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Virgin Media Denies Imminent Femtocell Rollout

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Virgin Media has denied it is about to offer its customers femtocells to ease the data burden on mobile networks

Virgin Media has confirmed to eWEEK Europe that media reports of it imminently rolling out mini mobile base stations, are not accurate.

At the weekend, a number of national publications such as the Guardian reported that Virgin Media has plans underway to offer its customers their own personalised mini mobile phone base station (effectively a femtocell), which would mean that Virgin Media has to acquire 4G spectrum in the upcoming Ofcom spectrum auction.

It was taking this action, according to media reports, because of the data strain on mobile networks caused by the increasing use of mobile data by smartphones and even computers via 3G dongles.

Not Accurate

However Virgin Media confirmed to eWEEK Europe, that the reports of an imment femtocell rollout were not accurate and the reports were acting on ‘Chinese whispers.’

It insisted that in actual fact, a Virgin Media executive had been just theorising about the future opportunities and challenges in managing mobile data.

eWEEK Europe understands that there is recognition within Virgin Media that mobile data is growing exponentially (both in volume and device terms) and there is no sign of slowdown. The company also recognises the UK is on the tipping point of 4G, thanks to the upcoming spectrum auction and the rise of LTE.

Virgin Media had apparently mentioned one idea of having LTE compatible femtocells, which could theoretically offload mobile traffic onto its fibre-based core network for delivery. It theorised that mobile data is no longer only the domain for mobile operators, but that network operators such as Virgin Media could be in a great position to exploit emergent technologies to provide a greater range of services for customers.

Virgin Statement

“People are increasingly connecting more devices wirelessly to the internet so it is important this doesn’t become a capacity bottleneck in future,” a Virgin Media spokesman told eWEEK Europe in an emailed statement.

“In order to maximise the value of what is limited spectrum, short range low powered frequencies could be used to ensure localised areas of high demand are satisfied,” the spokesman added. “These frequencies could be shared by companies beyond just the mobile network operators so that consumers will benefit most from greater innovation and a better quality wireless internet experience.”

Virgin Media insisted that while there was space in the market for a operator such as this, with the ability to offload mobile data onto a fixed-line back haul, it is not at this point yet.

However, eWEEK Europe understands that Virgin Media is looking at a number of options and what role it could take in this.

Virgin Media does offer a mobile service, operating as a virtual network operator or VNO (i.e. Virgin Media rents mobile network capacity from another operator for its Virgin Media mobile service).

Virgin Media is known to currently rent mobile network capacity from T-Mobile and Orange.

Femtocell Uptake

At the moment Vodafone is leading the way in the UK with femtocells.

Its femtocell was launched back in June 2009, but in January 2010 Vodafone renamed the femtocell as Sure Signal, and also cut the price of the device dramatically to just £50, from £160.

And it seems that more and more femtocells are being deployed nowadays as well, after Informa Telecoms & Media reported in early 2010 that tier-one operator commitment to femtocells had increased.

However Vodafone’s femtocell did suffer a slight security scare this summer, when a researcher claimed that calls made using Sure Signal could be hacked and recorded.