BT Infinity vs Virgin Media
BT and Virgin Media are the two biggest ISPs offering fibre internet access in the UK - which naturally led us to wonder: who's doing it best?
First though, check whether Virgin Media and BT Infinity are available in your area:
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Let's start by asking: 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 that much more expensive than ADSL, and there are options to suit most households in terms of price and download limit.
Here's a quick rundown of the broadband options for both providers, all with line rental and inclusive weekend calls:
By this basic measure, Virgin Media offer faster, supposedly more expensive, deals for about the same price, sometimes even a little cheaper, than BT charge for their fibre offerings.
Most impressively Virgin Media's slowest fibre deal - now technically pipped at the post on speed by BT's freshly boosted Infinity 1 service - manages to beat BT's lowest price, despite the BT deal having a 25GB download limit.
Looking more closely at price
However, just looking at the headline package costs isn't always the best guide to which providers offer the better 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 moment:
See more deals and prices, and check availability on our main BT table here.
See more deals and prices, and check availability on our main Virgin Media table here.
Cutting phone line costs
Virgin Media distinguish themselves from BT by allowing customers to sign up without a phone line, although the saving for doing so is somewhat lower than we might expect.
Let's look, for example, at the 200Mb fibre deals from Virgin Media (which we review in more depth here):
|Package||Contract length||Upfront cost||Monthly price|
|Vivid 200 + Talk Weekends||12 months||£14.99||£45
for 12 mths,
|Vivid 200||12 months||£14.99||£45.25|
It's not that big a saving at all - and given the introductory offers available when adding in the phone, it can even be more expensive over the course of the contract.
But ditching the home phone line does mean potentially bigger savings further down the line - there's no need to worry about the cost of landline calls, and it's the only way to avoid increasingly steep line rental costs.
There's more information on broadband without a phone line here.
Virgin are now in the embarrassing position of being the provider charging the most for line rental - having recently raised theirs from £17.99 to £19 a month; the difference is tiny however, as BT charge £18.99.
Both offer a discount when line rental is paid for 12 months in advance. Since July this year BT have charged £205.08 for 12 months upfront, equivalent to £17.09 a month.
By contrast, Virgin's upfront line rental is £184 a year for now, but will rise in November to £196 (equivalent to £16.34 a month).
Both Virgin Media and BT are big on phone, TV and broadband bundles, offering big discounts for their triple play subscribers.
Each offers a large range of on demand content - at least some of which is free to all customers - all the core Freeview channels and movies, and Sky Sports or BT Sport for an additional monthly fee.
While BT's TV bundles tend to be cheaper than Virgin's, it's worth remembering that they're only available to BT broadband customers, which adds to the overall cost. The prices below are for TV alone:
BT TV is cheaper, however, because Virgin Media offer more channels and the Tivo box - which, while looking a bit dated, is still one of the best set top boxes on the market.
For more on the details of the providers' TV packages - and how they compare with Sky's - have a look at our TV guide.
Whilst it doesn't include BT, our Sky vs Virgin guide is also worth a look for more about how Virgin perform against their closest competitor.
Virgin Media advertise much faster speeds, and their claims tend to stand up. Technical differences between the networks enable Virgin to deliver faster speeds, and independent testing confirms that customers do actually receive those higher speeds.
A cable apart
As mentioned above, however, earlier this year BT raised their game slightly by regrading their Infinity 1 fibre to offer up to 52Mb. At the time of this update, it's far too soon to know how well it'll actually perform for customers.
One factor against it being able to beat Virgin's 50Mb service is that BT are using their existing network to deliver it.
BT Infinity uses superfast fibre optics to link together BT exchanges and green street cabinets, creating a fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) network - but from there, they connect to homes 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?).
Then there's a short stretch of coaxial cable - which is more efficient than copper at transmitting data - to connect a customer's home to the fibre network outside.
The technical difference means that when Infinity was first launched, BT could only advertise speeds of up to 40Mb - when Virgin were already offering up to 50Mb.
Headline speed versus reality
However, in 2014 Ofcom said there was strong evidence that Virgin Media's network slowed down more at peak times, saying, "[BT] FTTC connections were less affected by peak time contention than cable [Virgin Media] connections".
That means Virgin Media users experience slightly slower speeds during the busiest periods of the day.
Peak time speeds tend to be lower anyway because of the sheer amount of people sharing the network at those busy times.
But for what that means in terms of actual speeds, here are Ofcom's latest figures from November 2015 (published March 2016):
|Advertised speed||Average speeds
over 24 hours
at peak time
|Up to 38Mb||34.3Mb - 35.5Mb||33.8Mb - 35.1Mb|
|Up to 50Mb||49.4Mb - 51.6Mb||44.6Mb - 49.1Mb|
|Up to 76Mb||57.4Mb - 61.1Mb||56.9Mb - 60.5Mb|
|Up to 100Mb||93.3Mb - 98.2Mb||81.6Mb - 90.6Mb|
|Up to 200Mb||168.0Mb - 179.9Mb||148.0Mb - 164.4Mb|
Among BT's up to 76Mb customers, 93% can get speeds of more than 90% of that maximum speed during peak hours.
It's easy to see that the faster Virgin services suffer the most, but since the introduction of the 200Mb service, the drop isn't as great as it could be, and it seems to be shrinking slightly each month.
Ofcom's latest figures, cited above and used in the graph below, look at performance in November 2015, shortly after Virgin started offering up to 200Mb.
At that point, around 70% of people on Virgin's 50Mb service get the advertised headline speed; the figures above show how close most come to that.
Among those on the faster packages, just under 60% of 100Mb customers manage the top speed, but less than 40% of 200Mb customers got speeds of at least 90% of that advertised.
SOURCE: Ofcom, UK fixed-line broadband performance, March 2016. Available here [pdf].
Virgin have been reporting on their 200Mb performance every month since it began rolling out, using SamKnows - who work with Ofcom to produce their figures - and it's improving a little each time.
At the time of this update, for example, here's what the SamKnows results showed for September 2016:
|Average over 24 hours||Peak (8-10pm weekdays)|
|Up to 200Mb||183.4Mb||154.8Mb|
|Vivid 200 Gamer||202.7Mb||187.4Mb|
SOURCE: SamKnows and Virgin Media. Available here.
That said, Ofcom have previously remarked on Virgin's traffic management for its part in the reduction of speed for Virgin Media customers at peak times - but it's not clear by how much.
Virgin Media have relaxed their traffic management policy twice in recent years. The first, major, change came in 2014, when they removed restrictions for heavy downloaders.
That left in place the limits on uploads: customers who reach "soft" upload limits will see any additional uploads they make slowed down considerably.
For example: once customers on their 50Mb package have uploaded 1GB of data in the space of an hour between 4pm and 11pm weekdays, and between 11am and 11pm at weekends, their upload speeds will be throttled by up to 50% for 60 minutes.
Those with faster connections can upload more before they're throttled - 152Mb and 200Mb customers can upload just over 2GB of data before they're affected.
If users continue to upload data and hit a second threshold, their uploads will be slowed even further, and for another two hours from that point.
However, since September 2016, a new version of the 200Mb package has seen even these upload limits done away with, and upload speeds increased to 20Mb. The Vivid 200 Gamer deals costs £5 more per month than the standard versions of the 200Mb packages.
Since February 2013, BT haven't applied any kind of limit, soft or otherwise, to their unlimited packages - and they've recently stopped managing their capped packages too.
The research suggests that BT Infinity may well provide a more consistent service in the evenings, particularly for heavier users.
Usage limit differences
As we've noted above, Infinity broadband comes with either a 25GB download limit or an unlimited allowance.
This feels like a bit of a backwards step from BT, who had only recently bumped up the allowance for capped Infinity users from 20GB to 40GB - particularly as it coincides with the move to the 52Mb version of Infinity.
The new limit is just about enough for those who want superfast broadband in order to stream a few hours of SD video per night without interruption, as well as surfing and checking emails - or for those who have BT TV and can therefore access their on demand content through the set top box, which doesn't count towards data limits.
For gaming or streaming addicts, either unlimited Infinity or a Virgin Media deal are likely to be a better bet - but remember that the extent of their unlimitedness differs.
As mentioned, BT say users on unlimited packages can download as much as they want without being slowed at any time.
This was a surprising move from BT, mainly because of the number of customers they have. Previously "truly unlimited" broadband was associated with ISPs with smaller customer bases, purporting quality over quantity.
Even Sky, despite having a glowing record for customer service, often run into difficulties because of the high demand for their truly unlimited broadband.
That said, BT's change of policy wasn't that big a jump for them, given that they previously only slowed peer-to-peer downloads during peak times. We can only assume BT know what they're doing.
See this article for more information on downloads.
All in all
In conclusion, Virgin Media continue to beat BT Infinity in several key areas: their cheapest options are cheaper; they offer the fastest speeds; they allow users to sign up for fibre without having to take a copper phone line too.
However, BT really aren't far behind.
Ofcom tests show they may be offering a faster real world service, with lower contention and fairer traffic management, and their special offers are extremely competitive.
Let us know which you prefer in the comments below.