Plusnet

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Plusnet plc
TypeDivision of BT
IndustryInternet, VoIP, Telephony
Founded1997 (as Plusnet Technologies Ltd)
HeadquartersSheffield, South Yorkshire, England
Key peopleJamie Ford, Chief Executive, Andy Wilson CFO, Nick Rawlings, Commercial Director
ProductsInternet Services & Landline Telephone Services
Owner(s)BT Group
Websitewww.plus.net
 
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Plusnet plc
TypeDivision of BT
IndustryInternet, VoIP, Telephony
Founded1997 (as Plusnet Technologies Ltd)
HeadquartersSheffield, South Yorkshire, England
Key peopleJamie Ford, Chief Executive, Andy Wilson CFO, Nick Rawlings, Commercial Director
ProductsInternet Services & Landline Telephone Services
Owner(s)BT Group
Websitewww.plus.net

Plusnet is a British internet service provider (ISP). The company was founded in 1997 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and floated on the Alternative Investment Market in July 2004, making them a public limited company (Plusnet plc). On 30 January 2007 Plusnet was acquired by BT Group, but it continues to operate as a separate business. Plusnet also operates the Metronet brand in the UK. By December 2012, it had over 500,000 customers across the UK.[1]

History[edit]

Origins[edit]

Plusnet's origins go back to 1 February 1997, when Choice Peripherals, a PC computer-peripherals company launched Force9 Internet. Heavily involved in early Plusnet was founder of Choice Peripherals, Paul Cusack (Chairman), who later went on to create the hardware retailer Ebuyer, and Lee Strafford (Managing Director), who later went on to lead Plusnet through most of its development up to the sale to BT in January 2007.

The original Force9 webpage, from 1998

The first Force9 Internet products followed the dial-up Internet model popularised by Demon Internet (monthly subscription, plus the cost of local phone calls), but offered at a lower cost to subscribers (£6 a month + VAT) and including more value-add features. By October 1997 Force9 had achieved the milestone of 5,000 subscribers, 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. In addition software which used Force9 Internet as the default ISP was supplied with every modem ordered through Choice Peripherals.

As the business grew, Force9 was split out as a separate operation from Choice Peripherals, with new premises and an umbrella company under which it would operate. This company, Plusnet Technologies Ltd, opened its doors at Internet House, Victoria Quays, Sheffield, in November 1997.

Although the company was named Plusnet, the brand was first used for products by the business sales team at Force9, for leased line and server colocation services to SMEs.

In April 1998 Insight Enterprises, an American PC-peripherals company, made a move into the UK market by acquiring Choice Peripherals. However, Insight were principally interested in the online commerce side of the operation and not in the Internet Service Provider, Force9. Because of this, Insight largely left the ISP side of the business operating as it had been, with Lee Strafford remaining in charge of the operation.

This coincided with the April 1999 launch of Force9's version of 'unmetered' dial up which gave 0800 free call rate Internet access during weekend hours. The website was re-branded as F9 in order to promote it.

In June 2000 the Force9 brand was changed to Plusnet. This coincided 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 512 kbit/s ADSL 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 512 kbit/s and required a BT Engineer to visit the customer premises to install the service. As time went on the maximum speeds increased to 1 Mbit/s, 2 Mbit/s and, today, up to 16 Mbit/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.

Introduction of QoS[edit]

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 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 from causing negative service issues for the remainder of the customers.

Acquisition of MetroNet[edit]

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.

Acquisition by BT[edit]

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).[2]

On 5 March 2007, shortly after the BT acquisition, the Plusnet chief executive, Lee Strafford, and the finance director, Neil Comer, were dismissed by BT. Strafford was replaced as CEO by a former BT employee, Neil Laycock, who had been with Plusnet in various senior roles for the preceding 3 years.

Products, technology and services[edit]

Plusnet currently provides broadband and dial-up Internet products to residential and business customers. It also provides landline telephone products to the same customers.

Marketing[edit]

Plusnet's growth strategy is centred on its customers recommending people within their social circle to Plusnet. In the 10 years of its existence Plusnet has showed year on year growth in customer numbers, significantly attributable to existing customer referrals. By 2007 30% of Plusnet's new customers joined Plusnet as a result of a referral. In order to incentivise customer referrals, Plusnet pays the referring customer a recurring monthly fee for as long as the referred customer stays with Plusnet. This can prove extremely lucrative to those customers who refer many people. Plusnet's reliance on this strategy can have negative effects whenever the business suffers service problems.[citation needed]

In October 2010 Plusnet launched an advertising campaign designed to increase brand awareness nationally which emphasised the company's Yorkshire roots, using the strapline "Good Honest Broadband from Yorkshire".[3][4] The strapline was replaced in April 2012 by "We'll do you proud", but the new campaign remained heavily influenced by Northern stereotypes.[5] From 2013, the company became sponsors of the Yorkshire Marathon, run in York.[6]

Network capacity[edit]

Plusnet was one of the first ISPs in the UK to use Network Quality of Service (QoS) techniques in order to control the finite data bandwidth available to them at peak times. This move was a reaction to the cost of bandwidth, £210 per Mbit/s per month in November 2006 for ISPs using the BT Wholesale network. Critics have suggested that the decision to employ QoS on the network was driven by Plusnet's focus on delivering to tight profit targets dictated by investors during the time when they were a PLC.

In 2007, around the time of acquisition by BT, an additional 930 Mbit/s of data bandwidth was made available by adding 6 BT IPStream segments to the network. 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 155 Mbit/s in each BT Central) and 2 BT Centrals with one segment of 155 Mbit/s 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 seven segments delivered over two 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 Plusnet reduced to a total of 16 segments delivered over five 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 was forced through contractual obligation to upgrade to 17 segments and in January 2006 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 controversy 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.

Usage restrictions[edit]

Plusnet has, on a number of occasions, redefined their product usage guidelines in order to reflect changes in overall customer usage or in the costs they incur from their suppliers. This has resulted in customers being asked to restrict their usage, upgrade to a different product, or leave the company entirely. This practice has become common within the ISP market in the UK and is generally accepted, however Plusnet has sometimes made these changes without warning or notice to their customers.[citation needed] Plusnet has argued that the changes made didn't require any notice to be given because they don't consider them to form part of the legal contract with the consumer.

Plusnet is one of the few UK ISPs to publish a full breakdown of its wholesale costs, as part of the Plusnet Broadband Blueprint document[7]

Deep packet inspection and bandwidth management[edit]

Plusnet makes heavy use of traffic prioritisation to maintain a stable service. Plusnet acknowledges on their website[8] 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 has 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 user group, although the participants in these forums represent a minority of Plusnet’s total customer base.

The use of Arbor Networks equipment to perform traffic fingerprinting using deep packet inspection and Juniper Networks 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's 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 peer-to-peer file sharing 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.

Misidentification of traffic[edit]

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.[9]

Polish language website[edit]

In June 2007 Plusnet launched a Polish version of its UK website in order to serve the growing Polish population in the UK.[10] This idea was suggested by a Polish Plusnet employee and a member of their family was hired into the Customer Support Centre to provide telephone support. All language translation work was performed in-house. This has since been removed following a product and website refresh.

Virtual ISPs[edit]

Plusnet has operated a number of "Virtual ISP" brands, both for its own company and for others. These alternative brands use the existing Plusnet Network and Software infrastructure. Some of these "Virtual ISP" brands include:

In use[edit]

Out of use[edit]

IPv6 support[edit]

As of December 2011 Plusnet did not yet provide IPv6 connectivity to its customers, but were working on rolling this out on their network. They ran a small trial with real end-users for World IPv6 Day in June 2011, with both their website and broadband customers on IPv6 on that day.[13]

The IPv6 broadband user "technical trial" was ceased in July 2012. Plusnet plan to introduce an IPv6 "service trial" during 2012.[14]

As of July 2013, there has been no further announcement regarding the start date of the service trial.[15]

Community involvement and sponsorships[edit]

Plusnet are an active player in the UK's web community, playing an active role in web community events around the UK, especially in the north of England. Events like OpenCoffee and Geekup[16] often see a Plusnet presence. Plusnet also work with local universities on graduate recruitment, internships and multimedia projects. 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 2006–07 season. In November 2006 it was announced that the sponsorship would be extended to the end of the 2008–09 season.

PlusNet also sponsored a local LAN gaming party "Sychosis 2", which was hosted in Doncaster Dome in July 2008, PlusNet offered prizes of a years free broadband for the Call of Duty 4 winning team.

Controversies[edit]

Removal of customers[edit]

In February 2001, the company asked 1,100 dial-up customers to leave the service after they had stayed connected to an "unmetered" (but contended) dial-up service for long periods of time.[17]

Lost email[edit]

On 9 July 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[18] but did not reveal the size or cause of the problem until 10 July 2006 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.[19] 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.[20]

Webmail security breach[edit]

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.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Home Phone Providers - Plusnet phone and broadband bundles Publisher: Home Phone Choices. Published: 27 December 2012.
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ "Plusnet: Good Honest Broadband from Yorkshire". all our best work. Retrieved 11 June 2013. 
  4. ^ "Plusnet 'good honest broadband from Yorkshire' by Karmarama". Campaign: The Work. Retrieved 11 June 2013. 
  5. ^ Farey-Jones, Daniel (11 April 2012). "Plusnet drops Yorkshire from strapline". Marketing Magazine. Retrieved 11 June 2013. 
  6. ^ "Plusnet Yorkshire Marathon: About". Retrieved 11 June 2013. 
  7. ^ Plus.net
  8. ^ Plus.net
  9. ^ Community.plus.net
  10. ^ "PlusNet launch Polish Broadband & Portal". ISPreview. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  11. ^ Tim Richardson (28 November 2005). "PlusNet swallows Metronet". The Register. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  12. ^ Andrew Ferguson (19 December 2011). "Vodafone At Home customers moving to Plusnet in February 2012". Think Broadband. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  13. ^ community.plus.net "IPv6 when?"
  14. ^ community.plus.net - "Withdrawal of IPv6 Technical Trial"
  15. ^ [2]
  16. ^ Geekup.org
  17. ^ Tim Richardson (1 February 2001). "PlusNet boots 1100 users from its service". The Register. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  18. ^ Portal.plus.net
  19. ^ Usertools.plus.net
  20. ^ Christopher Williams (11 July 2006). "PlusNet obliterates customer emails". The Register. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 

External links[edit]