Cable operator Virgin Media has confirmed to ISPreview.co.uk that they’ve just begun a limited deployment of Voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology to replace their old phone (line rental) service, but it’s currently only being sold in areas where the operator has deployed Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology.
The operator’s latest SuperHub 3 router is already designed so that it can act as a VoIP based telephone gateway and includes two standard RJ11 telephone ports on the back, but until now such a feature has not been usable unless you were part of a very small trial. Some issues with the firmware have delayed getting this feature out to the wider customer base, although those problems appear to have now been resolved.
As a result the process of delivering VoIP to Virgin Media’s broadband customers is now finally beginning, although initially it’s only being done at a “relatively small scale” and is understandably focused upon areas where the operator has been rolling out their new pure fibre optic (FTTP) infrastructure. In those areas it makes more sense to deliver the phone service over the same fibre than to install a separate PSTN style line to homes.
Under the current plan Virgin Media’s £3bn Project Lightning expansion will add an additional 4 million premises to their network by 2019 (boosting coverage to around 60-65% of the UK). Roughly 2 million of the new premises will be reached via FTTP, which adapts to DOCSIS signals (the communication standard for cable operators) in the home environment via an approach known as Radio Frequency over Glass (RFoG).
A Spokesperson for Virgin Media told ISPreview.co.uk:
“We are making the most of our network investment to enable people to access voice over fibre in certain Project Lightning areas. This means new Lightning FTTP customers will be able benefit from broadband, TV and phone services in one package, and begins a programme of future-proofing our landline service.”
A number of early FTTP subscribers on Virgin Media’s network have already received the new VoIP service and they’ve provided us with some feedback. Related customers were informed about the phone service being delivered via broadband during the order process, which interestingly included a check-box to accept that you have the means to make calls in an emergency when the service is down.
Unlike copper lines, which can carry electricity for an analogue phone to work, a fibre optic service would go dead during a power cut unless your local router also has its own backup battery. Mind you protracted power cuts, which may run down the operator’s own battery backup, can be a problem regardless of the line type.
The move also raises a question about whether or not customers will eventually see cheaper packages now that the VoIP approach is being adopted. However we suspect that Virgin Media will initially maintain their existing approach, where there’s still a difference of around £8 (based on standard pricing) between their standalone broadband packages and their broadband + phone bundles.
Otherwise the next challenge will be to test and ensure that the same VoIP approach is able to work properly over their more traditional hybrid fibre and coax (EuroDOCSIS) lines. Virgin Media has promised to keep us informed about their progress on this front. Thanks to one of our readers (Daniel) for the early spot.