Internet users feel the limit of "unlimited" broadband

Internet users craving more video and music downloads have been left with a bitter taste in their mouths as ISPs cut down on bandwidth or kill it completely if they use too much of their "unlimited" broadband, according to service comparison company SimplySwitch.

SimplySwitch chief executive Karen Darby said that many ISPs claim they offer 'unlimited' monthly downloads, but in the small print of their contract "fair usage" terms and conditions allow them to throttle bandwidths or terminate the service completely when demand is heavy. She said these terms were "unfair to customers".

Virgin Media, for example, includes the provision: "Usage not at a reasonable level may lead to disconnection of service". Toucan offers "'unlimited downloads'... but restricted to 1Gb during peak hours."

Tiscali's Jody Haskayne told sister publication PC Pro that the ISP employs "no physical limit," but does have the capacity within the network for "traffic shaping" that restricts peer-to-peer traffic. However, the on-demand video and IPTV offerings from Tiscali are managed separately to ensure a reliable and robust service and are not subject to any such restrictions.

But should demand for video outside of these commercial services outstrip ISPs' abilities to build out their networks to cost-effectively offer ever increasing bandwidths, then this "ad-hoc" video content might suffer in times of high traffic.

One reason for this is that ISPs have no commercial incentive to ensure the robust delivery of third-party video such as Channel 4's 4oD service, or to the BBC's iPlayer.

"They are using our network to sell their programmes without paying for carriage," she told us. "Some time in the future this will have to be addressed ... There has to be concensus [on how delivery of this content is paid for] to allow the growth in network capacity to continue."

Even though network capacity should be able to meet demand for the immediate future, Darby insisted ISPs are wrong to describe their services as 'unlimited' and she herself had managed to exceed her unlimited broadband connection limit.

"Personally I was kicked off Tiscali for using broadband too much and this is an easy thing for most people to do," she said. A recent survey by telecom regulator Ofcom showed some 71 per cent of broadband customers - 9 million people - wrongly assumed their ISPs offer an unlimited service, because that's what they are advertised as.

Darby said that broadband companies should not advertise their services as unlimited broadband when the reality is that there are limits.

"Some set the bar quite high but at the end of the day it is still a limit, so it is wrong that they advertise their services as unlimited."

She said that broadband has become cheaper and faster and exceeding these "limits" was a good way of leaving a contract without having to pay a cancellation fee.