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UPD Virgin Media UK Shelve Possible Northumberland Broadband Rollout

Friday, January 12th, 2018 (2:10 pm) - Score 3,555

The Northumberland County Council in England has said it is “disappointed” after being informed that Virgin Media had decided to “halt plans” for expanding their ultrafast cable broadband and TV network into the rural county. At present the operator has virtually no presence in the area.

The regional iNorthumberland project currently aims to help make “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) capable FTTC and a few ultrafast FTTP networks available to “over” 95% of the county by the end of 2018, although nearly all of that has been delivered as part of their partnership with Openreach (BT).

Despite this it’s understood that Virgin Media had recently been considering a possible deployment into the county as part of their £3bn Project Lightning network expansion. The project aims to add an additional 4 million premises to their coverage by 2019/20, which is split between their Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) and FTTP (RFoG) based EuroDOCSIS network.

The operator’s network has already been rolled out across parts of Northumerland’s neighbouring counties (mostly urban areas), such as in North Tyneside, Newcastle and Gateshead. However the Northumberland Gazette reports that a possible expansion into the rural county may now be off the table.

Peter Jackson, Northumberland County Council Leader, said:

“We are very disappointed that Virgin Media have made the decision to halt plans to extend their broadband coverage to include Northumberland. We are keen to attract investment and new businesses into Northumberland and providing broadband is crucial to this and is something we were working with Virgin Media to provide.

As a council, we have supported Virgin Media at every opportunity and have specifically flagged up approved planning applications for new housing and commercial developments while also promoting the ‘Cable My Street’ website in flyers, newsletters and via our iNorthumberland superfast broadband website.

I have written to the company expressing our concerns and have now received a response from Virgin Media that states there are some locations within Northumberland which could have previously been in scope, however, due to rising business costs they are now deemed uneconomical for them to progress.”

At this point it’s unclear precisely what “rising business costs” are to blame and there will no doubt be concern that this could soon reflect a future withdrawal from plans for other counties. On the other hand much of Virgin Media’s network expansion has tended to occur at the edges of their existing network and it’s possible that the deployment into an entirely new area, particularly one as rural as Northumberland, might have been a bridge too far.

On top of that the operator is already known to have been struggling with the pace of their network expansion project, which isn’t quite as far along as the operator would have liked (here). We have of course asked VM for a comment and will update again when one arrives.

UPDATE 4:32pm

The official response from VM is as follows.

A Virgin Media Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“We’re expanding our network in the North East as part of our nationwide effort to bring ultrafast broadband to new areas.

Our expansion is entirely privately funded, so we need certain criteria to be met before building. We are committed to extending our network into areas where supportive local authorities can create the best conditions for rollout of our services.

We’ll be meeting with Northumberland County Council soon to discuss potential ways in which we can work together to make ultrafast broadband in Northumberland a reality as quickly as possible.”

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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11 Responses
  1. CarlT says:

    Not at all surprising. Some of the work they’ve done here has been excruciatingly slow, and neither their fault or the fault of the contractors.

    Community groups digging largely through verges in rural areas face very different challenges from having to use a circular saw to separate cemented together block paving, then having to do so again to cut through concrete in order to lift it, and having to make everything good again. Passing 12 premises, none separated by more than a couple of meters, took 3 weeks.

    The above challenges remain whether using HFC as here or using FTTP – still have to move the block paving and then cut through the concrete base.

    Just a little different from having a mole plough make its way through a verge, with limited excavations through tarmac.

    1. gerarda says:

      On the other hand the use of meters instead of hedges or fences to separate properties is not an obstacle that Virgin are going to encounter very often

  2. Walter G M Willcox says:

    One can sympathise with the practical difficulties of cutting concrete but communities who wish to accelerate deployment could follow B4RN’s remarkable west coast example by approaching via the back door wherever practical rather than the paved front.

    1. Carl Thomas says:

      Key word there is ‘communities’. That approach needs the buy-in of each and every person who may own land on that ‘back door’ route. Going through the paved front requires the buy-in of the local authority only.

      The UK’s system of wayleaves needs reforming before this is viable for companies like Virgin Media and BT. A single landholder holding an entire street or more to ransom isn’t viable for anything other than projects where there is a strong community buy-in, like B4RN.

    2. Carl Thomas says:

      I should also mention that the strongest opponents to wayleave reform appear to be people like the CLA – https://www.cla.org.uk/

      Happy to complain when they don’t get the shiny things, happy to complain about not being able to rinse providers for the privilege of providing the shiny things. Weirdly enough that doesn’t work so well.

    3. Gadget says:

      Unfortunately in most cities there is paving or other similar surfaces between both the front and back doors and the broadband source.

    4. Carl Thomas says:

      Indeed. B4RN’s remarkable example may work just fine when there’s nothing but fields out back but in many urban areas out back are either other properties or pavements.

      Completely different challenges that, in the case of Northumberland at least, alongside the cost of getting the network there in the first place appear to have offset the higher population density in the urban areas leaving the cost per premises prohibitively high.

      VM are willing to spend £670 reaching each property, that’s the budget, and they’ve been able to keep to it in much of what they’ve done so far however that’s been in-fill in existing areas. They’ve shown some flexibility in expanding outside of those areas in terms of cost, here it went well over budget, but for obvious reasons that’s not sustainable.

      Unfortunately for Northumberland they fell victim to the commercial realities of the project. There will be a bunch of areas that only BT could possibly build fibre to because it’s not new network but overlay, while everyone else’s costs may be too high building from scratch or using PIA+ own civils.

    5. Carl Thomas says:

      The reason for adhering to the budget per premises more strictly is obvious, too. They have been overspending quite heavily in some areas and will not want to repeat the exercise.

      I am delighted VM deployed to this estate however the bill would’ve been 4-figures per premises passed. Doable as a special exception in the hope of much higher revenues than normal from an area, when a local PITA with a history of extracting investment from telcos gets his teeth into the project, when it was planned very early on before costs were completely clear as a ‘pilot’, or when it’s offset to an extent by the surrounding areas mostly being lovely pavement and verged terraces and semis but absolutely not viable across the nation.

      Due to their funding method, that many of the costs are paid for by volunteers with work in lieu of shares rather than direct payment, the crowdfunding aspect, community engagement, etc, community efforts like B4RN can produce results that commercial operators would have to spend thousands per premises to emulate. That’s their gift and why they’ll always have a place, but it’s not comparable to anything Virgin Media are doing, anything Vodafone will do, or Openreach’s FTTP deployment outside of areas where extensive infrastructure re-use is possible.

    6. Icaraa says:

      I do feel we need to do things a little differently here now. I was in Ireland recently staying in a residential street that looked similar to many you’d see in the UK. 1930s semi detached houses mixed with little rows of terraces.

      But there was a big difference to how it was cabled. The Virgin Media cable came up from underground at one end of the road, then went across the front of the houses (overhead between the semis) with little connection points on the front of the houses. Looked a bit messy, yes, but far far cheaper than if they’d have dug up the pavement like we do here.

      These were all privately owned, it wasn’t a council estate or similar. That’s the way we should go here, but people would just say they don’t cables on the front of their privately owned houses!

    7. Alex says:

      Virgins licence to operate prohibits ‘back door’ scenario’s, pole work and essentially anything that isn’t a T from the main street fed via duct/trench. It’s all well and good saying they should operate differently, but they can’t without permission to do so.

  3. nevermind says:

    whats rural about, cramlington, blyth, ashington, morpeth etc? totaly disgusting, they also willing to pay £700 to connect each house?? wooopie – money that will be made back in years not decades. nortumberland is constantly growing with new houses, virgin is missing a trick, tons of profit in northumberland for virgin, if they pull there finger out and get the cable laid!, i for one will leave my 36mb fiber connection to come to virgin, i cant get more then 35 due to crappy aliminuim cables running from the cabnet to t he poll

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