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It's Unlimited! Why is it still traffic managed?

It's Unlimited! Why is it still traffic managed?

It's Unlimited! Why is it still traffic managed?

Motorway traffic

From 29th June 2017, Traffic Prioritisation is no longer applied to our current Unlimited and Unlimited Fibre products.

Traffic management has been given a bad reputation because it is wrongly believed that its sole purpose is to slow down users or certain types of traffic. While historically, this may have been true of some providers, it’s a bit of an unfair reputation because if used in the way Plusnet do, it can actually enhance the customer experience. Let me explain …

Every man for himself

Imagine a typical household where several people are using the Internet at the same time. The adults are in the living room watching catch-up TV and one of them is using their smart phone to browse and chat at the same time. One of the kids is upstairs playing a game and using VoIP on the Xbox and the other kid is downloading NASA videos via BitTorrent from Mininova. That’s quite a lot of stuff going on and if you analyse it then the bandwidth needed for each application would be something like this:

  • Xbox game and VoIP – around 256kbps.
  • Catchup TV – 3.5Mbps constant stream for iPlayer HD.
  • Browsing on the phone – short bursts of traffic maybe 2-4Mbps several times a minute for a couple of seconds.
  • BitTorrent – will take as much bandwidth as it can get.

If that household is on an ADSL line, getting maybe 5Mbps then it’s easy to see there will be a pinch point where all of that 5Mbps is used up. Something has to give. In a world without traffic management it’s an all out fight between the competing applications and – because of the number of connections it makes - it’s probably the BitTorrent that wins meaning that the video buffers, the game seems to lag, the VoIP breaks up and browsing is slow. Even if the line was faster, much faster, (say 70Mbps) then the same thing can happen. If you saturate the bandwidth with different applications you’ll hit the pinch point even on 70Mbps and again something has to give and it can easily be the game or video stream.

Traffic prioritisation – how to do it properly

With traffic management, we identify the type of activity being undertaken and apply a prioritisation to it. This means that if there is a decision to be made as to which packets of data to drop, it is the lowest priority traffic which is dropped first, i.e. the activity that can work most effectively on lower bandwidth so it doesn’t effect a user’s experience. As we know the speed of each broadband line, we can tell when it is hitting its maximum capacity and make intelligent decisions, based on these priorities to protect your experience. Don’t worry, we’re not big brother watching you as we don’t identify what you are downloading or watching, but instead are spotting the type of traffic. So, back to the house again, the traffic gets the following priorities on Plusnet Unlimited:

  • Xbox game and VoIP – highest (Titanium).
  • Catchup TV – second highest (Gold).
  • Browsing on the phone – second highest (Gold).
  • BitTorrent – low (Bronze).

This means that the BitTorrent will never win the fight as it has the lowest priority. Rather than the streaming buffering and the gaming lagging, the traffic management ensures there is enough space for those applications and the BitTorrent traffic takes the rest of the available bandwidth. The NASA videos will take a few more minutes to download but means that the whole house can enjoy their broadband at the same time.

Supply and Demand

We’ve invested heavily in our network capacity and traffic management systems because we believe in giving our customers the best possible experience. Historically, we’ve used our product design and traffic management to encourage our customers to move large downloads overnight. People don’t use the Internet evenly across the day, usage is centred around the evening, (7pm to 11pm) and there’s spare capacity the rest of the day. However, we’ve seen a big shift in how people use the Internet over the last few years. The shift began with YouTube bringing streaming video to the masses, followed by iPlayer bringing catch-up TV to the UK. These were then of course followed by 4oD, Demand Five, ITV Player, Sky Go, Netflix, Lovefilm, YouView, NowTV and many others. The nature of these services is that most of the traffic is done in the evening when people are at home and want to watch them and in most cases can’t easily be scheduled. Average usage has doubled in just over two years driven almost entirely by streaming video. For many users 60GB is no longer enough and the security of an unlimited product is what they need but with the quality and reliability they’ve come to expect from Plusnet.

But how can it be Unlimited if it’s traffic managed?

The traffic management that we do isn’t stopping you from doing anything, we aren’t blocking or deliberately slowing down particular applications, we’re using it to ensure that real time applications like gaming and streaming don’t see any problems when people download at the same time. Most users won’t ever notice that traffic management is there because it just makes things work, and that’s the point. In the world of Unlimited broadband that’s exactly what people want. You don’t want the frustration of not being able to game because someone else is buying music from iTunes or watch a video when someone else is downloading via P2P. We think this sets us apart from the competition. After all, what good is unlimited broadband if you can only use one thing at once?

First-hand experiences

To ensure that the new unlimited service works exactly as our customers want, we’ve been doing extensive testing on the new product both internally with staff members and externally with some members of the Plusnet Usergroup and our Community Site Forum Moderators. When asked about prioritisation Usergroup member Barry Zubel had the following to say: What difference does prioritisation make to your online activities?

"A huge amount of difference! I know that even if I am downloading large patches, I can continue to stream or game simultaneously with very little impact on my ‘high priority’ traffic. It means I don’t have to worry about scheduling my downloads to times when I’m not gaming. It also means that I don’t have to leave the computer downloading a patch and go and do something else because it’s saturating my line.

What are your general thoughts around prioritisation?

"Implemented correctly, prioritisation should seamlessly provide a responsive internet service, regardless of the current activities that are occurring on the line. Being able to prioritize real-time activity (such as streaming, or voice comms) over delayable activities (such as patch downloading) should mean that the user is never having to wait for things that are important to them."

While moderator Oldjim says of our traffic management:

"It actually works despite many of my earlier disparaging comments I am downloading Assassins Creed 3 (came free with my new graphics card – about 15GB total) and it is saturating my connection but browsing and streaming aren’t significantly affected."

I hope that this has helped to explain how we plan on using traffic management on our new unlimited product. If you’ve any questions or queries, feel free to add them as comments or start a thread over on our discussion forums ...

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