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Virgin Media Grows UK Network by 102K Premises – Adds More FTTP UPDATE

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019 (7:34 am) - Score 4,233

Cable ISP Virgin Media (Liberty Global) has posted their latest results for the first quarter of 2019, which saw their UK cable broadband and TV network grow its coverage by another 102,000 premises and their total internet access base add +35,000 new customers to total 5,259,600 (up from the 21.7k added in Q4 2018).

Since the last set of results we’ve seen Virgin Media launch their new top 500Mbps ultrafast broadband package using their existing EuroDOCSIS 3 network (here) and they’ve proposed to introduce a new Gigabit speed service across two UK cities (here), which will use the new DOCSIS 3.1 technology. The latter is also likely to be accompanied by a new Hub 4.0 broadband router (possibly the Gigabit Connect Box).

Meanwhile the operator has also moved to upgrade the WiFi capabilities of their existing Hub 3.0 cable router (here) and they’ve replaced their CEO (here). Otherwise today’s results reveal that the pace of their £3bn Project Lightning network roll-out decreased during the first three months of 2019, which saw them add 102,000 extra premises to their network coverage (over 1.7 million UK premises have now been added since 2015/16).

Project Lightning Rollout Since 2017
Q1 2019 = 102,000 Premises
Q4 2018 = 144,000 Premises
Q3 2018 = 109,000 Premises
Q2 2018 = 118,000 Premises
Q1 2018 = 111,000 Premises (likely impacted by heavy snow)
Q4 2017 = 159,000 Premises
Q3 2017 = 147,000 Premises
Q2 2017 = 127,000 Premises
Q1 2017 = 102,000 Premises

NOTE: Q1 is traditionally a slower quarter for build.

The original aim of Project Lightning was to cover 4 million additional premises (17 million total or c.60%+ of the UK) by the end of 2020 (later revised to 2019 before it was discovered in 2017 that they’d erroneously overstated progress), although c.2.1 million+ now seems to be a safer bet for the end of 2019 and possibly 3 million+ at a later date (here).

However, one key point about today’s news concerns the proportion of “full fibre” being deployed. During 2018 around 60% of Virgin Media’s roll-out (480,000 premises) was done with Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology via Radio Frequency over Glass (RFoG) instead of Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC). By comparison 86% of their total infill build was full fibre in Q1. Virgin has previously pledged to do a rough 50/50 style split of HFC to FTTP deployments, although they initially started out with a greater proportion of HFC.

Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global, said:

“On the innovation front, we are pushing the envelope in the U.K. In April, we rolled out compelling new fixed-mobile converged bundles, boosted our top broadband speed to 500 Mbps and launched Intelligent WiFi, a cloud-based adaptive system that’s designed to significantly improve our customers’ inhome WiFi experience.

Our Q1 ARPU performance at Virgin Media was impacted by lower install and telephony usage revenue, the timing of certain PPV events and increased promotions in response to market dynamics. However, our competitive position remains strong and we continue to extend our reach with Project Lightning, where we are building 400,000-500,000 new premises every year.”

Meanwhile the operator also confirmed that they had a total Mobile (EE MVNO) customer base of 3,030,600 (down from 3,039,500 in the last quarter) and 79% of their broadband base is now on an ultrafast (100Mbps+) capable package (up from 78%).

We should also add that they have 4,617,300 telephone customers in the UK (up from 4,571,200) and 3,846,700 video / TV users (down from 3,872,000). On top of that 74% of their broadband base is using the Hub 3.0 / SuperHub v3 router (up from 72%) and 60% of their video/TV base uses their V6 set-top-box (up from 57%). We also note that VoIP services are now “available across our U.K. cable footprint” (up from 42%).

Going forward we’ll be on the lookout for the expected boost to upload speeds, a new Hub 4.0 router and their first DOCSIS 3.1 based Gigabit cities deployments. All of which should be taking place during 2019.

UPDATE 7:41am:

Small correction. 102K premises not 107K.

UPDATE 3:05pm

Apparently the cumulative cost per premises of project lightning is currently around £690 (just the build costs in Q1 would be £660), which is on-target.

UPDATE 8th May 2019

During a related investment speech Mike Fries also responded to a question about the use of Openreach’s existing cable ducts (they’ve done a little bit of this already) and the recent rumours that they might be considering wholesale access to their network. The response on the wholesale question itself was very much “no comment,” but Mike did offer a general opinion on both topics.

Mike Fries said:

“Look as I think the reference there was really just to point out that, why wouldn’t we be looking at creative and innovative ways to continue expanding the network. The results so far for lightning in our minds, have been exactly what we wanted them to be successful, productive, operationally, strategically and we think the capital that we’re allocating to that project is really good capital. But as you know, the market is moving quickly, there are lots of start-ups I guess I would call them.

Hoping to build fibre in various places and of course – BT can reach deciding that at some point, they will also get more serious about fibre. So it’s smart for us to be creative and flexible and opportunistic. I have nothing specific to say about that other than to assure you, we’re doing what we should be doing, which is looking at all options to be sure that the Virgin network and the Virgin product is available as widely as possible.

If we were to do something I don’t see it hitting our balance sheet as such, or our cash flows. I think there are ways to possibly look at network expansion and in more creative fashions. So that was really the only point there.”

On their plans to deploy 1Gbps broadband later this year via DOCSIS 3.1 (two unnamed cities have initially been targeted for this), Mike added, “The fibre in the market today is 3% or 4% of homes and we’re going to 1 Gig as quickly as we can. As you say, ultimately to 10 Gig. So I don’t want to say the race is over, but Virgin is running at a different race than the rest of the UK broadband providers, but it is a bundled market.” We don’t see 10Gbps happening nationally for a long time in Virgin’s network, even though it’s supported by 3.1 (their network just isn’t ready).

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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 surprised the FTTP ratio is increasing and the premises have tapered off somewhat. Indicative of that virtually everything they are doing now is entirely new build rather than extending existing HFC networks and reusing orphaned plant.

    Most of the HFC extension is a few premises here and there missed by original builds. Cost of FTTP kit and install dropping also makes it more viable for smaller deployments – fewer premises needed to make an OLT viable.

  2. Archie says:

    Looking forward to the upload speed increase (for my PLEX server). I’m quite happy with their 350 package!

    1. Paul says:

      If you’re on the 350Mbps tier then you *should* get the 35Mbps upload after a reboot of your hub. It doesn’t seem to be happening automatically!

    2. Aaron says:

      @Paul, it does happen automatically but the way the Hub works is that it will do it when the network is least being used, so mostly it does it at between 1:30 and 3:30am, I wasn’t getting the speed despite my Hub cfg saying 38.5 upload max, few days later it started to give me the speed despite me restarting my Hub a few times prior.

    3. Anonymous says:

      I’ve just recently gone up to Vivid 350, from Vivid gamer 200 and my upload is constantly averaging 35/36mbps.

    4. CarlT says:

      The hub doesn’t work like that at all.

    5. John. says:

      Indeed it doesn’t.
      Rebooting the hub will likely see the new upload applied.

  3. Toby Adams says:

    Bring on the upload speeds!

  4. Optical says:

    I must live in the only area of Bath where we don’t have Virgin,despite I keep inquiring we are not in line for it.

  5. CarlT says:

    10G over DOCSIS is a really long way out for these guys. Perhaps they should consider building fibre deep before getting ahead of themselves with what they plan to do once they are fibre deep.

    For the audience in most cases VM are fibre to a cabinet covering perhaps 500 homes. To run 10Gb symmetrical over DOCSIS they need to have fibre to almost every cabinet, replacing every coaxial amplifier with a fibre optic node.

    1. Ian Thomas (thelem) says:

      When 10Gbit comes it won’t be symmetrical, it will be more like 500Mbit up. I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes to the required network infrastructure.

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