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Virgin Media Trials Wireless to Deliver Gigabit Broadband to Rural Customers

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Virgin Media has launched a trial using wireless radio signals to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to rural customers.

12 homes in Greenham, just outside of the market town of Newbury in Berkshire, are currently receiving connections with speeds of 1Gbps downstream and 150 Mbps upstream. Those speeds are equivalent to the fastest full fibre broadband available to domestic customers in Britain. But rather than lay kilometres of fibre optic cabling to this village, Virgin covered part of the ground using wireless radio technology.

The trial broadcasts a high-capacity milimetre (mmW) radio link between two “trunk” points three kilometres apart, at speeds of up to 10Gbps. The signal is then converted at a cabinet and relayed to the homes over a full fibre connection.

While the trial only connected 12 homes, the 10Gbps radio link could support connections to 500 homes and businesses, and even be future-proofed against a 40% average annual increase in data consumption. If the link were scaled to deliver speeds of 20Gbps, it could provide services to up to 2,000 premises—and all without the expensive, time-consuming, and labour-intensive laying of physical cabling across the countryside.

Virgin tested and optimised the trunk link in a range of weather conditions, including 80mph winds and 30mm rainfall. It found the 3km distance is optimal for reliability in all weather.

“As we invest to expand our ultrafast network we’re always looking at new, innovative ways to make build more efficient and connect premises that might currently be out of reach. While presently this is a trial, it’s clear that this technology could help to provide more people and businesses with the better broadband they deserve,” said Jeanie York, Virgin Media’s chief technology and information officer.

The use of wireless technology could help the UK achieve its goal of connecting every home and business to full fibre broadband by 2033.

Last week Tory party leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson pledged to achieve universal full fibre coverage by 2025, particularly to the rural communities he said were being left behind. Industry experts criticised his plans for lacking detail and realism. Currently the UK has just 7% full fibre coverage.

While the government’s current full fibre plans focus on mobilising private investment, it has acknowledged that reaching the last 10% of premises, those in rural and remote areas where laying cables is financially unviable, may require public funding. The bill for this is anticipated to  be between £3 and £5 billion. Last week Ofcom launched a consultation asking for industry feedback as it models the costs of building full fibre connections.

Previous research has shown that while most properties can be connected to full fibre for under £500, the costs rise to over £2,500 for the most remote connections

Using wireless technology to traverse some of these distances and still deliver full fibre speeds could reduce some of these costs. Virgin Media has suggested that using wireless radio links could reduce the cost of building fibre networks by up to 90%.

Virgin will conduct further trials of the technology later this year.

Lauren Smith
Lauren Smith

Lauren Smith has worked as a journalist and copywriter for most of the last decade, covering technology, energy, and consumer rights, in the US and UK.

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