If you’re looking to jump out of sub-20Mbps league into the lower tiers of fibre-optic broadband, then your first choices may well be Virgin Media and BT Infinity. These offer the kinds of speeds you need to really compete in online gaming and to stream two or three high definition videos at the same time because you’ve got family members watching the BBC iPlayer and Sky Go at the same time, with someone else listening to Spotify.
We’ve picked Virgin’s XL broadband package, advertised at 30Mbps, because the next year or so will see it doubled to 60Mbps as Virgin upgrades its national network. As with all Virgin Media broadband, there’s no download limit but there is a fair usage policy.
BT Infinity 40Mbps is a typical fibre-to-the cabinet system that’s a good indicator of similar hybrid fibre connections from other providers. It comes with an 18-month contract with a 40GB download limit or unlimited downloads (fair usage policy applies). BT didn’t make enough noise but it’s also doubling 40Mbps packages to 80Mbps this Spring, although it’s yet to announce a specific timetable.
|BT Infinity 40||Virgin Media XL|
|Contract||18 Months||12 or 18 month options|
|Installation||£40 (nothing on unlimited deal)||£49.95 (nothing on 18-month contract)|
For both BT and Virgin Media, you can pick an installation date and time slot, and the installer should contact you before they arrive and will have to work both in your house and at the nearest street cabinet. They usually connect one computer, and explain how to connect others.
BT will send your BT Home Hub 3 about two days in advance, but the installer will bring the BT Infinity modem and anything else required for the installation. The modem goes next to the BT master socket and needs two power sockets, but the engineer can run an extension up to 30m from the nearest power socket. The installer will also connect and set up the Home Hub 3. Installation will take up to an hour.
For Virgin, a welcome pack will arrive by post containing your contract and confirmation of the installation date. Installation usually takes from 30 minutes to two hours.
For new installations, Virgin runs a coaxial cable (similar to satellite or good-quality TV aerial cable) from the street to a termination box on your home, and into your home. The internal cable will need to terminate near a twin-socket power outlet for the router. The installer should set up your router and WiFi network.
If you’re upgrading from Virgin’s 10Mbps broadband, there’s no need for a visit and the Super Hub will be delivered by post, with a spanner to help you disconnect the old Media Hub from Virgin’s cable, and attach it to the Super Hub. It will be preset and installation should be a plug-and-play experience.
|Download (claimed)||Download (Ofcom Nov 2011)||Upload (claimed)||Upload (Ofcom Nov 2011)|
|BT Infinity 40||40Mbps||35.4-36.7Mbps||2Mbps/10Mbps||1.8Mbps/8.8Mbps|
|Virgin Media XL||30Mbps||30.6-31.4Mbps||3Mbps||2.5Mbps|
BT Infinity has the higher top speed, as you’d expect, but Virgin actually over-delivers, and that’s born out by Ofcom’s latest speed research. For uploaders, Virgin’s standard 10:1 ratio slightly under-delivers at 2.5Mbps, while BT’s pretty close to its promises, and 8.8Mbps is enough to stream HD video if you’ve got something like a Slingbox for watching TV on the move.
|Actual vs headline down speed||Web page load time||Latency||Packet Loss||DNS resolution time||DNS failure rate||Up-stream jitter||Down-stream jitter|
|BT Infinity 40||90%||250-400ms||18-19ms||0.125-0.225%||18-20ms||0.6-0.95%||<1ms||0.23-0.4ms|
|Virgin Media XL||100%||400ms||19-20ms||0.175-0.275%||28-30ms||0.25-0.65%||6-7ms||0.22-0.28ms|
Ofcom’s latest broadband speed research teases out a few differences between BT Infinity and Virgin Media, but it’s worth noting that on crucial measurements like web page loading, latency, DNS failure and downstream jitter, both basic fibre services are well-ahead of an ADSL connection.
BT Infinity excels on upstream jitter, which will make a huge difference to voice or video calling and online games, while Virgin’s noticably lacking even compared to an average ADSL connection. Virgin’s DNS resolution time is also not much better than a typical copper broadband package. Overall, Virgin’s also far more variable during peak times, and usually for the worse.
|BT Infinity 40||Virgin Media XL|
|Router||Home Hub 3||Virgin Media Super Hub|
|Ethernet Ports||4 (1 Gigabit)||4 (all gigabit)|
|Wireless Support||WiFi B/G/N||WiFi B/G/N|
The BT Home Hub 3 is a unique product that’s a little more advanced than most free broadband modem-routers, and would cost £99 on its own. On paper, it’s an ADSL2+ modem with four Ethernet ports and support for WiFi b/g/n.
One of the Ethernet ports supports Gigabit Ethernet, for connecting network hard discs to get high speed streaming. There are three USB 2.0 ports for connecting network hard discs or printers, and the WiFi has a smart mode which finds the frequency with the least traffic – useful if your neighbours are also using WiFi. The Home Hub 3 can be set to save power by turning off for a set number of hours per day, and you can restrict the hours it can be accessed by different devices, such as games consoles and children’s computers. It’s also possible to take part in BT’s FON WiFi-sharing club by sharing part of your wireless and broadband capacity with other BT FON members.
Virgin’s Super Hub is the standard router – you’ve got an olde Media Hub it will be replaced this year when your speed is doubled. It’s a typical slimline box in glossy black plastic, with no internal antenna and a vertical stand (removable to hide it on top of a cupboard).
The Super Hub supports Wireless N and has four Gigabit (1,000Mbps) Ethernet ports, so it definitely won’t be the weak link if your home network isn’t fast enough. It has WPA2 security, which is great, and WPS for easy set-up, which sounds great but has been shown to have security flaws.
Cost & bundle benefits
|BT Infinity 40||BT Infinity 40 Unlimited||Virgin Media XL|
|Monthly cost (broadband only)||–||–||£27.50|
|Monthly cost (evening & weekend calls)||£28||£35||£37|
|Monthly cost (anytime calls)||£32.90||£39.90||£40.40|
BT Infinity’s a shade cheaper than Virgin Media XL (up to £24 a year for unlimited downloads), and faster, but the Virgin service is about to be doubled to 60Mbps. Virgin also offers the option of broadband without a phone line.
BT Broadband subscribers get unlimited free access to BT Openzone WiFi hotspots – with three million in the UK and 400,000 overseas – and the BT FON WiFi-sharing club if you’re a member. There are Android and iOS apps for easy access on mobile devices.
Security software is delivered by McAfee Family Protection and McAfee NetProtect Plus. Family Protection lets you monitor and control your family’s internet use, while NetProtect Plus covers up to seven PCs or Macs with anti-virus, anti-spyware, danger ratings for websites, firewalls and protection against identity theft.
The BT Digital Vault gives you a basic 5GB of online storage for important files or for private sharing, including automatic back-ups, which you can upgrade to 50GB for £4.99/month.
BT Yahoo! gives you 10 email addresses with high quality spam protection and ‘never ending’ online storage. As a Yahoo! service, it also connects to Facebook for messaging via your Yahoo! mail page, and has dedicated iOS and Android apps for accessing your emails on your phone.
The Virgin Media bundle includes Virgin Media Security powered by Trend Micro, which scans your traffic for viruses and malware as it passes through the network, and is limited to three PCs. It also includes parental controls, a website checker and a firewall booster.
There’s 10GB of free online backup and storage is provided, and you can print up to 50 photos with free delivery via Snapfish. Virgin broadband customers get a Virgin email address, and can have up to 10 more addresses. Finally, there’s a six-month trial of the online music streaming service, Spotify Premium.
These are both great packages and your decision may depend as much on where you are as what they offer.
If we had a choice of both, we’d probably pick BT Infinity. It’s already a fraction cheaper, and the 40Mbps service is already faster and will be upgraded to 80Mbps with no need for new equipment. They both come with great extras, but BT Openzone is probably of more practical use than Spotify.