Virgin Media looks to fast future

Image caption,
Virgin has 70,000 subscribers to its 50Mbps service

Virgin Media has said it is "crunch time" for broadband as it gears up to offer speeds of up to 400Mbps (megabits per second).

Virgin Media's director of broadband Jon James said 100Mbps would be available by the end of the year.

And the company has 400Mbps-ready modems and routers in the pipeline.

Virgin Media hopes to extend its network to reach out to another million customers, using overhead cables.

400Mbps data transfer is fast enough to download an album in around a second, or a high-definition movie in around two minutes.

"We have a big fat dial to give more capacity to customers and there will be a steady series of upgrades," said Mr James.

He said that consumers are beginning to want more out of their connections.

"The crunch point is coming. There is a step-change in what people are trying to do with their broadband connection."

In terms of the usage that will drive faster speeds, Virgin Media envisaged a future where cloud computing, currently the preserve of businesses, comes to the living room.

"It would take people's IT problems away. Homework, photos, films would all live in the cloud and people wouldn't have to worry about the capabilities of their machine," said Kevin Baughan, director of technical strategy at Virgin Media.

Coupled with 3D multi-player gaming and home working, it should create demand for faster services, he said.

And consumer teleconferencing could also feature as a killer app.

"It has been oversold for so long but now we are actually doing it," said Mr James.

Telegraph poles

The UK government is keen to see the private sector increase its broadband footprint in rural areas.

As part of its attempt to fulfil that brief, Virgin Media is looking at rolling out broadband via existing overhead cables.

It is experimenting in the Berkshire village of Woolhampton, where it has built its own poles to provide residents with speeds of 50Mbps.

It estimates it can reach a further one million customers using existing overhead cables.

Laying down the gauntlet to rival BT, Mr James said the telco's technology had hit a "cul-de-sac".

"No-one can match us on speed. BT Infinity is a cul-de-sac. Its 25Mbps average is kind of the limit," he said.

Upstream speeds

But BT denied that the need for speed was due to accelerate any time soon.

"DSL speeds are increasing all the time so it is silly to suggest that there is a crunch point coming," said a spokesman.

"There are no services today which require 50 or 100Mbps but there may be in the future which is why BT is investing £2.5 billion in faster broadband," he added.

Virgin Media has been criticised for offering slow upstream speeds, crucial for those who want to create and upload content on to the web.

"Upstream speeds are going to become increasingly important and that's where BT's fibre network has the real advantage over others," said the BT spokesman.

Virgin Media revealed it does plan to notch up its upstream speeds later this year.

"Currently upstream speeds are far down the list of priorities when we do customer research. They can't see the applications for it," said Mr James.

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