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Virgin Media has quietly rolled out bandwidth throttling nationwide, after successful technical trials in the North West, which the ISP says means a group of heavy users will sacrifice high speeds for the benefit of the majority.

Speeds on the cable network will be limited between 4pm and midnight for traffic which Virgin considers "potentially abnormal". Virgin says the top five per cent heaviest downloaders among its three million customers will be affected - about 150,000 broadband users across the country.

Virgin has criticised rival ADSL providers for their "unlimited" marketing, where opaque fair use policies can mask a monthly GB download limit. It made it clear that national bandwidth throttling would be needed for its network, however, but argued that this increasingly common practice would be fairer than an unpublished monthly cap. Under its new regime, Virgin subscribers will not face restrictions on the amount they can download, but on the speed.

Customers on the "M" package will be throttled from 2Mb/s to 1Mb/s download speed and 128Kb/s upload once they have downloaded 350MB during the eight hour period. "L" subscribers will be allowed to run at full 4Mb/s speed until they hit 750MB, when downloads will be capped at 2Mb/s and uploads at 192Kb/s. Premium "XL" punters, paying £37 per month for 10Mb/s broadband, will be rationed to 3GB at full clip: anything more will come downstream at 5Mb/s and go upstream at 256Kb/s.

Virgin is in the process of upgrading the cable network for its top-paying subscribers to allow downloads at 20Mb/s. Theoretically, this speed would exhaust the 3GB limit in just 20 minutes.

While most now accept that technological limits mean bandwidth throttling is a necessary measure to ensure equality of access, Virgin customers have been getting in touch to criticise the limits for being too low. "M" customer Chris wrote: "I am on their 4Mb/s tier and it looks like I will be throttled as soon as I have downloaded 750MB, which in today's internet is next to nothing - not even one DVD. I use Skype with 2-way video most evenings to chat to my girlfriend when she is abroad...I certainly wouldn't say I am abusing the network - but Virgin Media would."

The imminent public release of Joost could fire a bigger revolt from customers. The P2P/streaming TV application downloads 350MB per hour, and Virgin will apply the new limits across the whole of prime viewing period, meaning viewers will trigger throttling very quickly.

Virgin PR chief John Moorwood told us: "We don't cut customers off, cap on bandwidth, or charge extra for going over a set limit, so our customers would still be able to use the P2P TV service at peak times if they were to experience traffic management controls - albeit at a slower speed.

"That can't be said of some other ISPs, who would be cutting off a connection or charging extra. As ever, we will naturally keep an eye on all significant internet developments."

The firm hasn't announced plans to tell users when they are going over their limit, and instead has advised customers to download a piece of trialware called DU Meter. Critics argue this would not help a modern home with several PCs, a Slingbox, and XBox, to easily monitor its usage without decent router setup skills - not a very Virgin Media "experience". Moorwood said developing a tool of Virgin's own is "something we might investigate long term".

Virgin's customer information page is here. Returning to everyone's favourite vintage internet metaphor, it promises "a lot fewer traffic jams on the information superhighway". ®

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