Unlimited means unlimited, at least in the Queen's English

28 March 2013 by Steve Blum
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Immoderate Virgin.

British Internet service providers can’t claim to offer “unlimited” downloads or streaming with “no caps” if it comes with more than incidental throttling for heavy users. That was the ruling yesterday from the Advertising Standards Authority, an independent U.K. watchdog agency with real teeth.

The ASA investigated complaints against Virgin Media, a major national ISP, made by a member of the public and two of its competitors, BSkyB and BT (aka British Telecommunications). Virgin’s ads said subscribers would get “unlimited downloads” and be able to “download and browse as much as you like with no caps and no hidden charges”. The problem, according to the filings, was that Virgin’s policy of throttling the heaviest users down to half of advertised speeds meant it wasn’t unlimited and therefore was, in fact, a cap.

Virgin’s defence was that the restrictions only affected something like 1% to 2% of subscribers, those that might, for example, download 11 GB a day during peak times. But the ASA didn’t buy that argument.

[W]e considered that the inclusion of the claims “unlimited” and “no caps” implied that there were no other restrictions to the service, regardless of how much data users downloaded and browsed. Virgin Media’s traffic management policy reduced users’ download speeds by 50% if they exceeded certain data thresholds and we considered that this was an immoderate restriction to the advertised “unlimited” service.

As a result, Virgin has to pull its ads and if it wants to make claims about unlimited service and no caps in the future, throttling can’t be any more than “moderate”.

Obviously the ruling has no effect on U.S. carriers, and the British ASA has no equivalent here. It enforces standards set by the U.K. advertising industry, and can impose sanctions such as requiring pre-screening of ads. If a repeat offender doesn’t stop, the case goes to a government fair trade enforcement agency.

It is an indication, though, of growing skepticism towards one dimensional broadband service claims. It’s the total user experience that matters – speed, caps, throttling, consistency, reliability and cost included. You can’t hype one or two performance specs and conveniently ignore the rest.