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With 46 million of us in the UK alone accessing and using broadband for data-heavy activities such as watching video and catch-up TV, the Internet is becoming an increasingly busy and congested place.

broadband internet congestion

In recent months the Internet has become a victim of its own success. In response to this, Ofcom recently published a new guide to help consumers understand why and how the Internet is actively managed during busy peak periods. Unfortunately the Internet isn’t an infinite resource, and is in fact a series of interlinking networks of hugely varying capacities and capabilities. Its not possible to just make every part of the Internet faster and faster to cope with increasing demand.

Comparing the Internet to a series of motorways, Ofcom describes how, just as a motorway might become heavily congested during peak times, the same happens with the Internet. In the early days of the web, far fewer people were using it and even then, it was primarily used for emailing and browsing. As the Internet continued to grow in popularity and more services became available however, the old dial-up phone connection struggled to cope with demand and things became congested and slow.

Broadband was the answer to this dilemma as it provided the Internet with more, wider motorway lanes to speed up the traffic. As well as making browsing much quicker, broadband also opened up a whole new world as people could now stream films, download music, play games and even make video calls.

Again though, these activities required a lot of bandwidth and more people started participating so the Internet became congested once again. In order to deal with this, Internet Service Providers had to come up with a new way to keep the Internet running without slowing everything down.

Think of the Internet as a busy motorway – its has its own ‘rush-hours’

Although ISP’s continue to build bigger, faster motorways, often the network of minor Internet ‘roads’ can’t always be expanded or widened. Therefore in response to steadily increasing demand, broadband ISPs have to try and manage their ‘motorways’ and the ‘A roads’ by introducing priority lanes for certain types of Internet traffic.

The ebb and flow of our daily lives means that busiest time on the Internet is between 4.00 in the afternoon, and 11.00 at night. When children are on school holidays, the busy time can start as early as 11.00 o’clock in the morning

Internet traffic can be thought of as being represented by different types of vehicles. Activities such as streaming videos are the lorries that take up a lot of space and emailing or browsing are smart cars, which are much smaller and take up less space.

This analogy has been adopted for Internet management strategies because the Internet is managed similarly to how the roads might be. For example, a bus lane gives priority to buses – therefore making their journey times shorter. While this is great for the buses, this can mean slightly longer journey times for other vehicles sharing the remaining lanes.

An individual Internet Service Provider may decide to prioritise audio and visual services during peak times by putting them in the ‘bus lane’. This should allow users to stream content without disruption. In order to do this, they may have to slow down another type of traffic – such as file sharing, emailing or logging into social media websites.

Ofcom’s research also revealed that among the general public, there is a distinct lack of awareness when it comes to traffic management. Only 1 in 10 users are familiar with the concept and just a tiny 1% have claimed to have considered this when choosing their broadband provider. Every Internet Service Provider has their own traffic management policy so when making a decision, it’s important to check that their policy suits your needs.

Here you can read the Ofcom guide on internet management policies.

If you want to understand more about how we manage internet usage on satellite broadband, here for example is the SES Fair Access Policy.