Unlimited Broadband: Is It All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

September 4th, 2016 - Get new posts sent straight to your inbox, click here. AussieBB

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For years now there have been questions about the value of ‘unlimited broadband’ services. The situation wasn’t helped by ISPs that often had their own definitions of ‘unlimited’, leaving many consumers confused and asking “what does unlimited broadband mean” in the first place. Thankfully, the situation has since improved, and while we’ve left this article for posterity, at Aussie Broadband we’ve adopted a new stance on unlimited broadband, which you can read more about in this blog.

If you’re tempted by the offer of unlimited downloads, you’re not alone. Unlimited download packages have made a recent comeback and are proving hugely popular, but what exactly does unlimited downloads mean?

To the average Internet user, unlimited downloads means there’s no need to track how much you’re downloading and uploading each month. It means no more restrictions to your broadband limit, and no risk of finding unforeseen charges on your monthly bill.

But to the tech savvy, “unlimited downloads” means something else.

The history of unlimited downloads

In the early days of the Internet, almost all Australian providers offered unlimited downloads. Back then there was no reason not to, since people hadn’t discovered downloading movies, TV shows or music. Even if the discovery had been made, the dial-up connections were so slow you wouldn’t have the time to download anything too big, let alone want to.

But as our Internet connections have gotten faster, there’s come an increased appetite for downloading all kinds of video and audio content. Online shoppable video games are a massive industry today, and many of these games are huge downloads. Then there’s YouTube, Netflix, Presto and Stan, Soundcloud, Amazon MP3 and iTunes. On top of that there’s the Windows App Store, Cnet Download and Softonic. So many ways to download mean massive data costs for ISPs, and as a result most ISPs started to put limits in place. These limits meant the people using the most data were required to pay for the privilege.

The comeback of unlimited downloads

In recent times, data costs have fallen. There’s also millions more people using the Internet than there used to be. Unlimited plans have started to reappear and customers can benefit from using the Internet any time and any way they want. It’s the ultimate “no worries” plan and, for the ISPs offering such plans, the hope is that the majority of users will use the Internet “normally” – that is, actually use less data than they would if there was a limit with a dollar figure attached to it. It’s a great idea, but only in theory.

The problem with unlimited downloads

While ISPs make an educated guess as to how much capacity they will need to service all their customers in a particular area, they can never really tell what’s going to happen. Should every customer choose to sit down on the same evening to download a HD movie on Netflix for example, they could run into trouble.

When a sudden surge of unexpected usage happens, it puts a strain on the “pipes” that deliver the data. This strain can affect download speeds and as a result, responsiveness is affected for everyone. You might not have used your “unlimited data” at all for a few weeks, but the fact you’ve sat down to watch a movie at the wrong time means your HD movie will most likely look like a slow-to-download VHS tape.

Speed is a crucial part of your online experience and with unlimited downloads, you simply can’t rely on speed to be consistent. Take the ACCC’s action against Optus a few years back.

When Optus claimed that customers could receive “unlimited broadband”, what they actually meant was customers could receive either 15GB or 30GB of data allowance before the speed of service would be throttled back to 256 kbps. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) proceeding found that at these speeds, the service was practically unusable – certainly in terms of downloading anything larger than a normal web page.

The existence of the condition was disclosed – but only in very fine print. No explanation was given by Optus as to the effect that throttling would have on the functionality of the consumer’s user experience.

At the time, ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel was quoted as saying, “Telecommunications providers should think very carefully before claiming that their service offerings are unlimited.”

Managing bandwidth

Bandwidth management is a complex and evolving concern for most, if not all, networks operators around the world. For us here at Aussie Broadband, managing bandwidth is a priority we take very seriously. That’s why the tech savvy turn to us for their residential, corporate and governmental needs. Aussie Broadband is becoming the service provider of choice, and that’s because we closely manage peak time congestion effectively.

Internet speed slowdowns continue to plague thousands of iiNet, Primus and Belong customers’ connections during peak evening periods, which the ISPs admit is due to congestion. It’s understood that the slowdowns – which start as early as 4pm each day – are in large part due to the arrival and popularity of streaming sites such as Netflix launching in Australia, with not enough “backhaul” cable capacity to cope with the demand.

Those worst hit are those in NSW, Victoria and Queensland using ADSL, and those using fibre offerings on the nbn™ and Opticomm’s network. Other states like Tasmania and WA are not exempt, however. Everyday, Internet usage spikes between 6pm and 11pm.

Choosing your ISP

A good ISP that manages their bandwidth well, will cope fine with peak demand. A not-so-good one will make using the Internet when you get home from work a slow and painful experience. Evenings are for relaxing, but that shouldn’t mean sitting around watching a buffering symbol for hours.

When choosing an ISP (Internet Service Provider), pay attention to the speeds they offer. Many providers offering unlimited services tend to focus on 12/1 Mbps nbn™speeds which are quite slow when the nbn™ can deliver 100/40 Mbps speeds in most areas.

If you plan to use the Internet for video streaming (such as Netflix), you’ll need to look for a higher Mbps, especially if you plan to have multiple screens streaming at once. Most homes will suffice with a 5 Mbps connection for personal use with a single screen.

A number of Australians are now turning to community forums such as Whirlpool to exchange information and reviews about each of the ISPs of Australia, for example in this thread here.

And when choosing an ISP, always read the fineprint. Don’t get swept up in fancy claims of unlimited downloads without doing your research first.

Have a question about how we manage our bandwidth differently? Give Aussie Broadband a call on 1300 880 905.