Business Technology

Thursday 22 August 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'The unlimited broadband myth'

Netflix's Stranger Things. Streaming services are putting pressure on families' data bundles.
Netflix's Stranger Things. Streaming services are putting pressure on families' data bundles.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

What does the word 'unlimited' mean? Here's what the Oxford dictionary says: "Not limited or restricted in terms of number, quantity, or extent. Inexhaustible, limitless, boundless, everlasting, infinite, endless, bottomless, measureless, unrestricted, unconstrained, total, unconditional." Seems clear, right?

Unfortunately, 'unlimited' means something quite different if you're a broadband or mobile subscriber in Ireland. Here, it means 'unlimited if you stay within a fair usage limit'. Operators' small print says they can cut you off or charge you a hefty surplus if you really want to use that unlimited promise. It's not just one or two; all the main ones do it. Here are some examples:

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1. Eir unlimited broadband. "Eir fibre packages with unlimited usage are subject to a fair usage policy of 1TB per month. Usage in excess of 1TB will be charged at €2.50 for every 10GB, up to a maximum of €100 per month."

2. Virgin unlimited mobile data plan. "Virgin Media mobile services are subject to a fair use policy of 40GB in any monthly bill cycle. If you exceed these allowances, Virgin Media may limit the speed of your data connection, suspend your access to the Virgin Media mobile service and/or terminate your account."

3. Vodafone unlimited gigabit broadband. "Vodafone operates a fair usage policy ... where your usage of the services is excessive or unreasonable. Vodafone has developed a threshold for the services and the related tariffs by reference to average customer profiles and estimated customer usage of the services. If, at the absolute discretion of Vodafone, [it] is of the opinion that your usage of the services exceeds [this], Vodafone ... reserves the right to charge you for the excessive element of your usage at your price plan's standard rate, or to suspend, modify or restrict your use of the service."

4. Three unlimited broadband. "Unlimited broadband fair usage of 750GB per billing cycle applies." And on Three's 'all-you-can-eat' mobile data: "Should your data usage exceed 60GB in a billing cycle and your usage affect other network users, we reserve the right to limit the service or to withdraw your access to the service entirely."

Leave aside the elastic interpretation of the word unlimited for one moment. Let's look at what those actual data caps (sorry, fair usage policies) actually limit you to. Let's take the higher broadband packages, with their limited 'unlimited' data caps. Eir's is the highest one, at one terabyte (1,000 gigabytes). What does this mean in real-world usage?

Let's use Netflix as an indicator. For a household with decent broadband, Netflix is likely to be in use. And almost all new TV series that appear there are now filmed at a high 4K (or 'ultra-high definition') resolution.

According to Netflix, an hour's viewing at that 4K standard uses 7GB. (Ordinary high-definition uses around 3GB per hour, according to Netflix.)

Remember, Eir's top limit for its 'unlimited' monthly service is 1,000GB. That's 143 hours of Netflix per month at the higher resolution. Or 4.6 hours per day. For most people, that sounds like plenty, right? But what if you're in a large family with different people watching different things on Netflix at the same time? The days of one single video-viewing device (like a TV) in a house are long gone.

So now you might have just 2.3 hours each per day (or less) before the company starts hitting you with a punitive additional rate of around €1.80 per hour (at a 4K resolution), or threatens to cut your service off because you've breached a limit. And that's before you take into account things like high-definition gaming, which can use tens, or sometimes hundreds, of gigabytes per month.

But as stark as that looks for Eir's 'unlimited' limit, you can cut that allowance by a quarter for Three's broadband limit of 750GB.

And Vodafone? Who knows how little you'd get with its broadband? Vodafone should be basking in the glory of offering fibre-to-the-home broadband on the back of its joint venture with the ESB (Siro).

Instead, it has a secret data cap that it won't disclose to customers, even in its legal terms and conditions. Instead, Vodafone says that it will use an average customer's data usage and cut you off if you veer too much from that.

What might an average customer usage amount be? In Ireland, Virgin broadband users have the highest average monthly data usage.

The most recently disclosed figure from the company was 170GB per month. So if Vodafone's average monthly usage is less than 170GB (which it probably is), how much will a user get before being shut off? 200GB? 400GB? Why would such a monthly usage pattern put pressure on its new fibre broadband offering? Isn't it supposed to be 'uncontended'? Wasn't that the whole selling point of fibre, other than its speed?

Obviously, the actual impact these fair usage policies may have has to be acknowledged. The operators defend the limits on the 'unlimited' services by saying that they're designed to stop egregious abuse by, say, a business posing as a household consumer. So when they say unlimited, they mean it in the context of what a household would use, according to industry norms.

Furthermore, operators say that it's extremely rare that anyone is actually punished for exceeding a fair usage cap. I personally know of a few Three customers, for example, who use over 100GB of data per month on their mobile devices and have never suffered any ramifications. Nevertheless, there is still a basic issue of being upfront about this stuff.

Why call a service unlimited when it literally is not? The answer, obviously, is marketing: the word sounds great.

For some reason, both ComReg and the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland appear to tolerate this situation.

But with data usage sky-rocketing, someone is going to be caught out by this unlimited anomaly sooner rather than later.

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