New-Virgin-Media-LogoUPDATED: When Virgin Media's products work, they generally work very well and overall I am impressed with the services I buy from them. That said, when things go wrong they are amongst the most infuriating companies to deal with as a consumer. The most frustrating part is, they could address these issues without a great deal of effort simply by being more open and transparent in their dealings and actively communicating with their customer base.


 

UPDATE: 11th July -- As I predicted, the issue was eventually identified as a network problem in my area...

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What a surprise! Kudos to Virgin Media however, they did manage to get the problem fixed fairly quickly and my connection is now running at full whack, although as of yet I've received no official confirmation that everything is sorted.

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My Virgin Media package includes 100Mbps broadband, XL TV with two Tivos and basic landline telephone. Virgin have been rolling out their "Supercharge" offer over the last 6-12 months which basically gives you the ability to upgrade your broadband speed for no additional cost.

Up until the last couple of days I had been receiving the 60Mbps broadband service and on the whole it had been performing perfectly well for months. Apart from the occasional short outage now and again which could normally be resolved by power cycling the SuperHub the connection was fairly solid and I almost always obtained the full speed, sometimes going a little bit beyond the advertised 60Mbps according to www.speedtest.net.  My upgrade to 100Mbps has been processed successfully in the last day or so according to Virgin Media, but since then I've been lucky to get 2Mbps. My last test didn't even make it to 1Mbps...

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While this is irritating I'm not naive enough to expect these services to run fault-free  all the time. I understand that things do sometimes go wrong, and that's completely understandable. There are a lot of "moving parts" in the delivery of these types of services. The failure of any one of these parts has the potential to cause major disruption.  Routers go pop, street cabinets get vandalised, undersea cables get damaged, fire wreaks havoc and human error also plays a factor. And this is all before you reach the consumer end where any number of misconfigurations, localised power or cabling issues and PEBKAC errors could be causing problems.

The issue, the thing that really seems to irk most people is often not necessarily the outage itself but the absence of communication from the provider and total lack of tranparency. Even right now, as I run another speed test which tops out at less that 1 meg, I can refresh the Virgin Media service status page and see...

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Oh look, TV issues, but broadband is providing a "Good" service. Well, maybe they've mentioned the problem on twitter...

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I guess not, just marketing guff. Well, could it be just me?

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One other person? Could just be a coincidence I suppose...

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Maybe not.

This is the problem. It's not so much the fact that there is clearly an issue affecting the particular area I'm in, it's the fact that Virgin Media won't entertain that there could be an issue so when you finally give in and call support, rather than look at their incoming call trends or incident reports and deduce that it's likely a widespread issue on their network, they go into PC troubleshooting 101 mode.

Dangerous Levels of Incompetence

I placed my first call late afternoon, around 4:30pm and got through to one of the offshore support centres. Prior to making the call I had performed all the usual basic checks...

  • Power cycle modem
  • Reboot PC
  • Check speed from another device
  • Connect directly to the SuperHub and re-test
  • Unplug modem, go for coffee, plug modem back in, test again

Nothing I did made any difference and the speed still hovered around the 1-2Mbps mark. The technician I got through to wanted to remote control my PC. He had me go to a website, enter a support code number and download a small plugin which allowed him to remotely connect to my desktop computer. The first thing he did was open Firefox and go to speedtest.net and run another test. Fair enough I thought as he sought my permission for every inconsqeuntial click he made:

"Can I open a web browser?"

"Yes."

"Can I run a speed test?"

"Erm...yes"

"Can I close this browser window?"

"Yes..."

What he did not ask my permission to do was open Device Manager and start right clicking on Network Adapters and start trying to auto-update the drivers from the web. I asked him what he was doing and he explained to me that performance issues can sometimes be due to out of date drivers. While I'm sure running out dated drivers for a NIC has the potential to give you less than optimal performance, I'm pretty certain that the impact would not be to reduce speed from 100 to 2Mbps. Besides, as I had already explained to the technician, I'd tested speeds locally on my network and everything was running fine. The best bit was that the first network adapter he selected in Device Manager to do an update on was a VMware Virtual Ethernet adapter which is utilised by the installation of VMware Workstation I have on this particular PC and has nothing at all to do with my connection to the Internet.

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This guy was beginning to scare me so I asked him to stop. Next step on the script...

"Can you reboot your computer and boot into safe mode with networking?"

"Why?"

"Because some viruses can affect internet speeds."

At this point I'm beginning to lose the will to live. In an attempt to prove that the PC I'm using is not the issue, I offer an alternative. I'll boot up my laptop and he can connect to that and check from there. If it's a device specific issue what are the odds that two different devices will exhibit the same behaviour? He agreed. Once again, he asked for remote control, I gave it to him, he ran a speed test and then to my astonishment went to Device Manager on my laptop and started updating VMware Virtual Ethernet device drivers again.

$Mega-facepalm

After I politely told him to desist, he said he would have to speak to the network experts and that he would need to put me on hold for a few minutes, at which point I was cut off. After I wiped away my tears of impotent rage I decided to call back.

The second time around I was lucky enough to be connected to a nice lady in a UK call centre; Judging by her accent, somewhere in Scotland. She went through the same script as the previous offshore guy. This time however, I felt like I was speaking to a real person as opposed to a badly programmed AI and when I explained to her what had already transpired she quickly moved onto other tests. She too was unable to identify any fault on my connection, and after performing a factory reset of the superhub admitted defeat and told me that she would schedule an engineer visit. That should be interesting.  Good job I didn't have anything to do on Saturday afternoon 😐

A Comparison

I guarantee that the issue will have either A) resolved itself or B) been acknowledged as a wider fault before this engineer turns up on Saturday afternoon. I appreciate the need for large organisations to augment their customer service capacity with cheap resource in offshore locations, and I suspect for the vast majority of calls their script of reboot modem, reboot PC, update random drivers, cut person off probably has a positive outcome.

I've worked on a helpdesk years ago, I understand the depths of stupidity to which humans can descend, especially when dealing with technology. Sometimes a person just needs to have it explained to them that electrical devices operate best when connected to a power source. I get that. It's the inability to adapt when confronted by someone who can open a command prompt and ping www.bbc.co.uk.

More than any other thing it is the lack of explanation, the lack of transparency, the feeling of being kept in the dark and not getting a reasonable response when reporting a fault that bugs me and I've no doubt countless others.

Here's the comparison I'd like to make. This blog is hosted by www.tsohost.co.uk. Last week I wanted to add a new post and found that when I tried to access the WordPress admin page, the connection eventually timed out. I checked the blog URL itself and this too timed out after about 30 seconds. I went over to isup.me and tested the URL from there. The site confirmed that the address seemed to be down. Now don't get me wrong, an outage to my blog hosting provider is a much smaller inconvenience than an outage affecting my entire Internet connection, but still the way tsohost handled the issue was orders of magnitude better than the way Virgin Media handle similar service disruptions.

First I sent an email to their support address briefly explaining the situation. A short while later I received a reply: "One of the sites we host is being DDoS'd, we're doing everything we can to sort things out." Fair enough I thought. There's not a lot you can do to prevent a distributed denial of service attack. The best you can do is attempt to manage it, null route offending IPs etc. But here is the difference; the next day I and presumably every other customer was sent a lenghty email from the head of Network Infrastructure at tsohost. In it, he apologised for the outage, explained firstly what a DDoS was, secondly what the impact was and thirdly what they did to rectify the situation. He then went on to reassure everyone of the measures they were taking to prevent futures problems from occurring.

I pay tsohost about £15 a year for hosting. I pay Virgin Media about £80 a month for their services. I'm not expecting to get an essay from some senior guy in Virgin Media every time there is a blip on my Internet connection, but at the very least they could keep their service status page properly updated, communicate to their customers via twitter or at least look at their reported fault trends and admit when there is a problem instead of sending out engineers to pointlessly swap Superhubs left, right and centre.

Besides, they manage to send me enough postal spam about their mobile phone service offers, you'd think tweeting about an outage would be a hell of a lot easier.