PlusNet is an Internet Service Provider (ISP) based in Sheffield in the UK and owned as of January 30th 2007 by BT Group. PlusNet also operate other brands in the UK Internet marketplace; Force9, Free-Online and Metronet.
The first Force9 Internet products based themselves on the dial-up Internet model that was popularised by Demon Internet (monthly subscription, plus the cost of local phone calls), but offered at a lower cost to subscribers (£7 a month + VAT) and more value-add features. By October 1997 Force9 had achieved the milestone of 5,000 subscribers, this was assisted by a marketing partnership with Yorkshire Cable (later to become part of Telewest) in which Yorkshire Cable customers were offered a reduced subscription on a Force9 account.
Based on successfully establishing the service it was decided that Force9 was to be run as a separate operation to Choice Peripherals, with new premises and an umbrella company under which it would operate. PlusNet Technologies Ltd opened its doors at Internet House, Victoria Quays, Sheffield in November 1997.
In April 1998 Insight Enterprises, an American PC-peripherals company, moved into the UK market by purchasing Choice Peripherals. Their online slogan for the shop was ‘Insight for a better Choice’. At the time of that purchase Insight were principally interested in the online commerce side of the operation and not in the Internet Service Provider, Force9.
Whilst sweeping changes were made to Choice Peripherals, Insight decided that they would leave the ISP side of the business operating as it had been, and Lee Strafford remained in charge of the operation.
In April 1999 Force9 Internet launched their own version of 'unmetered' dial up which gave 0800 free call rate Internet access during weekend hours and the website was re-branded as F9 in order to promote it.
In June 2000 the PlusNet brand that we see today was first launched; coinciding with the introduction of the Surftime dialup Internet products, the first real 24/7 unmetered dial-up service in the UK. PlusNet continued to see month on month growth in the dial-up market and this growth was further augmented with the launch of a 512kb/sec Broadband Internet service in August 2000. PlusNet launched their first Broadband products on the same day that BT first made them available to the UK market.
PlusNet continued to develop their product set over the next few years as new broadband speeds and technologies became available. The initial Broadband product performed at a speed of 512kb/sec required a BT Engineer to visit the customer premises to install the service. As time went on the maximum speeds increased to 1Mbit/s, 2Mbit/s and, today, up to 8Mbit/s. In January 2002 PlusNet launched a “Self Install” broadband product that the end user was able to set-up themselves without the need for a visit to the premises by a BT Engineer.
PlusNet were floated on the Alternative Investment Market in July 2004, making them a Public limited company (PlusNet Plc).
In June 2005 PlusNet became the official shirt sponsors of Sheffield Wednesday, of the Football League Championship. The original deal ran for 2 years up to the end of the 2006/2007 season. In November 2006 it was announced that the sponsorship would be extended to the end of the 2008/2009 season.
In November 2005 PlusNet acquired Parbin Ltd and its consumer ISP "MetroNet" which at that time provided a range of "pay as you go" broadband packages. As part of the Parbin acquisition PlusNet assumed ownership of several other brands; Pay as You Host, INUK and Port995.
On 16 November 2006, it was announced that BT were making an offer for all shares in PlusNet. . The BT deal (worth approximately £67m) was declared unconditional on 24 January 2007 (after OFT approval was granted).
On 5 March 2007, shortly after the BT acquisition, PlusNet Chief Executive Lee Strafford and Finance Director Neil Comer were dismissed by BT. Strafford was replaced as CEO by former BT employee Neil Laycock who had been with PlusNet in various senior roles for the 3 years previous.
Still in service
No longer in service
Between September 2006 and March 2007 8 UK Internet Service Providers actually ceased trading as a result of offering unsustainable products; a combination of allowing high amounts of data transfer for low, unprofitable subscriptions. PlusNet have always tried to be open with their customers as to the costs of running the business. A detailed breakdown on PlusNet wholesale costs can be seen on the PlusNet Broadband Blueprint document
The current PlusNet product set has clear and concise usage allowances with expected speeds at varying times of the day.
PlusNet have produced a comprehensive article on their Broadband roadmap which is available on their website
1. Best Overall Customer Satisfaction
2. Best for Ease of Use
3. Best for Setup Support
4. Best for Speed Satisfaction
5. Best for Quality of Connection
6. Best Customer Service
7. Best Technical Support
8. Joint Best Value for Money
9. Most Likely to be Recommended
PlusNet have found themselves receiving unwanted media attention at certain times, some examples of which follow:
In November 2004 PlusNet temporarily introduced a dedicated Internet Bandwidth "pipe" specifically for the customers who were aggressive downloaders of data (in order that the heavy downloaders did not impact the Quality of Service on the lines of the vast majority of customers). This became colloquially known amongst some PlusNet customers as the "bad boys pipe". This was withdrawn in 2005 to be replaced with a Sustainable Usage Policy [SUP]. This SUP was introduced in order to prevent the small minority of customers who wanted to download extremely large amounts of data each month during peak hours did not cause negative service issues for the remainder of the customers.
PlusNet continue to update their product range, in order to service the continually changing needs of their customer base and to maintain a sustainable and profitable business. The impact of the huge growth in demand for new products and services puts a great pressure on Internet Service Providers (not just PlusNet) to deliver these services to the end-user and also to maintain an acceptable quality of service across the network. As an example, at the beginning of 2006 YouTube was a relatively unknown website as far as mainstream awareness was concerned. Today, the data that PlusNet's customers transfer from the YouTube website represents over 10% of all download traffic on PlusNet's network. The rapid growth of websites like YouTube presents a constant battle for Internet Service Providers. PlusNet's policy is to be completely transparent with its customer base over changes to product specifications, although there have been times when changes were required with no notice given in order to balance the available network capacity with the data demands of the users, thus creating confusion for the customer base.
A balanced reflection of the situation UK ISPs face can be found here
PlusNet has attracted a small number of vociferous ex-customers who spend a large amount of time on public forums criticising PlusNet for mistakes the company has made in the past. On occasion some of these people have over-stepped the mark causing them to be banned or suspended from the Forums on the Think Broadband website.
PlusNet was in the news in February 2001, when 1100 dial-up customers were asked to leave the service after staying connected to an "Unmetered" (but contended) dial-up service for long periods of time. More about this can be found on The Register
In 2007 there have been an additional 930Mb/sec of data bandwidth made available. This was achieved by adding 6 BT IPStream segments to the network. This aggressive ramp-up in network capacity coincided with the acquisition of PlusNet by BT.
This additional capacity has brought the PlusNet total Broadband network capacity to 22 155 Mbit/s BT Central segments. This is delivered over 5 full 622 Mbit/s BT Centrals (4 x 155Mb/sec in each BT Central) and 2 BT Centrals with one segment of 155Mb/sec active in each. This services a total of just over 200,000 customers at October 2007.
This total data bandwidth figure is only slightly higher than PlusNet’s capacity in January 2005, before PlusNet used Network Quality of Service, when they had a total of 17 segments (10 155 Mbit/s Centrals and 7 segments delivered over 2 622 Mbit/s pipes) and 100,000 customers. At that time, there was an imbalance on their network as a result of issues that are caused from using a mixture of pipes. In February 2005 they reduced to a total of 16 segments delivered over 5 622 Mbit/s pipes (622's are slightly more efficient than 155 Meg segments, so this allowed for a similar amount of throughput).
In August 2005, PlusNet were forced through contractual obligation to upgrade to 17 segments and in January 2006 they moved to 18 segments. PlusNet’s acquisition of Parbin Ltd in November 2005 with 16,000 customers and 3 x 155 Mbit/s segments gave PlusNet a total of 21 segments. However, PlusNet absorbed all of these new customers and decommissioned the 3 segments bringing them back to 18 segments. This was further reduced by 2 segments bringing it to 16 in total at around the same time as nearly 20,000 customers were moved to the Tiscali LLU network in July 2006.
There is controversity that the last 2 segments should not have been removed. Particularly as at that time PlusNet increased allowances on all the residential packages. When this contradiction was exposed in December 2006 Plusnet defended their actions but the explanation given was not positively received by the community at the time.
PlusNet reported that the slowdown in the increase of capacity from January 2005 was due to two major reasons. The introduction of their lower cost, lower capacity allowance, broadband product; which many existing customers moved to, and the introduction of Network Quality of Service and the general network management policy to combat the spiralling usage of a small portion (Around 1%) of the customer base. However, it was not fully explained how PlusNet expected to deliver the performance of their broadband packages to 180,000 customers on the same capacity as they had when they only had 100,000 customers.
PlusNet acknowledge on their website how Network Quality of Service impacts individual protocols and as a result what experience they expect the end-user to receive. This broadband experience is subject to periodic changes without notice in order to preserve the quality of network performance for the protocols that demand extremely low latency. Customers are notified of changes by checking PlusNet's website or RSS feed. It has been suggested by some members of the community that PlusNet have tried to "hide" some of the changes to the Quality of Service quotas on their network, however PlusNet have always maintained that the information is available to all of their customers via their website. These changes have been openly discussed in the online PlusNet community and the PlusNet Usergroup, although the participants in these forums represent a minority of PlusNet’s total customer base.
The use of Ellacoya equipment to perform 'traffic fingerprinting' using deep packet inspection and Juniper ERX switches to perform protocol shaping has seen a situation where all protocols, including encrypted P2P traffic are identified and managed on their network.
PlusNet position is that this prioritisation is in place to ensure time-critical applications like VoIP, Gaming, Browsing and Video Streaming (from sites like YouTube) are prioritised above applications that would otherwise swamp their available network capacity to the detriment of other customer's broadband experience. File sharing P2P applications and Binary Usenet are the most heavily managed protocols on PlusNet's network, and are collectively treated as low priority on most of their consumer products.
The topic of Network Quality of Service is a constant discussion point within the PlusNet community. Some end-users consider it a highly punitive restriction on their ability to have unrestricted control of their Broadband experience, whilst PlusNet's stance is that it is a positive thing in order to maintain the quality of each customer’s Broadband Experience on the demanding protocols as well as enabling the company to keep their costs under control.
Deliberate traffic shaping is deployed on the PlusNet network in order to ensure Quality of Service. Mistakes when this system was first implemented resulted in misclassification of some protocols, which made certain applications unusable at peak times. This was improved when the classification of unidentified traffic was raised in priority. Non-standard applications still remain susceptible to misclassification (e.g. running SSH on a non standard port other than 4500 or 10000 which are set aside by PlusNet for this purpose).
Continual improvements in protocol identification along with a significant increase in available bandwidth mean that today the implementation is generally considered to be working successfully. This blog article by Dave Tomlinson explains in more detail how PlusNet manage traffic identification and make updates to their systems.
Some would argue that the approach of Bandwidth Management and Deep Packet Inspection is contradictory to discussions in relation to Network Neutrality.
One major facet of the network neutrality debate that is ignored by this is that the source of the debate relates to the potential for one supplier to degrade or block traffic from a rival. PlusNet believes this is a valid concern, and has never chosen its traffic management rules on the basis of the supplier or source of content. PlusNet, among others, believe that intelligent control of traffic at the application level is necessary to ensure that broadband subscribers receive the level of service to which they are entitled. The protocols that PlusNet restricts are those which can saturate the available bandwidth on the PlusNet network but which it believes customers should be able to download at less busy times on the network. PlusNet encourage customers to schedule their heavy downloads during "off-peak" hours by not counting usage against usage allowances at these times. These "off-peak" hours are 00:00 until 08:00 on the current PlusNet "Broadband Your Way" product set.
On July 9, 2006, PlusNet lost 700 GB of customer email data due to human error. During a routine maintenance upgrade to the email system, an engineer mistakenly reformatted a live disk pack instead of the intended backup disk pack. PlusNet provided updates on their investigation but did not reveal the size or cause of the problem until July 10, 2007 at 15:39.
PlusNet explained that the engineer responsible had accessed both the live and backup disk packs from a single workstation. The engineer believed his reconfiguration was to the backup storage when it was actually connected to the live email disk pack.
In the following days, PlusNet did recover some email data and explained that other data may have been lost to corruption during the recovery.
The official PlusNet UserGroup launched an "Email Stability & Resiliency Campaign" to attempt to ensure PlusNet made suitable investments and put in place measures to prevent future issues.
At the beginning of May 2007 PlusNet suffered an attack on its Web based email system which was due to a previously unidentified vulnerability in the third-party software that was being used.
Users accessing the webmail system may have been exposed to a trojan, although no reports of this surfaced. This trojan will have been ineffective on a fully patched Windows machine running regularly updated anti-virus software, or on non-Windows machines.
A list of email addresses was harvested from the webmail platform and put into use by one or more third parties to send spam. These addresses included the user's own webmail address, as well as email addresses used previously and entries in the online address book.
Users who connected to the specific webmail server that was attacked may have had their login details skimmed, although the purpose of the attack seems to have been simply to harvest email addresses.
A full report of the Webmail attack incident is available here