Traffic Management & Throttling on UK Mobile Networks
December 13th, 2016
In the UK, some mobile networks place an artificial limit on your download speed. They may also slow down or stop you from accessing certain services.
When choosing a mobile network, it’s worth being aware that different networks have different ways of managing traffic on their network. On some mobile networks, there may an artificial limit on the maximum download speed available. On others, certain types of traffic may be prioritised over others and some types of traffic (e.g. P2P or VPN) could be slowed down or blocked.
In this article, we’ll compare the traffic management policy on major UK mobile networks.
Traffic Management Policy: By Network
At present, BT publishes a traffic management policy but this only applies to their home broadband service and not to their mobile phone service. For this reason, we are unaware whether throttling or traffic management is used on BT Mobile.
One thing worth being aware of, however, is that download speeds are limited by default to 30Mbps. If you’d like to access faster download speeds, you’ll need to buy the £4/month Extra Speed 4G add-on.
If you have any feedback about traffic management or data speeds on BT Mobile, please leave us a comment below as we’d love to hear your experiences.
On EE, the main thing you need to be aware of is that your maximum download speed will depend upon the type of tariff you have. For instance, if you’re on a 4GEE Essential plan, your download speeds will be limited to 20Mbps. Regular 4GEE tariffs are able to access up to 60Mbps (this is double-speed 4G). Customers on 4GEE Max can access up to 90Mbps (this is 4G+ with coverage currently available to customers in London).
It’s also worth noting that peer-to-peer traffic (e.g. BitTorrent) is throttled to a maximum download speed of 50kbps (0.05Mbps) between 8am and 2am each day. This is roughly equivalent to the speed of dial-up internet, making the use of P2P services almost unusable during this time. From 2am to 8am each day, the speed limit is relaxed to 1800kbps (1.8Mbit/s). Apart from this, EE claims in their traffic management policy there are no other restrictions or traffic management for heavy users.
On giffgaff, a traffic management policy applies to about 2.5% of the network where “congestion is most likely to occur”. In these areas, customers “using more than their fair share of network resources” will see download speeds being restricted to 100kbps (0.1Mbps). In areas like London, certain types of traffic may also be prioritised (e.g. videos may be prioritised over background app updates). This is stated within giffgaff’s traffic management key facts indicator document:
In approximately 2.5% of the network, where congestion is most likely to occur, some members who are using more than their fair share of network resource will have an upper speed restriction of 100kbps for a period of 30 minutes. We estimate that this will impact approximately 0.15% of members each day, but will deliver a stronger data experience for tens of thousands of members in these areas.
This is to ensure that the greatest number of giffgaff members have the best possible experience when using mobile data, no matter where in the country they are.
Additionally, at times of high congestion in London, interactive (or “real time”) traffic is prioritised over automated (or “background”) traffic for all users. This means that the quality of experience is maximised for services such as browsing and watching videos, by reducing the priority of background app updates and syncs.
Additionally, for customers who have the £20 goodybag with Always On data, a number of restrictions will apply when your usage reaches 6GB per month. Firstly, your maximum speeds will be reduced to 256kbps between 8am and midnight (0.25Mbps). Secondly, the use of tethering will be prohibited for the rest of the month. And finally, download speeds when using a P2P service will be capped to 100kbps (0.1Mbps) between 3pm and midnight:
‘Always On’ data provides the peace of mind that you will always have access to data. 6GB of data can be used at up to full speed each month. After 6GB of data has been used, download speeds will be capped at 256kbps between 8am and midnight, for the remainder of the goodybag.
It is against the terms and conditions of use to tether once you have used over 6GB on an Always On mobile internet allowance.
Unfortunately, iD Mobile hasn’t published a traffic management policy so we are unaware whether traffic management applies on their service. We do know, however, that their terms and conditions prohibit the use of tethering on their service. This is stated in clause 5.3.4 of the iD Mobile agreeement:
5.3 You must not use the Services, the SIM Card or an iD phone number or allow anyone else to use the Services, the SIM or an iD phone number for illegal or improper uses, including but not limited to:
5.3.4 tethering (unless explicitly stated in your Agreement with us), downloading, sending or uploading content of an excessive size, quantity or frequency. We will contact you if your use is excessive;
Any such use shall give us the right to charge you any Charges due and terminate the Services immediately.
If you have any feedback about traffic management or data speeds on iD Mobile, please leave us a comment below as we’d love to hear your experience.
According to O2, they apply traffic management to customers who use the network “excessively” and whose usage “detrimentally affects” other O2 customers. This is stated within O2’s traffic management key facts indicator (a link to this can be found at the end of their help article). Unfortunately, O2 does not set a numerical limit or a threshold on how they define “excessive” usage:
Customers whose use is so excessive that other customers are detrimentally affected will be warned to adjust their usage or risk disconnection.
O2 also states they prioritise emergency voice traffic on their network.
On Tesco Mobile, traffic management is used in relation to heavy users whose use of the service may “detrimentally affect” other customers. This is stated within Tesco Mobile’s traffic management policy (this can be found within their terms and conditions):
Customers whose use is so excessive that other customers are detrimentally affected will be warned to adjust their usage or risk disconnection. Tesco Mobile customers are regulated by us automatically applying an account limit for chargeable usage or regulate themselves by capping their tariffs. Full information is available within our Pay monthly terms and conditions.(section 12.9)
Apart from this, they also state that traffic management is used to prioritise emergency voice traffic on their network.
Three has a traffic management policy known as TrafficSense. According to their key facts indicator, P2P file-sharing (e.g. BitTorrent) is slowed down on the network between 3pm and midnight each day. They also use video optimisation technology (for streaming sites like YouTube, videos are only downloaded at the rate at which you’re able to watch them):
We allocate a fixed amount of network bandwidth to P2P file-sharing activities and to tethering activities at peak times to manage network congestion and provide the best possible experience for the greatest number of users.
We use video optimisation to change the way video content is streamed to your device to make it play better. We use it to improve your streaming experience if our network is busy where you are.
It’s also worth noting that tethering is only possible on ‘Advanced’ Pay Monthly plans. For customers on an ‘Essential’ price plan or on Pay As You Go, tethering is prohibited by the terms and conditions of your tariff.
If you’re travelling abroad in a Feel At Home country, additional restrictions such as throttling of your data speed may apply. The use of VPN and video websites may be slowed down by Three, with the use of tethering or portable hotspot being blocked altogether.
On Virgin Mobile, your maximum download speed and upload speed will be restricted if you use more than 3.5GB of data in a month. This is regardless of how much data your plan includes (e.g. even if you have a 20GB data plan, your speeds will still be limited once you reach 3.5GB per month). The maximum download speed when you reach the 3.5GB threshold is 384kbit/s (0.4Mbit/s) and the maximum upload speed is 200kbit/s (0.2Mbit/s).
This information is stated within the Virgin Media Mobile acceptable use policy:
Excessive use over 3.5GB of data per calendar month will result in your maximum bandwidth being restricted to 3G speeds (384kbit/s downstream, 200kbit/s upstream) on our network. We reserve the right to review these usage levels from time to time. At this reduced speed, customers will still be able to browse web pages, send/receive emails, and stream audio and video all at 3G data speeds, but peer-to-peer and large file downloads/uploads will be slower than normal.
In the UK, Vodafone does not have any significant traffic management. However, if you’re on an older plan which is not ‘4G Ready’, your download speed will be limited to 10Mbps and your upload speed will be limited to 8Mbps. Apart from this, the only restriction is that traffic could be blocked or throttled in the event of “activity harmful to our [Vodafone] network”.
What are the download/upload limits or data usage caps on this product?
Data usage caps vary – see the specific package. If you do not have a ‘4G Ready’ or ‘4G’ Plan your upload data speed will be limited to 8Mbps and your download data speed will be limited to 10Mbps.
Is traffic management used in relation to heavy users?
No, we would only block / throttle in the event of activity harmful to our network.
Vodafone also states that they prioritise emergency voice calls on their network.
For more information about your mobile network’s traffic management policy, please refer to their official website. You can also contact your mobile network if you have any remaining questions or you can check the coverage and service status in your area if you’re having problems with your phone.
My passion is helping people to get the most out of their mobile phone. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005.
Aside from writing about mobile technology, my interests are in software development, digital marketing and physics. Outside of the blog, I work with numerous technology companies helping them to explain their product and helping them to market it to consumers. Please get in touch for more information.