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With a fibre to the premises broadband product in the pipeline and a high-profile ad campaign now on-air, 2011 could be the year Plusnet takes on the larger internet service providers on a more level playing field. We met with the Yorkshire-based provider’s new CEO Jamie Ford to discuss online security, Twitter and the company’s plans for the 12 months ahead.

You’ve substantially added bandwidth capacity over the last 12 months. Has demand increased in the way you expected it to?

Usage has grown by 50 per cent in the last 12 months, we slightly over forecast the beginning of the year and have seen that usage growth has started to accelerate in the last 3-4 months. We have increased network capacity by nearly 120 per cent in the past 12 months going from 8Gb to over 18Gbps. iPlayer and other video streaming services are key driver of demand, and we saw a significant step up in this usage around the World Cup in the summer.

What proportion of Value customers are now on an ‘up to 20Mb’ service?

40 – 50 per cent of all new signups are being provisioned on up to 20Mb – this is based on availability

Where are you seeing the surge in demand? Is it with streaming content principally?

The growth is almost entirely streaming and web with large amounts of the web content including embedded video streams. There are big surges in demand for “events” like major sports (football, Wimbledon, the Ryder Cup, etc) and big TV shows like Top Gear and The Apprentice. These often then contribute to sustained increases in demand. People watch an event for the first time, like what they see and then use iPlayer/4oD/etc. more frequently.

The most recent Plusnet FTTP trial participant got a maximum speed of 77Mb and the average download speed is about 30Mb. What's stopping it getting up to 100Mb?

We’ve had customers getting high 80Mb and low 90Mb speeds (some getting around 92Mb as the top speed). The 100Mb is effectively the “sync rate” so includes overheads so throughput will be lower than 100Mb.

What's the timeframe for rolling out FTTP broadband?

Our trial is set to run until April next year, we hope to launch a product sometime after that assuming the trial is successful.

If you had to hazard a guess at what kind of services would require a connection of up to 100Mb of the kind that FTTP networks can deliver, what would you go for?

The feedback from most of our end users is that they don’t actually need 100Mbps at the moment but that it’s a massive improvement from the 2-4Mbps they had previously. Most people don’t yet need 100Mbps because there’s very little to take advantage of it other than file downloads and being able to do multiple things at the same time.

The burst bandwidth is the big advantage, for big downloads like game patches, which can often be bigger than 4-5GB, the feedback from customers is that it now takes longer to install the patch/game than to download it so they no longer have to wait hours/days to play their game.

Those super fast speeds have been the bedrock for the world's most advanced online gaming culture in say South Korea. Can you see those speeds resulting in the same situation in the UK?

Sure, online gaming will be one beneficiary, as will HD Video. The truth is however, that there are very few customer needs for much more than a consistent 10Mb, and online apps and services will need to catch up with this kind of super fast broadband speed.

Speed changes like this though can convert users that were previously low users of the Internet into higher users because they can now do things they wanted to do but couldn’t because of the speed of their connection (like gaming, streaming and in particular HD streaming).

You enlisted the services of Karmarama earlier last year to oversee your advertising campaign. The central change is that you're now being promoted as a national ISP rather than a regional specialist and become a household name. Does that mean there's an expansion drive on the way?

Absolutely. We are growing fast, spreading the word about our award-winning broadband nationwide, with a promise that we offer the lowest price broadband wherever you live.

Is there a sense with Plusnet that in getting really big, there's a danger of losing what attracted people to you in the first place?

Absolutely not. In fact we are more focused than ever on making our service great, proven by our recent uSwitch award, ISPA award and announcements this month about bringing new jobs to Yorkshire.

The simplicity of your offering is a large part of your appeal. Are there plans to add other services to your product portfolio?

Our product portfolio is likely to grow in the near future, for example we are currently trialling fibre. However, keeping it simple will remain at the heart of everything we do.

Have you got any new ways of reaching out to your customer community on the way?

In the last year we’ve added a “Support Library” to our community site which allows customers (and staff) to produce guides and ‘how tos’ between themselves.

We’ve also had a presence on Twitter since July 2007, which has quickly grown into quite an important part of our support structure. We also have a page where we share new products and YouTube videos of our recent TV adverts.

You got onboard with Twitter quite quickly. What proportion of your customers use Twitter when they've got a problem compared with say directly raising a ticket with you or getting on the phone?

Twitter traffic tends to be a cry for help, rather than a direct support query, although we are beginning to see more of those each week. The focus is usually to divert into an official request or to move along a request, rather than directly resolve the query (unless it’s quick!) as troubleshooting in 140 characters is not easy.

We answer around 60 messages a week this way, and have 1850 followers. We’ve actually added twitter username as a field in our sign up process to help identify customers quickly.

Virgin Media recently reveal plans to write to customers affected by malware. Is that something you've ever considered at Plusnet? Would the privacy issue prevent you?

We have been looking at how we could protect users from Botnets, as we have the technology to detect them within our network. The important consideration for us if we implemented the technology is how we would share this information with customers, and not cause undue concern.

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