Research out yesterday shows that almost a third of UK households are getting far below the national average broadband speed. It may be that your internet service provider is deliberately slowing it down. But why?
Just this morning I was trying to watch live BBC on iPlayer owing to a CBeebies clash with my six-year-old daughter.
I clicked play but, after watching the scroll wheel turn for a couple of minutes, a message popped up to say the programme wouldn’t play.
It could be a blip or it could very well be because my internet service provider (ISP) is managing my broadband traffic – or, to put that in plain English, slowing my connection down on purpose.
What is traffic management?
Traffic management (also referred to as broadband throttling) refers to a practice deployed by many ISPs to manage, or slow down, certain types of traffic across their network.
The ISPs claim traffic management ensures that everyone using their services gets a good quality service. BT says it manages traffic in order to:
‘Provide the best experience for all our customers by ensuring that non-time-critical peer-to-peer traffic does not impact on the performance of time-critical services such as video streaming.’
Is your broadband being throttled?
BT makes a compelling argument which is in-keeping with recommendations in the government’s Digital Britain report (PDF). However, one of the problems with traffic management is that it’s almost impossible to know if it’s happening, when it’s happening and more specifically if it’s happening to you at any given time.
In a bid to find out more, Which? Computing sent a questionnaire to leading ISPs to find out who’s managing network traffic and when. Of the 17 companies we contacted, 11 told us that they deploy some form of traffic management.
The type of traffic that’s managed, and when, varies from provider to provider. BT, for example, manages P2P traffic between 4pm and midnight weekdays and 9am to midnight at the weekend. O2 also told us that it manages P2P traffic, watching videos and streaming. When this traffic is managed the speed you get will depend on your package.
To further complicate things, not all customers are necessarily managed. Virgin Media, for example, says it only employs traffic management to around 5% of its customers.
Catch-22 for consumers and ISPs
Generally speaking, the times that ISPs are managing traffic marry up with the times we know most of you want to be online. A survey of 11,963 Which? members in December 2011 found that 77% of them were online weekdays between 4pm and 10pm – and at weekends 66% of people were online at those times.
The ISPs say they have to manage traffic at these times because the network is busy but it also means you’re more likely to have a disappointing experience, like mine today.
Does it matter? Yes. Well it matters to me. OK, I can catch up on my news fix at 10pm when my daughter’s in bed, but the fact is I’ve paid my TV licence, which entitles me to Live Stream TV. What gives my ISP the right to stop me doing that?
And traffic management is only going to matter more as time goes on and services such as LoveFilm and Netflix become more popular. If I’ve paid for internet access and paid extra to stream video then the least I can expect is a watchable service.
So what do you think? Is your ISP managing your traffic and do you notice a slower service at peak times? Should ISPs be more open about traffic management? Would you pay more not to have your network managed?