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Darren Waters

Can Virgin satisfy the need for speed?

  • Darren Waters
  • 16 Feb 09, 12:57 GMT

Britain is widely seen as a bit of a laggard in the high speed broadband stakes when compared to countries like France, Sweden, Japan and Korea.

The average speed for most people in the UK is 3.6Mbps, according to Ofcom. Which is why Lord Carter's suggestion in his Digital Britain report that everybody had a minimum of 2Mbps feels a little backwards looking to some.

Many in the industry were hoping that Lord Carter would drive the adoption of high speed broadband by setting a much higher speed as the minimum for everyone.

But what does this high speed broadband world offer?

I've been lucky enough to have broadband at home for many years - first at a 512Kbps (which can now hardly be classed as broadband), then 1Mbps, then 4Mbps and now "up to 8Mbps" via ADSL.

And I'll be honest. I find the connection is often slow, especially when my wife is using her laptop at the same time I am doing something on mine.

Websites load slowly, downloads seem to crawl down the pipe and the overall experience is patchy at best.

And this is at speeds supposedly four times faster than the minimum laid down by Lord Carter.

But the reality is few of us ever achieve the maximum speeds that are on offer for reasons that are well known.

In the UK one of the fastest connections available to consumers is Virgin's 50Mbps service.

I've had the 50Mbps installed for more than a week on trial and I'm going to be writing a speed diary of my experiences over the next week or so.

I want to find out just how much bang for my buck I'm getting and experiment with the best ways of making use of a fast connection.

Virgin's 50Mbps service, known as the XXL package, costs £50 a month on its own, or £46 if you take a Virgin phone line as well.

For that money you get up to 50Mbps downstream and up to 1.5Mbps upstream. You get a cable modem with a single ethernet connection and a Netgear WNR 2000 wireless router that operates to the 802.11n specifications, which means in theory you should have the wireless bandwidth to get the best out of the fast connection.

You also get a .11n USB adaptor for your computer, in case your machine's existing wireless card doesn't support the standard.

I say "standard" - but I actually mean draft standard because .11n has yet to be officially ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association.

Unfortunately for me, the Netgear USB adaptor doesn't work on Apple Macs so I'm not able to take advantage of the greater bandwidth and speeds on my desktop machine.
Luckily, my laptop does already support .11n so it's not too much of an issue.

However, I've also been unable to connect my Xbox 360 wirelessly to the supplied router.

I'm not alone with this problem and it looks to be a hardware conflict between the 360's wi-fi adaptor and the Netgear router and is not in Virgin's control. But it does highlight some of the issues involved in using technology deployed with draft standards - not all devices will connect and it is best to check in advance.

Thankfully the router has plenty of ethernet ports and I was able to connect an Ethernet cable between the 360 and router. But if my Xbox 360 had been in another room then I do not know what the solution would have been.

Virgin has been waging a vigorous advertising campaign of late to promote its high-speed service but some of its claims were a little, er, too enthusiastic and had to be withdrawn after complaints.

Virgin had claimed in adverts that broadband suppliers that using copper wire - ie ADSL technology - were "struggling to cope".

The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the claim was misleading because Virgin itself operates a traffic management policy which restricts bandwidth during peak times for heavy users. Currently, Virgin says it is implementing no traffic management of its 50Mbps users, but this is set to be reviewed in the future.

The ASA also rapped Virgin on the knuckles when it came to comparing its network to future plans from BT to deliver a national fibre optic network.

BT has spoken about plans to introduce a mix of fibre network to the home (FTTH) and fibre to the cabinet (FTTC), while Virgin's network delivers FTTC.

Virgin's claim that: "Everybody's talking about fibre optic broadband there's only one company actually doing it." was misleading, said the ASA.

So what's the difference between FTTH and FTTC? Well, FTTH means fibre optic cabling is run directly into your home, offering the fastest available connection.

FTTC is fibre to a cabinet with the "last mile" of connection - sometimes it's only a matter of yards - being delivered along coaxial cable, which means a reduction in the available speeds.

A few weeks back we reported on a company called Velocity1 which was offering 100Mbps downstream and 50Mbps upstreaconnections to a housing development in Wembley. It can achieve these speeds because it is piping fibre optic direct to the home.

And there are other "high-speed" broadband providers in the UK marketplace. O2, Be, Pipex, Tiscali and Sky are among those offering ADSL2+ technology which can, depending on where you live, offer between upto 16Mbps and 24Mbps downstream speeds.

BT is trialling ADSL2+ currently, and is also rolling out trials of FTTC in some homes later this year.

After plugging in my new Virgin cable modem and configuring the router I was up and running on the 50Mbps service.

Of course the first thing I did was test the speed. Virgin says that only two one website - thinkbroadband.com and speedtest.net had tests that could successfully gauge the speeds available to its users.

I used both tests - on both a wired and wireless connection - and my initial readings were between 13Mbps and 25Mbps downstream and 1.5Mbps upstream.

That's not bad - and at least double the best speed I was getting on my ADSL connection - but still someway short of the 50Mbps advertised speed.

Unfortunately after a day or two I found that the connection speed was dropping considerably when connected wirelessly - to below 1Mbps at one point which was clearly suspect.

After much hunting around on forums and a quick phonecall to Virgin I changed the encryption protocol on the router from WEP - the default setting - to WPA2 based on a recommendation. To my mind, this shouldn't make too great a difference in available speeds.

However, as soon as I changed the encryption protocol my speeds leaped back up to their previous high of about 25Mbps.

So what are my initial impressions of speed? You can never have too much speed, in my opinion, and the casual web surfer will notice a snappier experience when surfing the net.

Virgin does have direct peering into some high bandwidth sites, including the BBC, so there should be a speedy connection. Other ISPs, including PlusNet, have similar direct peering in place with sites like the BBC to maximise connection speeds.

But the real difference comes when downloading larger files.

Of course, the speed of any download all depends on how fast the server can deliver a file to you and the network content travels over. This varies from server to server, and from website to website.

For example - I downloaded a video file from an internal BBC server over wi-fi and I was getting downstream speeds of 3.7MB per second. (That equates to speeds of more than 31Mbps). A 600MB file landed on my machine in under three minutes, which is pretty quick by any yardstick.

Over the next week or two I'm going to be measuring the speeds on my 50Mbps line and looking at different ways of getting the most from the connecton.

From setting up my own web server, to online gaming, and broadcasting from my living room, I'm aiming to test the connection to its limits.

If you've got any suggestions of how I should test or use the connection, let me know. If you're a broadband speed merchant, perhaps using ADSL2+ connections, or are using Velocity1, let me know how you are finding the service, and what you are using it for.

UPDATE: Perhaps unsurprisingly, Virgin has been in touch to say there is no reason I shouldn't be seeing speeds of 50Mbps downstream on my connection. I want this test to be as fair as possible, and as realistic as possible, so I'm going to do some speed checks this evening, and if I still don't see an improvement, then a call to technical support will be in order.


UPDATE TWO I've made a change to the copy above. According to the Virgin site, only one speed test, the one supplied by Thinkbroadband.com is capable of measuring its 50Mbps connection.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I'd like to know if you can connect to a VPN over Virgin - it's not supported for 'home' use, but as far as I know can be used, as Virgin's Home Office dosn't offer 50Mbps (AFAIK).

    Also I'd like to know of any problems opperating two connections, one cable broadband and one ADSL - I can't think of any problems as they should be seperate, but...

  • Comment number 2.

    I don't suppose the culprit could be Virgin Media's notorious 'traffic management'? Where they sell you a 10Mbit 'unlimited' connection, which is actually then routinely throttled to a 2.5Mbit connection if you're in the supposed '1%' of freak users who dare to download unacceptably large volumes of data (er... such as downloading a feature film through iTunes!).

  • Comment number 3.

    You mentioned in your article about changing the security settings on your router. I have my network setup using only the computers mac address, my laptop is the only machine that can access the router and in addition to this the network is hidden.

    I am using the Virgin XL package, (20Mbps) do you or anyone else recommend that i change these settings to a similar configuration to the one used in this article?

    Will it improve the D/L and U/L speeds?



  • Comment number 4.

    Suggestion. Don't use a tiff on a web page - this should be a gif, png or jpg.

    As for the connection, see if you can stream HD TV content - that will be the future of the web.

  • Comment number 5.

    To the poster of comment 3, relying on MAC address filtering will keep out the casual passer by, but it only takes a slightly curious neighbour to spend a few minutes breaking into the network.

    Also WEP and WPA/WPA2 encrypt the traffic, without encryption there is potential for someone to sniff your traffic.

    WEP is considered the minimum and should be supported by all wireless devices, but software is available that can crack this. WPA and WPA2 are what you should aim for.

  • Comment number 6.

    Here's a suggestion download more than 500MB during peak hours! But you may want to read this beforehand:

    webuser.co.uk/news/277056.html?aff=rss

    That's right, just watching 2 programs from the BBC iPlayer or downloading 1 movie during peak times and Virgin will reduce your speed by half!

    Have fun!

    I am with Be Broadband, paying £17.50 a month and £10.50 for BT line , total £28 a month and I get an average 17mb connection. That's £1.65/mb, so for 25mb total would equate to £41.25 but then Be provide a true unlimited service, unlike some.

  • Comment number 7.

    I used to consider myself a speed merchant, but now I have ADSL2+ from O2. The claim is "Up to 16Mbps" on my service, at £15 a month, and I get downloads of over 1MB per second regularly.
    I dont see any need to go faster at the moment, most servers cant support it, and I dont use it for live TV.
    I think the most likely need for more bandwidth is for gamers, or for new applications like P2P near-live video, but that will require better upload speeds for the general populace.

  • Comment number 8.

    @ "m4rsh1"
    "I have my network setup using only the computers mac address"

    A MAC address is easily faked then your connection and PC are wide open M8. ALWAYS USE ENCRYPTION OF SOME SORT...

  • Comment number 9.

    I laugh at all these discussions about speed! My "broadband" speed is 512Kbps and often slower. BT (no one else will touch us) have told me that it is unlikely ever to get any faster. Its all to do with the distance from the exchange. Perhaps understandable if you live in the middle of nowhere but we live in Essex (Home Counties). Am I being left behind in the rush for ever faster broadband speeds?
    Any chance of writing some useful article about the thousands of people like us?

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm not that impressed with Virgin at the minute, I'm currently on the 20meg cable service and it often struggles to get above 10meg, even outside of the 'bandwidth shaping window'.

    As for testing, lets face it, many people who would be interested in a 50meg service are going to be doing major downloading of films, tv shows music etc. If you really want to test it then signup to a decent usenet provider and start downloading the binaries, of course I'd pick something like various linux distros to keep it all above board ;)

  • Comment number 11.

    if any of you think that your getting ripped with your broadband cause you only getting 1 - 2mbps, your lucky! I live in Goole, have a BT ADSL 8mbps unlimited (with home hub)service in which if im lucky i get a downstream connection of 90kbps - this isnt a typo im really only getting 90 KBPS. Im paying £24 a month to get speeds i got for a fiver on dial up. BT's answer is that this is an acceptable connection speed. they cant find any fault so theirfore its fine.
    I have 10 months left on my contract with them, if anyone has a solution on how to get out of this contract (without costing me more dosh) and recommend a service thats way better for the area i live in them im all ears.

  • Comment number 12.

    I would like to see how long it takes when renting a movie from the iTunes store (standard and high-definition) before its viewable. One of the problems with slower speeds is that it takes so long before your high definition movie is ready to watch its still quicker and more convenient to head to the local rental store.

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi,
    I am on the Virgin Cable 10Mb option and I just tested it (at 16.45pm) using 'thinkbroadband' and it reported a speed of 8Mb, which I think is pretty good.

    I would not trust any tests that you do whilst using a wireless connection. Wireless will not get anywhere near 50Mbps.

    You should do a file transfer to your laptop from another (ethernet attached) PC in your house/office to measure your wireless speed. Use the Filezilla FTP client and server from http://filezilla-project.org/ rather than using shared folders.

    You should only do speed tests using Ethernet connected PCs IMHO.

    Lee

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi.
    Virgin Media 50Mbps does not have a traffic management policy AT ALL. you can download as much as you like without being slowed down.

    Apparently you have to install a piece of software on XP machines so I'd like to see how XP copes compared to Vista and Mac machines.

    Also things like ping rates are inportant to gamers so some kind of online gaming test could be good.

    Lee

  • Comment number 15.

    Darren,
    I have to say that I found your article particularly interesting especially regarding your speed issues with your current broadband. In our house we had our broadband from talktalk which offered "up to 8Mbps" and after 1 1/2 years worked fine until the modem gained a fault, which talktalk failed to repair and we subsequently switched and now have a BT Home Hub on their "unlimited" package. The problem with BT is that the speed is extremely slow and has never been over 512Kbps in the 3 weeks it has been installed and the line apparently now has a "fault" after a tedious phone call to customer services and will have to be checked and repaired by them in the next 2 days. My point is that, although these companies are now trying to branch out into these new supposedly faster technologies, the current technology on offer should provide better speeds to customers like ourselves especially when higher speeds had been consistent before all the trouble occured.

    A long rant, but one that I feel should be mentioned when it comes to these broadband companies and their targeted speeds.

  • Comment number 16.

    Hi Darren,

    I do wonder what a test at www.numion.com would show to you (and us ;-). Here in Amsterdam my 30/30 FttH consistently offers me some 31/31 of over, see
    http://www.numion.com/YourSpeed3/ShowMeasurement.php?ID=68,571,377

    greetings,
    Dirk

  • Comment number 17.

    You don't know what you'd do if your 360 was in another room?

    Well, mine isn't in the same room as my Router, and I'm chuffed if i'm buying an over priced wireless adaptor.

    Run a Network Cable. Not only will you get a better connection to the router, it'll be faster, and cheaper.

    It may not be easier, but then, when has life been easy?

  • Comment number 18.

    I am with Virgin also but the 50MB service is not available in my area yet. I would be interested to know what kind of 'traffic management' Virgin aims to employ on such a large connection. They say that there will be no traffic management on those people trialling the service at the moment but who knows if they have another name for it.

    I am eager to receive the new service but only if the speeds equate to the advertised speeds. You can't very well say that a 20Mb drop in speed is due to "being too far from the exchange".

  • Comment number 19.

    http://allyours.virginmedia.com/html/internet/traffic.html

    OMG! It gets worse! Luckily the 500MB lmit is on Virgin's M package. But then the limit on their XL package is 3GB down or 1.4GB up. but what's worse is that if you do exceeed this limit your connection is reduced by 75%!!!! not 50% as compared to the M package throttling.

    This is a joke! If they cannot provide the service they should not offer it! I myself, my brother and sister on average use 5GB per day minimum! And that isnt even HD content!

    These companies, especially BT, should stop hording their profits and giving it to themselves as bonuses, and provide the UK with the latest broadband technology without silly limits! Not only will it please their customers but will allow businesses to work more efficiently and help us out of this recession!

  • Comment number 20.

    I'm currently with Be* unlimited - have been with them since August 05'. I'm synced @ 22megs down, and 1.3 up. It's funny how BT weren't the first to bring out ADSL2 to the masses - and I applaud Be* for driving innovation back then.

    No traffic shaping. No download limits- no restriction whatsoever - Virgin @ 50meg sounds good on first glances - but at what price?! And with limitations? I think I'll pass.

    I'm paying £18 a month! Beat that!

    Anyway, the content isn't out there for me to warrant even considering Virgin. One day in the future, maybe, but by then, we'll probably have FTTC, and possibly even faster speeds through copper at home.

    ps. with regards to your 360 - I'd use a netgear wireless bridge to solve your problem. I'm using a WET54G v3 myself - both at the xbox and the laser printer.

  • Comment number 21.

    If you want to test the download speed, try a BitTorrent stream of a popular Linux distribution - say RedHat Fedora.

    http://torrent.fedoraproject.org/

    But as several people have already pointed out, the 50Mbps figure is the potential peak bandwidth, not the sustained data rate. Use your high bandwidth connection too often and you will very quickly run into their monthly limit.

  • Comment number 22.

    i would like to see bandwidth tests done with a wired ethernet connection, this would allow you to test the broadband and the wireless in isolation. in terms of servers with alot of bandwith available ftp.blueyonder.co.uk is fairly good along with the University of kent sourceforge mirror.

  • Comment number 23.

    I wonder how many people are aware how much internal home electrical installations can affect line speed. I moved house and installed a line from the master BT adsl to a wireless router in the roof. (I have to overcome 400mm stone walls)
    I got the expected near 2Mbps speed but then around supper time it dropped dramatically to an unswerving 640kbps...culprit..the circuits for 3 transformers and 9 halogen insets in the kitchen ceiling....switched on to use the kitchen at supper time...I moved the adsl line well away from the electrical routing and returned to stable near 2mb. A similar problem arose with pre-existing TV cabling and signal stability ...same solution...distance the services from electrical cabling. Massive improvement at near no cost...just some physical effort and maybe longer cable.
    I used to believe this interference thing was a techy paranoia ..not so!

  • Comment number 24.

    The trouble is, those slow loading websites? They will probably still be slow loading since it will be the speed of the server not your connection that is the issue.

    I have a Bethere connection for my job which gives me, on average, 16 down and 2 up. But most sites still load slowly, because most are on really slow shared networks. The Beeb loads a bit quicker, but BBC iplayer is still buffering a lot, since that is also to do with the iPlayer servers.

    As for a wireless connection to your router, I would simply not bother. The frequency range used by wireless is not good at walls and floors, and despite the hype, is pointless unless you have line-of-sight with the antenna.

    Extending using wireless access points connected to lan cables, or through your mains is a possibility, but very expensive.

    Much better to run a cable to each floor and shove a switch on the end which you can plug into. I mean, who would want a useless 50 ish connection between your home computers when you could have one gig for far less money?

    What I dont understand is that at the beginning of a recession, and with a vital need to cut energy usage, why you lot are always telling people that they have to spend a fortune on broadband, increase their electricity usage and push even more energy gobbling into the infrastructure and for what?

    So we can watch a BBC programme on iPlayer that will be repeated SIX times anyway on low level, low quality digital?

    We have all gone bonkers!

  • Comment number 25.

    £50 a month??? And you still don't get the full speed? What a rip-off! That's what's wrong with the UK's broadband: it's not the speed we're actually getting, it's the fact we're all being charged the same price every month regardless of the speed we get.

    We should be paying only for the speeds they actually deliver, variable speeds: variable bills.

  • Comment number 26.

    The encryption does make a difference as it happens - the 802.11n draft standard doesn't allow for wireless data rates any higher than 54Mbps when using WEP and WPA (TKIP). To get the maximum speed benefit it is necessary to use WPA2 (or no encryption, but that wouldn't be recommended without other security arrangements in place).

  • Comment number 27.

    Have you run the speedtests over a wired connection? This would remove the inherrant variability of wireless and give a true indication of the speed of the actual connection rather then the wireless. Also try downloading some large files from a ftp achive such as sunsite or blueyonder (which would be on net in effect). It would be interesting to see how it performs in these circumstances.
    Wireless standards have historically been very generous in their speed claims, it would be interesting to see how the 50mb connection fares where it alone is the limiting factor.

  • Comment number 28.

    oh how i dream of this sort of speed!

    here in cyprus we're lucky enough ( ! ) to have 1meg! the difference is, 1meg IS 1meg!

    a friend vistied from an "8meg" UK area, and was amazed how much faster our internet was than hers!

    needless to say, the first thing she was doing when she got home was to check her speed.

  • Comment number 29.

    if in another room buy some mains ethernet plugs and use the mains in your house instead of wireless

  • Comment number 30.

    Virgin Media have taken a number of short cuts in deploying this product - it has very much been pushed out quickly rather than pushed out properly.

    It's perhaps worth mentioning that Virgin Media's network is not FTTC it's FTTN - Fibre To The Neighbourhood / Node. There are intermediate cabinets boosting signal between people and the fibre optic cable.

    Note also that the product is only advertised as having a 1.5Mbps upstream on a 50Mbps downstream, compare this with Be or O2 who offer up to 2.5Mbps on up to 24Mbps downstream via the copper wires Virgin much malign.

    On the purely cable side compare this with UPC who with the same technology offer 6Mbit upstream on a 60Mbit downstream, or Comcast in the USA who offer 10Mbit upstream on their 50Mbit downstream with less capable technology than Virgin, Cablevision who offer 5Mbit upstream, Charter who likewise provide 5Mbit, all on what is in theory less capable technology than Virgin - if Virgin's is maintained properly.

    Even running this they have seen issues with upstream congestion in the odd area, as well as signal issues due to not preparing the network properly in a number of areas for the deployment.

    They cannot increase upstream bandwidth yet due to incompatibility between more modern upstream standards and their legacy equipment - this was not tested properly before deployment and the solution after it was found during trials late last year was to just deploy the product with the low upstream until fix.

    Overall this product has been rushed and we've had the pleasure of Samuel L Jackson pushing this product at us since it was only available to 10% of the country.

    An all too common theme, not just with Virgin but BT and others, Fibre To The Press Release and huge amounts of uncapped bandwidth, just in the direction of PR agencies rather than our homes.

  • Comment number 31.

    I think people are making a big mistake in conflating the maximum speed of a service when downloading large files with overall levels of service quality/experience.

    If you want a large software update [for example] Virgin's 25Mb service can be extremely fast.

    For general surfing however [and I am on the XL 25Mbps service] it is extremely slow and suffers from huge latency problems.

    In my experience PlusNet's 4Mb service [using BT lines] is considerably faster for general use than Virgin's 25Mb service is.

  • Comment number 32.

    A VERY interesting article.

    I live in America and I am beyond jealous.

    I pay about $50 a month for a DSL connection with the major telephone company called Verizon. It is rated at 3mb, but of course it never achieves that speed.

    And that is perhaps the best connection to the home that is available in my area.

    Just the promise of 50mb is enough to make me tingle.


    John Natali Washington DC

  • Comment number 33.

    @32 - 50Mbit/s Fibre through FiOS is on its' way: http://albuquerque.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2008/11/24/daily8.html

    You're getting ripped if you're paying that much just for the DSL, according to Verizon even their 7.1Mbit service shouldn't cost that much: http://www22.verizon.com/Residential/HighspeedInternet/Plans/Plans.htm

  • Comment number 34.

    I have Sky as my broadband provider giving me 16Mbps at only £10 a month.
    Using online tests I get speeds of around the 13.5Mbps mark. At peaks times I have recorded tests at around 8 or 9Mbps.
    But most of the time I am above 10, I don't recall any time when I have felt a poor performance on the line. Sky's contract has fully unlimited downloads a month too.

    The strange thing about my broadband though is it's through a BT line yet BT says the highest they can offer is 8Mbps @ £24.99 a month. I don't get how Sky can offer double the speed for half the price but hey I'm not complaining.

    To be honest, I don't feel the need for any higher currently, Most things I download are done in a acceptable time frame, some sites take a while but that has more to do with their servers than my connection.

  • Comment number 35.

    For taking advantage of a fast connection when the device you want to use is not in the same room as your internet connection - how about using HomePlug AV adapters as an alternative to 802.11n or trailing ethernet cable between rooms?

    The adapters are more expensive but I've found them more reliable than wi-fi connection and get very fast speeds when streaming HD video between the my attic gaming/home cinema room and the lounge 3 flights of stairs down.

  • Comment number 36.

    Have you tried setting your wireless router to WPA + WPA2 mode wireless? The Xbox360 does not support the latest WPA2 and mine works fine using the WPA +WPA2 mode. This allows you to run 'older' devices and new all at the same time.

  • Comment number 37.

    I too have progressed through the ranks of broadband over the years. Upgrading from the 512K broadband connection from NTL right through to my current broadband speed of 20MB.

    I guess i've been lucky in the fact that i've always lived in a cabled area therefore i've always enjoyed a good broadband connection (although i remember in the early days of NTL's 512k roll-out that wasn't always the case!). I know of friends and family who are struggling to get by on mobile broadband that does seem to be a little shakey. I often use a pay as you go mobile broadband dongle when travelling and couldnt imagine having to use that for home use too.

    I think it's great for the UK, that the broadband providers are continuously striving to provide faster broadband speeds, but to be honest my current 20MB connection is more than enough for my needs, and i cant see the benefit right now in upgrading to Virgin Media's 40Mb package.

    Perhaps in the next few years when more broadband streaming services start to surface, but for now i'll manage :)

 

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