I’ve been with Virgin Media, or Blueyonder as it was for about 7 or 8 years now. We got it installed when they first dug the road up past our house to put the cable lines down, and were mightily impressed with the blazing download speed of 52k/s (0.5 megabit). Who wouldn’t be when the only alternative was dialup internet?
The price was £37 a month which was and still is a lot, but we were paying for the “best”. The price is the same now, however the connection has been upgraded to 20 megabit which theoretically gives a maximum download speed of about 2000k/s. I was well impressed when last year I found that Blueyonder were upgrading my 10 megabit connection to 20 megabit for no additional cost.
The current fastest package offered by Virgin Media is still 20 megabit which is around the highest maximum downstream you can reasonably get in the UK. Their other packages are 2 megabit, 4 megabit and 10 megabit. They claim that they will soon offer 50 megabit connections. Cool.
Why am I completely pissed off with them then?
1. Virgin Media are involved with Phorm.
Phorm is a company that makes money from targetted advertising. Loads of companies do that. Every time you subscribe to printed or online media they ask you what other magazines you read so they can mailbomb you with advertising related to the subject of your favourites.
But Phorm gleans its information in unethical ways: by making deals with ISPs to spy on your web usage. It then matches your surfing habits with its database of advertisers and funnels targetted advertisements to your browser, no doubt creaming commissions off at various stages in the process.
Apparently Phorm has entered into these “institutionalised spyware” deals with leading UK ISPs (BT, Virgin Media and Talk Talk). I guess they hope that when people realise that Phorm is associated with these large companies that customers believe they are in safe hands when they are clearly not if they care about online privacy.
Why should I be so cynical about this? Phorm could, after all, be honorable. Unfortunately for them Phorm has an unpleasant history. According to the wikipedia entry in it’s previous incarnation as 121media it creating an advertising system called ContextPlus and at least one product based on this was labelled as spyware by a leading antivirus company. This product formed part of a further system called Apropos which, when installed (usually without you knowing) did exactly what Phorm plans to do with Virgin Media, BT, and Talk Talk – spied on internet usage and sent browsing habit details back to them.
Apropos was one of the old traditional types of spyware which used tricks to stop you uninstalling it. Funnily enough, the Virgin Media homepage has plenty of information to help protect users against this form of spyware yet by getting involved with Phorm they appear to be planning to actively solicit and institutionalise spying on their customers. It just goes to show how suddenly morals and ethics are forgotten when there’s a chequebook being waved.
Fortunately for us at the moment, the Information Commissioner’s Office has stated that Phorm would only be legal as an opt-in service.
2. Virgin Media sold me a 20 megabit connection
….but its only really 5 megabit.
When I first read that Virgin Media were going to start applying a 75% bandwidth throttle to “the top 5% of downloaders” I thought this would mean those that leave their connection hammering downloads day and night, racking up hundreds of gigabytes per month of data.
Virgin Media have tended to advertise their products around downloading more and more media, faster. Indeed my 20 megabit package is advertised as “supersonic”. Not for one minute did I think I would be affected by connection throttling since I don’t leave my PC on overnight downloading, and rarely download tons of files. But I am.
Problem is, Virgin Media dictates that if you use your connection at full speed for more than 25 minutes between 4pm and 9pm (unless you use the internet at antisocial times) then you are a heavy user.
If I wish to download say a couple of game demos from XBox Live in the evening I’ll get around 1400k/s for half of the download and then after that it’s game over and the connection speed is reduced by 75%. For the next 5 hours. This makes me a top 5% downloader according to Virgin Media, despite other users downloading thousands of gigabytes more data per month (albeit overnight).
Virgin Media’s throttling hours cover almost the entire day. Home from work, go on the internet, download something or other to watch, or some tunes. Maybe let the kids play some games online on their PC’s or whatever. Boom throttled: come back in 5 hours.
Sure, even under throttling you can still surf sites but if you’re on a home network with a few people using it it soon gets slow, particularly if you want to download anything or watch Youtube.
In addition to being throttled, they also make the connection crap. Your ping times skyrocket and in a lot of cases web sites don’t even appear due to packet loss. I guess this isn’t intended but it certainly happens.
I think Virgin Media has labelled normal internet usage in 2008 as heavy usage in order to basically cream more profit from their customers. Their XL package is nothing more than a gimmick. In fact all of Virgin Media’s broadband packages are gimmicks because you simply don’t get what you expect to pay for. They are aware that people on these packages like to have freedom to download a lot of multimedia content: indeed that’s how they publicise it.
Sure, they have covered themselves with lots of small print but the overall idea you get from their advertising campaigns is that it’s brilliant for people that like to download. How can it be when relatively insignificant users such as myself are being capped on every day in a blue moon that they actually try to download anything of significance (i.e. a Linux ISO or some TV shows)?
How can it be allowed to advertise something as unlimited – which has a crystal clear definition – yet apply a usage restriction to it? That seems like a pretty fundamental contradiction to me. No company should be permitted to redefine the dictionary in order to create an advertising gimmick.
When you get 75% of your bandwidth removed after 25 minutes of full speed downloading within a 5 hour time bracket, are you even getting your money’s worth when you could have two of Sky’s “unlimited” 16 megabit ADSL package for less than what Virgin Media charge for 20 megabit?
According to Virgin Media, the 20 megabit connection has a higher cap threshold than their other 2, 4 and 10 megabit connections. I disagree. With the 20 megabit connection, you get throttled even faster than you do on their 2 megabit connection.
On 2 megabit, you get throttled after 41.6 minutes of full speed usage. On 20 megabit you get throttled after just 25 minutes! For the next 5 hours of course.
It may well be fairer if outside the peak hours of 4pm-9pm I could actually get the speed I am paying for without being throttled for 5 hours after every 25 mins of full speed downloading.
Not so fast! Amazingly, Virgin Media also applies a throttle between 10am and 3pm as well, so you can only be throttle-free in the middle of the night when obviously you’re likely to be up and on the PC.
The Advertising Standards Authority has slapped their wrists a little but let them off the main issues, like alleged mis-selling. Virgin Media should absolutely not be permitted to advertise a 20 megabit product in its current state. They should clearly say that it’s only 20 megabit for 25 minutes at peak rate and then you get 5 megabit. They should not be allowed to use the word unlimited. It’s simple.
When it was Blueyonder the service was better, the reliability was.. well I never had to call them for 6 years.. so I guess that’s pretty good. I wasn’t capped either. Branson conglomerate comes in and it becomes shite! It compares almost exactly to his train network: old leased tilting trains that are marketed as cutting edge (despite most of Europe having them since 1990) and priced significantly higher than other forms of transport.
On the Virgin Media newsgroups some people think that having your connection speed cut by three quarters for most of the day is better than having a monthly bandwidth cap. I disagree. It might be better for people that leave their PC on downloading all day and all night, but with a monthly cap at least you know that you will get the advertised speed when you need it.
For people like me that don’t leave their PC on downloading stuff all the time, knowing I CAN download that demo from XBox Live and that it won’t take forever is better than sitting down at 7pm and waiting an hour and a half for it to download (by which time I’m bored of it already!).
3. Virgin Media are in bed with the BPI
Not much to say about this that isn’t on the link but the BPI, or British Phonographic Industry, are pressuring ISPs to threaten users involved with copyrighted material.
Virgin Media is one of said ISPs that is actively doing this despite being the ISP that for years has based its marketing strategy on having the fastest connection and being able to download more and more multimedia.
Recently they mailed letters to some of their customers threatening them with disconnection if they were to continue. They claimed it was a mistake and that they wouldn’t be cutting people off.
No smoke without fire I am afraid. Virgin Media are constantly linked with stories involving various copyright organisations and threatening to disclose information or disconnect people.
Ironically, Virgin Media carries a news feed packed with all the games, movies or music you could ever want and is free to download as a Virgin Media subscriber.
4. Virgin Media thinks net neutrality is bollocks
…and believes they are bigger and better than they actually are
Unsurprising really given the other tampering they do/plan to do with our connections, the CEO of Virgin Media has declared that he is happy to throttle content providers if they don’t pay his company large sums of money.
Surely this simply means Virgin Media will lose customers unless the user classes the slowness of say BBC iPlayer as normal and just stops using it. I wonder if they will throttle Youtube. I know Virgin Media is a large company but they are minnows compared with Google.
I read also that they were starting to throttle Usenet usage. I guess it’s not because of a bombardment of compliments about their service: more that they have noticed people switching off torrents due to “web sherrifs” and going to Usenet which in many cases is faster than BitTorrent and can’t be policed by outside agencies. They may be able to monitor it, but they can’t remove anything from it.
5. Virgin Media helplines are all premium rate
…and you always have to hold for more than 10 minutes
Speaks for itself really, unless it’s a Virgin Media helpline in which case it only speaks to you after 10 minutes of hold music.