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Virgin Media boards the 4G train

Is that a spectrum auction catalogue in your pocket?

Exclusive Virgin Media is planning trials of 4G telephony in several UK cities, dropping fibre-connected LTE Small Cells into urban areas, to see how easily decent coverage could be established.

This follows a single-cell trial the company did in Oxford Street in December, but involves more areas and a lot more cells. Virgin Media isn't saying whether or not it'll bid for any of the 2.6GHz band in which the trials will operate, but it's not saying never either. Knowing how well the gear works is advantageous, so this is a technology trial rather than a test of any consumer offering, but interesting none the less.

Virgin Media already has a consumer mobile offering - the Virgin Mobile virtual network that camps on Everything Everywhere's network - and is looking forward to being able to offer 4G on that network (by the end of 2012, if EE is to be believed). But deploying its own network is an obvious evolution and could be accomplished while still roaming onto EE's infrastructure where necessary.

The base stations being tested, built by Airspan, are physically small - ideal for dropping into lamp posts or bolting onto walls according to the company - but they also feature wireless backhaul so only need power to start routing calls. That technology was developed by the UK company Picochip, which recently got itself acquired by US outfit Mindspeed.

One can easily imagine Virgin Media buying some spectrum at the mega-auction later this year, dropping similar femtocells into customer homes and then letting customers roam onto EE's network when out and about. Neil Berkett, Virgin Media's CEO, reckoned his biz could deploy metropolitan Wi-Fi in London for a few million as it already has so much infrastructure, so replace those Wi-Fi routers with 4G cells and you've got yourself a mobile network.

But, on the other hand, Virgin Media already sells a lot of its network capacity to the network operators, so it could just set up the cells and then rent them out to someone who owned some frequencies in which they could operate. Let EE or similar take care of running the network, with Virgin Media providing the backhaul for a real operator while leaving Virgin Mobile as a virtual operator.

Realistically it's a bit of both, a project to gain information which will be useful either way. All the network operators are running up LTE trials at the moment, and Virgin wouldn’t want to be left out, but what it will do with the information once its gained remains to be seen. ®

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