Virgin Media fastest for Netflix - Virgin' on ridiculous?

14 March 2013, 15:30   By Neil Hawkins

NETFLIX users can now find out which broadband provider will give them the best streaming experience and the result, according to Netflix itself, is Virgin Media.

netflix tv bundle
Credit: William Potter/

A week earlier Virgin Media's chief executive Neil Berkett had announced that Virgin Media would not fight by launching a rival streaming service but instead integrate Netflix into its services.

Now Virgin Media is suddenly Netflix's top broadband supplier. Quelle surprise?

Netflix and Virgin Media

However, there appears to be no actual skulduggery involved.

Archived results, albeit only reaching back to November last year, show Virgin Media in the top spot each time.

Does this mean then that despite its oft-maligned traffic management policy and recent issues with delivering video streams that Virgin Media is actually the best broadband provider to use for watching online streaming services?

That depends.

Netflix connection requirements

Breaking it down to cold hard facts reveals that Netflix recommends the following minimum speeds for streaming:

Minimum Speed Required Stream Quality
1.5 Mbps Recommended connection
3.0 Mbps DVD quality
5.0 Mbps HD quality
7.0 Mbps SuperHD quality
12 Mbps 3D quality

The key figures here are those for HD quality and SuperHD.

Virgin Media's traffic management policy (more here - it says only 2.5% of users are ever affected) means that customers on the slowest 30Mb connection using 3.5GB of data between 5pm and 10pm, perfectly possible at SuperHD quality, will see connection speeds cut by 50% to 15Mb.

This should still be more than enough to carry on using Netflix without any problems.

So far so good, but speed alone won't guarantee you a constant trouble free Netflix experience.

Peak time connection congestion

When customers complain to Virgin Media about experiencing slow speeds on their superfast connections, or constant buffering, tech support normally point the finger at "over utilisation" (see here).

This is one of those catchy nonsense words that actually means "we've stuck as many people as we can onto the network in your area and you're all using the web too much."

Virgin Media say they aim to fix faults in congested areas as soon as possible to solve congestion issues, but this work can take months.

No broadband provider is immune to congestion problems so in reality it isn't as clear-cut as: "provider A is best for Netflix for everyone."

Netflix download data usage
  • Good quality: uses up to 0.3 GB per hour
  • Better quality: uses up to 0.7 GB per hour
  • Best quality: up to 1 GB per hour
  • Best quality: up to 2.8 GB per hour if watching HD
  • Best quality: up to 4.7 GB per hour if watching 3D

Poor quality WiFi can also put a dampener on your Netflix habit.

Netflix says it analysed data from 1bn hours of monthly viewing and that the speeds reflect typical performance experienced by all users.

The level of streaming quality adjusts dynamically according to the quality of your connection and there will always be fluctuation based upon the time of day and the number of people using your provider in your area.

The speeds on the Netflix ISP index are significantly lower than those measured by Ofcom which, Netflix explains, is due to "the variety of encodes Netflix uses to deliver the TV shows... the variety of devices... home network conditions".

No shot Netflix

Virgin Media's £15bn takeover by US cable giant Liberty Global adds a further twist to the plot.

Whilst Berkett was briefing that Virgin Media would be embracing Netflix in a big cable cuddle the head of Liberty Global, Mike Fries, took a rather different tack.

He implied that it wouldn't be long before Netflix was out of business and companies like Virgin Media could hoover-up the leftovers.

Fries told Bloomberg: "...with 3 million customers in the international marketplace, they're [Netflix] losing US$400 million per year - I don't know if that is sustainable. So I'm not worried about their business, quite frankly from a competitive point of view. If we do our job right, they've got no shot."

For now it seems, that while Netflix espouses the wonders of Virgin Media's services, the feeling isn't completely mutual.

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