Virgin Media to connect the unconnected, if the price is right

Virgin Media has announced it will roll out its broadband offering to 12 villages in the Test and Dun Valley area, as it sets its sights on tackling the rural connectivity challenge, just as long as it’s not too risky.

The move will come as a bit of a concern for Openreach which has largely enjoyed a competition-free environment in the countryside due to the expensive job of delivering connectivity. Whether the introduction of an alternative service will force Openreach to actually start spending on its network remains to be seen, but it would not be a surprise to see a Virgin Media push elsewhere in the future.

“We are extremely excited about our ultrafast broadband expansion in the Test and Dun Valleys – this is a new way of delivering our gigabit-ready network,” said Rob Evans, Managing Director of the Virgin Media Lightning Programme. “This has been a brilliant example of us working hand in hand with the local community to deliver a solution which works for us both.  We look forward to doing more of these in the future.”

The last couple of months have seen small steps towards closing the digital divide, not only from Virgin Media but also Vodafone. Vodafone has committed to rolling out fibre networks in 12 cities and larger towns which are deemed as being underserved as another challenge to the Openreach cartel, though you have to give credit to Virgin Media for tackling less commercially attractive areas. But not too much credit though.

While Vodafone has committed to rolling out full-fibre networks in these 12 cities irrelevant of pre-determined demand, Virgin Media is taking the less risky approach. No work will take place until the telco can guarantee the countryside dwellers will swell its back accounts. It might be trying to paint the picture of the hero coming to the rescue, but this hero’s work does not come for free.

For Virgin Media to even think about bothering with the famers there would have to be registered interest from 30% of the residents. But this interest is only table stakes, for any work to actually happen there would have to be a financial commitment. In this example, 1,000 residents across the Test and Dun Valley area had to fully-commit to becoming a Virgin Media customer.

This should of course not be seen as an unusual business practise, it is trying to minimize risk which is sensible, but don’t take the hero image too seriously. The grand plan should also be taken with a pinch of salt.

Virgin Media notes that the area did not initially meet usual commercial requirements for expansion, due to the rural environment and a lack of significant broadband infrastructure already being in place. This might well turn out to be the exceptional rather than the rule, an exercise for the PR department to get a few nice photos and headlines, as Virgin Media seemingly searches for the regions where the upgrade work wouldn’t be that difficult.

So if you live in an area where there are slow connection speeds, broadband infrastructure already in place and it isn’t too rural, Virgin Media might be coming to your rescue before too long. You’ll also have to round-up some support to offer the telco a guaranteed payment, otherwise there might not be any interest.

The whole image looks a bit less like an Arthurian night riding into the sunset to tackle the evil dragon and more like a wild-west bounty hunter on the search for the next payday. Not necessarily a bad thing, but don’t get fooled by the philanthropic messaging.

UK Gov turns to God to solve the rural connectivity problem

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has announced a new initiative which will see churches and other buildings used to improve broadband, mobile and WiFi connectivity for rural communities.

In fairness to Minister for Fun Matt Hancock and his DCMS cronies, this isn’t a bad idea. 65% of Anglican churches and 66% of parishes in England are in rural areas, and in most cases these buildings are located centrally in the community meaning they could be ideally located to address connectivity and coverage problems. The buildings could be used to host digital infrastructure to aid the government in meeting its commitment to deliver good quality mobile connectivity to everyone in the country irrelevant as to where they live, work and travel.

“Churches are central features and valued assets for local communities up and down the country,” said Hancock. “This agreement with the Church of England will mean that even a 15th century building can help make Britain fit for the future improving people’s lives by boosting connectivity in some of our hardest-to-reach areas.”

While it is not necessarily a new idea, rolling it out nationwide could have a very positive impact. Currently there are 120 examples of broadband and mobile services being delivered from parish churches across the country, from wireless transmitters in church spires and church towers, to aerials, satellite dishes, and more traditional fibre cables. But this is nothing more than a drop in the ocean compared to what could be achieved through the initiative. The Church of England has just over 16,000 church buildings in 12,500 parishes.

“I welcome this agreement,” said Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich. “It builds on what we have been seeking to do in the Diocese of Norwich since 2011 with the creation of WiSpire, a company seeking to use church towers and spires to enable Wifi connectivity in communities, especially in rural locations. Our parish churches are a truly national network, and to use them creatively to create new forms of connectivity enhances their value for the communities they serve.”

The only thing which is more surprising than creative thinking from the government is the welcoming arms of the church in this example. There are some very unholy things on the internet and the church is now helping farmers access them.