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Virgin Media O2 Use Starlink for UK Mobile Backhaul in Rural Areas

Tuesday, Apr 16th, 2024 (9:00 am) - Score 5,560
Starlink-satellites-in-orbit-around-the-earth

Mobile network operator O2 (VMO2) has begun harnessing SpaceX’s global network of Starlink ultrafast broadband satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which are being used to help provide mobile backhaul (data) capacity to boost mobile services in some of the United Kingdom’s remotest locations (e.g. sites in the Scottish Highlands).

The use of such an approach is not new to O2, which last year tested a similar Starlink-based method alongside Wavemobile (here) when deploying 4G signals to the area around the South Stack Lighthouse in Holyhead, Anglesey (Wales), as well as other places.

NOTE: The work is designed to support VMO2’s efforts under the £1bn industry-led Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, which aims to extend geographic 4G coverage (aggregate) to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025.

The reality is that some locations remain “extremely difficult or impossible to connect using standard technologies“, such as fibre optic lines or fixed Microwave (point-to-point wireless) connections, which is where LEO satellites can come in handy. Past trials have helped to prove this point.

As a result of all that, O2 are now rolling out Starlink based connections for mobile backhaul capacity to a small but growing number of very remote locations, starting in northern Scotland. The project has been delivered in collaboration with shareholder, Telefónica Global Solutions (TGS), which is an official Starlink reseller.

Jeanie York, CTO of Virgin Media O2, said:

“We’re leaving no stone unturned when it comes to improving rural connectivity and are continuously looking for new ways to boost signal in remote areas. Our commitment to delivering on our part of the Shared Rural Network programme has seen us turn first to helicopters and now to satellites to connect some of the most difficult and remote parts of the country. By constantly finding new ways to deliver for our customers, we are bringing reliable mobile coverage to rural communities faster and helping to close the UK’s digital divide.”

One catch here is that Starlink, while a very useful solution for such locations, does not have the same sort of capacity and network latency as modern fibre optic lines. This may not be such an issue for the previous generation of 4G-based services, but it could limit the potential capabilities of future 5G and even 6G services. On the other hand, a lot of these locations won’t have even had 4G before now, so this is still likely to be a major improvement.

VMO2 are also exploring other ways satellite connectivity can benefit their customers in the future, including providing coverage for emergency services (police, fire, rescue, ambulance etc.) and improved mobile connectivity at special events.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
10 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Sam P says:

    It’ll be the fastest 4G O2 have provided.

    1. Avatar photo Will says:

      If they’re using it as a backhaul then I expect delivered speeds to users won’t be anywhere near what Starlink provides.

    2. Avatar photo Clearmind60 says:

      True, I work in central London and live in the suburbs and get a crap download and upload rate with VM / O2.
      This is nowhere near what 5G is capable of. They have increased my bill by £2.

  2. Avatar photo Bdbdhdsj says:

    Funny how BT manages it. This will be a slow, but cheap way of doing things.

  3. Avatar photo Knsipp says:

    “ VMO2 are also exploring other ways satellite connectivity can benefit their customers in the future, including providing coverage for emergency services (police, fire, rescue, ambulance etc.) and improved mobile connectivity at special events.”

    How? They don’t have the Airwave contract.

    1. Avatar photo JP says:

      Maybe by satellite they mean pigeons.

    2. Avatar photo - says:

      They do have at least one of the “non safety critical” support staff mobile phone contracts. But I imagine they mean for emergency call roaming?

    3. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      I think it’s still just more of the same, which means using Starlink to backhaul capacity for terrestrial wireless masts in extremely remote areas etc. But you’re correct, they don’t have the ESN/Airwave contracts. So it could be referencing a mobile operator partnership to harness Starlink’s Direct to Cell service, which would make it a general consumer facing reference (i.e. being able to access the emergency services in remote areas).

  4. Avatar photo Longgone Sonne says:

    This is stealing Starlink capacity from those who can otherwise not get connected. I was researching this and apparently in-demand areas see speeds drop already, due to capacity and contention being over a wide area. As for mobile networks, why not subsidise the rural from the masses connected in the cities? Then put that money towards a single fibre cable out to the lighthouse, or whatever. Just pay for solid infrastructure. Let the satellite capacity be for home use. In rural areas that will STILL not be enough in the near future if everyone wants to use the high-bandwidth applications, that they tend to when using tech to its reasonable expected mid-case use scenario. This country is really about too much rent-seeking, not enough decent management and infrastructure-building. Explain how other countries do it better if not the case?
    What I fear is the mission-creep of future failing to provide proper infrastructure where far more reasonable to expect it, just because it is easier to use Starlink. Then there is latency, atmospheric interference etc.

    Note to Mark Jackson – typing into this text entry field is laborious as it fills some sort of buffer then loses the typed text (feels like a hang). Lots of errors in the Broog. I typed “Browser Log” but it lost the other letters – seemingly at random. Some spyware script parsing the text in realtime? That naturally I am blocking (and not ashamed of it)? I am happy to donate what it’s worth.

  5. Avatar photo Paul Feeney says:

    I live in a village in Kent and was with O2 for 15 years only because my friend was manager in the local O2 shop and my monthly payment was peanuts but to make or receive a call I had to walk 20 metres away from my house!!! Repeatedly called customer service and was told my area had excellent reception… joke. Finally made the switch to virgin media as they used EE’s network and everything eventually worked as it should!! After the merger with O2 and once again being on their network again, back to taking a brisk walk around my village just to make a call!!! Worst mobile network and shocking customer service that ever was!!!

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