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UK ISP Virgin Dinged by Regulators For 'Unlimited' Lie
That Word -- I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means...
by JKukiewicz 08:30AM Thursday Mar 28 2013
UK's marketing regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – has censured Virgin Media for claiming that their broadband is unlimited. The ASA's ruling, the first to use new guidance on use of the term 'unlimited', prevents the fastest of the UK's main ISPs from using the line: Unlimited downloads: Download and browse as much as you like with no caps and no hidden charges. The regulator also warned Virgin Media to watch out for their use of the terms unlimited and "no caps" in the future.

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The complaint was bought by the UK’s biggest broadband providers Sky and BT on the grounds that Virgin Media broadband deals are subject to traffic management than should be regarded as having a more than moderate effect on users.

Sky also argued that the "no caps" claim was misleading as it implied there was no traffic management imposed on the connection at all.

The ASA agreed.

It's the principle, not the proportion

That reveals, for the first time, how the ASA is likely to rule on its help note on the advertising of unlimited in the future., a little vaguely, that the term is acceptable when the, "provider-imposed limitations that affect the speed or usage of the service are moderate only." It turns out that a moderate effect on the UK's internet consumers is, in the ASA's eyes, very little to do with a high proportion being affected.

Virgin Media said they believed their interference in customers' connections was hardly severe since only around 1.7% to 2.3% of their users had their lines slowed.

Evidently, the ASA are thinking of a different form of moderation.

That small proportion of Virgin Media bandwidth hogs can expect a speed reduction of 50% (see full details of the policy here).

That policy is decidedly immoderate in the ASA's eyes "regardless of whether a particular individual user would be affected": it's the principle that users, all users, can expect a certain standard of service from unlimited deals that counts, not the proportion of actual users that are likely to be affected.

As well as bowing their heads contritely, Virgin Media have adjusted their 50% throttle to a slightly more moderate 40% of the users' original speed.

Who's next?

BT and Sky complained to the ASA without having to worry that anyone would point out any planks in their eyes: both ISPs offer truly unlimited deals traffic management free.

Other, less download focused, broadband providers may have some cause for concern as a result of this ruling, however.

EE, for example, manage traffic at peak times on all of their unlimited packages so depending on how customers actually find their traffic managed that could be a problem.

The Post Office is another good example of an ISP that may be getting a little jittery at the news. Post Office broadband users have a 100GB a month data limit after which the provider warns and then cuts off its high rolling customers. Advertising guidelines state that, "the legitimate user [should] incur no additional charge or suspension of service as a consequence of exceeding any usage threshold."

In that case, however, the Post Office could argue that those downloading more than 100GB a week are not legitimate users but that's another argument for another day.

No ASA virgins

If other providers are quaking at the prospect of an ASA wrist slap, however, it's all in a day's work for Virgin Media.

The provider's advertisements are often as likely to poke and provoke competitors as they are to actually entice customers.

Just look at the company's, ultimately mainly censured, campaign against every other ISP's speed advertisements, for example.

Julia edits UK broadband site They covered this story in more depth here.

topics flat nest 

Cortland, NY


Article mentions 100GB per month in one sentence then 100GB per week in the next sentence.

One could argue even 100GB a week is still pretty good though.

Etobicoke, ON


said by bn1221:

One could argue even 100GB a week is still pretty good though.

It isn't when the service claims to be unlimited.

Spelling cop


Censured, not censored.

San Jose, CA


Missing links and broken links, nice story and copyediting!

And, BTW, I still have no clue what's the issue here. What are ASA rules? Why does EE get away, but Virgin Media does not?

I used to live in the UK, and I do remember how Orange and the rest of the gang all had lots of unlimited plans with lots of pretty clear small print that their plans are not actually unlimited at all. So, is that not allowed anymore, or what?

Greenville, SC

It is what I Mean...

Would that the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the US BBB or the FTC find similar ethics.

Arcadia, FL

Re: It is what I Mean...

yeah if you look at t mobile and virgin moblie ads on tv. in super small print and you have to pause the ad it stats not unlimited
Charlotte, NC
·Time Warner Cable


If the Ad says Unlimited in big print or the main point in Audio then it should be unrestricted or they should have to give equal weight to the restrictions. Not some low voice speaking 90 miles/hr like they use to do in car sales or drug ads. I love the new drug ads when they say this drug may kill you or a 100 other negative side effects.