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Welcome to Virgin Mobile’s Higher Calling: The 2.5GB/256kbps Usage Throttle Starts Friday

Not quite.

Virgin Mobile founder Richard Branson is trying to convince customers they should sign up with a phone company that only sells you the services you need, but if “unlimited data” is one of them, look somewhere else.

Starting Friday, Virgin Mobile will quietly begin to throttle “heavy users” who reach 2.5GB of usage on their “unlimited use” data plans.  For the remainder of the billing cycle, Virgin will reduce mobile broadband speeds to just 256kbps — comparable to a significantly congested 3G connection.

It’s a long fall from Virgin Mobile’s original unlimited data offer which the company briefly attempted in the summer of 2010.

Entirely reliant on Sprint’s mobile network (and now operates as the prepaid division of Sprint), Virgin Mobile couldn’t handle the demand and quickly threatened to slow down the connections of their heaviest users.

The carrier’s decision to set a specific limit for its speed throttle was originally intended to take effect last October, but was delayed until March 23, 2012.

[flv width=”640″ height=”380″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/New Virgin Mobile Ad.flv[/flv]

Virgin Mobile’s delayed implementation of its speed throttle coincides with this imaging “refresh” of the “New Virgin Mobile” starring a timeless Richard Branson. (1 minute)

Virgin Mobile explains its reasons:

This change comes about because of the enormous data usage driven by our new more sophisticated smartphones, and the more extensive uses customers are finding for these devices.  We want to be able to serve our Beyond Talk customers who use these unlimited plans for their data-centric daily activity, primarily for regular access to email, the Internet, and social networking sites. Our goal is to ensure our products perform at the best possible level and that we have the best possible experience for all subscribers.  These control options are similar to those other carriers have in place ? and that Virgin Mobile maintains for its Broadband2Go product as well.

These plans are still unlimited.  There is no cap or limit on how much you can consume in any given month.  In order to ensure optimal network performance and a good customer experience for all subscribers, we are moving forward in establishing some parameters.

Most Beyond Talk customers will not experience a change in the performance of their Virgin Mobile service or notice any difference.  If you use this service for typical email, internet surfing and downloading, your throughput speeds should not be noticeably impacted.  For Beyond Talk subscribers who are using more than 2.5GB during a monthly plan cycle, limits to throughput speeds for the remainder of their monthly plan cycle will enable us to preserve overall network performance and customer experience.

The company’s redefinition of the word “unlimited” in nothing new in the world of mobile data.  T-Mobile, AT&T, and Cricket all throttle their customers when they exceed a certain level of usage, yet some still market “unlimited use” plans that many customers don’t realize are limited in usefulness when arbitrary allowances are exceeded.

Concerns for “optimal network performance” and “a good experience for all” disappear when you pull your wallet out. Virgin Mobile will reset your usage allowance to zero if you agree to pay for a new month of service the moment they’ve throttled your service.  That will get you another 2.5GB of usage, whether it preserves overall network performance or not.

[flv width=”640″ height=”380″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Richard Branson Message.flv[/flv]

Watch Virgin Group’s Richard Branson explain why Virgin Mobile wants to change the image consumers have about their mobile phone company.  A fine print disclosure that “unlimited” mobile data really isn’t may not change things for the better.  (2 minutes)

AT&T Scores Last (Again) in Consumer Reports’ Ratings; Oddly AT&T Reseller Scores Highest

AT&T has once again scored dead last in a nationwide survey (subscription required) of wireless providers commissioned by consumer magazine Consumer Reports.

Among national coverage carriers, Verizon Wireless again scored the highest, but not highest overall when including smaller independent and regional carriers.  Top honors were won by Consumer Cellular, a relatively small company in Portland, Ore. that ironically depends on bottom-rated AT&T’s network to deliver service.  What sets Consumer Cellular apart from other carriers is its near-exclusive focus on selling phone service to America’s senior population.  Working with groups like the AARP to market simple cell phones to older, less technologically-comfortable customers, over 85% of Consumer Cellular customers are over the age of 50.  The vast majority are occasional cell phone users, primarily using cell phones to make and receive calls.

Regional carrier U.S. Cellular, which used to top Consumer Reports‘ surveys, scored second.  Most U.S. Cellular customers are in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and parts of the East including New England.  CREDO, better known under its former name Working Assets Wireless, scored third.  It provides service over the Sprint network.

Among major-sized providers, only Sprint managed to escape the poor ratings for value received by AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.  Also ironic, T-Mobile continued to score better than AT&T, which is still working feverishly to acquire the German-owned carrier.

AT&T also did poorly in delivering reliable voice and data services, according to respondents.  Customer service was also deemed lacking.

Consumer Reports

“Our survey indicates that subscribers to prepaid and smaller standard-service providers are happiest overall with their cell-phone service,” said Paul Reynolds, electronics editor for Consumer Reports. “However, these carriers aren’t for everyone. Some are only regional, and prepaid carriers tend to offer few or no smart phones.”

Consumer Cellular being a prime example. 

Consumer Reports surveyed 66,000 Americans for its 2011 Wireless Satisfaction Survey and found little had changed from last year.  The consumer magazine recommends consumers who don’t make or receive a lot of calls or are not addicted to wireless data services consider a prepaid plan instead of a two-year contract.  Competition in the prepaid arena continues to force prices down, and most providers offer month-to-month service plans that can be automatically renewed through a checking account or credit card, eliminating any hassle purchasing “top up” cards.

Most of the prepaid providers resell service provided by AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon Wireless.  Two that don’t: MetroPCS and Leap Wireless’ Cricket, received little regard from those surveyed.  MetroPCS scored second from the bottom and Cricket didn’t make the ratings at all.  Two prepaid plans to consider first: TracFone, excellent for occasional calling, and Straight Talk, sold by Wal-Mart — better for those who like to talk a lot on their phones.  If you don’t need the sexiest handset around, Stop the Cap! also recommends Page Plus, which relies on the Verizon Wireless network, especially if you don’t need a lot of data services.

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.

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