Virgin Media is considering a multi-million pound investment in a public wi-fi broadband network.
The company is “actively exploring” plans to exploit its super-fast broadband cable network to create tens of thousands of speedy wi-fi access points across the country.
Virgin is considering copying US rival Cablevision, which has rolled out public wi-fi access across swathes of New York. Cablevision joined with TimeWarner in the $300m (£187m) project which provides thousands of Wi-Fi broadband “hot spots” in areas where mobile phone companies are struggling to keep up with demand for 3G mobile internet access.
The incredible boom in data-hungry devices, such as Apple’s iPhone and iPad, has left mobile operators struggling to keep up with consumers’ desire for constant access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Kevin Baughan, Virgin’s director of advanced technology, said public wi-fi could be the solution. “We have been inspired by what Cablevision has been able to do in New York and are actively exploring the possibility of creating a similar network here,” he said. “It takes the sheer power of the cable broadband network and puts it where people need it.”
Mr Baughan said the service would work by placing broadband routers in secure public locations and connecting them to Virgin’s network kerbside green boxes. The service is expected to offer five megabits per second (mbps) wi-fi speeds compared to BT’s Openzone, which offers up to 8mbps but only if you stick close to one of its 3,900 hubs. BT also offers slower 0.5mbps BTFON access by allowing customers to piggyback on the home broadband of 1.9m of its customers.
Mr Baughan conceded all previous attempts to provide blanket wi-fi coverage to UK cities have failed to come to fruition, but said Virgin’s idea will succeed because it will provide coverage only where there is sufficient demand.
“Previous attempts were to fulfil a social objective. This is to solve a real problem,” Mr Baughan said. “Steve Jobs [chief executive of Apple] has created phenomenal demand, and we’ve got the best fibre [optic] network in the country that could help meet it.
“This isn’t about building broad coverage, it’s about giving you fast, predictable, access where you need it.”
Virgin is considering making the service available free of charge to its home broadband and Virgin Mobile customers. The general public would be able to access it on a pay-as-you go or subscription basis. A third option under consideration is to provide the service to whole communities via agreements with local councils.
The scale of investment needed may raise the eyebrows of Virgin’s investors as the company had previously made cutting its £5.7bn debt burden its top priority.