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Virgin Media UK Says Goodbye to BT, Signs Vodafone for Mobile UPDATE

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019 (10:07 am) - Score 14,979

Cable TV and broadband ISP Virgin Media UK (Liberty Global) has today made the surprise announcement that their long-running Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) agreement with BT (EE) will be coming to an end. Instead they’ve signed a new 5-year partnership deal for Virgin Mobile with rival operator Vodafone.

Previously there had been some speculation that Virgin Media might seek to swap their MVNO setup to use a different network, which was partly fuelled by the operator’s concern over BT’s earlier £12.5bn merger with EE (i.e. BT is now Virgin’s arch rival in both the fixed line and mobile space, not to mention TV). Despite this, in 2017 Virgin moved to extend their agreement with BT / EE, which is due to run until 2021 (here).

Under the new deal Virgin Mobile‘s services – covering around 3 million customers – will start to transition to the Vodafone network from the end of 2021 and there they will stay until 2026, although Virgin Media intends to launch their new ultrafast 5G (mobile broadband) products via Vodafone “in the near future” (i.e. ahead of the transition date).

At this point it’s worth considering that Vodafone and Virgin Media have been repeatedly linked with a future asset swap or possible merger in the United Kingdom, although until now none of their earlier talks have turned into anything concrete (except elsewhere in the EU). Despite that any move to adopt Vodafone for Virgin Mobile would of course make a bigger agreement in the future a lot easier, if it were to ever occur.

Speaking of which, Virgin Media’s business division (VMB) has also struck an “extensive wholesale agreement” with Vodafone relating to the supply of various network services. We have asked for further details on this.

Lutz Schüler, Virgin Media CEO, said:

“This agreement with Vodafone will bring a host of fantastic benefits and experiences to our customers, including 5G services in the near future. Twenty years ago Virgin Mobile became the world’s first virtual operator and this new agreement builds on that heritage. It will open up a whole new world of opportunity for Virgin Media as we focus on becoming the most recommended brand for customers and bring our mobile and broadband connectivity closer together in one package for one price.

We’ve worked with BT to provide mobile services for many years and will continue to work together in a number of areas. We want our customers to have a limitless experience – it’s now the right time to take a leap forward with Vodafone to grow further and faster.”

Nick Jeffery, Vodafone UK CEO, said:

“We are delighted that Virgin has recognised the huge investments we’ve made, and continue to make, in building the UK’s best mobile network and our role in challenging the market with new commercial services. As a result, they have chosen us to work with them in the next phase of their development.

This is an exciting deal between two great British brands. We are combining our strong heritage in innovation to create a world without limits for our customers through unlimited data offers and 5G.”

Shifting MVNO platforms is a major task for any large operator and often results in some problems (e.g. TalkTalk’s past attempt to migrate from Vodafone to O2 was plagued by difficulties and they eventually abandoned mobile altogether). Nevertheless such decisions are often take a couple of years in advance (necessary for forward planning) and the move to rollout 5G will no doubt be another reason why Virgin Media may have reconsidered their existing agreement with BT.

As a full MVNO provider Virgin Mobile has control over the products and services it offers, which among other things means existing customers will not need to change their SIM cards as part of this agreement and that’s an important point (saves a lot of hassle). Further details on product offerings and network transition will be provided in “due course.”

UPDATE 12:55pm

We’ve added a comment from BT.

A BT Spokesperson said:

“The successful relationship between BT and Virgin Media spans nearly 20 years and they remain a highly valued customer. We will continue to provide a full spectrum of mobile services to Virgin Media and support Virgin Mobile customers under our existing MVNO agreement, until they transition in 2022.

Our EE network is consistently ranked number one for speed and coverage in independent benchmarking tests, providing our EE customers and MVNO partners with the UK’s best mobile experience. We were the first to launch 5G in the UK, with 5G in more places across the UK than any other operator, and we’re continuing to invest in providing our customers the best network across the UK.”

The contract was reportedly worth around £200m to BT and their shares have taken a dip since the announcement.

UPDATE 8th November 2019

Lutz Schüler has elaborated a bit more on the VMB wholesale agreement with Vodafone: “We have now really engaged in a closer partnership with Vodafone. And as we have said, Vodafone are very fast to deploy 5G base stations, and they need a backhaul opportunity. So therefore, we have also closed a huge deal on dark fibre and mobile backhaul at the same time when we have closed an MVNO deal, and we are very pleased with that … this is an area which has huge growth opportunity in the future.”

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Mark Jackson
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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44 Responses
  1. Avatar Xr2i

    Not a surprise when you know that Vodafone bought cable ISP activities from Liberty GLobal in Germany and eastern countries..
    In the UK, it would make a lot of sense for Vodafone to buy Virgin Media so they can offer 3P or 4P on their own E2E network.

    • Avatar Roger_Gooner

      After several selloffs by Liberty Global they’ve now got Virgin Media as their major Europan asset and there is no evidence of VM being sold. If anything it looks as if LG wants to hang onto and build on what VM’s got, and I won’t be at all surprised to see LG seek some kind of merger with Vodafone to be the main competitor with BT/EE in the broadband, Pay TV and mobile markets.

  2. Avatar David Williams

    I think “Long running” is understating it a little! Virgin Mobile UK is widely cited as being the first MVNO in the World!

  3. Avatar bob

    What that is crazy…. Vodafone do not have the capacity for this!!!

    Or perhaps this is a good thing and will force Vodafone to invest in actually rolling out some 4G+ (LTE-CA) coverage outside of London and a few big cities.

    • Avatar Vince

      You must be using a different vodafone to me.

      The Vodafone I use has speeds that regularly outperform EE whatever the awards say, and does so in many locations.

    • Avatar beany

      Lebara Mobile, Talkmobile, VOXI and more all use Voda and manage perfectly well. As normal you have no idea what you are on about.

  4. Avatar Simon

    Presumably the Virgin Mobile service will stop working on an EE locked mobile phone when they switch to Vodafone?

    • Avatar Aa

      By the time this takes effect your phone will most likely be out of contract, if not I assume they have something they can do to “unlock” it to Vodafone network.

    • Avatar CJ

      For at least a year, new virgin sims (purple) have been coded with the Virgin mobile network code rather than EE. Those sims already don’t work in devices locked to EE.

      They are slowly replacing all the older sims (red) with new purple ones, but it has caused problems with phones locked to EE including when sim free iPhones used to lock to the network code of the first sim used.

  5. Avatar AndyC

    As a virgin mobile customer i will be watching this closely. I disagree with the rollout of 5g being a factor as i have seen posts on their forums that claim their business plans have access to both 5g and volte services and yet they don’t offer it to ‘standard’ customers.

    My only concern is that they don’t use this as a excuse to downgrade customers as i have a old black friday deal that gives 100gig, doubled (then with the rollover gives me 300gig per month) and 5000 mins all for £20.40 per month currently.

    • Avatar David

      I am on the same one Andy £20 – I also hope this does not change – looking forward to seeing what they do this year. I have always found the speed to be about 70mbps all the time – with decent upload too.

  6. Avatar Gareth

    Does this mean Virgin Mobile might get basic features like ‘Call Divert’ in the future 🙂

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @Gareth
      Call divert is available on the EE network, is this restricted by Virgin Mobile?

      The generic options to divert calls on most (all?) mobile networks follow.

      Press **
      Enter one of these codes:

      21 to divert all calls
      61 to divert calls you don’t answer within 15 seconds
      62 to divert calls when your phone is switched off
      67 to divert calls when your phone is engaged

      Press the * key again
      Enter the phone number you want to divert calls to replacing the 0 with +44
      Press the # key and then press send / dial

      To check Call Diversion is on:
      Press *
      Press #
      Enter the code you used when you switched on call diversion ( 21, 61, 62 or 67)
      Press the # key again

      To switch off individual call diverts
      Press ##
      Enter the code you used when you switched on call diversion ( 21, 61, 62 or 67)
      Press the # key

    • Avatar Jimbotheitbod

      It’d be nice to think so, but I belive this is restricted by NTL… sorry, Virgin… not EE. New Londoner, Gareth likely knows the how, he also knows as do most who suffer Virgin’s restrictions that they simply dont work…

  7. Avatar Ray Woodward

    Looks like BT’s share price is taking something of a hit this morning too 🙂

    Currently down around 4%

  8. Avatar Jamie Simms

    It’s interesting that Virgin are going on about 5G services when they move to Vodafone I do hope that they are aware that Vodafone have only got plans to offer 5G in towns and cities on the Western side of the UK until at least 2022 when they will look at Eastern places like Edinburgh,Newcastle,Sheffield,Nottingham,Leicester etc

    • Avatar Juicy Luicy

      Wrong!

      Plans are under way in partnership with Tef/O2 to rollout 5G to the east. Beacon2 agreement is far more advanced that the first CTIL partersnhip.

  9. Avatar SuperFast Dream

    Well I suppose there’s no harm in still trying to blow your own trumpet once the horse has bolted… I still don’t think Virgin Mobile will change their minds though BT/EE.

    Now that BT/EE have effectively lost one of their largest ‘piggy-backers’ (if not the largest) it will remain to be seen if they continue to provide their customers with the ‘best network across the UK’.

    • Avatar Stephen Wakeman

      It’s interesting that you seem to be insinuating brand message and network performance are a result of VM being a key partner. I don’t believe that for a second. EE has circa 30 million customers, taking 3 million off that will make some difference yes. Completely affect the ethos and investment in the network? Don’t make me laugh.

    • Avatar SuperFast Dream

      Lol, I see no such ‘insinuation’ in my comment.

      My comment is simple, BT are a bit sore about losing the contract, that’s natural, they respond quickly with the intention of fighting off any negative press, after all they don’t want customers being concerned about their loss. The best way to achieve this is to self-promote themselves, what they have achieved to date and what they can still offer their existing and future customer base. It is from here that the battle commences, they will want VM customers jumping from Vodafone and back onto EE’s network, that’s the point, that’s good business sense. However, losing a large contract in business is always going to hurt no matter what way you look at it, this is the point I am making.

      I am not suggesting that EE is going to go down the pan owing to VM leaving but large fixed term contracts help toward long term planning and future investment! As such, plans may need to change which may go on to impact future service to some degree, after all didn’t their shares also take a hit yesterday? there must be something to be said in that alone, don’t you think?

  10. Avatar JustAnotherUser

    I suspect my next mobile is going to be with EE then, Vodaphone coverage is horrible compared to EE.

    • Avatar Andy Mitchell

      Exactly the same here.
      My only problem is that ee cost more but I need the signal as both Vodafone and o2 are crap, especially in rural areas.

    • Avatar David

      I went from VM to EE – I went up into the 300’s p the lowest I have got in the day is 121 – I did about 400GB last month and I meant I thrashed it – I don’t think anyone should be concerned about hitting that 1TB a month limit thingy

    • Avatar Rob Nicholson

      Yes me too as Vodafone signal in Bollington is pants. Can you cancel contract mid term for such a drastic change?

    • Avatar Neil Robert Wilkes

      I agree. I’m getting 85 megabytes per second at my house and can barely get a signal with Vodafone. I’m on the 100gb per month £20 per month deal as well. I wonder if EE we will reach out to the existing Virgin customers and offer a direct deal under the same contract conditions, it’s what I would do if I was in charge at EE?

    • Avatar dave

      Apart from possible legal ramifications (which include GDPR), EE won’t have the customers’ details.

  11. Avatar Jamie Simms

    Juicy Luicy- Well that’s different to what Nick Jeffreys has been saying to staff and investors that 5G will be focussed on the Western side of UK in Vodafone controlled area of Cornerstone.

    Unwinding for O2 has started in some places but Vodafone Beacon 2 for 5G will be late 2021 into 2022

  12. Avatar Ken Wraight

    SSE home broadband already has switched to vodaphone

  13. Avatar Andy Mitchell

    Ah ffs. I picked Virgin mobile for the ee signal as well.
    Vodafone has next to no signal at work or at my dad’s house.
    Thanks for nothing Virgin!
    Now I have to go and pay stupid amounts for the equivalent on ee
    2 years and counting…

    • Avatar David

      Are you serious mate?

      Virgin ‘s unlimited deal is £37! and that’s with about 70/30

      EE is £34 for the fastest speed they can give you – and also unlimited . For this one you might be surprised to know you are wrong – which is a good thing 😉

    • Avatar CJ

      Some of us still have the £20 unlimited everything virgin mobile deal from Black Friday 2017 when there was also no requirement to have Virgin Media. It has no fair use limit, but a 70/35 speed cap.

      Although it’s now £24.66 after an RPI increase in 2018 and a £4 increase earlier this year. No doubt they intend to keep increasing the price faster than inflation, but the new unlimited EE tariff and now also the Vodafone one, both with better roaming options, will limit how far they can increase it before everyone leaves.

    • Avatar Andy Mitchell

      Yes, I’m serious. I don’t have the need for unlimited data so I have a 40GB package with unlimited minutes and texts for £15.
      No one else can come close to that much data for that price, especially with the rollover and a 30 day contract.
      I use around 30-40GB data a month so I’m on the package that suits me.

  14. Avatar Meadmodj

    This MVNO deal is likely to be more complex than on the surface. VM had to do something to get 5G and have always been frustrated with some of the inflexibility in the BT deal. Analysts are assuming the new Wholesale terms are better which is interesting as 5G availability and coverage costs money along with data consumption possibly surging (early 5G adopters). Perhaps the rumours of closer Broadband co-operation will emerge.

    BT will be OK short term as they will continue to support VM 4G until late 2021 which gives them time to mitigate the contract loss. It could actually be a positive freeing up capacity (current and 5G) and opportunities to entice the likes of Sky.

    VM are to launch 5G on Vodafone very soon whilst still maintaining the BT contract. Not quite sure how that will work technically but it could be 5G SIMs are to be Vodafone and 4G SIMS remain BT.

    • Avatar Stephen Wakeman

      How would splitting a customer base on SIM type work? For a start, 5G has huge bandwidth but extremely short range and is highly susceptible to even low level sources of attenuation, such as a lamppost or concrete pillar. What is the 5G fallback if not 4G? It can’t be 3G surely. If it was, then customers who opt for 5G will, in the main, be connected to a much slower service than those on 4G.

      If it swapped, then MVNO customers would be getting the best of both worlds I.e. the ubiquitous coverage and speed of EEs 4G with proposition for concentrated areas of fast 5G. It seems highly unlikely that an MVNO customer would ever be able to straddle provider networks in this way to aggregate benefits that “prime” network customers can’t get and typically pay more for.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      They could simply sell 5G/4G/3G plans on Vodafone and 4G/3G on EE. I assumed the Vodafone network could be setup to recognise the relevant SIM and by using different APNs or similar the appropriate network would be used. I did not envisage 5G on Vodafone reverting to EE 4G/3G but to the Vodafone 4G.

      I am sure they have a method and hope their CGNAT/CGN doesn’t cause too much grief to VM users.

  15. Avatar Patrick Richardson

    I feel sorry for all those poor souls who will now face the prospect of Vodafone customer “ service”. What a prospect

  16. Avatar Jo jackson

    City fibre (vodaphone) are cableing huddersfied
    I was thinking a couple of weeks ago this would happen
    Once all done apparently we’ll be the worlds superhub

    • Avatar Connor

      CityFibre aren’t Vodafone, Vodafone just has exclusive first access to the network

      Source: used to work for CityFibre

  17. Avatar Neil Asher

    The trouble with EE is they botched a security “upgrade” (widely reported on both VM & EE customer forums) which mean they block genuine OTP messages from organisations like HMRC, Santander, Tesco, Amazon, et al, because they generate a “false positive” for it being a spam message. This makes it difficult / almost impossible to use services from these banks.

    Hopefully a move to Vodafone will fix this issue as neither VM nor EE have done anything useful to resolve it in the last year & a half.

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      I have been on EE for a very long time and use all four organisations without issue. My understanding is that it is related to those who have changed network and the porting may not been completed successfully. You will see similar posts on Vodafone forums regarding OTPs not being received. It could be the provider filter but surely that would affect all. It can also be SMS blockers on the individuals handset. I think the common issues afflict all providers. We will have await whether VM customers migrating between the networks is to be without issue or not.

  18. Avatar Mark

    Well I will be leaving then. Vodafone signal has always been appalling for me!

  19. Avatar Bruno DeSouza

    I really don’t understand how BT/EE employees on here are boasting about VM / Voda mobile offerings and hoping for double-data etc. etc.
    As employees, we ought to surely be supporting the hand that feeds us, unless the gap in pricing / support / svc etc is vastly unattractive.

  20. Avatar robert scriven

    its a shame, EE is great, i got great speeds on virgin 4G.

    Funny that they have this on the Virgin website

    “Faster 4G on average than O2, Vodafone, Sky and Three”

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