Virgin Media looks to outpace rivals with £3bn plan

Virgin Media upped the ante in the high-stakes game for Britain’s telecoms and TV “quad-play” yesterday, announcing a £3 billion investment in broadband that is set to create thousands of jobs.

Usain Bolt  Virgin Media ads play on speed. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The company, which is owned by US firm Liberty Global, described the five-year plan as the single biggest investment in broadband digital infrastructure in the UK for more than a decade.

It will extend its fibre network to around four million more homes and businesses, taking the number of premises to which the company can offer services to nearly 17 million by 2020. The expansion, termed “Project Lightning”, is expected to create 6,000 jobs in the UK at Virgin Media and its construction partners. It will also increase the number of apprenticeships created by the company to 1,000 over the next five years.

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Liberty Global chief executive Mike Fries said the project followed a record operating performance and was “a significant investment that demonstrates the confidence we have in Virgin Media and the UK as a place to do business”.

Prime Minister David Cameron backed the plans, which he said were helping to build “a superfast nation backed by world-class infrastructure”.

He added: “Together with the [UK] government’s rollout of superfast broadband which has now reached more than two million UK homes and businesses, this additional private investment will create more opportunities for people and businesses, further boosting our digital economy and helping secure a brighter future for Britain.”

The company said its network expansion will be prioritised according to demand from households and companies, with a focus on areas closest to Virgin Media’s existing network.

Virgin said it was able to offer broadband speeds of up to 152Mb, which it claims is twice as fast as the best speeds available from BT, TalkTalk and Sky. Data usage on its network is currently growing at a rate of around 60 per cent a year.

Virgin Media boss Tom Mockridge said: “Millions of homes and businesses will soon be able to benefit for the first time from broadband speeds at least twice as fast as those available from the other major providers.

“Consumers and business owners who want to make the switch to better broadband speeds now have an alternative; you can call on Virgin Media to ‘cable my street’.”

Virgin’s fibre roll out is seen as the latest challenge in the so-called “quad-play” telecoms market – home phone, mobile, broadband and cable TV.

Rivals Sky and BT this week moved to secure their own selling points by snapping up rights to the most popular football matches for three years’ to come, with Sky shelling out £4.2bn for a dominant share of the English premier League.

Virgin, which also offers a TV service, has focused its marketing on broadband speed, with an advertising campaign featuring sprinter Usain Bolt.

Broadband expert Ewan Taylor-Gibson, from comparison site, said: “Virgin Media’s hefty cash injection will have a marked impact on UK broadband infrastructure, benefiting consumers and creating jobs in the process. More competition and faster speeds can only be a good thing for Brits.

“Almost two-thirds of broadband users now consider themselves heavy or moderate internet users, so the need for superfast speeds is becoming all the more urgent.”