Virgin Media talks up 400Mbps broadband

The cable operator has said its next generation of broadband equipment will support 400Mbps services, but stopped short of confirming rollout plans

Virgin Media has started talking up the prospects of providing all its customers with 400Mbps broadband, which would outstrip BT's fastest internet connections by a factor of four.

The next generation of Virgin's customer premise equipment (CPE) will be capable of supporting the faster speeds, the cable operator said. However, it stopped short of saying it would definitely roll out the service.

"We are making moves to make sure our equipment is capable of 400Mbps. We are not saying we are looking at 400Mbps, but that our equipment is prepared for the future," a Virgin Media spokesperson told ZDNet UK on Thursday.

This is the first time Virgin has talked with any conviction of a 400Mbps service. Previously, the cable operator revealed that it is trialling 200Mbps services in Ashford. It is due to start a second trial in Coventry after the World Cup. Virgin has also said 100Mbps services will be launched later this year.

The move notches up the company's rivalry with BT in super-fast broadband. BT is rolling out a combination of fibre-to-the-cabinet and fibre-to-the-home to 65 percent of the population, offering up to 40Mbps and 100Mbps, respectively.

Virgin already offers 50Mbps across its cable footprint, which covers 50 percent of homes. "We have said we would stay a step ahead," the company's spokesperson said.

The operator intends to pursue three means of expanding its network, it said. The first two would mean an additional 500,000 homes will be covered.

The first is laying cable to homes close to its footprint, focusing on those that were omitted during the initial network build in the early 1990s. The second is connecting new housing developments. Both will be based on a hybrid-fibre coax (HFC) network, the architecture that Virgin uses nationwide. These homes, therefore, will receive a coxial cable, and not a fibre-optic cable, into their home.

The third means of expansion involves the laying of fibre-optic cable via distribution poles to homes, Virgin said. The cable operator currently has one 50Mbps trial of this technology in Woolhampton, Berkshire. This means of expansion uses fibre all the way to the home, but terminates over a short piece of coaxial cable, meaning the customer routers do not need to be changed. Virgin said it may try to use electricity ducts to get fibre closer to these homes.

ZDNet UK understands that Virgin Media may deploy more of the third category in future, but that HFC will remain its primary focus.

One expert was not convinced by Virgin's plans. Tim Johnson, chief analyst at Point Topic, said he thought the network expansion trials may not yield further rollout.

"Virgin's strategy is dictated by their financial situation. There's a huge incentive [for Virgin] to stick with the network it's got," he said. "It's only there because £10bn has been written off for the cost of the network."

Johnson believes that Virgin has shown an unwillingness in the past to expand the network. "Their approach has been more cautious," he said, arguing that Virgin is focused on increasing shareholder earnings and increasing the revenue gained per user rather than trying to reach more customers.

The analyst added that Virgin may continue to have problems with its upstream capacity. "Inherently, there is a limit to cable architecture," he said.