ADSL vs Virgin Media – round two

Those of you who know me will be aware that the happy coalition of housemates I assembled for the year July ’11 to August ’12 ended up being For One Year Only. So, just over 12 months since I last had this problem, I was moving into a new place and in the market for an Internet connection.

On paper, the choice here in Oxford is obvious – Virgin Media have cable everywhere, and it significantly outperforms ADSL over copper phone lines.

However. That’s what I thought a year ago, and our year with the cheapest Virgin Media internet package was pretty poor. Although it ran at a healthy 10mbps most of the time, it slowed to the point of being unusable quite often, especially at peak times. Sometimes it cut off altogether. Whether this was a problem of poor infrastructure, the not-so-superhub (which I had to chain another router off to get decent wifi coverage, even in a tiny terraced house), or something else, I don’t know. And I don’t care. I was resolved not to go back to Virgin.

Being an unbeliever isn’t easy, though. For starters, my new place didn’t have an active BT line. For sure, it was riddled with a dozen or so phone sockets dating from the 80s and 90s – at least one of which looked like it might be a master – but none of them had a dial tone. At this point, most ISPs want you to fork over £120 to BT to get a line with a number before they’ll do business with you. This saved me quite a lot of research, since it bought me inexorably to the door of The Post Office.

The Post Office’s ADSL offering is just a re-branding of BT’s service, but it looks like it covers all the basics – no usage limits, and the maximum speed your line can support, for £27/month (including rental of the BT line you’re not going to use). Most importantly, though, if you take broadband and the line rental from them, they’ll waive that installation charge in exchange for a 12 month contract.

 I made the call on the day I moved in – 3 September – and after some preliminary stuff, the lady informed me apologetically that they couldn’t get an engineer round until the 9th. Of October. I almost wavered at that point – Virgin have plastered our street with posters offering same-day installation – but I held firm and decided to tough it out.

[Digression – try living for a month without the Internet at home. It forced me to go outside and talk to people a lot more, which was very healthy].

I should point out that the month delay is in the hands of BT Openreach, the division of BT which runs the infrastructure other ISPs can rent for resale. Whichever way you go for your ADSL, you can’t entirely escape the BT monopoly.

The 9th of October rolled round soon enough, and I was given a time band of 1pm to 6pm during which the bloke would come round. After a tedious afternoon of working from home and burning through my mobile data allowance for a month in a few hours, he knocked on our door at 17.56. Hats off to him for bothering to keep the last appointment of the day rather than get off home.

Our line was installed and became live the next day. As new ADSL lines tend to, it started out at a fairly feeble 2mbps, but over the next ten days it worked its way up to about 6.5. That’s not spectacular, but it is (on the evidence so far) rock-solid stable and completely consistent. And, according to the BBC’s own figures, it’s enough for all three of us in the house to watch different iPlayer shows simultaneously. Which, if we’re honest, is what we’ll use it for.

Other thoughts? Although the slightly flimsy Zyxel black box router supplied didn’t exactly inspire confidence, it does give a decent WiFi signal. And it obtains the username/password magically when you plug it in, which is a neat touch.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on things, but on the basis of the first few weeks with this connection, I’d much rather have a slow and consistent ADSL line – and not have to deal with Virgin Media ever again.