Virgin Media’s network footprint is about to get bigger

Virgin Media is the largest private network cable operator in the UK – offering broadband, TV, landline and mobile phone services to residential and business customers. It has a huge nationwide footprint and the company – which has its origins in the cabling businesses of NTL and Telewest – has pledged to extend its network from 13 million to 17 million premises by the end of 2019 with a £3bn investment.

In particular it sees great opportunities to expand its services in Scotland where many residents and businesses have been calling out for better broadband for some time. Virgin Media makes extensive use of fibre in its network and doesn’t have to rely on old ADSL ‘copper’ cables, meaning it can offer ultrafast speeds of up to 300Mbps. This level of connectivity will make a huge difference to Scotland given the lower coverage levels of superfast broadband compared with the UK as a whole. When I catch up with Martin McFadyen, Virgin Media’s Scotland Regional Director, he explains that his job is currently as much about explaining it is about expanding the network to sustain rising data consumption levels, driven largely by the uptake of smart devices, as well as TV over internet.

“We see great opportunities in Scotland,” he says. “In February last year when we announced this £3bn Project Lightning programme to invest in our network expansion, there was a recognition that we needed to build strong relationships with key stakeholders across the UK. For example we’ve been working with local authorities up and down the country to make sure we get the right conditions (particularly around planning and permissions, like wayleaves) to maximise our network investment, being a figurehead at regional forums and helping to develop new commercial partnerships. So in the early part of this year I was asked if I would fulfil that role within Scotland.”

And McFadyen seems well placed to do that. He has not been parachuted into the job from a remote, London office; instead, after joining the organisation nine years ago, he has steadily helped to build a Glasgow team that has focused on the business and public sector markets, working with the likes of local authorities, Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

VIRGIN MEDIA IS also very actively working with the Scottish Government – through its Digital Scotland arm – to help achieve Scotland’s connectivity ambitions and in particular to prevent any unnecessary duplication of network build funded by public money in places Virgin Media is building with private investment.

“If Virgin Media already has network in the ground that is providing choice why would you waste public money?” McFadyen says. “It’s about preventing overbuild in the network. If Virgin Media has a programme to develop our network, it makes sense to ask the Scottish Government to invest only in the geographical areas which have been very poorly served, that last 5% of the country which is proving a big challenge to get to. If they do that, then logically there will be more money available in those more difficult-to-reach areas.”

FOR ITS PART, Virgin Media is committing to a quarter of its four million new connections target being connected with fibre direct to premises (known as FTTP). This will see the company offer speeds of up to 300Mbps over a ‘pure fibre’ connection. Ofcom analysis has shown that the firm consistently delivers higher broadband speeds than its competitors – and it intends to maintain its speed advantage.

“With the growth in high definition requirements for on-demand services and the continuing uplift in the number of devices that people have in their home, we’re constantly evolving,” says McFadyen. “Not so long ago 100Mbps was the top bandwidth we had on offer for consumers. Today it’s 200Mbps.

“And the good news is that our fibre-rich infrastructure is able to cope with even more demand for faster broadband. While BT has to put quite a lot of effort and time into testing new technologies and new ways of squeezing life out of their ageing copper network we can scale up fairly quickly and easily,” he adds.

We will likely not only see the visible presence of Virgin Media’s network expansion as it gathers pace in Scotland, but also the company’s efforts to engage the communities it ultimately hopes to serve. The company’s ‘supercharging local communities’ initiative uses its Cable My Street website to identify and track areas of the country where demand for its services are highest, with local residents and businesses encouraged to vote for their community to be one of the first to benefit from Virgin Media’s services.

“Four of the top 10 communities in the UK set to have fibre connected directly to their door will be in Scotland, which is fantastic. It shows that people want more choice when it comes to their service provider,” adds McFadyen. “But I want to see more of that: making those communities aware of who we are and what we are doing is very high up on my agenda.”

FACTFILE

  • Virgin Media employs 1,700 people in Scotland, based mainly in its Bellshill and Uddingston offices.
  • The top five areas for current demand are Glasgow, Edinburgh, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and Paisley.
  •  After receiving the most votes under the ‘supercharging local communities’ initiative, four local areas – Kirknewton, Houston, Crosslee, Craigends and Brookfield, Bridge of Weir and Kilmacolm – will receive fibre broadband delivered directly to the door.