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Virgin Media fails to deliver on broadband speed claims, says investigation

An investigation by the BBC’s Watchdog programme accuses ISP Virgin Media of over-promising and under-delivering on the claims it makes about its fibre-based broadband services

Internet service provider (ISP) Virgin Media has been criticised for over-dramatising the claims it makes about its broadband services after an investigation by the BBC’s Watchdog programme found many customers were receiving nowhere near the speeds they were originally sold.

Although Virgin Media claims speeds of up to 200Mbps can be attained over its hybrid-fibre coax (HFC) network using data over cable service interface specification (DOCSIS) – a standard developed to deliver high-speed broadband services over cable TV systems – many customers are receiving as little as 3% of the promised speed, said the Watchdog team.

The BBC also claimed that a number of customers had told its researchers that when they complained to Virgin Media, they were told that the low speeds were down to over-utilisation of the network, which essentially means the company has signed up too many customers in a particular area.

BBC researchers posed as new customers in areas where Virgin Media had said it had network capacity problems, and made a number of visits to retail stores and phone calls to identify what speeds they were sold. The team then performed speed tests at the address to see how the service actually performed.

Although most Virgin Media sales reps did concede there would be a marginal decline in the headline 200Mbps speed at peak times, the BBC said customers were receiving speeds as low as 1.5Mbps, which is no longer sufficient for streaming video, music or gaming, and falls far below the government’s planned universal service obligation (USO) of 10Mbps.

“I, along with everybody at Virgin Media, am disappointed that, in these cases, we fell short of the high standards we set for ourselves and which our customers rightly expect of us,” said Virgin Media CEO Tom Mockridge in a statement.

“We apologise for the inconvenience to these customers and have resolved the issues they raised.  All of our sales agents have been re-briefed on the company’s sales policy and we are providing additional training to ensure everyone complies with it.

“Virgin Media invests more than £1bn a year in its ultrafast network. This year we are also investing £200m to upgrade network capacity where it is needed to meet the growing demand for faster broadband speeds across the UK.”

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The BBC said Virgin Media was particularly misleading given recent upgrades to its range of service plans, which made 100Mbps its standard entry-level product, rising to 300Mbps at the top end.

Mockridge said at the time: “By beefing up our bundles, we are leaving our competitors in the rear view mirror, starting where they finish. Eye-watering speeds, a better box and top-notch TV is a winning combination.”

Mockridge also came in for criticism because, following publication of a joint ASA-Ofcom report in January 2016 that said consumers were being misled over pricing by broadband adverts, he took to the media to say the ASA needed to crack down on the speed claims made by ISPs as well.

The ASA is currently nearing the end of a 10-week consultation on how broadband speeds are advertised. Along with the Committees of Advertising Practice, it wants to impose new conditions that would force ISPs to be upfront about the median download speeds available at peak times and over 24 hours, and the range of peak and 24-hour speeds available to the 20th to 80th percentile of users.

Back in 2012, Virgin Media fell foul of the ASA over its broadband speed claims, and was made to withdraw its claim that it offered the UK’s fastest broadband after a complaint from BT. The ASA said that the joint Ofcom-SamKnows study from which Virgin Media sourced its statistics only took into account 90% of the UK, and ignored niche altnets that could deliver faster download speeds over fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) connections, which Virgin Media did not offer at the time.

The latest investigation will be broadcast during Watchdog Live on BBC One at 7pm on 5 July 2017. .........................................................................................................................................................

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