Virgin Media targets Wi-Fi at 30 UK super-connected cities

Virgin Media plans to wholesale small-cell technology to mobile operators to bring in funding for local fibre-based Wi-Fi networks in 30 UK cities

Virgin Media is in discussions with 30 cities across the UK about deploying free fibre-based Wi-Fi networks using small cell technology.

Duncan Watts, head of business development for fixed and wireless at Virgin Media Business, revealed the plans to Computer Weekly. He claimed as many as 10 cities could procure the systems in 2013.

“Coffee shop Wi-Fi gives you the basic level of connectivity, for checking your email, a bit of social networking and at a push a Skype call,” Watts said. “Fibre-based Wi-Fi is going to be able to perform spontaneously for whatever your need is.”

The 30 cities Virgin is focusing on are from the list the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, named as “super-connected cities” both in his budget speech in March and in his Autumn statement. These locations will receive a share of £150m put forward by the government to boost local economies through developing broadband infrastructure.

Watts denied Virgin Media was just going after the money, saying the company “has never been a fan of receiving state aid”. Virgin Media prefers to invest private money on a case by case basis, he said. 

Watts said Virgin Media planned on funding the networks through revenues from its burgeoning small cell business.

Virgin Media Business first detailed plans around small cells in September 2012. The idea is to use existing broadband infrastructure across cities, running the cabling up poles or lamp posts and attaching small cells to the top. One connected cell can then mesh with up to five other cells in the area and improve mobile connectivity for users.

By wholesaling this network to the four mobile operators – Vodafone, O2, EE and Three – Watts believes Virgin Media can make enough to run its Wi-Fi networks across them and deploy with local authorities as free-to-use connections.

“The point is, Wi-Fi has to be free and with our very deep fibre network near to where the small cells are, we can offer open access,” Watts added.

No deals have been inked with the mobile operators yet, but Virgin has already begun working with cities to bring the Wi-Fi networks to life.

Leeds and Bradford look likely to be the first, as the local authority is at the final testing stages.  

“I can’t tell you what speeds it has achieved, but if you take Virgin’s roll-out on the London Underground, that was said to be three times the average DSL line of between 15 and 18Mbps, this is very similar,” said Watts.

Despite the investment from Virgin’s side, the networks are unlikely be branded as Virgin and more likely to be named after local authorities

Watts wouldn’t name other cities Virgin Media Business was working with, but reports suggest Edinburgh might be next.

“I have been racking up the miles travelling around the country to talk to local authorities about digital strategy and a lot of them have been talking wireless,” Watts said. “There will be more over the next 12 to 24 months.”

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