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Brand Dilution

What's the value of a recognized brand, in marketing?

One might want to ask Richard Branson. Forbes rated him as the world's 236th richest person earlier this year; having started his first businesses as a teen-ager, the serial entrepreneur went on to form Virgin Group, which is now some kind of transcontinental octopus entangled in everything from airlines to health clubs. (I should know about the latter, having just come home from one.)

Of course, if you slap a well-known brand — and Virgin is probably one of the best-known brands in the British business space — on a sub-standard product, you risk damaging it. Virgin was built on record stores and then a successful airline that competed on quality with British Airways, the national flag-carrier, rather than with the budget airlines. For the first twenty years or so it was a quality brand — stylish, customer-savvy, a luxury item. But recently, things have begun to go wrong.

Probably the first sign of the rot setting in came in 1997, when Virgin acquired the Inter City West Coast and Cross Country elements of the British Rail network. These trains weren't virgins — they were comprehensively fucked, the cumulative consequence of a decade of Tory under-investment. Virgin Rail became the instant butt of a number of cruel jokes, and the rolling stock they bought to replace the clapped-out kit didn't improve things; flashy, glitzy, comfortable carriages configured in three classes (nose-bleedingly gold-plated, outrageously expensive, and cattle-class) with insufficient room to carry the passenger load. The idea of running smaller, more frequent trains would have been a good one if they'd been able to make it work reliably, but in the absence of track and station infrastructure to support it, things didn't work well.

Since then, things have gone downhill fast. Around 1997, the UK installed a cable TV and cable internet infrastructure. Digging up hundreds of thousands of streets is expensive, so two limited-term regional monopolies were granted to cable operators, NTL and Telewest. After a while they began rolling out broadband internet on their networks (around 2000, if memory serves), and underwent the harsh learning curve associated with becoming an ISP. Then something obvious happened. In 2006, the two loss-making cablecos merged to form one mammoth blundering mess, NTL/Telewest. And also in 2006, the new hybrid purchased Branson's Virgin Mobile brand (then a cellphone franchise) and began the process of rebranding, from February 2007, as Virgin Media.

Read my lips: Virgin Media are so awful that I'm leaving them and I encourage you to do likewise.

Reasons they're awful? Let me give you a list. To start with, I didn't much pay attention when they announced that they were going to start charging by the minute for telephone support calls. After all, I'm competent to configure my own broadband router; I don't need my hand holding, right? Well, I've changed my mind.

It appears highly likely that Virgin are probing the equipment you attach to your cable modem and dropping packets destined for broadband routers. I noticed this when my otherwise-reliable Apple Airport Extreme began falling off the net with increasing frequency; I replaced it. Imagine my surprise when the replacement unit began exhibiting identical symptoms? Some annoying (and expensive) support calls later, I plugged the iMac on my desk straight into the CM, and waited ... and the connection proved solid. So I switched on internet sharing and fed the connection through to the rest of the household and ... the connection remained solid. I've now compared notes with several other owners of broadband routers and they all confirmed the same phenomenon: plug a router into a Virgin cable modem and it exhibits signs of instability, but switch to a PC or Mac or Linux box (running NAT, so it's doing the job of a router) and the cable connection stabilized.

(I've been keeping a lid on this because I haven't had time to verify beyond any possible doubt that I hadn't simply bought two dead Airports in a row and then suffered from selection bias in the folks I've been comparing notes with ... but I figure if this is a genuine problem, some of you will also have experienced it and will let me know.)

And then there's Phorm. Virgin is one of three mainstream ISPs (the other notables are British Telecom and Carphone Warehouse, but the latter backed out hastily) who were announced to be talking to Phorm about letting the spyware company snoop on their customers' internet connections, probably in violation of the Computer Misuse Act and in violation of the customers' right to privacy. Phorm is a nasty piece of work, and while I'm not surprised at a large faceless customers-are-a-commodity organization buying into their business model I'm startled that the owners or franchisees of the Virgin brand should be seemingly oblivious to the damage they've been doing to their good name.

And now there's a third strike against Virgin Media.

"In an interview with the Royal Television Society’s Television magazine, far from covering up their intentions, Virgin Media’s new incoming CEO Neil Berkett - who joined the Virgin Media Board just a few days ago - has launched an attack on the ideas and principles behind net neutrality.

“This net neutrality thing is a load of bollocks,��? he said, adding that Virgin is already in the process of doing deals to speed up the traffic of certain media providers."


More on this here and here. The arguments on net neutrality are complex, but what they boil down to is this: Virgin believe they've got the right to control the speed of your cable connection, and they'll give you rapid access only to content provided by big companies that have paid them to provide access. Everything else can take "the bus lane", to use Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett's charming turn of phrase. Got that? If Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation or advertisers like DoubleClick want to stuff their propaganda down your throat, they can give their friend Neil a back-hander and he'll fix things for them. But if you want to go off the beaten track and look at stuff that's not commercial you're on your own.

There's a pattern of abuse becoming evident here. Virgin Media have adopted the toxic and ultimately suicidal view that they own their customers — a captive audience who can be exploited in any way they deem reasonable. Throttle their bandwidth, demand payments for access, charge 'em for support calls, decide what equipment they may or may not connect to the network — because Virgin are the national cableco monopoly (and where was the Monopolies and Mergers Commission when this poisonous conglomerate was being formed?).

Richard Branson ought to sue the fukcers for damaging his trademark.

As for me, all I'm looking for is a suitable replacement TV service and I'm outa here. (For broadband, I'm probably going to these people, who I am informed are a decent old-fashioned internet service provider without delusions of grandeur or monopoly megalomania. And on the TV front, I just need to figure out a way of getting the Discovery Channel without putting a satellite dish on my roof, which I can't do because of local planning restrictions.) If you're a Virgin subscriber, I advise you to do likewise. And if they give you any shit over getting out of your contract early, refer them to the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (specifically Schedule 2 of terms that may make a contract unfair: 1(j) enabling the seller or supplier to alter the terms of the contract unilaterally without a valid reason which is specified in the contract; (k) enabling the seller or supplier to alter unilaterally without a valid reason any characteristics of the product or service to be provided; ... both of which Virgin Media seem to fall foul of.

133 Comments

1:

Charlie,

I haven't encountered the router instability problem myself (with a clunkly old Buffalo router), but the rest is dead on. I wrote a post on this topic this morning.

The problem with switching providers (and believe me, I'd like to) is that regional monopoly one. You have to put up with cable, and there's only one provider, Virgin. If you want DSL, you need to get a line connected up by BT, who refuse to do so without a one-year contract. And BT are balls-deep in this Phorm business (an ex-BT exec is high-up in Phorm, perhaps not coincidentally), testing it out on people in secret, lying about it, and then finally admitting it but trying to downplay it as a fuss about nothing.

(If anyone has any tips how to go from a standing start -- ie no BT or LLU line at all -- to broadband that isn't BT or Virgin, I'd love to hear them.)

Getting back to net neutrality and Virgin, at lunch today a friend & I were discussing this, and came to the same question: What does Branson think about his brand being trashed like this? I think we should find out.

2:

Funnily enough, i just switched from Virgin Media to Be here in Glasgow, about a week ago. I never had any troubles with my old beat up linksys router on Virgin, but hey ho. I still found them a pretty awful company and I am glad to give them the boot over the phorm and net neutrality stuff.

Be seem pretty decent. Once you are a member you get access to some online forums where people are cheerfully informing each other how to use alternative routers than the bebox, how to maximise torrent throughput, and so on, all on the corporate website. They don't provide any service but bandwidth via their LLU equipment. And the are completely uncapped and competitively priced.

I suspect that they do throttle torrents down a bit - at least on the default ports through the BeBox. This is pretty much par for the course though and I think once I replace the bebox with my own router/adsl2 modem like a DG834N with my own settings I should be able to evade that stuff - that's what i did at virgin anyway.

Be also seem faster than virgin in general. I am quite satsified.

3:

Discovery Channel?

I'm guessing you mean the one carried by American cable/sat networks, instead of a UK-customized variety? You know, I've heard this guy Neil, who lives in Minneapolis, has a Slingbox...

4:

It's probably worth noting that Be are owned by O2, a company with fairly clear delusions of grandeur, who in turn are part of the Telefónica group...

As far as the tv problem goes, I use a portable satellite dish on my balcony to avoid planning restrictions. It's not permanently affixed to the building - it has it's own stand.

5:

Don: we want the British version of Mythbusters, in particular (episodes are longer and more amusing than the chopped-for-ads American version) and it doesn't seem to be bittorrented to hell and back.

Giles: we don't have a balcony. Or any windows that face in the right direction. It's up on the roof, if we want satellite, which is verboten.

6:

This now makes a lot of sense why I have weird problems with my NetGear router, and even more with my Airport Express. Hmmm. methinks a network re-organise is in order...

Alas I'm with Canis on this one. When I moved into my current abode there was no phone line installed, and Telewest were considerably easier and cheaper to get installed than BT, so I went for that. No phone line = no ADSL. No real choice in either... Unless we all get that interconnected wireless mesh running smoothly.

7:

Well, that explains my continued need to reboot my router, then. And there was me blaming myself for having bought a cheap one.

I've been considering jumping ship on Virgin for ages, having been with them as NTL since 2003, if only for the fact that their customer service is so inept it hurts. And you can only phone them - an ISP you can't email with an enquiry. There's no way you can paint that and not have it look like a scam.

I think I'm gonna hook me us some Pipex action; your post has encouraged me to pull my finger out and get on with it. New tax year, after all ... :)

8:

If you dont want a BT line, a LLU line or a cable connection your only real bets are 3G internet (not cheap, crap coverage) or to live in one of the few areas that do wifi internet (see http://www.ispreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/listman/exec/search.cgi?search=1&perpage=20&marknew=5&lfield12_keyword=wireless&sort_order=1,abc,forward&template=_search_wireless.html for some suggestions, I have no experience of any of them as I'm lucky enough to work for my ISP so any complaints I have with them I can usually fix.)

9:

I can cope happily with an LLU line as long as the ISP isn't signed on to Phorm (or an equivalent spyware/snooping service). Of course, this assumes the Home Office isn't going ahead with their omnivorous we-want-to-log-every-packet-transiting-our-intertubes policy, but I gather LINX are trying to educate them about the difficulties this would entail (like the, oh, 400Mw/year of extra grid capacity they'd need to power the server farms to spin the disks to store the packets) ...

10:

Could you place a satellite on another roof (like, at your parents' home), set up a Tivo-like digital server for them, then log in remotely and/or carry a portable hard drive on monthly/seasonal visits?

I mean... the dish doesn't have to be on -your- roof, necessarily...

11:

B. Dewhirst: if my parents didn't live in a ground floor flat 220 miles away, and have a Virgin Media cable modem (hint: bandwidth throttling during peak hours) that might be an option.

Other locals ... hmm. It might be possible. Complex, but possible. Let me think about it.

12:

After moving away from Cable-land, Tiscali made me realise I loved Blueyonder, who were the local Cable service in North London. Mind you, my last ever bill had Virgin on the envelope, so perhaps I got away just in time. Even so, I'd like to find a more trustworthy ADSL+phone service (no TV for me).

Be careful about blaming your provider for all the router issues. I had similar problems and they all went away when I updated the firmware on mine (Netgear wireless).

13:

The problems a friend has been having recently suddenly make a whole lot of sense. XP box and she didn't replace the router, as it worked again after an engineer came round to deal with something else and fixed the router problem while he was there; but otherwise exactly the same story.

From what I heard second-hand, she has been explicitly told that they check to make sure only their cablemodem kit is attached, and will disconnect if anything else is hooked up. To add insult to injury, the wifi router she bought in order to be able to use her cable broadband around the house was bought from the Virgin Media website, in one of their promotions pushing people to do this. And now the helpdesk is telling her that they do not and have never supported people plugging in wifi routers, and she shouldn't have bought a wifi router when they don't support them.

14:

Interesting business model:
1. Charge per minute for tech support.
2. Randomly drop packets.
3. Profit!

Do you suppose you'll be seeing a refund or class action lawsuit on that? If that is indeed what they're doing, would you guess malicious intent or just the routine confluence of incompetence and cupidity?

15:

@Paul Raven: Pipex are now owned by Tiscali, though, and the latter are notoriously using traffic-shaping to limit, for example, BBC iPlayer downloads.

I've been with Pipex for several years, and after a week or two of successful iPlayer use, it just stopped working. So I'm guessing that Tiscali's policies have taken effect.

16:

Ron @14: "If that is indeed what they're doing, would you guess malicious intent"?

Some people might think that; I could not possibly comment.

17:

I'm confused by the 'bus lane' analogy that the pr1ck from Virgin used. The bus lane is supposed to be the quick lane reserved for 'approved' vehicles which sails past the stationary traffic in the other congested lanes. So if he's saying that companies can pay virgin to take the congested lanes or not pay and use the uncongested lanes then I'm more confused than usual. I'm guessing he never takes the bus (probably has a chauffeur anyway).

I'm in a bind - I've used ntl/virgin for years now after falling out with BT 17-odd yrs ago. I won't have a BT line in my house so what am I supposed to do - I even work for a major ISP but our service relies on having a BT line so I've never been able to make use of our own staff discount (all of about £1 off a month!) - all ISPs suck.

18:

Isn't Discovery offering internet broadcasts in the UK?

19:

I've been going off my head with this packet dropping stuff from Virgin... I've been with Blueyonder since 2000, and it wasn't until about 3 months ago that the problems started. It's good (kinda?) to hear that I'm not the only one it affects.

I was wondering... how do they even detect that you have a router? I know it's entirely possible to detect, but surely it's also possible to block?

20:

That router thing rings true for me and at least 2 or 3 other people I know on Virgin. I'm even using the router they recomended and still getting issues.
The only reason I'm with them is because I need a month to month contract and they are one of the few that offer this :( Otherwise I would have left long ago.

They also limit my speed between certain hours, come 1am my speed will jump from 10k to 200k+ in the space of a few minutes.

21:

Interesting info Charlie. I've been with VM for less than a year and have no problems with my ASUS WL700gE but because of Phorm and their insistence that I have a Direct Debit set up to pay the bill or pay £5 a month to pay them. I won't have a direct debit with this bunch because they have TWICE take large sums that they are not entitled to and won't give it back. Then you have to invoke the direct debit guarantee to get the cash back!

22:

The only real way they might have of discriminating between routers and computers is either via MAC address of the device (easy to change on most broadband gear as almost all of have the option of changing MAC address on the "public" side) or by looking for responses from a client. If they're checking by MAC, they're looking at the vendor ID which is the first three bytes of the address.

Changing the public MAC address of the router to match that of your PC is the first thing to try (hint: randomize the last three hexadecimal bytes; they don't need to know your *real* station address)

If you've ever installed ISP supplied "software" to connect to the net (you /never/ need to do this) then it was probably some sort of spyware or response client. If this is the case, you're probably out of luck.

b) If you connect the PC directly, run firewall software *and* you experience connection drops, they're probably looking for common open ports on most PCs. Without responses on these ports they assume you're routed/firewalled (a reasonable assumption). You could probably look for those probes and set up some sort of responder which would keep you on the net.

23:

Fourth reason: last year, not long after I quit my journo job and moved to a startup consulting firm, working out of my front room, Virgin threw a no-notice 36 hour outage which reduced me to spending the whole day in a pub with an open WLAN...which is too gonzo for me.

24:

Happy Be* customer here, we use the supplied BeBox (a re-branded Speedtouch 585), and barring some instability when I upgraded to the bleeding edge firmware it's been quite stable. Be provide their own slightly customised firmware which works well.
All in all they seem refreshingly free of bullshit, and the customer service team (and managers) also post regularly and candidly in the official forums.
Only downside is that their DNS servers are a POS, but just reconfigure to use OpenDNS or similar and be happy :)

25:

I'd love to move away from Virgin, but it's going to cost me: despite being a BT customer previously (with the wall sockets to prove it) BT want to stick me for £124.99 because the line has been disconnected for too long :(

26:

I'm a bit sceptical about network neutrality. It effectively mandates that ISPs must subsidise content providers who require high bandwidth low latency links, such as microsoft, by requiring charging them the same price as they content providers who are perfectly well served by a low bandwidth, high latency link, such as yourself. Not surprisingly Microsoft are among the advocates of network neutrality.

Regarding the monoplies things:
Firstly BT for example compete in the provison of phone services, Sky and freeview compete in the provision of television, they are big enough to look after themselves.
Secondly, the merger involved two companies that didn't compete with each other in the first place. There was a patchwork of local monopolies wherever you lived you had, at most, one cable TV company available, that remains the case.

27:

@15: Ditto re Pipex - they are my ISP and had been consistently good. Not enamoured of Tiscali at all - their backhaul links are reported to stink. Currently trying to decide between Be+yourphone.net and sky for phone/broadband service, Be (we use it at work) is screamingly quick, but sky will get me channels but slower pipe. Tough call.

28:

Brett @26: you're looking at it the wrong way. I am paying my ISP to bring me my packets. Nothing about "subsidizing content providers". If they ain't getting enough money off the public to carry the traffic, then they need to charge more. And yes, this is a competition issue.

As for the monopolies thing, you will be laughing on the other side of your head if BT decide to try and follow Virgin's example by demanding that suppliers start paying to traverse their network. Hint: if Virgin are allowed to get away with this it's the first step down the slippery slope to reversing LLU. Which would be Very Bad Indeed for us "consumers".

29:

We had ntl cable for a bit (originally with ComTel, who were OK - but that was before they did ISPing) and they were so useless I swore never to touch them again.

We moved a whole mile (so out of the cabled area) and went with Virgin.net adsl which was pretty good, and then they were bought by ntl. It's obvious that whatever it says on the tin, it's ntl inside.

I'm alarmed by the phorm thing, but generally the router is OK - yes I have to reboot from time to time but still... does all the above apply to adsl as well, or only cable?

David

30:
I'm a bit sceptical about network neutrality. It effectively mandates that ISPs must subsidise content providers who require high bandwidth low latency links
No, it doesn't. Those content providers already pay through the nose for the bandwidth to their ISP. And it's completely irrelevant to the traffic on my ISP's network.

Either I've paid for enough bandwidth to watch a BBC iPlayer programme (for example), or I haven't. If I have, I should be able to watch it no matter who provides it and what relationship (particularly financial) they have to my ISP. Packets are packets. If I haven't, then it's not going to work, but it's not going to bring the ISP's network down either: I'll hit my personal, paid-for limit and won't be able to exceed it.

The only "problem" is if they've advertised capacity they can't possibly offer in practice, thinking no-one would ever use it all at once. If they've done that and got caught out... boo hoo.

(Although this still won't bring anything down -- all that'll actually happen is everyone's connection at that ISP gets slower and all their customers complain. There are of course, in the words of the great Douglas Adams, those who say this has already happened, and in fact, keeps happening and yet somehow the Internet does not collapse.)

All this talk of bandwidth and infrastructure is largely a misdirection, I think. It can't be coincidence that these noises always come out of companies who also supply competing media (typically cable TV), are used to supplying "premium services" (subscription channels, pay-per-view, etc) and are scared of becoming just another commodity or even baseline service like electricity or water.

31:

I left them when they were dicking me about as Telewest, moved to Zen who proved to be too expensive eventually then Eclipse who proved to be too slow and thence to Be last August who I love for my 24 (read 15) meg connection and unlimited downloading of bittorrent tv shows and music.

32:

The problem, of course, being contention at the local end. Didn't matter so much when most access was a few web pages. But when you sell a service at 45:1 contention ratios then when people start using bandwidth intensive technologies (eg streaming media) suddenly that contention ratio becomes a killer.

Oops, ISPs oversold their bandwidth to the consumers.

33:

It just seems odd to claim that something Microsoft is opposing is beneficial to Microsoft. Microsoft are usually pretty hot on defending their own interests. One possibility which network neutrality prevents is charging content providers for a guaranteed low latency link to the customers. e.g. the BBC paying for an improved link over the intervening network so that you don't get freezing on streamed media.

I'm not arguing that net neutrality a bad thing just that unless t actual problems arise regulations should be avoided, that is legislation should be a response to actual problems. The actual arguments are complicated and appear to be fairly balanced. If an ISP can charge for high bandwidth then they have an incentive to provide the bandwidth.

The merger didn't, in itself, pose competition issues as NTL and telewest didn't compete against each other in the first place.

34:

I'd had NTL cable (phone and TV services; I didn't have the internet at home then) since before it was digital and before they were NTL. I left last year over various events surrounding the transition to Virgin Media:
the interface on the digital TV, which had been extremely mediocre, was replaced by one under the VM brand that was even worse in both functionality and usability;
their customer service, which was already cr@p, didn't get any better;
they had a fight with Sky resulting in nearly everything worth watching disappearing from cable, except for channels I can get on Freeview (no monthly fees).
I also wanted to get broadband, and seriously didn't want to be tied to the cable monopoly for that.

I jumped ship, although it meant paying well over £100 to get a landline back (same reason as 25 above). I'm so glad I did! I guess it was BT that imposed the reconnection fee, but I don't pay them anything directly: my phone line, calls and internet service all come from the Phone Co-op (www.thephone.coop). They're one of the top-rated ethical ISPs. After the non-negligible expense of setting everything up (see above), they're very competitive on price (you do have to sign up for 12 months). They use BT Wholesale bandwidth, but I guess all the small firms have to do that. I don't know what they're like for heavy usage like bittorrenting, because I don't do that, but they have a range of tariffs according to usage. Hm - I seem to have turned into an advert.

Oh, and their customer service is answered by actual humans, who know their subject, unlike some that have been mentioned above ...

35:

Brett: "The merger didn't, in itself, pose competition issues as NTL and telewest didn't compete against each other in the first place."

True, but they competed against BT's loop. The situation we've now arrived at is one where there are two mammoth cablecos with buried fibre. Only one has been subjected to LLU, which means there's no competition on Virgin's fibre and those folks who aren't reached by BT cables are SOL.

If LLU applied to Virgin's network as with BT, then I could take a more laid back attitude to Virgin being fuckwitted about net neutrality or adware and so on. But instead, what I see is another cumbersome monopoly acting up because they consider themselves to be immune to competition.

36:

Not had any problems with my Airport, aside from some problem last year where I had to call them about a problem (at their end) and them getting me to go through the ropes at my end, and getting the usual 'unsupported' rubbish. I can understand the logic (there are far more routers out there than there are 'mainstream' operating systems) but all three of mine had worked, plug'n'play, with their system (previously NTL's) - and more importantly, domestic wireless networks are pretty much commonplace now.

As for over-selling - well, we'll see if customers really will pay more for more. iPlayer is absolutely fantastic but I don't think I'd pay more for it - I'd go back to remembering to record stuff.

On the other hand, returning to any flavour of BT doesn't fill me with joy, not least because it's going to require some expensive internal re-wiring to avoid the half-arsed job that had been done the last time (lots of wiring stapled around door-frames, now removed).

Now if only someone would start offering Scandinavian style proper broadband, rather than our fixation on retrofit solutions like ADSL.

37:

Canis @1: (If anyone has any tips how to go from a standing start -- ie no BT or LLU line at all -- to broadband that isn't BT or Virgin, I'd love to hear them.)

I've recently moved house, and when I called BT to book a line installation was told they couldn't take my order due to a computer failure. And what's more, they wouldn't be able to until next tuesday (this was the thursday before Easter) anyway. "Fuck this," I said. Got mobile broadband from 3. It's not the greatest speed (only 2.something megabits), and has a "fair usage policy" (aka data transfer limit) of 7GB/month, but it's reasonably cheap compared to phone line (which I wouldn't use anyway) + broadband. Pluses include the modem provided works flawlessly with Linux. Biggest downside is for some reason they give me a private IP address and NAT my connections to the outside world. This works for me, but if you wanted to do anything P2P related I could see it would be a bit of an issue...

38:

If you have a tile or other non-radio-blocking roof, your dish might work OK in the attic. If you have an attic. TV antennas used to, back in the days where nice people came and knocked on the door of houses with antennas on the roof to ask for a voluntary contribution.

Or so I hear.

39:

a) I'm a blogger (Charlie kindly linked to a post of mine about ID cards a while back, which is pretty much the highlight)
b) I work for VM
c) I have quite a lot of knowledge of the network including how it's polled.
d) Naturally I get a bit pissed off when my employer narks off people whose opinions I generally rate
e) Therefore I'm drawing the attention of the VM technorati to this post. Demographically speaking they're basically the same type of people as, well, a lot of readers on this sort of blog. Not masters of evilitude, then, just techies.

Firstly, on the router problems we may be seeing one of three things - crap service from us, crap hardware/firmware or most interestingly the exact reverse of what Charlie's and others are suggesting - a consequence of too little control over the network rather than too much and not us screwing you but you screwing us.

You're entitled to connect a router to the network - VM don't specify which ones are acceptable or force you to use ours - the flipside to this is that we only offer tech support on basic home operating systems (Windows and Mac, in other words), although we're actually now offering wireless routers for home use. Mostly, as far as routers or Linuxes go you're on your own.

I'm speaking here as someone with a cheap Linux server behind a cheap Netgear router behind a VM cable modem, which seem to work fine - if I became aware of any remote buggering up of routers I'd have found out who was doing it, how they were doing it, pulled them inside out and then worked out how to defeat it. This has yet to happen, however.

Anyway, this is fine until the manufacturers of the router, working on near zero margins with cheap staff and a strong desire to cut down on ongoing support costs, muck up the firmware sufficiently to render the thing capable of DOSsing the network it's connected to, for instance with a blizzard of DHCP requests. At this point one would rather like the ability (similar to that we have for the cable modem) to force the damn things to download updated firmware but sadly we don't, although if it gets to the stage of actually affecting service (and it has, I've had to redesign internal systems to mitigate this) we'd eventually suspend the account, as we would if the customer had a virus and for the same reason (there's the much more preferable and softer option of directing the user into a walled garden where they can find instructions on how to fix the problem. Anyone got any objections to that?).

A lot of this comes down to the difference between support and allow - we allow a lot of freedom of choice in CPE but have to limit support to what we can actually afford to train people to support (in time as well as money). In addition we suffer costs related to trying to fix issues with firmware we didn't supply and kit we have no control over. It doesn't follow from this that we actively discourage you from using the kit or waste our time annoying you until you stop - that's rather a leap of faith in argumentative terms, as is the parallel argument that we're a) incompetent and b) resourceful and capable enough to undertake incredible technical feats just to annoy you into connecting your computer directly to the cable modem. So what are we doing wrong, precisely?

Any questions?

Paul Raven (comment 7) - we do have newsgroup support, although it's rather kicking off in there at the moment.
Robert (comment 19) - I'd be pleased to offer you a bit of help if you like.
netguy (comment 22) - you really think we've got the time and kit to endlessly portscan a few million IPs? I'd like to know who runs that server farm, I could use that sort of power.
Charlie (comment 35) - not all mammoths are the same size. BT has over seven times the workforce of VM and over three times as many managers as we have *total staff* - the reason there's no LLU is that we're not in a position to abuse our monopoly to anywhere near the same extent (if we were, we'd be bigger, surely, since the UK cable industry has always had a monopoly on, er, cable but has always been too small and fragmented to invest sufficiently. Cheers, Thatcher). In short, BT could survive imposed LLU, VM would be severely weakened (by having to stop urgent network capacity improvement projects to restructure the network to divert people's packets down someone elses network). Ironically this would probably result in our big rivals BT and Sky being strengthened, which isn't a reduction in monopoly by any definition.

40:

"We're a monopoly; we don't have to care."--Ernestine

In fact, the old ATT did care, though they could be a pain. The cable companies, they *really* don't care. This is an old problem in the telecomm industry; the carriers try to go into the publishing or broadcasting or (insert name of sexy media) business. It has *always* failed; the business model of a media company, which involves selection and unexpected outcomes, is very different from the business model of a telecomm carrier, which is basically collecting rent. Collecting rent isn't sexy, but it's good steady business; media is sexy, but it's variable, and it's hard to make money in it.

41:

Wow, there's an ISP/Cable provider worse than Comcast? :)

42:

I'm a subcontract monkey who works in a call barn for Virgin Media, and while my support may count for little everything Tom has said is correct, to the best of my knowledge.

The network is sufficiently busy failing in other places that Virgin Media almost certainly don't have the time, resources, or inclination to scan for routers and impede their connection. Given that VM is finally supplying routers (after three years of dicking about with trial after trial) it wouldn't make any sense to cut them off wholesale.

There are too many things that can affect connections. I'd worry about firmware updates to the Airports before blaming Virgin Media, I'm afraid. A packet is a packet, and given the profusion of MAC cloning and all else it'd be madness to try and scan to find routers to cut them off. Of course, that doesn't rule out the possibility of some scheme taking place that support monkeys aren't being made aware of. However, such a scheme would be totally outwith my understanding of how the network works or where Virgin Media's priorities are in terms of ruining your internet experience and filling you with hate.

43:

Charlie,
we want the British version of Mythbusters, in particular (episodes are longer and more amusing than the chopped-for-ads American version)

Man, I wish I hadn't learned that. I am so disappointed, and faintly hopeful. Maybe if/when they collect eps for DVD release, I can score the UK version. (I had a sense that the editing was crappy and didn't correspond well to the rest of the production values.)

Thanks for telling me anyway,
don

p.s. So, I suppose your ultimate solution will involve a spool of cat-5 or rg6, a 100mm masonry drill bit and bribery of people living on the correct side of your apartment building? Or would it be more effective to buy a Britain based fan a slingbox?

44:

As an additonal postscript, I have to say that "The Good Doctor Baron Von Anonymous" is the best pseudonym I've ever seen, and I would copy it freely, were it not so unique. Plus, you just made me spill shrimp salad all over my laptop. Good job!

45:

Don - the bits that made it into UK episode, but not the US ones are sometimes found in the specials when they pretend they were on the cutting room floor. Also, in the UK, when they had that oopsie with the rocket motor, the building was described as containing "more smoke than an Amsterdam coffee shop". I've never checked, but I bet that wasn't in the US commentary!

46:

I've been with VM since the NTLHell days. They're not good, but they have the monopoly on cable. Two things fixed all my own router woes and may help at least someone here.

1. Throwing the wireless receivers in the bin, buying a load of good cable, and hardwiring all three computers to the router. :p

2. Forcing XP to allow many more half-open connections than it wanted to. For anyone that uses P2P a lot, I recommend this last thing in particular. Summary on why it is/may be necessary in XP and Vista here together with download links.

47:

For further proof of what they are up to, you could assign your router PC the MAC address of your airport, and see what happens (granted, there can always be quirks about how things are implemented with ip they could be checking, I wonder if airports have the same first half of the MAC (the MAC is 48 bits, and is unique, first half is per manufacturer, second is handed out by them per device) as Apple computers (only 16 million per bloc, so Apple probably has more than one by now).

48:

The big, and general, problem seems to be that ISPs have been advertiasing high bandwidth and charging for low bandwidth. You see words and phrases such as "up to 8 megabits" (abbreviated so that it can be mistaken for megabytes) and "unlimited", with killer details such as contention ratios buried in the fine print.

And when everybody is browsing web pages this can work out OK. Even if a few idiots store a huge graphiocs file and rescale it in the browser, you're not downloading continuously, and most of the people sharing the bandwidth aren't using it when you want it.

Anyway, back in the 20th Century, when the Web was pretty new, people mostly used things called newsgroups. And the big load for the ISPs were the binaries newsgroups. Porn and illegaly copied software. The ISP would run their own news server (it saved a lot on external bandwidth), and delivered the data to customers using dial-up modems. If you were on the net, nobody else could user your telephone. It was all pretty comfortable.

But in the 21st Century everything changes.

You can buy software and download it.

We now have equally legitimate downloads of video media--not just the BBC--including streaming video which needs a reliable chunk of bandwidth, rather than the Prestel-era guaranteed minimum of 50:1 contention. It's a world in which the heavy users can't be dismissed as illicit file-sharers, and throttled back if they make problems.

And customers, because they want to use the high speed. unlimited, connection they have been sold, are discovering the lies in the marketing.

And marketing, not unreasonably, are shitting bricks at the prospect of telling customers that they will have to pay much more money for what they have already bought.

So they're looking at getting money from elsewhere, and they look at screwing money out of the content providers.

It comes across as "pay us, and we'll publish your content", and that sounds a lot like vanity publishing scams.

And it depends on a lot more tracking of what people are connecting to. The media business--that is, the real media business--pay for adverts based on who's seeing them. If the dandy highwayman of Virgin Media tells them to stand and deliver, they'll want to know how many VM customers are downloading their product. And they're used to neutral third parties checking the counting.

This isn't just VM, or any other ISP, madly trying every way they can imagine to not reveal the bandwidth shell game, it's the possibly accidental rush towards Big Brother because, unsurprisingly, nobody who might pay them quite trusts them.

And OfCom? They've proved themself so toothless over "unlimited" that they appear capable of outsucking Paris Hilton.

It's the 21st Century. Everything has changed. And Torchwood was on iPlayer.

Pity the ISPs aren't ready.

49:

If a PC/Mac works fine connected directly to a cable modem, but the moment you connect a router, you suddenly see packet loss... suspect the router, not the ISP.

When I used Telecential/Comtel/NTL back in 2000, the amount of ARP who-has packets bridged down my CM was staggering - but not anything worry much about. Just suppose a particular brand of router doesn't play nice when it has more than a certain amount of ARP traffic.

Food for thought.

50:

Got to say that my experience of Virgin doesn't match yours at all - we were one of the first people to get cable internet in our area (Bristol) and it was dreadful for a while, but nowadays it's far more solid than our ADSL is.

Our cable modem is currently plugged into a Zywall firewall/router, which goes into a network switch. Before that, it went into a Cyclone dual WAN router, through a Sonicwall, and into the switch. Never saw any packet loss.

I'd be looking at the router and cables first.

The rest of your post has merit, though - come Phorm, if they impose it, our own private Squid will go on a non-standard port - they're not having my browsing habits, thankyouverymuch. As for content delivery, I fear that although VM might be the first, I bet they won't be the last. The good days of the internet are on the way out :(

51:

... such a scheme would be totally outwith my understanding of how the network works or where Virgin Media's priorities are in terms of ruining your internet experience and filling you with hate.

That's a lovely summary of the situation ...

(NB: am hitting the road again for a couple of days. Back Thursday.)

52:

For what its worth router dropout isn't always Vigin/NTLs fault. I had a cheap Netgear Wireless router which would lose its connection every ~24hours and needed kicking. The problem turned out to be that fact that it didn't bother renewing its DHCP lease with NTL and so it got dropped (legitimately). About a year after I ceased using the thing I noticed that Netgear had in fact issued a patch to fix the problem - so at least Netgear did something about it but it was a bit late by then.

53:

Charlie @ #28:

Back in 2006 (I think), I ran the numbers for what a completely unlimited (not contended within the ISP's network) 8Mbps DSL would cost to provide, discounting staff costs, data floor costs and cabling costs, estimating that 75% could be served via LINX, the rest at approximate international transit prices. Back then, it landed at about 80 quid per month, plus VAT, plus staff costs, plus ...

54:

So basically, Virgin aren't doing it on purpose; they're just incompetent. Except when (re Phorm and buslanes) they are doing it on purpose.

Anyway, I just ordered my new link from Bogons Ltd.

55:

(Decided not to go away after all: too exhausted from past month of travelling)

Ingvar @53, I'd happily pay that, if I could get non-contention DSL with reasonable outbound bandwidth.

56:

{I'm trying not to tread on toes here or reveal any commercial secrets. So I'm sorry if this is a bit vague.}

On the net neutrality front; one of the things they're looking at doing is having a way of coping with the demands of modern high-volume media (BBC iPlayer, everyone's looking at you).

The networks can't increase their prices -- if they doubled their prices so that next year they have enough bandwidth, they're dead because everyone will leave and they have no income this year. No-one is willing to pay this year for bandwidth they get next year. And because the same problem exists next year as well, you can't even borrow money to build the network.

The fundamental problem is that the media providers' business models relies on effectively "free" delivery to the users. They make more money by selling more stuff, but that doesn't turn into bigger pipes at the ISP end.

They're not so much looking at charging end users anymore (because they can't make that business model work) but in having other acceleration happen to that sort of content.


The end result, if everything works properly, is that;

You can watch iPlayer-type media services at a decent rate (because the media owner is helping fund that happening).

You can STILL go and watching Small Time Media inc's videos, only with less congestion now (because it's not fighting with iPlayer) and the throttling can be removed.

And Virgin don't go bust trying to double their network capacity every two years on a fixed income.


The only other option is that they simply throttle all your video connections to the point where the ISP can cost effectively handle them. You price won't go up (because it just can't) but your service will degrade until it matches the price.

This is, if we're blunt about it, one of the results of the UK population picking telcos and ISPs based on the five criteria of price, price, price, price and lastly price. QoS, customer service, reliability and whether the network will have capacity next year as well as this year are all utterly irrelevant; and because everyone did that last year, this year we don't have enough capacity.

We've hit a "local peak" if you like. No-one wants to be the first retail ISP to jack up their prices or operating costs by moving off the peak, because it will kill them. That means bandwidth won't expand without doing something that changes the paradigm.

And as long as they ALL sit on the peak, they all have the same problem and the people who suffer are the end users, and the media suppliers. Someone has to pay for the bandwidth, basically, and all the users have decided that it's not going to be them. The only other party here with money are the media providers.

57:

Ingvar, there must be some pretty stonking other costs in the system, or my ISP wouldn't be losing money at 50:1 contention.

Your cost per megabit second per month suggests only 2.5% of what I pay will cover the external connection costs for my peak bandwidth, without allowing for any contention. The contention bottleneck may be on the exchange/"last-mile" rather than the ISP network (there's certainly talk of BT charging over the odds for this), but wherever it is, a big jump in what I pay for external bandwidth wouldn't be a big jump in my bill.

58:

KLL, with what I've seen over the years, the ISP industry's marketing has been a persistent lie. Yes, it's price price price, because that's the only honest bit of data we get in the adverts. Phrases such as "up to 8 Mb" and "unlimited" are the headlines. The reality is that many customers will never see that speed, and the ISPs will shut down protocols for half the day or more without admitting what they're doing.

I look at the market, and I see plenty of options to pay more, but I see no guarantee of a better service.

If I'm going to be lied to, I'll take the cheap lies.

59:

You're making a fairly substantial empirical mistake Charlie: attributing poor performance to Virgin when [it seems] you've only tested network performance using your Airport Extreme. Having tested the Virgin network over several years in more than one geographic location and with units as diverse as SonicWall, Watchguard Firebox, Juniper Netscreen, Netgear, Zyxel, Edimax and Solwise, as well as Airports, I can assure you that the limiting factor in performance isn't Virgin - at least not in the terms in which you have stated them. The limiting factor is your Airport Extreme, which is now a fairly old design, the cpu/speed of which was already at its limits 5 years ago.

If you want to find out how well Virgin can [or cannot] perform then replace your Airport with one of the very latest SonicWall TZ series wireless firewall/routers.

As to your potted history of cable in the UK - it's wildly wrong, by more than a decade. The first modern cable franchises were awarded here in the UK under The Telecommunications Act 1984, although there had been some limited cable subscription services dating from circa 1980/81. At the time of those first franchise awards there were not two franchise operators [as you suggest] but several dozen - almost all of whom were highly localised. The first experiments with internet delivery over existing cable infrastructures had already commenced in various places as early as 1994 and were pretty well established as a viable proposition by 1998, by which time mergers and takeovers had effectively reduced the number of operators to two. Thus for example most of London was connected to or connectable to the internet by late 1999 or very early 2000.

In short, whilst I enitrely sympathise with your ire at Virgin's current antics, your inacuracies don't help you to make your case. Not written with your usual scrupulous attention to technical detail: 4/10 - fail!

60:

Robert: did you by any chance read the substance of my problem? It's not speed; it's loss of connectivity. (Kicking the router into renewing it's DHCP lease works as a reset, but the lossage recurs -- and it's not a 24 hour lease problem.)

Nor am I interested in the situation in London, because I don't live in London. Neither do another 75% of the population of the UK. London has entirely different infrastructure and bandwidth issues because it's physically laid out on a different scale to the rest of the country, which is why actual customer roll-out of broadband over cable outside of London didn't get under way until the late 1990s.

(I speak as, as far as I know, the first Mac-based sign-up Telewest had in the whole of Edinburgh.)

61:

There is point in what he says; my dale in Yorkshire got cable in the mid-90s, courtesy of the shortlived Yorkshire Cable, I think before it got DSL. YC, of course, ended up being rolled into Telewest into NTL into Virgin/BT 2.0.

62:

Working reasonably for me. When I fired BT for extreme ineptitude (a pity, in the past they had made things work very nicely, and it isn't the engineers AFAICS) I got a cable connection quite quickly, plugged my network into it and it works. There is obviously contention, but it arrives in the end.

I think our road is full up - a relative nearby can't be connected, I presume through lack of wires or something.

63:

(re: satellite dish): :Other locals ... hmm. It might be possible. Complex, but possible. Let me think about it." Posted by: Charlie Stross

There's using your neighbors, where 'neighbor' means whomever you can get and is convenient.

The hiding the dish idea is interesting - what things would be allowed on your rooftop? If you can rig a radio-transparent item to hide the dish, you might get by with that.

Or, as a last resort, persuading a 'neighbor' to put that item on their roof.

64:

"Thus for example most of London was connected to or connectable to the internet by late 1999 or very early 2000"

Still not quite right - apart from anything else there were three main operators until mid-2000, and lot of London lagged a surprisingly long way behind.

C&W areas didn't get cable broadband (via the STB only) until 2001-2002 or so except the ex-Videotron franchises (built severely on the cheap in London and Southampton) which weren't finally upgraded until relatively late ntl days (2005 or so).

ntl, who rolled out just ahead of TW, hardly had any franchises in London until the C&W merger, although quite a few round the edge (such as Herts/Essex).

TW were ahead of both in their London areas, but even then it would only have started from March 2000 or so when blueyonder launched.

"actual customer roll-out of broadband over cable outside of London didn't get under way until the late 1990s."

Not quite - each company had its own pet trial areas outside London. For example, ntl started in Guildford from 1999, C&W in Manchester from July 2001 followed by Leeds some months later (the very early pre-DOCSIS trials in the mid-90s were also Manchester, but never fully commercialised). Not sure where Telewest did theirs, but I suspect northwest since that's Area 1 in a lot of their numbering schemes and a common trial area even now.

In other words, none of them were especially London-centric in terms of rollout and London wasn't fully rolled out until longer after most of the rest of the UK had been done, which caused a lot of vigorous complaining on message boards, I recall.

In fact, post-C&W/ntl merger in 2000 the centres of gravity for the two remaining companies have always been M3/M4 corridor (ntl) and West Midlands/Merseyside (TW).

65:

Speaking as someone based up in the same neck of the woods as Charlie, I can honestly say I've had a similar experience to him, whilst using Virgin (we've switched to Be now).

We had the old Telewest package, which included phone, cable and TV. When Virgin announced their 20Meg connection we decided to take it, figuring that it'd be good for long game playing sessions and some p2p action (torrenting patches for things like 'AA', which are over 2Gig in size).

And for a couple of months it was great. Then the network kept dropping out, and we'd be unable to connect to the internet for days at a time. No explanation, no problems with the computers, as we used another router to bypass the Virgin router and connect to our neighbour's wireless (they were on Be). We started using BBC iPlayer around the same time.

I also got some info from a friend, who suggested that the reason we weren't getting the full service was due to network-throttling, placed on Virgin customers who downloaded more info than was deemed acceptable (i.e. those that used the high-end connection to access things quickly, watch things on-line and playing games at low ping). I know most people are already aware of this (just look it up on the register), but some aren't.

Basic conclusion I cam to: Virgin took the money to provide the high end connection, then (as Charlie mentioned) imposed all sorts of restrictions so that it wasn't really as advertised, and only worked for half the time (generally the period between midnight and 3pm - when most normal people are asleep and unable to add their packets to the network, which some people have described as 'over-stretched'). That's false advertising in my book.

However, we've switched over to Be, and all has been good. Had a couple of glitches with the router when we first got it, but updated firmware and all is so far good...

66:

According to scuttlebutt, when NTL and Telewest "merged" NTL got nine seats on the board and Telewest three. Since then, most decisions in integrating the two have fallen towards NTL, but that's probably just coincidence.

At the moment, Virgin Media's priorities in terms of removing goodwill basically start and end with pricing structures and traffic management.

Phorm is an attempt to wring more money out of the customer base. Unifying the price structures (and admittedly wildly variable customer service) mean two neighbours with the same connection ostensibly can be paying widely different prices. Premium rate support wasn't to raise money (they said) but to cut call queues, and it worked. Which is why they're stopping it in July, to distract from the price increases.

The iPlayer spat has obscured iPlayer peering within the Virgin Media network, and the content deal that will see iPlayer content available through set top boxes over Virgin's on demand service. That's all about traffic management. So too the wider rollout of traffic management outwith the current 1600-2100 window. Then there's the wholesale upgrades from 4Mb to 10Mb, and the mysteries of the 50Mb product.

So, with all that scope for misadventure, disconnecting your router doesn't apply. Though seeing that a reboot resolved it I'd be inclined to check your modem's power levels (on the off chance), and the firmware. There's been a spate of DHCP induced conflicts with a variety of routers lately, most commonly Belkins, but Airports may not be immune.

Before I forget, like much your books sir. When next one out, eh?

67:

Oh, here's the register link about network throttling for those that are interested:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/05/08/vigin_nationwide_throttling/

68:

I am pretty sure that somebody must have devised radio-transparent fake slates. Or something similar to the original BSB planar antenna. For the year or two before Sky took them over, fuelled by automatic advertising in The Sun the BSB flat panel was being plugged as the solution for listed buildings.

(I used to live in a listed building, and it was much older than your puny slan-shack.)

I doubt either would be a cheap solution.

[Much googling]

Fake GRP roof slates are certainly available, but whether or not they are transparent enough, I doubt the manufacturer knowa.

Flat panel satellite antenna look to be somewhat exotic.

69:

"Since then, most decisions in integrating the two have fallen towards NTL"

There are examples both ways, but the biggest decision in time, expense and importance, unifying billing systems, was an outright win for TW and quite right too. ntl having managed the exceptional feat of consolidating and slimming down from two systems to three wasn't at the races.

iPlayer on-demand over DTV is a wholly better way of delivering it than IP for lots of reasons - speed, picture quality, lack of impact on congestion, displayed on a TV not a computer screen - it's also pretty much the best application for exploiting the technical advantages of cable*. I just hope it bloody works.

* Huge downstream bandwidth for TV channels plus sufficient permanently-connected upstream to send signals in real time.

70:

My cage doesn't deal with billing, so the poo being flung on that front didn't prick up my ears. Makes sense though. We are talking about scuttlebutt being reported by someone who is not actually a monkey, nor a doctor, nor, indeed, a baron. Caveat lictor.

iPlayer over TV On Demand seems a killer app, to be fair, and I fully expect the Powers Upstairs to offer similar deals to Channel 4 and the rest of the UK's content providers. Part of the problem with "network neutrality" is that the Virgin Media network carries both TV and Internet, and it makes more sense to favour TV over TV than TV over Internet. To me, anyway, but I may well have been brainwashed.

71:

Caveat lector, even. That'll teach me to try to use Latin on the Internet.

72:

On the other hand...

I just spoke to Be to try to work out what I would need to do to switch, and was told that my line didn't exist. I realised this was because they didn't recognise the Virgin number and the helpful lady on the other end basically told me to sod off until I had a BT number (actually, she said "you can get hold of BT by dialling 150 on your phone", which of course you can't from a Virgin line, but I digress).

Half an hour on hold to BT later (as I try to find out what it would cost me to give them my business) and after two transfers they drop the line.

If this is the kind of support I'm looking at when I'm actively trying to give them money, I'm not optimistic about their attitude when I'm already signed up.

73:

The Good Doctor Baron Von Anonymous@70: Things Virgin can do that will cause me to moan slightly less about the telly:

* A sensible HDTV deal, that doesn't involve paying an inflated price for the box we already have for a year on top of the new one.

* The above to include Discovery HD, of course.

* Discovery and National Geographic enticed into the TV On Demand service.

* NHK (will pay extra for this. I'm sure I can make it tax deductible anyway).

* No need to add the 83 million religious channels you can get on Sky, thank you. In fact, can you move the God Channel so it's with the pr0n, where it belongs, and not among the factual channels?

* Don't want the Sky channels back, either. Only been interested in one programme they've shown since it went away, but not interested enough to fire up BitTorrent.

74:

Interesting information. I've experienced numerous outages with my Belkin router, but always found a remote reset solved any issue I had. That, and altering all the port forwarding so my BT apps worked on stock, but outside world think i'm playing CounterStrike ;) As for Virgin as an ISP... If I wasn't so far away from the exchange, i'd be gone in a second. Unfortunately for me, the "last mile" for me is OVER a mile of cheap copper; Nobody around me has anything but Cable for broadband. Kind of sucks, but that's the way it is.

75:

Charlie, nothing to say on VM, as I've never used them. However I do agree that this is damaging the "Stick it to 'em" Virgin brand.

We've had Be as our main ADSL for a couple of years now, and the only issues we have are the speed (3M instead of 8M, but then you're much closer to the East London Street exchange than we) and their SMTP gateway is very temperamental (we've had to look at using alternatives from time to time, something we both have the resources to do - still annoying though).

S

76:

Holy shit man, you're better read now than in the glory days of alt.peeves back in the day.

77:

In my experience Virgin Media is a terrible ISP. My so-called "20Mb broadband" frequently runs at less than a tenth of that speed for no apparent reason whatsoever. I don't download much - just standard web, email and a small amount of online gaming. I picked the biggest, fastest package the company could offer and it's STILL not good enough. All this for only* 37ukp a month.

What a deal.

78:

Careful with BeThere / O2 -- they reset encrypted SSL connections on non-standard ports, and their support cannot understand the difference between incoming and outgoing connections.

So some serious "traffic management" going on, presumably to force you to use their rubbish outgoing mail servers.

79:

First lest me say
1/ Someone should be shot for even contemplating a deal with Phorm
2/ Berkett should have his head shoved down a toilet and it be repeatedly flushed until he sees sense
but...

I've seen too many crappy domestic grade routers that need power cycling with montonous regularity (many home & small biz installs) from most of the big name suppliers to accept the proposition that VM are deliberately dropping packets without some serious evidence.

I think p2p/bittorrent is a much bigger problem than many people realise.
- many cheap domestic routers cannot cope with the number of simultaneous connections it generates
- DOCSIS modem-CMTS connections are very badly badly affected by the same issue - many simultaneous inbound connections

I can only hope DOCSIS3 is less prone to these problems 'cos ADSL isn't a serious alternative for me and ADSL2 is just a dream

80:

Charlie you've been slashdotted...hope you've got a static version of the blog or a good webserver. I might be posting this a bit late, but I've just seen it on the frontpage.

81:

Way back in 1997, we bought into the Telewest dream. It until the merger with Ntl and subsequent rebranding into what is now Virginmedia, the best isp,cable tv and telephone company in Britain. NOTHING could touch Blueyonder for speed and a TRULY unlimited service.

Since the rebranding, Virginmedia have lost their way, saddled with debts and a totally clueless management they are clutching at straws in trying to resolve the issue of bad debt.

I believe the public are judified in calling for a full parliamentry review of why this company are not only ripping British consumers off but attempting to Bully the people and country with STM and PHORM whilst charging extorsionate premiums. People who complain and attempt to terminate a contract are offered bribes in the form of lower premiums whilst others pay the full amount.

Today, Virginmedia products and services are complete shite. They treat people with contempt blatantly ignoring problem exist or plea's for help.

I feel betrayed after investing my money into CABLE TV, INTERNET AND PHONE. I thought it was the way forward for the future. Sadly it turns out to be just another SCAM to get me hooked on a dream then screw me blind.

They are nothing but LIARS, AND THIEVES.

82:

NTL/VirginMedia can burn in the depths of hell reserved for thieves and other, despicable persona non grata's.

Got a Set Top Box as your modem? Got broadband faster than 4Mb? No, you don't. The STB's can't do more than that, but Virgin will charge you for the faster line.

STB falling over a lot? FARK YOU! No replacement for (and I quote a VM/NTL rep) "skeezy people".

Swapped your STB for a modem? Faster internet? Well hold on there fella, they might well have locked the modem down to the STB's maximum and STILL be charging you for something you can't use. You'll need to google for how to pull up the modem's status page and check yourself. We ain't gonna check it once we've set it, fark you!

Been with them for a while? Upgraded your broadband recently or let us upgrade you? Welcome to double billing land, where the bill for the second account is delivered to your e-mail only... or not, but hey they're billing you anyway! Which is nice.

Been ripped off and double billed for longer than you can figure out? Well that's just tough, thanks for the cash honkey, fark you. *click*

Want unfiltered, raw net access? FARK YOU, love our proxies... they've fallen over? Again? Fark you. You love old content... you don't? Get used it to.

So you want to send e-mail? Well hold on there son. Our mail server's still down and has been for three days now. Fark you. Ohh look our smtp server just vanished as well.

DNS? What's that? Nahh... don't bother telling us just fark off.

Want to watch Sky one? ROFLCOPTER!

Virgin Media, the company that likes to sit there with its thumb up its ass going "eh?"

83:

anon @80: it's okay, I get slashdotted and boingboinged about once every couple of months. (I'm used to it ...)

84:

Depending on the topology of the VM cable network, this may not be a deliberate thing that VM are doing; it may simply be that the network is melting your routers brains.

I work as a network engineer for an Australasian Telco and have quite a bit of involvement with our cable network. The way our network is currently set up, the layer 2 broadcast domains are larger than they really should be (the network is now about three times the size it was ever expected to grow to, and is rather a victim of its own success), and the level of background traffic is really high (~150Kbps of ARP etc., traffic on a bad day). Cheap routers were never intended to deal with this level of traffic, and we see a lot of reports of entry level routers locking up or becoming unstable when plugged into our network.

PCs on the other hand, even the most lowly specced, can handle this reasonably easily and don't tend to melt under pressure. If the VM network is architected anything like ours, the problem you're seeing may not be VM being evil, but simply them suffering from the same problems we see.

If you have a spare machine with a couple of NICs you can plug into it, slap something like mOnOwall or pfsense (freeBSD based standalone firewall.router distros) on it, plug it in and see how it holds up - they both allow you to masquerade your WAN-side MAC address; if they're stable when you have a standard PC MAC on the WAN-side NIC, but flaky if you put your airport's MAC on it, you know that VM are bastards; if it's stable either way, you know it's just the routers having a bad day. Alternatively, plug a PC straight into the cable modem and sniff the broadcast traffic with your network sniffer of choice - if opening a packet capture is like drinking from the firehose, I'd say that's your problem right there.

85:

Dave @68: GRP is radio transparent, at least most GRP (possibly not carbon-fibre). I think with non-conductive materials it's the trapped water that slows down short-wave radio, hence libraries are a bugger for wireless.

I don't know what wavelengths satellite TV uses, but if it can punch through a couple of kilometres worth of atmospheric water vapour I doubt that slates, whether real or fake, will slow it down much.

86:

I agree with everything you've written except the part about routers. I've used several makes of router on NTL/VM/whatever without any problems over the years. Net performance is just as fast and stable with a router as it is with my macbook connected directly to the cable modem. I've also helped a few other people on NTL set up routers and none of them have mentioned any problems.

I don't dispute that you're having problems, but I don't think it's any kind of conspiracy theory.

Totally agree with the rest of what you say though, this is appalling customer service

87:

I have to disagree with you Charlie about the routers. I've had a bog standard Linksys WRT54G router attached to my Virgin modem for about three years. It's been on permanently and, much as I dislike Virgin, I've never had it drop.

Except on once occasion earlier this year when there was some sort of network upgrade while I was on hols - and my modem was switched off. I couldn't get back online so I phoned their �1 a minute help line; straigh through to a bloke in Indian; fixed in less than a minute and the fee re-funded.

The Phorm and net neutrality stuff is more worrying - but there doesn't seem to be any good alternatives out there.

88:

A few, possibly irrelevant thoughts.

I use dial-up via Pipex, which is adequate for me, but one thing - if you DON'T HAVE OR WANT TV - you have problems.
I wanted to get cable, when it was installed in our London street, many years back now ( 1998? ) but I HAD to have TV - I could not just have braodband on its' own.
AFAIK that is STILL the case.

Thanks for the comments about Tiscali re. Pipex & iPlayer - that explains a lot - I will now uninstall that ....

Oh, and the vile "Phorm" scam was on the "Today" programme this morning, and see:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/technology/2008/04/the_phorm_privacy_debate_londo.html
and
http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/technology/2008/04/will_optin_phinish_phorm.html
as well.

89:

I recently dropped Virgin Media. I would like to say it was for reasons of principle but it was really because I moved to Denmark, having had enough of rubbish British companies.

Not too long before I left we have Telewest Business (I forget the whole name, but they handn't rebranded it since the acquisition) install a new line between two premises. I ended up doing half the work myself since the engineer told me that his partner had recently been poached by another large telco. The supervisor told me there were only around 10 staff left to cover the entire midlands.

90:

To Poster # 7 (Paul Raven);

I wouldn't recommend Pipex. I've just come moved from them after about 18 months to IDNet. Pipex were taken over by Tiscali. Before the takeover Pipex were pretty good; they didn't throttle, etc. But since the Tiscali takeover they started throttling ports and their customer service has gone downhill. (To give an example; after I switched to IDnet, Pipex where still trying to charge me fees for 2 months afterwards. It took a while to explain to customer service that I'd switched and hadn't used their service for those 2 months).

I'd stay away from mainstream broadband providers these days as they're all following the same "we own you" business model. They have no desire to improve service or deal with their customers with any kind of integrity. You're better off with one of the lesser known providers such as Zen or IDNet or PlusNet. All of these providers have great ratings, fast service and they don't throttle.

91:

This makes everything that has been happening for the last few months make sense. Ever since the bearded one's crappy company took over we have been suffering router instability. I even considered buying a new one, now I know it's caused by them I will start to switch over. It's going to be a pain as I don't have a BT line and have hated BT longer, but hey, it's got to be done. The TV service has really deteriorated too lately, the guide flips out every hour or so and programmes disappear when you are watching them. They are crap.

92:

Dave @ 57:

The figure only includes "cost for BT central pipe", "pro-rata LINX connection, calculated on 6 Mbps, 24h 365.2425 days per year" and "2 Mbps of transit traffic from cheapest Tier-1 ISP at the time". In addition to those costs, you have hardware, an ISP backbone, network engineers, monitoring systems, somewhere to put all the kit, electricity to power the kit, sales staff, helpdesk costs, VAT, so on and so forth.

However, not long after, one of the smaller ISPs did indeed advertise "unlimited broadband, NO limitations" at about that cost point, so it's probably not TOO far off. Costs for non-DSL are different, due to different infrastructure costs (you can provide a termination point for around 1500 DSL connections on a single port, you can terminate between 1 and 70-odd leased lines on one port).

93:

Thanks, Ingvar, that's the sort of thing I figured.

I suspect I'd be lucky to get a megabit on my phoneline. I do wonder what the mean peak modem speed is for all those "up to 8 megabit" ADSL lines is. It's probably dominated by the relatively short distances in urban areas. Would the mode or median be a better measure?

94:

Thanks, Ingvar, that's the sort of thing I figured.

I suspect I'd be lucky to get a megabit on my phoneline. I do wonder what the mean peak modem speed is for all those "up to 8 megabit" ADSL lines is. It's probably dominated by the relatively short distances in urban areas. Would the mode or median be a better measure?

95:

@91: "now I know it's caused by them I will start to switch over"

*headdesk*

You don't know it's caused by us, you've read hypotheses on a blog comments thread which includes a number of counter-examples from several different people and extreme doubt expressed by me, who actually knows something about the technical side of it, including the difficulties, general pointlessness, rational alternative explanations for router instability (backed up by plenty of other people) and the fact that I'd almost certainly have heard of it given what I do. Thus it's not a proven fact, it's an unproven hypothesis.

There are also a number of comments reflecting situations years ago that aren't really valid criticisms today. @82 and @88, for instance - 'unbundled' service, without phone and TV, has been around for five years plus and a lot of the billing/provisioning problems mentioned, while perfectly genuine and idiotic are ntl-vintage due to various barking mad decisions unique to that organisation which are mostly academic now.

Which isn't to say we aren't introducing fun new ones, just that coming out with 'VM are crap because ntl did this, that and the other in 2004' isn't an argument against VM, it's an argument for picking Telewest's ideas on billing and provisioning over ntl's, which is, er, what we're doing. At least criticise us for stuff we're doing now, eh?

96:

Oddly I have been having some troubles with my wireless router (D-link older model) which hasn't had a firmware upgrade for some time. BUT in defence it might just be a bit old and on its way out.

I'll be honest I can't moan too much about VM. Yes they charge grand for their support - but despite protestations the two times I've had to call them (mainly to set up a relatives BB) the response was reallyhelpful, quick and to the point.

The price is good, and yes, I only now get 138 channels with nothing to watch as opposed to 154 channels of nothing to watch. But seeing as I have the 3-1 pack it's a nice evened out cost.

The Phorm thing does upset me if truth be told - but I can ill afford to pay the extra incurred by separates.

Something perhaps VM (management) are well aware of.

97:

I think you're right about teh router thing. Certainly since i use my router I have a lot of DNS failures while web browsing. Also my Xbox360 disconnects itself from live and messenger, which doesn't happen to my firends who use XBL.

And they definetely throttle torrents. The question is, how can i live without the internet for the time it will take to change?

98:

I took the same path away from Virgin about two years ago for much the same reasons. I was paying for their top whack internet package and, not unreasonably, expected to get a reliable and fast connection but it kept dropping off for no good reason or going on a go slow for a few minutes then picking back up again. Usually flicking the switch on my cable modem cheered things up again - sometimes the connection would be alright for almost thirty minutes at a stretch.

I considered the possibility that the router might be the problem and swapped it for a new one. No diff.

The Virgin no-help line was also completely useless, not only was I regularly waiting for twenty minutes or more (paying for the call) but they inevitably asked me to connect the modem direct to a windows machine which is fundamentally impossible because I wont allow that POS in my home. Eventually I hooked one of my boxes direct and simply translated their windows instructions into linux and the responses from the system into windows speak. And of course they found nothing wrong.

I decided that it might just be my actual cable modem that was at fault and luckily happened to have another one (I'd briefly lived in Newcastle and had Telewest there). You can't just connect a new modem, they've got to register it's MAC address against your account before it'll let you connect. I knew this from past experience as a lightning storm had killed (with actual smoke) a previous modem some years previously when it was still NTL.

Days I spent trying to get through to the person that could make such an adjustment to their set up. Without success.

I gave up and decided to cut losses and moved to Bulldog who installed a new line and ADSL in a couple of weeks. Got FreeView (sorry I can live without the discovery channel). All marvellous. Now to get rid of the Virgin account.

I called three times to close the account, each time transferred to their "specialist disconnection team". Which put me on hold and then disconnected me.

I wrote a letter saying that as per the Ts'n'Cs this letter was their one month notice that I was ending the contract. Two weeks later I got a "We're sorry you're unhappy... high volumes of mail to deal with [no shit?]... will get back to you." letter. When the month expired I disconnected the phone, modem and TV boxes and stopped the direct debit as soon as the last payment had gone out.

The bills continued to come along with increasingly threatening letters. I called them each time one came in and told them I no longer had a contract, they attempted to transfer me to the "specialist disconnection team" without success. I wrote to them again saying that, as per my last letter, I no longer had a contract and was not using their service. More bills and more threatening letters along with an identical "We're sorry your unhappy..." note arrived.

Final letter: cease and desist, you damn well better not touch my credit record as you are threatening, if you taking me to court is the only way to get it through your thick skulls that I am not your fucking customer anymore, bring it on. Unless I hear from you that you have cancelled everything as per my instructions the next letter you receive will be from my lawyer and I will take you to the small claims court to recoup his expenses.

Someone finally phoned me back on my new land line (which I had now had in place for eight months) from the specialist disconnection team who tried to argue that via some twist of their billing structure I still owed them £20 and the account could not be closed until that was paid. I told them they could sue me for it. A quick conflab with his manager and finally they agreed to close the account.

The muppetry was incredible - they seem to actively pursue a policy of preventing you from leaving them by all means necessary, or more simply by making it too frustrating and difficult to pursue. My recommendation is that you very carefully log when you called, what was said and who you spoke to and when you wrote and what you wrote, you may discover that you will need this information.

99:
I called three times to close the account, each time transferred to their "specialist disconnection team". Which put me on hold and then disconnected me.
You gotta admit, they do exactly what it says on the tin. That specialist disconnection team is ninja at disconnecting your phone call.
100:

Dave Bell @ #{95,96}:

I suspect that both the median and the mode would be interesting. I suspect it's rather far from a normal distribution, so an arithmetic mean MAY be of some use for capacity planning but not great for guiding end-user expectations.

101:

Jamie @ 98:

That's nothing... years ago, I was an NTL customer but gave them the boot and moved to BT. Then I moved house. A year later I started getting spam from VM redirected from my old address. Then I started getting bills. You can imagine the fun I had with the customer helpline: "No, I don't have a PIN for my account, because I never had an account with you in the first place and I don't even live at that house any more... hello? hello?"

Long story short: bills turned into debt recovery service threats. Finally VM decided I didn't owe them anything after all. Have they responded to any of my irate letters? Nope. Has my credit rating been affected? Probably.

Interestingly, my BT ADSL connection recently started dumping on me for no particular reason that I could make out. I'd been using my Netgear router / Macbook combo without incident for a while. Unfortunately, I am still a grasshopper when it comes to IT-fu so who knows, so for all I know I did something really dumb without realising it.

102:

I really ought to be working rather than shilling for Virgin Media on a Scottish SF type's blog. Next thing you know I'll be trying to install PC Guard on a knife missile.

@73 I'm not television, I'm afraid. I'm also just a subcontract monkey. I have as much influence over the direction of the firm as a dog on the deck of an oil tanker. There is a contact page on the Virgin Media site for suggestions, I believe.

https://help2.virginmedia.com/assets/customer_zone/feedbackformCZ.html

@82 If you've got a Set Top Box with your broadband over it you won't get more than 1Mb. It's a technical limitation, I'm afraid. Phone Customer Service and ask them to arrange an appointment to fit a modem. More often than not they'll be willing to waive the installation fee and you'll get a modem with which you can still just about use your old Self Install Wireless Kit, or you can ask for the new Wireless Home Networking package.

@91 Gosh, that's an amusing mathematical progression. Er, yes, as Charlie pointed out, Branson didn't take over. Other than that, I echo Tom's *headdesk*.

The thing to remember is that most of us call monkeys are trying to be on your side. Indeed, it's not Virgin Media's priority to make you hate them. They might do it by accident (as I've already conceded), but you can't please everyone all of the time. As for customer service, it's a dysfunctional relationship, to be sure; not least because rather than say "please" or "thank you" the bulk of those who use call centres have determined that demanding a manager or threatening to cancel will get them what they want. It does work sometimes, but a lot of the time what you're asking for is outwith their control, if not impossible. We're not all lying to you. Honest.

Other than that, mentioning slow speeds raises an interesting point: most ADSL connections sold as "up to 8meg" aren't physically capable of providing 8meg due to line loss; when Virgin Media says it's "up to 20meg" it means that it isn't going to be [i]consistently[/i] 20meg, but that the connection will certainly take it. If it doesn't, try downloading from http://gamefiles.virginmedia.com. It's what Tech Support will do. If you're not getting 20Mb (2.5MB) then call in, and something can usually get done about it. Think of it as the difference between "never" and "sometimes". No matter what BT do, they can't (with current technology) change the phsyics of ADSL to get you top speeds when you're far from the exchange. Small consolation, I'll admit, but it's there.

Finally:

@51

I quite understand why you're unhappy. All I'll say is that as far as I'm aware (again, mushroom management and being a subcontract monkey and all) no deal has been inked with Phorm, nor has a trial been run by Virgin Media (unlike BT). Nonetheless, as someone who's changed ISP in the past (including a nightmarish ISDN to ADSL swap) I wish you luck with it.

103:

Chris L @ 85:
trapped water that slows down short-wave radio, hence libraries are a bugger for wireless.

I don't know what wavelengths satellite TV uses,
{{ C-band (4–8 GHz) or Ku-band (12–18 GHz) I think. You may want to check that. }}

but if it can punch through a couple of kilometres worth of atmospheric water vapour I doubt that slates, whether real or fake, will slow it down much.

At HF frequencies 3–30 MHz, and UHF around 900 MHz, slate is preferable to conventional N. American asphalt shingles when wet. (I are a ham radio op with xmit and rx antennas in the attic.) Water forms a thin film on the surface texture of the ceramic granules glued to the surface, and so attenuates the signal.

104:

Feòrag @73:

* NHK (will pay extra for this. I'm sure I can make it tax deductible anyway).

You mean NHK as in from .jp?
Say, you wouldn't know anything about KeyHoleTV, would you? It seems to be a method for watching all the non NHK channels out of .jp, but the main sources of info in english seem pretty fanboyish, which isn't an endorsement for installing a iplayer like P2P application that doesn't have an english language translation for the interface, let alone the release notes.

Chris L @ 85:
I forgot to add in my reply that I personally experienced greater signal attenuation when the slate roof was replaced with asphalt, but at the named frequencies, I am still able to continue my hobby.

105:

To The Good Doctor Baron Von Anonymous @102.

I do sympathise with the call centre staff and I assure you that while I used swearing in my previous post for dramatic effect I was nothing but fastidiously polite with all of the staff I spoke to. It is not the actual agents who are in any way a problem, they are as polite and helpful as they can be and no doubt receive dogs abuse regularly.

This is however not how a good call centre should be run. Having a twenty minute hold time without some indication in the call of your position in the queue is ridiculous. Even outwith peak times the wait time seemed horrendous to me - albeit that this is from my non-scientific sample of me. Transferring to a VDN that drops your call is also unforgivable, especially as it'll take at least 20 minutes to get back to the same position!

The price of implementing a call back application would far outweigh the customers lost to frustration (like me) or the costs of handling the no-doubt astronomical staff turn over rate they must endure because of having to deal with so many frustrated customers: We're really busy right now, press 1 if you don't mind us phoning you back this evening or 2 if you prefer tomorrow morning or 3 to specify a time that is convenient. Thank the customer for their time and line the call up on the outbound dialler.

Also forecasting of call volumes and predicting how many staff you should have in when to more efficiently handle the volume would have a similar ROI.

Finally there are some data mining products out there that will listen to your recorded call volume and tell you, in english, what most of your complaints are about or how many people have called back because their problem was not resolved on their first call and why - thus you can recognise and fix systemic problems more easily.

I speak here as an expert who implements this stuff (though my comments here are purely person), it really is possible to massively improve customer experience and staff experience - your contact centre should be the pinnacle of your customer's experience, VM's (albeit that they have inherited a lot of cruft from NTL) has got to be a text book example of worst practice.

Of course my dealings are out of date and YMMV, perhaps there has been a marked improvement since my last dealings with them, but if they are hiring in subcontractors to staff the phones then that indicates to me that their agent churn is high and nothing measures how well a contact centre is performing than how quickly staff move through it.

106:

If you want lower contention rates, it may help to consider a business account. I had one a few years ago (with BT ADSL) and it was noticeably better than a domestic account. It cost more, too, but of course I claimed it as a business expense. I don't know if Virgin Media do business accounts - it would be a nice option to be able to purchase lower contention rates.

I now use a wireless router with cable. It used to drop the connection after a few hours of inactivity and I'd have to "repair" the connection (this is on Windows XP). I've no idea why that happened. Recently I've switched from my AntiVirus software to one that happens to check for updates every hour (Kaspersky); this has the side-effect of keeping the connection.

On a different note, I take umbrage at your (and others') use of the term "cattle-class" regarding trains. I travel standard class and I don't like being called "cattle". Outside of holiday periods, when the trains are as ridiculously overcrowded as every other form of British transport, standard class is fine.

107:

Tom,

"Perception is reality" both in the markets and in customer service.

I just switched from BT to Be, so far I'm loving the speed, and I don't have to reset the router all the time as the DNS has failed, yay! :)

108:

B fckng h. Why dn't y grls dry t yr pp stnd cnt scks. My rtr bh, pckt shpng bh....

Whr's th src fr ths cmmnt by th nw NTL chrmn, nd TlkTlk sms t b cmng t smllng lk fckng rss ths dys n ntrnt nws... hw sspcs s tht?

Kndly Fck Yrslvs,
Yr Mthr.
109:

I'm somewhat suspicious of the router as well. I'm as much an Apple fanboy as the next guy, and have the flat full of Macs and a boxed copy of HyperCard 1.0 to prove it, but my experience with Airport hardware has been less than stellar. My Airport Express (Gigabit) is sitting on my internal network, and I've had to pull its plug quite a few times -- strangely, downloading a large file to my N800 seems to set it off without fail.

I like my Be connection, especially the eight static IPs and 1.5 Mb/s upstream. The error counts on the DSL link are a bit high, but the hard errors don't seem to translate to screwing up the IP link, and that problem is BT's fault anyhow. (That, the crack-addled monkeys who wired this building, and whomever we want to blame for the UK not having FTTH yet, let alone the shiny! of B FLET'S [sic].)

110:

Dave Berry: I travel by train too. Cattle class is a description of how the train operators view the general traveling public -- that is, anyone who doesn't throw large amounts of money at them in order not to be treated like cattle -- not a description of how I view the general public.

Meanwhile, I regret to note that "wankpot" (see posting #108) stumbled in from the IP address 81.99.69.64, which seems to be associated with pc1-blfs7-0-0-cust319.belf.cable.ntl.com. Here's a hint, "wankpot"; you can be polite, or you can be quiet.

111:

look into topup tv - a subscription service through a freeview aerial.

you won't get the full discovery channel , but you will get lots of programs from it.

112:

@105

As far as I know Virgin Media have been using subcontractors to handle calls (in a variety of spheres) for well over two years. One of the conditions (as with most subcontracts) is that staff identify as Virgin Media (or NTL or Telewest) staff no matter who pays National Insurance on their paychecks.

Everything you've said makes sense. Combatting high wait times was why NTL brought in premium rate Technical Support a few years ago, and why Virgin Media introduced it last year. In each case, it worked to drop call queues significantly, and in each case it provoked outrage and vitriol from large parts of the customer base.

As for calling folk back, yes, the system you've described seems like it would not only work but keep the customer happy. The problem with outgoing calls as a process is only fixing what was called about: "while I've got you on the line" is as common as you might expect. Commercially, I'm led to believe that while charges for incoming calls in no way exceed the costs of running a call centre, largely operating on an outgoing basis in any sector that doesn't involve sales is seen as burning money. Those costs would get passed on to someone, either by paying staff less (and getting corresponding increases in churn and decreases in quality) or charging customers more.

Given the rush to low prices that's characterised the Broadband Sector in the UK over the last five years, and the attendant desire for savings business side it's no surprise customer service has faltered, even failed. It's all about reward mechanisms - the Sector has, in general, not suffered for bad customer service as much as it has been successful for reducing costs. The real way to change it is to make them successful for good customer service, rather than attempting to punish them for bad. Admittedly, that's largely because it's the monkeys at the call-face who'll get it in the ear.

Of course, all this furore is before Virgin Media has inked a deal with Phorm, in fact, before there's been a trial of Phorm's technology on the Virgin Media network. Berkett's quote was certainly perlocutionary (given Herr Doctorow's reaction) but it wasn't performative; there's no "bus lane" yet, other than the iPlayer's integration with TV On Demand.

I've no doubt that whichever way the dust settles someone will be unhappy. What I'm curious about is what's going to happen in the near future as investors start to notice that Virgin Media is listed in dollars but earns (or at least pays off its debts) in pounds...

113:

The problem with Virgin, it seems to me, is that once one has a problem that's at all difficult to repair, one probably will never get it repaired. The service is wonderful, when it works. If it fails, most customers probably will have to change providers to get working service, and they will probably be out both money paid to Virgin, and whatever losses that the loss of service costs them. Bottom line: don't use this service if reliability is important, ever, ever, ever.

114:

106 quoth:

Outside of holiday periods, when the trains are as ridiculously overcrowded as every other form of British transport, standard class is fine.

Try the Yate to Bristol commute. There is much joy on the rare
days when we get a third carriage. Holidays are better
because, well, people are on holiday and not blocking the aisles.

115:

Good Doctor @ 102

Just as a query (as obviously you're the dude that works there, not me) but are you sure about the set-top box only going up to 1mb?

The older boxes I know could only manage this, but when they (VM) updated the basic speeds, they provided most of us peons with new boxes.

I have done line checks and seem to be getting my full 2(or is it now 4mb?) speeds!

116:

We've got actual ADSL speed data.

(BTW, another VM annoyance was that for months, there was a regular outage at precisely 1600 every day. I theorise that this was associated with the traffic shaping between 1600 and 2100.)

117:

Tom @ #95 ...
Unbundled without TV available?
Not round here.
I've asked several peole advertising on stands, etc (having given up after trying in the original installation round) and the response is always the same ...
Total disbelief that anyone should NOT want TV, and of course, you have GOT to have it.

Well, I don't - though the perpetual hassles with the TV-licence facists are interesting - but if they ever try to search my house, the shit will really hit the fan.

See:
http://www.marmalade.net/lime/david_guest.html

118:

@115 If I recall correctly, it's possible for some Set Top Boxes with some firmwares on some Universal Broadband Routers on some parts of the combined NTL:Telewest infrastructure with some configuration files and on some packages to achieve speeds greater than 1 Megabyte. In general, the Set Top Box connection is poor, and it's usually best to replace it with a modem. For the most part, it's only capable of 1, only served with 1, and will be left behind (if and) when basic speeds get upgraded.

119:

I needed to get Virgin Media to fix a cable box in the street outside my domicile (it's a house, actually, but I have pretensions).

I used this email:
neil.berkett(AT)ntl.com

and got a polite and prompt response. [And they fixed the box inside 24 hours]

Worth a try - but don't SPAM the poor lad, try to be constructive!

Offering a better service is good for Virgin, in the longterm. A multi-tier Internet, with throttled traffic is to no-one's benefit. We just need to persuate the ISPs not to be short-termist.

Hoddy

(edited by admin to mask that email address from spam harvesters)

120:

Hi Charlie;

It almost has to be something deliberate, I've had issues with eight different routers on NTL/VM over the years, but none with a minimal-box Windows PC acting as a router.

For the rest, they're obsessed with headline broadband speeds, but the overloaded UBR's (local routers) mean they can't really offer them - off-peak is bad enough, but their "traffic shaping" cuts in way, way under the published limits on the overloaded sections of the network. And once you're shaped, a dial-up connection would often give better performance.

As for Virgin Rail? They're not that bad. On the lines recently taken over from them by CrossCountry, the trains are *routinely* so overcrowded that people with booked tickets are left standing on the platforms, unable to get on the trains! (They're also withdrawing several routes, including the popular one to Brighton which I use)

The majority of issues with "Virgin Rail" are issues with Railtrack/Network Rail, who have consistantly not produced the network upgrades necessary for a modern, high-speed network on time or on budget.

121:

Andrew G.@41:

You think this is bad? No, this isn't bad.

In Hull, there is one ISP avaliable, via the local monopoly, Kingston Communications. Some five years ago, I was there for a while and I was using AOL dialup (because all the other non-ppm dialup providers demanded a BT line).

So I ordered Karoo (KCom's ISP) ADSL. It was SO BAD that I forced them to refund me and went back to AOL dialup. To this day, Karoo routinely score the lowest on polls for customer service and service quality.

THEY are bad. VM are poor.

122:

Speaking of branding, you've just been handed a huge brand ping from Paul Krugman in his New York Times-hosted blog:

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/19/initial-kindling-reactions/

wherein Krugman complains that not all of your books are available for the Kindle.

Cheers --

123:

JD: apparently <smug>Dr Krugman is a fan of mine</smug>

124:

Me too!!!!!

Yes, I am experiencing something similar with my router. And I spent five minutes speaking to their support line...

Connection to wireless router is OK, but Internet connectivity is randomly lost.

But, why would they do this deliberately?

NB For physical/practical reasons, I have not been able to verify that it's not my router.

125:

The Pharm "provider in the middle" attack is just one form this kind of misfeasance takes. Consider the games Virgin, with their published positive attitude about Pharm, let alone their apparent practice of breaking connectivity to home routers, might also consider it fair to play with DNS.

Would they be alone in DNS attacks? No, of course not. Just recall the justifiably notorious NetSol's "subdomain forgery" and "Sitefinder" wildcard monetization attempts. Danny McPherson has a more comprehensive list of DNS "provider in the middle" attacks in his recent post: http://asert.arbornetworks.com/2008/04/5-ways-to-molest-internet-users/

What's your provider's policy regarding NXDOMAIN responses, for starters?

126:

On hiding dishes: There's a few options available, all of which center on putting the dish inside something that doesn't look like a dish. This one doubles as a functional exterior lamp and contains the antenna:

http://www.digicams-uk.com/prod30.htm

This one looks like a rock, you can specify the general color:

http://www.dish-rock.com/

An alternative, if you don't have a lawn with a southern view, is to put it in the attic with a plastic skylight over it.

On routers: Even if your ISP isn't screwing you, your neighbours might be. There are a fair number of worms out now that seem to aim at broadband routers. Since they're very standardized, rarely patched, and always-on, they're ideal for zombies.

127:

I recently was forced to switch to VM from Demon/Thus/BT/AllYourISPAreBelongToUS. The problem is BT (who have a monopoly on the phone line).

There is probably soemthing wrong with the phone line to my house that causes ADSL outage in the evening. BT would send an engineer to check, but if no fault was found then I would be liable to a 160 quid charge. Or to put it another way - I was being invited to gamble 160 pounds on whether or not BT would accept blame for a crackling line.....

The other option was ro reactivate the ntl/telewest/Virgin cable connection for (due to an offer) nothing.

Of course this was before the Phorm thing hit the news.

Also before I spent 2 hours talking to nice people who read stuff off the company website repeatedly until I finally managed to talk to an engineer who could confirm, yes, there was something wrong with the cable connection.

Before an engineer came round and confirmed that the problems were mainly down to sub-standard wiring/switching installed at the lowest possible price 15 years ago and which is consequequently now obsolete.

If I can stump up 2000 quid I can have a new cable installed that might actually work properly, but it can't be guarenteed because of the switchgear at the exchange.

So I'll just have to limp along on whatever least-worst monopoly will deign to serve my remote and inaccessible area (in the center of a major UK city, but it's not London is it.....).

Currently I have VirginMedia and am preparing to wage info-war on the marketing perverts (black, Ukranian, lesbian, mormon, mother of 10 that I am).

128:

"It almost has to be something deliberate"

It isn't, though. Put it this way, our two main priorities are consolidating billing/provisioning systems and reducing faults. Why, therefore, would we distract ourselves by poking around with people's routers, which doesn't help the former and has a negative impact on the latter?

STB broadband - I had a big hand in this, but nowadays with cable modems virtually given away with the cornflakes (they were £150 back when we started, so there was a big win for us in instantly having a deployed base who could have broadband turned on with a phone call) there's no point, and testing it lengthens rollout times for new STB code, using resource which should be concentrated on making the TV service better. Mind you, I've had one up at 10Mb years ago, I needed a file downloading quickly when working on site somewhere...

"The majority of issues with "Virgin Rail" are issues with Railtrack/Network Rail, who have consistantly not produced the network upgrades necessary for a modern, high-speed network on time or on budget."

Virgin signed a contract with Railtrack that any basic due diligence would have seen was technically unworkable (for myriad reasons - it's a classic example of how bad technology happens). They still have this contract and can claim untold millions from NR under it if they don't get what they want - it finally goes away when NR complete the work, which should be December but will probably be May 2009, and there's a huge row brewing in the industry about it. On the upside, Virgin eventually put together one of the best teams in the industry, who got a grip of things.

NR's performance hasn't actually been that bad, considering what Railtrack left them, although they've had serious issues in project management recently. A lot of the work's been done to a high standard and on time, but there wasn't enough slack. Some of the Rugby problems were caused by cramming too much work in after high winds had caused a delay (most of it was actually due to subcontractors just not turning up, though).

Virgin XC was perennially overcrowded even before Arriva took over (common anti-Virgin complaint), withdrawing Brighton trains was IIRC the DfT's idea and would have happened even if Virgin had retained the franchise and Arriva are bringing back HSTs later this year for extra capacity. And that's me out.

129:

Virgin's recent service reminds me of the glory days of dial-up...

Can I recommend the Firefox add-on Dephormation (dephormation.org.uk) to get around the Phorm nastiness?I value my privacy, thanks very much, and can't see why I should PAY to be SPIED ON by Virgin, Talk-Talk or BT.

130:

Tom: done some messing with tcpdump lately. 77% of the traffic on my local loop seems to be ARP packets. So I agree -- it's not malice, it's fustercluck with too many subscribers in a flat local address space. So it's network packet filtering time for me, modulo concerns about the whole Phorm debacle. (Whoopee.)

I make no comment on the trains other than to note that I've got 12 hours on CrossRail coming up this weekend.

131:

It seems that the 'wankpot' post 108 is also suffering from severe packet loss. This also happens to me when i strt to lse all my vwls nd ths mrphs nt Trtt's Syndrm.

Still at least you don't use AOL, you can't even send non AOL email account emails out from AOL now...

132:

Graham: it's disemvoweling in action.

(Moderation policy hereabouts is simple: this is my blog. I'll put up with arguments and dissent but I won't put up with extreme rudeness or trolling. If folks want to flame the living shit out of me they're welcome to do so on their own blog, but not on mine.)

133:

We joined NTL about 7 years ago and since Virgin took over things have gone dramatically downhill.
First there was the whole Sky One issue. That was the main channel we watched so when Virgin decided they didn't want to pay Sky's fees we were rather annoyed. Then to add insult to injury, they didnt pass any of the savings down to their customers. Instead they replaced it with their own Virgin channel which is dismal.
Shortly after we started noticing that our internet was becoming increasingly slower, almost as slow as dial-up. After doing a bit of research on the internet we discovered that Virgin were trialing bandwidth throttling in the north-west - our area. When we originally signed up with NTL we were on an unlimited bandwidth deal and we have signed nothing esle since. So not only is Virgin in breach of our original contract they didnt even have the common courtesy to inform us about it.
I work from home and the Internet is crucial to my job. What Virgin has done is despicable. We would have left Virgin the moment we found out this but we planned to move house in the Spring (now) so there was little point in changing supplier. Our house has now sold and as soon as we move Virgin can take their business elsewhere as we will not be using them in the future.

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on April 14, 2008 1:51 PM.

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