Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/05/14/dear_branson/

About that TV service, Mr Branson...

Losing your Virginity

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Networks, 14th May 2007 11:32 GMT

Column Dear Richard Branson,

I don't know why on earth I'm writing this to you, because I happen to know it's got nothing to do with you. But the message may be of interest: "Virgin Media, farewell!"

I'll be dropping my subscription to Virgin Media just as soon as my Virgin phone starts working again and I can contact customer relations to tell them.

Three reasons lie behind this, and your dispute with Sky is just one of them. First, it's costing me too much. Second, it's not working well enough, and thirdly, I'm not getting any sensible response to my complaints about the first two points.

The broadband service you offer has just doubled its download speed. I'd be really impressed by this, if Virgin had doubled its provision of internet backhaul to match it. But in fact, along with your impressive top speed, you've had to introduce a limit on how much I can download.

You're blaming this on the top five per cent of users, saying that they choke the network during peak hours. Your announcement tries to make this sound like these high download users are a new group of anti-social misfits, of course, so that the rest of us blame them; but you can't pretend this is a new pattern. There has always been a small group who want to download a LOT of data, and previously your network could cope.

Why, suddenly, can it not cope? Well, I'm prepared to believe that the bit torrent download service is part of it. It's possible to get every episode of (say) Heroes from Mininova in a few hours; that's the best part of eight gigabytes. Five years ago, that wasn't possible.

But that didn't change overnight. What changed overnight was your speed limit. If you'd doubled your capacity to carry data at the same time as doubling the top speed, this cap wouldn't be necessary.

And, of course, we both know that the real problem isn't download, but upload. To receive a bit torrent, someone else has to provide it. The Virgin network is pure pants at uploads, and you're having to cap that, because you simply can't find the money to increase the upload capacity.

As to why we're all going Bit Torrent, that's easy. Your TV service is absurdly more expensive than I can justify. Yes, it gives me hundreds of channels. But I don't want them. Specifically, the only channels I would regard as justifying a charge would be the Sky Sports, the main Sky channels, the SF channel, and news channels. All the rest of my watching is available on Freeview.

As you know, despite my paying you £90 a month, your lords and masters have decided that this isn't enough to warrant signing a contract with Sky to provide me with the channels I signed up for. Your bosses seem to feel that I wouldn't fork out more but that £90 isn't enough to justify an extra couple of quid cost. Your choice! - you could pay, and keep me. You chose not to pay, and you're losing me.

But it's worst than that: I increasingly find that I'll be watching (say) the Americas Cup sailing program. Half way through, a message will pop up: Sky will say "Press the red button to continue watching on Sky Interactive."

Virgin can't provide that service, so having watched the first half of an exciting race, I'm left wondering what is going on.

That said, I was prepared to persist, on the grounds that it was a premium service.

No longer. The TV service is getting steadily worse and worse, technically. Like most viewers I would like to record programmes for later viewing - but the quality of the picture and sound is simply not acceptable. I don't think I own an old VHS tape in bad enough condition to simulate the gaps in sound, the MPEG artefacts that blot out the picture for two or three seconds at a time, and the loss of picture altogether.

Right now, I'm not recording a Hercule Poirot programme on ITV because Virgin has lost all ITV feeds. This is a more complete loss than usual, I'll grant you, but loss of programme for two or three minutes at a time isn't infrequent here in North London.

Ah yes, recording! You have TV Drive, the DVR service, which at first, I loved. Today, it is hardly worth having.

If you think the picture is bad before it reaches the TVD, you should see what TVD makes of it. Well, no, I wouldn't wish that on anybody. But that's trivial, really, by comparison with the disaster that is your electronic programme guide.

I can set to record all right, but what I get is only sometimes what I asked for. All too often, I get a two minute introduction followed by "We hope you enjoyed this programme", or another programme entirely. Having a recording system which I can't depend on is actually worse than not having a recording system at all.

Also, I'm trying to set up a Sling Box so I can watch TV over the internet. The output of the TVD box is simply not acceptable to Sling.

You make a lot in your advertising about your phone service. The phone works, quite a lot of the time. It isn't working now, and really, that's the last straw. I did call the support phone number (0845 on my mobile) and after spending two minutes entering data and pressing option buttons, I got...the busy tone.

I did try ringing to say I was cancelling, but couldn't get through to that either.

Really, the service I want is one I can now get from Freeview, and I can watch Sky sports programmes in the local pub if it matters that much.

And yes, I do worry a bit about the ethics of downloading torrents. I will probably not do it much, for that reason. But whether you or I approve or not isn't going to solve the problem, is it?

Finally, Sir Richard, as I said at the top of this, I know you aren't involved in Virgin Media. I appear to be one of the few in the country who knows that Telewest owns the name purely because they bought Virgin Mobile and the name with it.

However, I'm afraid that the damage done to the Branson brand by Virgin trains is nothing to the ruin that will be wrought by Virgin Media, if it doesn't start finding the money to invest in improving its services across the board.

If I were you, I'd seriously consider suing it for defamation. ®