Virgin Media Small Cells Provide Wi-Fi In Leeds And Bradford

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Small cells on lamp-posts combine 4G and Wi-Fi in first UK government connected cities deal

Virgin Media Business is installing free Wi-Fi within Bradford and Leeds in a deal which puts small cells on the cities’ lamp-posts to deliver 4G and Wi-Fi as part of the government’s super-connected cities initiative.

The announcement is the first big contract for Virgin’s wholesale small cells service, announced in September, and the first chunk of money issued from the £114 million put aside by the UK government in last year’s budget for improving connectivity within ten cities. It’s also a big win for the idea of “small cell” networks – and some cells will be active before the end of the year.

Leeds city night lights 4G wi-fi © Morgan Rauscher Shutterstock

Leeds – but no wires!

The idea of covering cities with free Wi-Fi was popular in the early 2000s, but died a death when the business model for the idea fell apart. The most recent  such failure was London mayor Boris Johnson’s 2010 promise to cover the UK capital with free Wi-Fi before the Olympics. The roll out to a potential 1.2 million people in Leeds and Bradford will be different, because the small cells involved can also fill the need for more 4G coverage, Virgin Media told TechWeekEurope. 

“People won’t pay for Wi-Fi,” Virgin Media Business’s director of Broadband, Jon James said. Previous efforts to set up free Wi-Fi services attempted to offer a higher quality premium Wi-Fi service but the sums never added up, he said.

In Leeds and Bradford, Virgin will use its fibre network to connect to the cities’ lamp-posts and install small cell systems which will offer free Wi-Fi, but will also be available for commercial use as 4G cells, as LTE services are rolled out by EE and other operators over the next couple of years.

Small cells will be very important in the delivery of 4G services as a relatively small number of users can quickly overwhelm the capacity of a normal mobile cell, when they start consuming data at the higher speeds of 4G, explained Kevin Baughan, director of wireless at Virgin Media Business: “Small cells can transform the mobile experience by providing the connectivity needed to match the explosive broadband demand from the rapidly growing number of smartphones and tablets. In Leeds and Bradford, we’re working with both the local authorities and mobile operators to put in place the infrastructure that will give residents, consumers and businesses access to the wireless connectivity that they need.”

Virgin has no 4G spectrum but this made it a neutral party, explained James, while its fibre network made it the logical choice to connect the lamp-posts. Allowing the 3G and 4G operators onto the lamp-posts should finance the project at no cost to the cities, he said. The free Wi-Fi service will also be supported by advertising.

“I’m delighted our citizens, visitors and businesses will be among the first in the country to benefit from a free, fast, accessible city centre Wi-Fi service,” said Councillor Keith Wakefield, Leader of Leeds City Council explained. “Leeds is leading the way in ensuring that our infrastructure is in place to make the most of future digital developments and we are pleased that our neighbours Bradford are also supporting the regional push for super-fast broadband”.

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