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Sky Broadband Consider FTTP Partnership with Virgin Media Sibling

Monday, September 2nd, 2019 (7:39 am) - Score 16,161

UK ISP Sky Broadband (Comcast) is reportedly in talks with Liberty Global (Virgin Media) about investing in their new Joint Venture company Liberty Fibre Limited, which looks set to compete with Openreach (BT) in rural areas by building its own open access Gigabit speed Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network.

At present Sky has officially hooked-up its wagon to Openreach’s FTTP and G.fast based “ultrafast broadband” network, although they’ve also been courting interest from alternative network ISPs (here). Sky doesn’t want to build a full fibre network of its own but they are clearly interested in reaching as much of the United Kingdom as possible and at a competitive price, which requires working with a growing number of new networks.

On the flip side Virgin Media’s parent, Liberty Global, has been making plenty of noise (here and here) about its seeming intention to establish – alongside investment bank LionTree – an alternative network ISP in order to reach into the c.10 million UK premises that their existing ultrafast Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) cable and FTTP broadband network does not yet serve (e.g. rural areas, suburbs and smaller towns).

By establishing a second company, which Virgin Media could take a service from while still being a separate network (anchor tenant), then Liberty Global could extend their UK network while avoiding their main business being labelled by Ofcom as an operator with Significant Market Power (i.e. becoming subject to significant new regulation and enforced wholesale access, much like Openreach today).

Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global, said (August 2019):

“So let’s just say that we are in the mix as we should be in any discussions about building the next wave of networks outside of where we already have built superfast broadband, we feel like our 15 million homes of 1Gbps ready, going to 10Gbps [in the future], is it for that footprint [Project Lighting].

But beyond that footprint, we’re going to be opportunistic to see if we can put capital to work off balance sheet without consolidating losses and activities. Potentially with partners, just to get Virgin possibly in the Virgin Media brand to a national scale, wouldn’t that be great, if Virgin was a national brand not a regional brand in half the marketplace.”

Mike also touched on this topic several more times last month, not least by saying that Liberty Global would be the “most important partner or platform” for anybody looking to tackle the “remaining 10 million homes.” Mike added that, “you should expect us to be exploring every alternative to creatively finance and participate in this expansion of broadband connectivity in the UK.

Since then Liberty Global has officially established a new company called Liberty Fibre Ltd in the UK and, according to the FT (paywall), Sky has already opened talks with a view to supporting their efforts, which as above would be entirely in keeping with what the TV giant as already said. Likewise Sky is allegedly talking to Virgin Media about the possibility of wholesaling from their existing UK network (a big ask but Liberty Global is open to considering it).

All of this would also support Sky’s future plans to shift their TV service down broadband lines rather than via Satellite dishes, which is something that they’ve been able to test via their more limited NOW TV platform. So far Sky hasn’t yet done this for their main TV service in the United Kingdom. Equally Sky could just be using this as a means to pressure Openreach into giving them a better deal on FTTP.

In some respects Openreach has already responded by reducing their wholesale FTTP prices and they’re now preparing to launch two new packages – a 500Mbps (75Mbps upload) and 1Gbps (115Mbps uploads) service – for the consumer market later this year (here). But no doubt Sky wants more than that and with 6 million broadband customers, as well as a health balance sheet, they can afford to play the game.

In the background to all this is Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to ensure that the country is completely covered by a full fibre network come 2025 (here), as well as the general hunger for investment in such infrastructure. Admittedly the 2025 target is massively unrealistic and the situation around Brexit means that the current Government may not last long enough to even put the necessary policy or funding in place (we’ll find out over the next couple of months).

Meanwhile Liberty Fibre Ltd is expected to put in a related application for Code Powers from Ofcom sometime within the next couple of weeks, which as a requirement will mean that they need to put their private ambition into the public domain. In other words, all of this is about to become much more official.

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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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13 Responses
  1. Meadmodj says:

    “Liberty Global could extend their UK network while avoiding their main business being labelled by Ofcom as an operator with Significant Market Power”. Surely this would not be allowed. It would be like BT separating their Openreach network back into the original 64 separate telephone areas. If the Liberty board have influence on the decisions boards of companies make then surely they have to be considered as one from a market perspective.

    There is a danger some geographical areas could become FTTP monopolies short term (as some new neighbourhoods already are) and if this becomes the case then Ofcom will need to regulate these in future even if light touch if premises are dependent on one network.

    1. Mike says:

      Less regulation is better.

      There is also FTTC and 4G soon 5G as competition.

    2. Mark Jackson says:

      You’d be talking about a different network / company with a massively different level of wholesale access Meadmodj, so I don’t think Ofcom would object. Liberty Global will have no doubt already discussed this idea with the regulator at some level. It also somewhat reflects the change of full fibre related regulatory flexibility that we’ve been seeing since the FTIR report.

    3. A_Builder says:

      The key is that a full FTTP network can be wholesaled and shared.

      If it provides competition with OR then it is a good thing and OFCOM should sit back and let the two dominant players compete.

      If however, it is used to snuff out smaller players then OFCOM could and should intervene.

      It is all about how it is set up and what it adds to the market.

      ATM anyone putting more fibre in the ground is a good thing as it put the old BT begging bowl approach into the mists of history and keeps forcing BT/OR to up their game.

    4. Meadmodj says:

      MJ. Yes it would be mitigated if it included an open ISP obligation but that is not currently the position, may be longer term but not now. Fibre Nation would have to prove that Liberty are not pulling any strings.

      If ISPs like Sky move to other providers it may remove the viability of OR FTTP in those areas which may alter BT rollout priorities. This could result in a single FTTP provider for a number of years in a particular location. Personally I believe in a single infrastructure model (particularly for Rural) but I also believe that if the UK is to be divided up between OR and Altnets geographically (no Ultra/Gig competition) then there should be the same open ISP obligations so the consumer can choose their ISP.

    5. Meadmodj says:

      Sorry not Fibre Nation, Liberty Fibre Limited

    6. beany says:

      “ATM anyone putting more fibre in the ground is a good thing as it put the old BT begging bowl approach into the mists of history and keeps forcing BT/OR to up their game.”

      Unfortunately someone still thinks the begging bowl should be refilled repetitively. 😉

  2. Mark says:

    I think sky may need to inform /train their staff about fttp.
    Having spoke to several sky experts whilst trying trying to register my interest not a single person knew what fttp or ultrafast were.

    1. Ay says:

      It’s similar in Virginmedia, I work in cancellations and the amount of people I hear saying Megabytes instead of Megabits & “we’re Fibre to your property” on every call when they’re not.

  3. Duncan says:

    So when can we expect builds to start, or the first wave of areas to be announced for this new network?

  4. Duncan says:

    Any recent news on this?

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      I’d expect something after the General Election, so either the very end of 2019 or early 2020. Nothing confirmed yet but at the very least we expect Virgin Media to open up a bit more to wholesale and Sky, Vodafone, TalkTalk etc. are prime candidates.

  5. Duncan says:

    Full steam ahead for news regarding this in the coming weeks/months then!

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