BT and Virgin Media are the two biggest ISPs offering fibre internet access in the UK.
Which naturally led us to wonder: which one's doing it best?
First though, check to see if Virgin Media and BT Infinity are available in your area:
Enter your phone number and / or postcode above to check availability in your area.
So, first things first: who does the fastest broadband cheapest?
The good news is that a little competition has done both BT and Virgin Media good: fibre is now not too much more expensive than ADSL and there are options to suit almost every household in terms of price and download limit.
Here are the current cheapest options for both providers:
|Up to 30Mb,
|Weekend calls||£14.99||£14.50||£29.49||Visit Virgin Media »|
|Up to 38Mb,
|Evening & Weekend calls||£15.45||£18||£33.45||Visit BT »|
|Up to 60Mb,
|Weekend calls||£14.99||£19.50||£34.49||Visit Virgin Media »|
|Up to 38Mb,
|Evening & Weekend calls||£15.45||£23||£38.45||Visit BT »|
|Up to 76Mb,
|Evening & Weekend calls||£15.45||£26||£41.45||Visit BT »|
As you can see, by this basic measure, Virgin Media are currently beating BT on price, even for those that take a slightly faster, and more expensive, deal.
That's partly because the cost of BT landline is now astronomically high, however even Virgin Media have hiked their prices recently.
Even taking that into account, however, it's a bit surprising, and maybe a bit impressive too, that Virgin Media have managed to get ahead since BT are imposing a 40GB download limit on their cheapest deal, a limit which previously gave them the edge on price.
However, just looking at the cheapest packages isn't always the best guide to which provider's customers are getting cheaper deals overall.
Special offers for new customers often range from money off vouchers to money off the package for the first few months.
These deals can make considerable savings, so they're worth looking into. Here's what Virgin Media and BT are offering at the time of writing:
|Free unlimited broadband for 6 months + £25 Sainsbury's gift card
ends 8 May 2013
|Sign up for BT unlimited broadband for this offer here|
|£40 Sainsbury's gift card + money off for the first 3 months
ends 8 May 2013
|Sign up for BT Infinity broadband for this offer here|
|£25 Sainsbury's gift card
ends 8 May 2013
|Sign up online for any BT broadband deal for this offer here|
|Free phone line installation worth £130||Sign up for BT broadband and phone to get this offer here (Only applicable if you need a new phone line)|
See more deals, prices and check availability on our main BT table here.
|£60 free credit plus 6 months half price on collections
ends 30 Jun 2013
|Sign up here for one of Virgin Media's pre-made bundles: Essentials , Premier or VIP for this offer|
|£40 free credit plus £14.50 off broadband for 6 months (with phone)
ends 30 Apr 2013
|Sign up for Virgin Media broadband and take a Virgin phone line for this offer here|
|£20 free credit plus £5 off broadband for 3 months
ends 30 Apr 2013
|Sign up with Virgin Media broadband without a Virgin phone line for this offer here|
|Better than half price: £10 off for 6 months with Classic collection
ends 30 Apr 2013
|Sign up here for Virgin Media's pre-made Classic collection bundle for this offer|
See more deals, prices and check availability on our main Virgin Media table here.
Cutting phone line costs
For example, Virgin Media distinguish themselves from BT by allowing customers to sign up without a phone line, although the price cut for doing so is somewhat lower than you might expect.
So looking at XXL from Virgin Media (separate review):
100Mb broadband + weekend calls
for 6 mths,
|£14.99||Visit Virgin Media »|
for 3 mths,
|N/a||Visit Virgin Media »|
It's not a big discount but ditching the home phone line means potentially making bigger savings overall by not paying for landline calls, plus avoiding any future price increases on line rental from either provider.
Get more information on broadband without a phone line here.
Similarly, BT currently offer a discount when line rental is paid for 12 months in a lump sum of £129. That reduces the price to the equivalent of £10.75, which would make the cheapest BT Infinity deals a little less than Virgin's.
It's also worth noting that both Virgin Media and BT are big on broadband bundles - phone, broadband and TV all on one bill.
Both Virgin Media and BT offer TV deals through their cable network to really make the most of their superfast speeds.
Both offer a large range of on-demand content, at least some of which is free to all customers, all the core Freeview channels and movies or Sky Sports for an additional monthly fee.
BT's TV bundles tend to be slightly cheaper than Virgin's.
However, that's because Virgin Media has the edge in terms of the sheer number of channels available - 175 with TV XL - and its TiVo box, one of the best set top boxes on the market.
For more detail on this see our TV guide.
Whilst it doesn't include BT, our Sky vs Virgin guide is also worth a look for more on how Virgin TV performs against it's closest competitor.
Virgin Media generally advertise faster speeds and those claims are real: technical differences between the networks should allow Virgin to deliver faster speeds and independent testing confirms that they do.
Note that in the research from Ofcom below, anomalous results were reported in the BT Infinity speed tests, so we've provided both the results with and without this data excluded (the second line result is with the anomalous results excluded).
Ofcom research into speeds, released in August 2012:
|Advertised Speed||Ofcom Average Speed||Ofcom Average Peak Time Speed (8-10pm weekdays)|
|Up to 30Mb||29.7Mb - 30.5Mb||28.8Mb - 30Mb|
|Up to 38Mb||30Mb - 34.3Mb
(33.2Mb - 36.2Mb)
|29.8Mb - 34.3Mb
(33.2Mb - 36.2Mb)
|Up to 60Mb||54.7 - 57Mb||52.3Mb - 55.2Mb|
|Up to 76Mb||55.3 - 61.7Mb
(57.7Mb - 63.7Mb)
|54.7Mb - 61.1Mb
57.3Mb - 63.2Mb)
|Up to 100Mb||85.7 - 90.9Mb||80.1Mb - 86.6Mb|
An interesting variable, however, is the limits imposed on those using high bandwidth services such as P2P sites.
In that case, BT might offer faster real world speeds since users are much less likely to be throttled.
For example, in the same research as above, Ofcom also found that Virgin Media was likely to have much higher levels of contention on its network - resulting in users experiencing slower speeds during the busiest periods of the day - than BT.
Ofcom found that the proportion of BT Infinity users receiving less than 90% of their 24-hour average speed at peak times was 2% for those on up to 76Mb, and 3% for those on up to 38Mb.
For Virgin Media, those numbers were notably increased, with 10% of customers on up to 30Mb and up to 60Mb receiving less than 90% of their 24-hour average speed at peak times, and 24% of customers on up to 100Mb.
What Ofcom didn't mention however, was that aside from contention, traffic management may also play a part in the reduction of speed for Virgin Media customers at peak times.
Virgin Media's traffic management policy slows the speeds of customers who reach 'soft' download limits on any of their packages between 4pm and 9pm by 50% for the next five hours.
BT no longer apply soft limits to their unlimited packages.
The results above certainly suggest that BT Infinity may well provide a faster service during peak times - in the evenings, and this may particularly be the case for heavier users.
The technical difference between BT and Virgin Media resides in how their respective superfast networks connect to your home.
BT's 'up to 38Mb' Infinity broadband service uses superfast fibre optics to link together BT exchanges and green street cabinets, creating a fibre to the cabinet network.
From there, BT connect to your home via a normal copper phone line, referred to as 'the last mile'.
Virgin Media have a separate fibre optic network which runs underneath the pavements of the areas in which it is installed (remember the chaos of all that digging?) and then there's a short stretch of more efficient coaxial cable that connects a customer's home to the fibre connection outside.
The technical difference means that when Infinity was first launched, BT could only advertise speeds of up to 40Mb, where Virgin were offering up to 50Mb. Something Virgin have been keen to play up ever since the BT Infinity launch in January 2010.
Virgin Media likes to gloat that it can always guarantee an advertised speed thanks to the close proximity of its fibre to every customer's home.
As we've noted above, Infinity broadband comes with either a 40GB download limit or unlimited.
40GB isn't a small allowance and it should suffice for those that largely want superfast to stream a good few hours of video a night without interruption, as well as surfing and checking emails.
For gaming or streaming addicts, then, either unlimited Infinity or a Virgin Media deal are likely to be a better bet.
However, as we've mentioned above, the extent of their unlimitedness differs.
From 1st February 2013, BT Infinity's unlimited deal now offers 'totally unlimited usage'.
BT say that users on unlimited packages can now download as much as they want without being slowed at any time.
It's a surprising move from BT mainly because of the number of customers they have, as 'truly unlimited' broadband has often been limited to ISPs with smaller customer bases, purporting quality over quantity.
That said, it's also not a far jump from BT's previous policy of only slowing peer-to-peer downloads during peak times, so we can only assume BT know what they're doing.
Virgin Media's fair use policies on the other hand, particularly when it comes to the cheapest deals, are much more restrictive.
In conclusion, Virgin Media are currently beating the BT Infinity service in several key areas: their cheapest options, taken at face value, are cheaper; they're currently offering the fastest speeds and they allow users to sign up for fibre without having to take a copper phone line too.
However, BT really aren't far behind, as the Ofcom tests show they may be offering a faster real world service, with lower contention and fairer traffic management.
This article was first published 16 November 2010, it was last updated 8 March 2013.
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