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Canadians Trash Their Cell Phone Options: Bad Service, Worse Value; Koodo Rates Highest

Canadians overwhelmingly rate their mobile phone providers poor for value, telling Consumer Reports they are paying too much and getting far too little coverage and service in return.

The 2011 Consumer Reports Wireless Survey (subscription required) shows Canada’s largest cell companies are generally awful in the estimation of 15,000 Canadians polled for the survey.  At the very bottom of the barrel are mega-carriers Bell Mobility and Rogers, both rated lousy for service and customer support.

“You can always do better than Rogers and Bell, no matter what other carrier you can think of,” says Thierry Duluis, a Stop the Cap! reader in Quebec. “Biggest does not mean best.”

Consumer Reports agrees.  It top-rated Koodo, a no-contract carrier owned and operated by western Canada’s phone company Telus.  Koodo is a relatively new player, only launching service in 2008, but has since built a reputation for lower prices and reasonably good service to the majority of populated regions across Canada.  But Koodo’s data plans can be expensive and confusing.  A $5 data starter plan delivers 25MB of data, and automatically increments: 26MB-100MB = $10, 101MB-300MB = $15, 301MB-1GB = $20, 1.01GB–3GB = $30, + 2¢/MB above 3GB.  A alternative plan with a 2GB data allowance runs $25 a month with a 2¢/MB overlimit fee.

Consumer Reports

Ironically, several wireless brands owned by large Canadian phone and cable companies scored higher than their respective owners.  Koodo scored higher than Telus Mobility.  So did Fido, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rogers.

Regional SaskTel, which operates in Saskatchewan, received an admirable rating from the consumer magazine, primarily because of its slightly better customer service.  But no carrier, prepaid or postpaid, did extremely well across all categories.  Canadians are frustrated by cell phone prices that are often higher than what their American neighbors pay, and are often accompanied with stingy usage allowances.

Virgin Mobile Tightens the Noose on Its ‘Unlimited Mobile Broadband’ With Even More Speed Throttles

Virgin Mobile, which last year excited a number of our readers with the introduction of its Broadband2Go unlimited mobile broadband plan, has continued to evolve the meaning of “unlimited,” to now mean just 2.5GB of usage per month before speeds are reduced to the very un-broadband level of 256kbps.

It’s just another in a series of limits Virgin Mobile has placed on its 3G “unlimited” pay-as-you-go service since last August.

Last summer, customers paid up to $100 to purchase the mobile broadband device used with the service, and promptly discovered a lot of people were doing the same thing, which promptly overloaded the network and drove speeds downward.  Within months, our readers reported Virgin had quietly implemented a “fair access policy” that began reducing customers’ speeds after as little as 200MB of use daily, usually to 256kbps or less.  By February 2011, Virgin announced a 5GB usage cap, after which speeds would be permanently throttled until customers either paid an additional $40 or waited out the end of their billing cycle.

Apparently, even 5GB of usage per month is considered too much, so now Virgin Mobile is slashing that in half to 2.5GB.  Despite the ongoing decreases, company officials insist whatever level they are, they are still generous.  The company said less than 3 percent of its customer base will be impacted by a 2.5GB limit on their supposedly “unlimited” plan.  Virgin Mobile, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sprint, gets around that pesky contradiction by calling their plan “unlimited access,” which means you can access it day or night at speeds that either might be fast, or heavily throttled.

What used to cost $40 a month for truly unlimited service today costs $50 for 2.5GB.

Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go "Before" Pricing from August, 2010

Virgin Mobile's Broadband2Go "New and 'Improved'" Pricing

The days of "Sugar Mama" are long gone.

Virgin Mobile is also hiking rates for two budget handset plans that include data:

  • 300 minutes, including unlimited texting and data up $10 to $35 a month
  • 1,200 minutes, including unlimited texting and data up $5 to $45 a month

But competition does occasionally deliver some benefits to consumers as Virgin recognizes it is being killed by cheaper unlimited smartphone plans from MetroPCS and Cricket, so it has cut the price on its own unlimited calling, texting, and data smartphone plan by $5 to match its competitors’ $55 monthly price.

Virgin Mobile is in the process or repositioning itself away from being a prepaid budget-priced carrier towards a smartphone-oriented provider for customers who do not want to sign lengthy service contracts with Verizon, AT&T, or even parent company Sprint.

This certainly means the days of Virgin Mobile’s Sugar Mama are long gone. 

Thanks to Bones and several other Stop the Cap! readers for sharing this news with us.

Virgin Mobile Tries to Turn That Frown Upside Down: 5GB Cap Explained

Virgin Mobile has begun notifying their Broadband2Go customers of how they plan to continue delivering “an outstanding customer experience”: by throttling the speeds of any customer who exceeds 5GB of usage per month.

Many Virgin Mobile customers have been in touch with Stop the Cap! about they feel is bait and switch pricing engaged by Sprint’s prepaid mobile division.  At issue — customers who invested $75-150 in equipment to sign up for a service they were sold on being “unlimited.”  Virgin Mobile made the “unlimited” part of its service the focus of its marketing.

The company characterizes the decision to adopt an Internet Overcharging scheme “a difficult choice,” but it’s one that that will ultimately help the company’s bottom line while costing many of their customers a substantial amount of money for a service they might never have purchased had they known it was going to be limited.

As is the case with almost every Internet Overcharging scheme we’ve seen, the same marketing that promised an “unlimited” experience now promises that such usage limits won’t impact most customers.  In fact, the company’s notification states, “you can send over 500,000 e-mails or browse the web for 250 hours a month!”  Of course, nobody except spammers send that much e-mail, so that kind of boasting is ultimately meaningless to customers.

What is more meaningful is that Virgin’s new 5GB cap will effectively mean customers have to heavily ration their online experience, especially if it includes multimedia.  In fact, customers won’t be able to watch more than a handful of HD movies using the service.  That’s a $40 movie pass some customers would have passed up had they known it came with limits.

This notification arrived in our e-mail box this morning. Despite the spin, the e-mail is likely to enrage customers, especially those who only recently invested money in Virgin Mobile equipment they can no longer return for a refund.

In fact, Virgin Mobile’s return to the land of Internet Overcharging is nothing new for the company.  Customer response to the company’s earlier prepaid wireless broadband plans were, to say the least, underwhelming.

Virgin Mobile’s new usage limits are less about “delivering the same quality service you’ve come to expect” and more about protecting Sprint’s more lucrative postpaid mobile data customers who pay more to use the same 3G network.  While Stop the Cap! agrees delivering an unlimited wireless broadband service remains a difficult challenge with the current limits on wireless capacity, Virgin Mobile’s about-face comes uncomfortably fast — just six months after unveiling and heavily promoting its “unlimited” service.  Just as with Clearwire, Sprint has managed to oversell its network and not invest sufficiently in expanding it to meet customer demands.  Nor has either company educated customers about the inherent limitations wireless broadband has, especially on an overcrowded network.

Sources tell us Virgin Mobile, much like Clearwire, suffered from some customers trying to use peer to peer software, sometimes for days on end (simply a ridiculous endeavor on most of the wireless networks we’ve experienced).  But the company did little to explain to customers that such software often does not work well on these types of networks, and using it 24/7 is likely going to create issues not only for that customer, but for others as well.  Instead, blanket usage limits punish everyone.

Customers deserve more than platitudes from Virgin Mobile.  Any customer that wants to cancel their service should be given a full refund by Virgin for equipment costs they incurred when signing up.  Further, Virgin Mobile’s customer policies do not generally allow money on account, but as of yet unspent, to be refunded to departing customers.  That policy should be waived in this instance.  Any unspent funds should be credited back to the customer’s credit card or refunded by check.

Virgin Mobile Gives Up on Unlimited Wireless Broadband: Will Adopt 5GB Cap Feb. 15

Your unlimited experience is about to hit a roadblock.

Sometimes being popular isn’t the best thing in the world.

When Virgin Mobile introduced an unlimited, prepaid wireless broadband plan in August, it created a small media frenzy and shocked an industry that assumed usage-capped wireless broadband was the only way to survive the incredible demand for wireless data.

The company’s introduction of a $40 monthly unlimited-use broadband plan, with no term contract and month-to-month billing was a dream come true for casual vacationers and business travelers who don’t need a two year contract for pricey broadband-on-the-go from one of the major carriers.

When the company unveiled the unlimited broadband plan, as Stop the Cap! reported last summer, the demand was so great it brought the company’s network to its knees.  The prepaid provider, a division of Sprint, has struggled ever since to keep up with customer demand.  This week they announced they were throwing in the towel, quietly notifying would-be customers in the fine print of Radio Shack ads effective with all renewals after Feb. 15, a monthly limit of 5GB would be enforced on its Broadband2Go service.  Several of our readers noticed, including Greg, Sam, Jenny, and others.

“Customers who use BB2Go for typical email, internet surfing and reasonable downloading will likely not be impacted/notice any difference,” Virgin Mobile’s Corinne Nosal told PC Magazine by email.

But those who manage to consume just over 200MB daily will notice when the network speed throttle kicks in for those who “use too much.”  Speeds will be slashed to as low as 256kbps.  If you can’t live with that speed, you can pony up an additional $40 to “renew your account” (even if your month isn’t up yet) and the speed throttle will be removed, until you hit 5GB of usage again.

“So much for Virgin Mobile — 5GB means the service is no better or worse than the other players in the market, and considering the problems Virgin has had with reliable service, I’ll probably go back to using Cricket,” writes our Buffalo reader Lance.

Virgin Mobile relies on Sprint’s 3G network which already gets quite a workout from existing Sprint customers, as well as those using Clearwire (and several “private label” wireless broadband services).  Cricket owns and manages their own network, exclusively for the use of its own customers.

“Cricket will also throttle you if you hit 5GB, but you rarely run into overwhelmed cell tower sites like you do with Sprint’s network,” Lance says.

PC Magazine’s Sascha Segan notes the new usage limits makes using Virgin Mobile broadband a difficult proposition if you love multimedia:

The problem comes if you like video or downloads. Streaming Netflix at 1000kbps (if you can get that speed on the Virgin/Sprint 3G network), you use up about 450MB per hour. Some Windows updates can be up to 200MB alone. Want a TV show from your favorite legal downloading Web site? That’ll be 350MB, thanks.

While there are some small wireless ISPs in some parts of the country, Virgin’s abandonment of truly unlimited high-speed data leaves Sprint 4G/Clear as the only remaining major player willing to take on the wired-Internet oligopoly with an unlimited high-speed, wireless solution.

Virgin Media to Game Developers: It’s All Your Fault You Assumed We Weren’t Going to Throttle You

Virgin Media broadband customers in the United Kingdom who spend free time playing the highly addictive World of Warcraft (WoW) suffered some serious withdrawal episodes after game developers released a major software patch (v4.0.1).  Just after installation, customers noticed their game play started slowing to a crawl, resulting in game performance worthy of a Noob popping Xanax.  With online ‘street cred’ at risk on the multiplayer game environment, WoW players rushed to Virgin’s support forums inquiring about the sudden slow lane performance:

Ever since this patch I have experienced very high latency (around 2-4k ms) whilst being in combat in 25-man raids. This latency causes me to disconnect from the game after around 10 seconds of very lagged out combat. Outside of raids I seem to yo-yo up and down. I have been as low as 70ms and as high as 1kms.

I have tried everything I can think of game related. I have ensured all the correct ports are opened via port forwarding on my router.  I have tried running the game in its default state with all add-ons removed. I have done virus scans, disabled my firewall and I am running out of options. No one else in-game seems to have the same problems as I do. Admittedly, a couple of them are Virgin Media customers too and have no problems but I cannot think what else it could be.

Now stuck in the slow lane on Virgin Broadband

Virgin Media customers and staff initially seemed at a loss about what could cause just WoW traffic to become very un-WoW.  Virgin’s terms of service includes a virtual paddle to spank customers who “excessively utilize” their broadband connections, and the patch itself — amounting to at least 7GB with accompanying updates — was worthy enough to put some customers in the time-out corner.  But even as company support officials were asking impacted customers to do the problem-solving sleuthing for them, a growing number of customers suspected the provider’s “intelligent network traffic shaping” technology was the real culprit.

Traffic shaping is a term Americans are just getting acquainted with.  It’s essentially a virtual traffic cop that can identify different types of online traffic and assign different levels of priority for different applications.  The broadband industry claims traffic shaping is a net plus for broadband consumers because it forces traffic gorgers like peer to peer file sharing to the back of the line, making room for more predictable performance of Internet phone calls, video, and other time-critical Internet applications.  Virgin even markets its broadband service as enhancing online game play by giving the highest possible priority to game-related traffic.

But when traffic shaping goes bad, it can create a nightmare for broadband customers who find roadblocks that ruin their online experience.

Virgin initially denied it was responsible for traffic shaping WoW to the point of unusability. Eventually, Virgin admitted it -was- responsible for the game traffic throttles, but passed the blame to WoW’s game developers, Blizzard Entertainment.  At one point Virgin suggested the company might want to recall the latest patch, just to get the game to work again on Virgin’s broadband network.  When that didn’t fly, company officials eventually released a statement taking responsibility, but telling customers it will be weeks before their “traffic management supplier” can create a workaround:

Since the latest World of Warcraft update we have seen that the type of packets used by Blizzard to deliver the on-line gaming has changed significantly.  This means that Virgin Media’s National (ADSL) traffic management system is unable to recognise the packets as gaming traffic and assumes that they are peer to peer traffic.  Due to this the traffic management system does not place the packets within the gaming queue which has the highest priority and lowest latency within the VM network, instead they fall into the peer to peer class which gets a low level of priority within our network and by default a higher level of latency.

We are working to try and rectify this as soon as we can with our traffic management supplier however it will take us a few weeks to upgrade the traffic manage solution so that is can recognise the new traffic class and correctly classify it as gaming.  Unfortunately due to the nature of most traffic management solutions we can not manually move these packets into the gaming queue as the solution can not work out which ones to move.

We appreciate that some customers will have noticed a similar issue with the previous World of Warcraft update.  The reason behind this is because gaming companies are not prepared to share the updates with Virgin Media or traffic management suppliers prior to its release and so the first time we see the new packets is when people start to use the new updates.  We are trying to change this view point of the gaming companies however at present they are un-willing to work with us.

We apologise for the affect that this has on your gaming experience and we will update you when we have a confirmed fix date for this.

By that time, many WoW enthusiasts will have probably fled Virgin for another provider.

Our reader James, who alerted us to this story, notes it takes a special kind of nerve for a broadband provider running speed traps to blame software developers for the problem.

“So, wait — Virgin is blaming the game developers because their code runs on the assumption that all traffic is treated equally and because they don’t verify their updates with the ISP before pushing them out to consumers?” James incredulously asks.

Virgin could always discontinue their faulty un-intelligent network traffic shaping scheme until a solution can be found, but that hasn’t happened.  It could interfere with “preferred content partnerships” — clients who pay to avoid the speed traps and throttles and always get special treatment.

Paying customers?  They can wait two or three weeks.

A Blizzard representative said Virgin’s buck (or is it pound?)-passing was inexcusable because the game producer -has- made efforts to reach out to ISPs in the past:

“In our defense, most of our previous attempts to work with ISPs have been shut down by the ISP management. I’m going to avoid naming actual ISP names for obvious legal reasons. We’re not the ISP’s actual customer so they rarely care what we have to say.”

And that is a perfect real-world example of what happens when Net Neutrality is not the law of the land.  Providers claim their traffic management schemes benefit their customers, but in reality they are only responsive to the “preferred content partners” that pay them to be responsive.

If Americans want to enjoy a similar level of service from their Internet Service Providers, just oppose Net Neutrality, sit back and wait… and wait… and wait.

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