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Virgin Media calls foul on web speed testers

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Virgin Media believes it is being shafted by comparison sites offering ISP speed checks, and has called on them to improve their techniques ahead of the launch of its 50Mbit/s upgrade.

Switching sites are becoming an increasingly powerful force in the near-saturated broadband market. uSwitch recently said the tightening of household belts during the ongoing economic turmoil had prompted more internet users to change their ISP.

Virgin Media now says its lab tests show the web-based methods used by the comparison sites are often flawed, and that it will publish the results online. The firm is worried that mismeasurements of as much as 40 per cent will be further amplified once it boosts its top package from the current theoretical 20Mbit/s maximum download speed to 50Mbit/s next month.

Virgin Media has written to the biggest comparison sites to raise the concerns and pledged its own engineers' help on improving methods.

It's made some progress. Michael Phillips, product director of the comparison site Broadbandchoices.co.uk said: "The new 50Mbit/s product Virgin Media is launching is ahead of current testing technology. Consumers come to us for reliable information and we share Virgin Media's desire to improve the accuracy of the speed testing. We will work with Virgin Media to explore ways that we can develop our testing methodology."

Web-based speed testers typically work by timing how long it takes to download and upload a small file. Virgin Media charges that such a test only measures how long it takes for a file to get from one place in the internet to another, rather than actual throughput on a customer's line. The files transmitted are often too small to give an accurate picture too, it alleges. Other factors like processor power and the speed tester site's traffic can also skew results.

The issue has been kicking around in ISP and regulatory circles for a several months. When it launched a new broadband code of practice in June, Ofcom said it would build a new hardware-based speed testing method to provide consumers with reliable, independent performance data. The pilot network deployed by the industry analyst firm Samknows in May was the first stage of that programme.

Virgin Media of course hasn't intervened now for purely altruistic reasons; Ofcom's data won't be ready for public consumption for several months. More accurate speed checking will be in its interest when 50Mbit/s rolls out, as it'll be pushing its speed advantage of DSL rivals hard. ®

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