Virtual1 offers a model to aspire to in order to realise UK connectivity vision
When it comes to the UK broadband industry, successive governments and regulators in the sector have tended to want three things: the fastest connection speeds possible, available to the maximum amount of people, and all within a competitive market with prices kept low.
Boris Johnson has long been vocal of his ambition for a Conservative government to deliver ultrafast fibre broadband to everyone in the UK by 2025, while Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn campaigned with a promise to deliver free broadband to every home by 2030, which would be delivered through nationalising BT.
Looking at the scale of these ambitions, the industry has been left with much to do. In 2012, BT had started to roll out full fibre to the cabinet [FTTC], where the final connection runs to homes from a copper cable. This was widely regarded as a cheaper means of delivering superfast broadband, defined as being above 24Mbps, than investing in a full fibre network. There was also government pressure to deliver it around that time under the Cameron ministry, when then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt set a target of delivering the “best super fast broadband” to 90 per cent of homes by the year 2015.
But, while the major players have been hesitant to roll out full fibre en masse, other firms have been proactive and successful in doing so in a more localised manner.
One of these is the UK’s now fifth-largest telecoms network provider, Virtual1. Established in 2007, the firm evolved from being a local London operation and network aggregator to a UK-wide carrier and is going shoulder to shoulder with BT and other giants.
An integral way in which the firm sought to provoke disruption and innovation in the IT and communications sector was to drive innovation themselves, as CEO and founder Tom O’Hagan describes.
Speaking to The Parliamentary Review, O’Hagan said: “With a famously slow-moving market, the best way to drive innovation was to do it ourselves, so we invested in our own fibre network across London and to date boast the largest fibre network in the capital [as of 2018].”
The custom fibre network in London gave Virtual1 direct control over its solutions, including its flagship 1Portal network which has become a cornerstone for UK businesses.
O’Hagan added: “It was clear old technology and ways of working were not going to deliver the disruption that the market needed”.
Indeed, companies outside of the household names taking the issue of innovation into their own hands has also worked to good effect elsewhere. While BT was laying down copper fibre back in 2012, Humber-based telecoms firm Kcom embarked on an £85 million project to deliver full fibre directly to every home in the whole of the city of Hull, deeming FTTC connection not to be “future proof”.
It was far more time-consuming to rollout the network, but since its launch, Hull has soared up the league tables for broadband provision, with an average connection speed of 94.7Mbps.
Although Kcom has been successful as a monopoly player in Hull, Virtual1 is testament to the fact that leading speeds can be possible on a regional level even with fierce competition, especially operating in a city such as London. The major test now will be rolling out the network across the whole of the country, and the message is clear that firms like Virtual1 can play a part in making it possible, as much as the long-established household names can.