VirginMedia provide broadband via cable around Cambridge and are a popular alternative to ADSL, not least because they offer connectivity up to 50Mbps download/1.5Mbps upload. In some respects it's very good, and in some it's very bad. The one thing it's very good at is providing connectivity to the Net (with the exception of port 80, which I'll come back to below). Here in Milton we have had minimal down time in a good few years with VirginMedia (or NTL as they used to be known) and we're not alone.
The one occasion we were aware of was when there was a power cut in the next street (but not ours) and we discovered that our connection was routed through the green box in the street with no power. Within an hour an NTL van was sitting outside the box: they had set up a generator which was powering the box, and our connection was back up. Now that's service and while reading the following don't forget that.
Where VirginMedia are bad is providing the other services you would expect from an ISP. So the rest of this article considers some ways around it. You might also like to read Robin Walker's Cable Modem Troubleshooting Tips pages which are very helpful on a number of VirginMedia related issues.
Virgin Media's telephone support has improved in recent years - from previously spending literally hours on the phone, then to paying 25p/min, it's now merely unremarkable for an ISP.
A better route, assuming you have some degree of internet connection, is to use Virgin Media's forum. You get access to Virgin Media's techies who won't respond to 'my upstream SNR seems to be low and my modem sync light is off' with 'have you tried reinstalling Windows?'. They can test your connection from their end and book service visits directly.
VirginMedia's mail servers, both incoming and outgoing, often get overloaded and so are worth avoiding. It's easy enough to do and it has other benefits.
VirginMedia offer you a number of email addresses with your account, of the form firstname.lastname@example.org. So I could be email@example.com (I'm not by the way, before you mail me).
Email addresses using the domain of the ISP are always a poor choice in my experience. Sooner or later you are going to move ISP, and then you have to get a new email address. So get yourself your own domain. Beth and I bought the-hug.org some years ago, when our ISP was Demon. Now it's VirginMedia but my email address is still firstname.lastname@example.org and it will be for the foreseeable future.
So kill two birds with one stone: get yourself your own domain from a hosting ISP and collect your mail directly from the hosting ISP via POP3 or IMAP so that it never goes through VirginMedia's incoming mail servers.
If you want virus/trojan/spam filtering then remember to pick a hosting ISP who offer that. There's more on picking a hosting ISP below.
For outgoing mail it's a bit more problematic. If your computer is always on (or at least one PC on your home network is) you can run your own SMTP server (we use postfix which I strongly recommend) and simply deliver mail directly rather than through VirginMedia's SMTP servers. However this is becoming less and less useful as a lot of organisations now reject email relayed directly from IP addresses in dynamic address ranges to reduce spam. AOL were one of the first but a lot more have joined them since. You may choose to selectively relay through VirginMedia only for these domains (we do) but you need to understand your SMTP server software well if you're going down this route.
Another option is to use a third party SMTP server. Some hosting ISPs offer this, either as an extra cost option or as part of the hosting package.
One variant of the above solution is to use Google Mail. You can use POP3 to retrieve messages from Google Mail, placing copies in its Trash folder or deleting them as you wish or you can now treat it as an IMAP server so you can point your mail client at it and still also read the mail through Google Mail. If you don't have an account, several cam.misc posters are able to send you an invitation. One big plus of this route is that Google Mail's spam filtering does a fairly good job, though you will need to check from time to time using the web interface that no false positives have arrived in your spam folder. It is also one of the better web mail interfaces.
Finally you might get yourself your own server (see below) and relay through that.
VirginMedia's News servers simply can't cope with the load placed on them at peak times. If you are interested in binaries groups then you need to think about signing up with someone offering a paid for service. Claranet have been mentioned in the past. For everyone else there are a number of free solutions which are discussed in the My ISP's news server is crap. How can I read cam.*? page.
This used to be the big one for many people. VirginMedia, in their wisdom, put a proxy on port 80, so any time you accessed a web site you did it through their proxy. This reduced their external bandwidth so saved them money. The only problem is that the proxy servers were crap, especially when used implicitly. The usual solution was to set an explicit proxy in your web browser. Robin Walker has a page on this which explains how to set an explicit proxy.
A while ago Virgin turned off the 'transparent' proxies, so this shouldn't be a problem for anyone any more.
We have a number of domains and we host them in different places depending on why we obtained them.
For cheap and cheerful domain ownership, which includes 2 POP3 mailboxes which are virus scanned we use Freeparking - they also offer very basic web sites or they can do web forwarding.
A step up from Freeparking are 34SP. If you want to set up your web site and do anything more than static HTML then 34SP are a good choice.
If you want to go a step beyond using a hosting ISP then the next step is your own web server. The cheap route for doing this is User Mode Linux and we have one at Bytemark Hosting which hosts this Wiki among other things and we also have a dedicated host server with them which runs a customer's services for us.