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

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?



charles berry's picture

Hello Tony,

I have come across your article (thanks to the wonder of Google's technology) and would like to apologise on behalf of Virgin Mobile Australia for the problems that you have had.

I am emailing your comments to the team in Australia, and to the Virgin Group customer service team, and hope that your outstanding issues can be fully resolved.

For your information, each Virgin Mobile around the world (UK, USA, Canada, Australia, France, South Africa and India) has different ownership. While they were originally started as 50% owned by Virgin Group (where I work) with respective partners, the ownership of the UK (floated then merged with NTL), USA (floated), and Australian businesses have changed over time.

Optus does own Virgin Mobile Australia, you can see the press release on the Optus website as of Jan 2006.

We have a very strong interest to ensure that every company with the Virgin name meets our high standards of customer service. And although we don't now own the Australian business, we have a very close relationship, and a detailed contract concerning the basis on which the company continues to use the Virgin name.


admin's picture
Submitted by admin on


Now, this is what I call "impressive".
Please see my email, Charles, and read the update (under which Virgin Australia is not under such a grim light).

I give you and your staff in the UK full permission to listen to all of the call logs if you like r need them.

I changed the title slightly, since Virgin Australia doesn't seem to be "evil" after all.

One note, though: on the site:


It looks like people like me, with their own phone, will still have to pay a minimum of $720 if they exit the post-paid plan. I think that really ought to be clearer.

However, overall, I am extremely impressed: you actually created an account and took the time to post here. Rare.


charles berry's picture

glad to help out. one thing i couldn't manage was the HTML coding in my response to get a proper link out to that optus release - oh well i'll stick to day job !

all the best

Terry Hancock's picture

It's a mistake to trust corporations, or assign any human qualities to them, they are not people.

Corporations are machines made out of people. They insist on precision interchangeability of their parts, so they destroy all of the individuality of their human parts that they can, lest they disrupt the smooth-running rush towards corporate profit. If any one person, right up to the CEO and chairman of the board goes too far towards advocating ethics, morality, or the public good over corporate profits, then the corporate machine is designed to reject (i.e. fire) them.

To do otherwise than to seek profit at any cost to society is actually considered unethical by people who advocate from the point-of-view of shareholders (because to do anything for the public good , but against the interest of shareholders is a "betrayal" of the shareholders trust). But advocacy or no, the corporation is designed to do this, and the design works.

In this formula is both the reason for corporate success and seed of their eventual doom. They are pretty good machines and the relentless pursuit of profit is usually to the benefit of society, contrary to what you might think. It is the surprise at the exceptions (due largely to anthropomorphic expectations) that makes us think otherwise.

Sooner or later, though, we'll build a more intelligent and morally-conscious kind of human machine to replace the corporation. When that happens, it will crush the corporate competition utterly, because it will be that much more powerful (think about it: why are we morally aware? Obviously it was a selective advantage).

It is even possible that this has already happened.

Author information

Tony Mobily's picture


Tony is the founder and the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine