VMO2 looks up to Starlink for remote location broadband backhaul

As it furthers its wireless comms reach in so-called hard-to-reach areas, UK operator taps leading satellite broadband constellation provider’s technology to provide mobile backhaul to boost service experiences

Just days after the switch-on of the first of 83 UK government-funded 4G mast upgrades in England as part of the Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) announced it was building seven new masts in the Stirling area of Scotland, and as part of its plans to boost signal in rural areas as part of the SRN scheme, the operator has revealed it is using Starlink’s low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology to provide mobile backhaul for some of the country’s most remote locations.

Under the £1.3bn SRN programme – where a £532m investment by the UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs) EE, VMO2, Three and Vodafone is being complemented by more than £501m in government funding – new and existing phone masts are being built or upgraded across the UK to close down so-called rural mobile notspots with the stakeholders committed to improving 4G coverage and levelling up connectivity across the UK.

To accelerate its SRN roll-out, VMO2 has already deployed the Starlink mobile backhaul solution to sites in the Scottish Highlands which the operator believes are extremely difficult or impossible to connect using standard technologies such as fibre or microwave connections.

Explaining the issue, VMO2 noted that mobile phone masts typically require a fibre cable to provide the backhaul carrying calls, SMS and data to and from the phone mast. Again typically, these are not viable in these extremely remote locations. Now a network of LEO satellites is providing backhaul to the masts to enable VMO2 to provide a reliable mobile network to the areas.

The satellite connections roll-out to these remote locations is said to follow intensive testing and a recent trial in northern Scotland that proved how satellites can be used to carry mobile traffic to and from mobile masts in remote locations.

Virgin Media O2 is also exploring other ways in which satellite connectivity can benefit its customers in the future, including providing coverage for emergency services and improved mobile connectivity at special events such as disaster recovery scenarios.

“We’re leaving no stone unturned when it comes to improving rural connectivity and are continuously looking for new ways to boost signal in remote areas,” said Virgin Media O2’s chief technology officer, Jeanie York.

By constantly finding new ways to deliver for our customers, we are bringing reliable mobile coverage to rural communities faster and helping to close the UK’s digital divide
Jeanie York, Virgin Media O2

“Our commitment to delivering on our part of the Shared Rural Network programme has seen us turn first to helicopters and now to satellites to connect some of the most difficult and remote parts of the country. By constantly finding new ways to deliver for our customers, we are bringing reliable mobile coverage to rural communities faster and helping to close the UK’s digital divide.”

The Starlink project has been delivered in collaboration with shareholder Telefónica Global Solutions (TGS), which is an official Starlink reseller. The deal is also the latest development in VMO2’s push to improve mobile signal in rural communities through the SRN. It recently used helicopters to deliver its 100th SRN site to the remote Scottish island of Skye.

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