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Virgin mulls handing out free Wi-Fi

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Virgin Media is talking to local authorities about providing free metro Wi-Fi, using bandwidth that's lying fallow while all its domestic customers are at work.

The idea was alluded to during the investor's call last week, and responding to questions the company's CEO Neil Berkett confirmed that Virgin Media was in "advanced conversations" with some London boroughs about providing half a megabit of free connectivity, ramping up to 10Mb/s for Virgin cable customers.

Berkett described Virgin's cable network as "effectively idle during the day", so argued that filling it with Wi-Fi backhaul makes sense while 3G is still spotty and 4G has yet to arrive.

Not that Virgin Media sees a long-term revenue stream from municipal Wi-Fi. The project was described as something worth taking a punt on, and as it will only cost a few million Berkett reassured investors that "I'm sure Eamonn [O'Hare, Virgin's CFO] won't beat me up if I get it wrong".

Municipal Wi-Fi has failed in all sorts of places, generally because the cost and complexity has been underestimated. Wi-Fi is not suited to blanket coverage, given its lack of channels and susceptibility to interference, and making it economically viable has been a huge challenge.

But Virgin Media already has the backhaul in place, so putting in Wi-Fi is cheap, perhaps cheap enough to provide connectivity in residential areas as well as more-trafficked locations. Unlike in the case of council-run schemes, Virgin also has no obligation (legal or moral) to provide blanket coverage, which should make the idea much more viable. ®

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