect elsewhere. Beware all users of the Virgin brand. I’d be much more impressed if they told the truth on the ‘a Volvo is quite a good car’ model. ‘Virgin media has pretty fast broadband that works well most of the time in quite a lot of areas.’ Would that work?

  14. Rob Radina Says:
    April 18th, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    This is an insanely SIMPLE problem to remedy. We just need to look at car rental companies. They offer unlimited miles during the rental period. Of course there is a natural limit to the amount of miles you can drive in a day. They know that and price the cost of the rental accordingly.

    Likewise, an “unlimited” Internet connection should be able to deliver the maximum number of bytes over a given time period. The ISP simply needs to set the speed of the connection to a value that makes sure the maximum is reasonable and expected. If you want more speed, you pay more but there doesn’t need to be limits on “unlimited” service.

    The only time these strategies run into trouble is when a business advertises what it never expects it will be asked to deliver. IMO, that’s fraud.

  15. Richard Says:
    April 19th, 2013 at 5:56 am

    ASA needs a dictionary, it don’t matter what linguistic level they see them selves on, they should hold them selves to the same level as the people the advertisements are targeted for.
    So what does free refills mean in 2013?

  16. David Knight Says:
    April 19th, 2013 at 8:38 am

    My gast as never been so flabbered, to think that we even need to discuss what a really quite simple word means and the implications of it in application.

    The problem is the difference between limited and unlimited is vast. I don’t think that the majority of us actually need what is technically possible (100% service 24/7), but nor do we need silly little capped contracts that can be exceeded visting a single web site.

  17. Simon Mitchell Says:
    April 19th, 2013 at 9:42 am

    Unlimited should mean no caps or traffic shaping.

    If ISPs are going to restrict my usage of their service, it ain’t unlimited.

  18. George Says:
    April 20th, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    If only just one ISP is able to provide a truly unlimited service, i.e. absolutely no artificial limits placed on their service, then no other ISP should be allowed to describe their service as unlimited unless they do the same.

  19. BJ Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 8:12 am

    Unlimited should be exactly what it says on the box. My own network connection from Virgin has been limited on (at least) two occasions that I am aware of resulting in performance being abysmal. On both occasions it was when the two computers we have attached to it were having various maintenance patches applied, and NOT when (for example) downloading video content – which we would expect to be more demanding.

  20. RPS Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 9:37 am

    @George – Andrews and Arnold offer a true, unlimited service. No caps, no restrictions, no traffic shaping. You just have to pay for what you use. Then they use that money to ensure their network is not a bottleneck.

  21. George Farmer Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Plain English? OED says ‘Unlimited not limited or restricted; infinite’
    Someone had better let them know that the ASA has changed the definition, after all they are the experts in language & it’s definition

  22. Katsu999 Says:
    April 25th, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    …and the ASA seems to make a distinction in terms of ‘Data’ between ‘Streaming’ and ‘P2P’.

    Surely they are both just ‘bitstreams pouring down a pipe’, and there shouldn’t be a distinction – otherwise the family watching Ultra-HD-quality streaming movies 24/7 won’t be made to suffer, but the geek next door downloading Linux ISO’s will get his speed hammered.

    But the ASA isn’t known for it’s logic or intelligence in any sense of the dictionary meanings.

    In fact this points up the ‘Pay for what you Download’ possibility, which could solve the P2P bandwidth issue too.

  23. Pongo Says:
    October 29th, 2013 at 8:33 am

    Where I live, all ISP’s have “unlimited” data packages, where the real limit is reached by sending no more than 10 photos on a messenger service, or watching a couple of small Youtube music videos. This is FRAUD.

    One poor guy who came to live here ran up a bill of 2000 USD in one month because he believed the hype.


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