Virgin Mobile Australia: the path Google doesn't (yet?) follow

There are companies we love and respect. Google is one of them. Regardless of their mistakes, their jet, their priorities in terms of software releases, there is an "innate" trust.

But, is it safe to trust Google?

I am asking this because I got burned. Not by Google, but by Virgin Mobile Australia.

How I became a Virgin person

I trusted Virgin. I read Richard Branson's biography. I was happy to fly Virgin, and buy CDs from them. Until now.

I made the mistake of switching to Virgin Mobile, from my trusty Optus. The main selling point was the data plan, which no other carrier had (not at decent prices anyway). I post-paid $30 for $140 worth of phone calls (it's called "cap" here in Australia). If you go over $140, you obviously pay. When I signed up, I was told I'd get a message when I reached my limit; I was also told that I'd be able to find out how close I was to my limit. The first billing cycle came: it was all good. Then, the bad news started to arrive: to check how close I was to my limit, I had to call them up. That's right: there was no way to check this online. To go through anybody, there is a 40 to 60 minute wait. 50 minutes on average! Fine, I will just be careful, I thought. Then, I got my SMS: I am approaching my limit, watch out. I spent my 45 minutes in the queue, and got my second item of news: the SMS refers to another limit, a $400 spending limit set by Virgin, and not the cap limit (which is what every Virgin customer would be actually interested in). I actually had two sim cards, and got the message for both phones--regardless of the fact that I had used the "secondary" phone very little. I called up again on Friday. I was told that somebody from the billing department would contact me within 24 to 48 hours. Fast forward to Tuesday: no phone call. I called up Virgin (luckily, with an easy 25 minute wait) and was told that they can't check what they have been charging me for until the bill is printed.

Excuse me?

They basically used all the tricks:

  • The information they gave me about receiving a message before reaching the cap was misleading
  • Finding out how far I was in my billing cycle was amazingly time consuming
  • They won't tell me what they charged me for until the bill is printed
  • They have quietly introduced a way to find out how much you've spent without the 40 minute wait, over the internet. This has only been around for a week or two, apparently.
  • They haven't called me back, and the operator on the line was only able to do very little

Welcome to the technological third world of Virgin Mobile...

Not as simple as it looks

I haven't actually been able to find out who owns Virgin Mobile Australia. According to Richard Branson's entry in Wikipedia:

Branson used to own three quarters of Virgin Mobile, whereas now he owns 15 percent of the new Virgin Media company

But then, still in Wikipedia, in Virgin Mobile Australia you can read:

In January 2006 Optus bought all other shares in the business, and VMA became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Optus. A long-term licensing agreement is now in place for the business to continue trading under the Virgin brand.

Will Virgin, owned by Optus, really ask me for the "leaving penalty" fee, since I will effectively stay with them? And who is being bad, Optus or Virgin Mobile Australia? And who owns Virgin Mobile Australia?

What if Google slowly follows suite?

I doubt Richard Branson will ever read this post, and if he does I very much doubt he will do anything about it (if he still owns it, that is). What is clear, though, is that Virgin Mobile Australia's name inspired trust in me, and that trust is now gone down the drain. Regardless of who actually owns Virgin Mobile Australia, damage has been done.

So, what if Larry Page and Sergey Brin start losing touch with "satellite operations" at Google? Or what if they turn themselves evil? (Unlikely, but always possible). Not openly evil--subtly so.

Think about Youtube. Things got undoubtedly better under Google's management, at least technically. However, Youtube still doesn't allow you to download films easily, and still won't give people the option to download videos in a free format. Who is being evil here? Google? Youtube? What if Youtube is then sold to somebody else? Will people still trust them because they don't know that Google no longer owns them?

It's all about corporations

In the end, as we all know, the best bet is to trust our freedom. Free Software ensured that we at least keep the freedom to modify software. Corporations change hands, directions, management (think about IBM, once-monopolist and now GNU/Linux's best friend). Free software--software that is really free-- stays free.


Here is an update, for those interested in how things evolved. Things are getting interesting. I called Optus to switch over to them. They told me that I needed the Virgin CUstomer Number (as well as my old number) to switch over. 54 minutes later (I was on hold with Virgin), I talked to the operator. The minute I mentioned that I wanted my customer number, I was put through the first English speaker since my adventure as a Virgin customer. I finally realised how much easier communication happens when somebody speaks the same language as you, with the Australian inflection and everything. He was very polite. He asked me very politely why I wanted it. I said I would take it, and then explain. So, I had my customer number and I went through the events. He looked at my bill. They had advised me the wrong thing. The amount shown on the Internet and in their screen wasn't how much I was over the cap, but the total amount. I was only about $50 over. The text was sent when I was just over--which I suppose is "fine". Also, there would be no exit fee for me if I quit the contract, I could leave Virgin at any time. I pointed out that that's not what the web site said, and he said "well, the web site is wrong, I guarantee". He also told me that they were training people like mad, but that there was a huge shortage of workers in Australia (which is true).

Since I can leave Virgin Mobile whenever I like, it looks like I'll be giving Virgin Mobile Australia another chance!

Does this teach me that even companies deserves a second chance?


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