Virgin Media expansion to fill the gaps: Register your interest

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VIRGIN Media have announced a £3 billion investment plan to expand their cable network, focusing on "filling the gaps" in their urban coverage.

"Project Lightning" is expected to connect around four million more homes and businesses over the next five years.

At present, 44% of UK premises - some 12.5 million - are covered by the Virgin Media cable network, almost all in towns and cities - but not every street is covered.

The plan has come in for criticism for ignoring less urban and more rural areas, which already struggle to get decent broadband connections, with little competition.

Why expand?

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The roll-out means that by 2020, Virgin Media hope to have expanded their network to cover almost 17 million properties - or just under 60% of UK premises.

It's the biggest expansion project since the network was first built, when it was owned and maintained by NTL.

At £3 billion, it's also the single biggest investment in broadband infrastructure in the UK for more than a decade; BT's investment in the nationwide superfast broadband plan is £2.5 billion, with additional funding from the Government.

Every now and then, Virgin announce smaller, but still significant, projects to expand their network - for example last September they revealed plans to connect more than 105,000 homes in London and the North East.

But their services are always concentrated in the bigger towns and cities, where the bulk of the UK population lives.

For example, anyone in Northern Ireland who doesn't live in Belfast or Londonderry won't be able to get Virgin Media; in south west England there's no coverage beyond Devon, where only Plymouth, Torquay and Exeter are covered.

However, as we explain here, access isn't universal even in towns and cities that are on the network.

Why not?

Some streets aren't on the grid, and in some cases one or two buildings on an otherwise Virgin-free street may be connected, but their neighbours only have access to the BT Openreach network.

These are the type of scenarios Virgin's Project Lightning should start to correct - but it still won't cover all the gaps.

That's because Virgin Media say the expansion "will be prioritised according to demand from households and companies, with a focus on areas closest to Virgin Media's existing network".

So people living in the odd streets that somehow aren't cabled when neighbouring addresses have access to Virgin Media will have a better chance of getting their requests approved - more so if they petition the company en masse.

Anyone living in a Virgin Media-free street should register their interest on Cable My Street, and, ideally, badger their neighbours to do the same.

There's more information on how to make a good argument for getting cable in our guide here.

Why should we bother?

One of the big selling points for Virgin Media is the speed of the internet connection. At up to 50Mb even the slowest package available is faster than the "basic" fibre (up to 38Mb) available on the Openreach network.

That's down to the way the service is delivered.

Without getting too technical, the Openreach network uses a combination of fibre-optic and copper wiring, while Virgin's is a combination of fibre-optic and coaxial cable - a hangover from the days when NTL used the network to provide cable TV.

BT are sticking with their copper wire network for the foreseeable future. They've recently begun trialling G.fast technology, which they say should enable connection speeds of up to 500Mb for much of the UK by 2025.

But Virgin aren't resting on their laurels either, with parent company Liberty Global looking into upgrades to the technology they use, with trials expected later this year. They say the upgrade could eventually make speeds of 10Gb - that's around 10,000Mb - possible in the future.

Meanwhile, rural Britain is expected to have access to basic broadband of 2Mb by the end of 2016.

Why not here?

While speaking of the benefits to be gained for those within Virgin's footprint, CEO Tom Mockridge has also urged BT to do more to improve infrastructure and connection speeds in those rural areas.

Defending the decision to focus on the holes in Virgin's urban areas, he told the BBC, "we're really focusing on the areas where we can bring ultrafast broadband as quickly... and as effectively as possible."

And, as mentioned above, this is where potential customers can help - by making sure Virgin know exactly where they need to direct their efforts, via the Cable My Street service.

Comments

1
6 May 2015
Nigel Harper

"It's the biggest expansion project since the network was first built, when it was owned and maintained by NTL."

The network was largely built in the early 90s by an array of small regional players (anyone remember Yorkshire Cable, Diamond, etc. ?).

These steadily consolidated down into the "big 2" of NTL and Telewest which merged in 2006 and shortly thereafter rebranded itself as Virgin Media.

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