BT Infinity vs Virgin Media
BT and Virgin Media are the two biggest broadband providers offering superfast internet access in the UK - which naturally led us to wonder: who's doing it best?
BT Infinity offers a choice of up to 52Mb and 76Mb unlimited broadband to almost 90% of the UK - including more rural areas due to Government funding supporting some of their expansion.
Virgin Media on the other hand offer up to 50Mb, 100Mb, 200Mb and 300Mb unlimited broadband - but their network only covers about half of the population and tends to be focused in more urban towns and cities.
Before we get started then, it's worth first checking whether BT Infinity and/or Virgin Media are available in your area with a quick postcode search:
Enter your postcode above to check availability in your area.
BT Infinity or Virgin: Who's cheapest?
Hopefully, now you know you have the choice between BT Infinity and Virgin Media - we can 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 standard "up to 17Mb" broadband, and there are options to suit most households in terms of price and download limits.
Here's a quick rundown of the broadband options for both providers, all with line rental and free weekend calls included in the monthly prices:
By this basic measure, Virgin Media offer faster deals for similar prices - and sometimes cheaper - than BT charge for their fibre offerings.
Most impressively Virgin Media's second slowest fibre deal, Vivid 100Mb, is almost twice as fast as BT's entry level fibre deal Unlimited Infinity 1, which only underwent a speed boost last year. Yet it's very similarly priced. It's also around 25Mb quicker than BT's fastest deal - Unlimited Infinity 2, but much cheaper.
However, just looking at the headline package costs isn't always the best guide to which provider offers 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:
BT Infinity special offers
See more deals and prices, and check availability on our main BT table here.
Virgin Media special offers
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:
|Package||Broadband||Contract length||Upfront price||Monthly price|
|Vivid 200 + Talk Weekends||Up to 200Mb
for 12 mths,
|Vivid 200||Up to 200Mb
for 12 mths,
It's not that big a saving at all - and given that there's usually some kind of introductory offer available when taking both broadband and phone, the standalone deal can sometimes be more expensive over the course of the contract.
At the same time, depending on the circumstances, ditching the home phone line could 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.
Ultimately it depends how important a home phone line is and how often calls are made to determine whether combining phone and broadband is worth it.
There's more information on broadband without a phone line here.
Virgin now set the bar for the UK's most expensive line rental, having recently raised theirs from £17.99 to £19 a month - but the difference between them and BT is tiny, as BT charge £18.99.
Both offer a discount when line rental is paid for 12 months in advance. Since July last year BT have charged £208.80 for 12 months upfront, equivalent to £17.40 a month.
By contrast, Virgin's upfront line rental is £196 a year, equivalent to £16.34 a month.
Both Virgin Media and BT are big on TV, broadband and phone bundles, offering big discounts for their triple play subscribers.
Each offers all the core Freeview channels and a range of on demand content - at least some of which is free to all customers. Plus Sky Cinema, Sky Sports and BT Sport channels can be added for additional monthly fees.
While Virgin Media TV can be taken as a standalone product, BT TV is only available to BT Broadband customers. The prices below are just for the TV element:
BT TV is cheaper, however, because Virgin Media offer more channels and the Tivo box - the new version of which looks likely to restore Tivo's reputation for being one of the best set top boxes on the market.
Whilst it doesn't include BT, our guide to Sky vs Virgin is also worth a look for more about how Virgin perform against their closest competitor.
BT Infinity or Virgin: Who's fastest?
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, last April BT raised their game slightly by regrading their Infinity 1 fibre to offer up to 52Mb.
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.
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.
The much greater speeds their network is capable of - now up to 300Mb in some places - are something Virgin have been keen to play up ever since BT Infinity first launched.
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 figures from November 2016 (published April 2017):
|Advertised speed||Average speeds
over 24 hours
at peak time
|Up to 52Mb||47.7Mb - 48.6Mb||46.9Mb - 47.9Mb|
|Up to 76Mb||57.9Mb - 60.7Mb||57.0Mb - 59.8Mb|
|Up to 100Mb||87.7Mb - 95.2Mb||72.6Mb - 86.1Mb|
|Up to 200Mb||169.0Mb - 177.2Mb||143.7Mb - 155.4Mb|
The Ofcom figures cited above and used in the graph below look at performance in November 2016, shortly before they introduced their 300Mb service.
Ofcom found that, among those on the faster packages, the proportion of users with a connection that had a minimum speed that was more than 90% of its maximum speed ranged from 15% for Virgin's 200Mb service and 70% for BT's up to 76Mb service.
SOURCE: Ofcom, UK Home Broadband Performance, April 2017. Available here [pdf].
Virgin have been reporting on the performance of their 200Mb and 300Mb services every month since they rolled out, using SamKnows - who work with Ofcom to produce their figures - and the data is promising.
At the time of this update, for example, here's what the SamKnows results showed for August 2017:
|Average over 24 hours||Peak (8-10pm weekdays)|
|Up to 200Mb||197.26Mb||183.53Mb|
|Up to 300Mb||293.44Mb||282.9Mb|
SOURCE: SamKnows and Virgin Media. Available here.
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 until the introduction of the (now retired) Gamer package it wasn't clear by how much.
That's because the Gamer package was free from traffic management - which gave us an indication of the kind of difference in performance with and without it, for 200Mb customers at least.
Prior to its introduction, the last time Virgin Media changed their traffic management policy was 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 10Mb and 200Mb package can uploaded just over 1250MB and 2250Mb of data respectively, 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.
If users continue to upload data and hit a second threshold, their uploads will be slowed even further by up to 65%, and for another two hours from that point.
However, those who are on Virgin's top tier package, Vivid 300, are exempt from any traffic management restrictions.
In addition Virgin estimate that on any given day more than 95% of customers are not affected by their traffic management policies.
Since February 2013, BT haven't applied any kind of limit, soft or otherwise, to their unlimited packages, in terms of both downloads and uploads, and in this respect are widely regarded for providing truly unlimited internet packages.
Usage limit differences
Much to the relief of Infinity customers who not so long ago saw their usage capped at a measly 25GB, all of BT's broadband packages now come with unlimited data allowances.
This move reflects the drastic increase in average household data usage we've seen over the past few years. In late 2014 Ofcom said the average household got through around 60GB of data per month; by the end of 2015 that had shot up to 82GB per month, and by the end of 2016 we were getting through an average of 132GB each month.
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, unlimited data allowances are also a welcomed move. However, it's important to 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 traffic management and fair use policies.
BT Infinity or Virgin: Who's best?
In conclusion, Virgin Media continue to beat BT Infinity in several key areas: on the whole they 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.
They offer lower contention rates and fairer traffic management rules, and their special offers are extremely competitive.
Let us know which you prefer in the comments below.