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Cable Technology Feature Article

March 15, 2010

Virgin Media Goes to the Pole for UK Rural Broadband

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor

Some of the more remote parts of Britain’s ‘green and pleasant land’ may start to resemble that in similarly verdant American, Canadian and Continental European rural areas if a test by Virgin Media to string broadband-carrying fiber optic cables on poles succeeds.
Virgin Media is trialing delivering 50Mb of broadband-on-fiber to the Berkshire village of Woolhampton. The new service will increase speeds by more than tenfold over the existing BT (News - Alert) copper network. Residents will be offered Virgin Media’s TV service, including around 5,000 hours of catch up TV and on demand content. The trial will start this month and is scheduled to run for approximately six months.
To supply the fiber Virgin Media is installing poles, which is rare in the U.K. as most communications services and electric power is distributed underground. If the test is successful and if it receives government approval for widespread pole distribution Virgin Media will likely use this method to reach more than one million rural residents that stand to benefit from overhead deployment.

The trial is part of Virgin Media’s plans to bring next generation digital services to people who currently live beyond the reach of fiber optic networks. Virgin Media has already announced plans to extend its network, which today passes 12.6 million homes, to 500,000 new homes.

The U.K. government is currently considering a change to planning guidelines which is needed to enable large scale overhead deployment, reports the carrier. The Woolhampton trial will provide valuable insight, it says into the technical, operational and commercial viability of this type of solution.

Virgin Media will build on what it has learned from a trial in Cornwall started in 2009. That brought next generation services to the villages of Hatt and Saltash by running underground fiber optic cable to BT's local street cabinets. Initial analysis suggests that 'non-traditional' approaches of the kind being explored by it could deliver next generation broadband to over one million homes up and down the UK without the need for government subsidy.

“This unique trial will allow us to understand the possibilities of aerial deployment and may provide an exciting new way to extend next generation broadband services,” said Neil Berkett, chief executive officer of Virgin Media. “With everything from BBC iPlayer to YouTube (News - Alert) increasingly demanding reliable ultrafast broadband speeds, we're keen to ensure that all communities, in towns, cities and villages right across the UK, stand to benefit.”

Both acknowledgement of Virgin Media’s wisdom in going overheard and concerns about it have been raised. Rupert Wood, principal analyst at Analysys (News - Alert) Mason told The Independent “This is a small trial but it is significant as the vast bulk of the cost of rolling out fibre broadband is in digging up the roads and installing it.

“There are aesthetic problems [though], “Wood said after seeing a deployment in Bucharest, Romania. “It can look a mess.'

Peter Kjeldsen, a research director at Gartner (News - Alert) added in the same story: “Fibre over poles is easier to install and faster to roll out but there are trade-offs. It is harder to maintain.”

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi