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Virgin Media hangs from traffic lights, hands out free Wi-Fi to Brummies

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Virgin Media plans to get mobile operators to pay for free Birmingham-wide Wi-Fi in a deal which could see every traffic light in the city turned unto a 4G cell base station.

The free Wi-Fi is set to go live in September, and comes as part of the government's Super Connected Cities Digital Birmingham's Smart City initiative*. For Virgin, however, it's an opportunity to string the city centre with fibre optic cables which can then be leased out to mobile operators desperate to add backhaul capacity for their 4G connectivity.

"The concession will also allow Virgin Media Business to offer their ground-breaking hosting service to mobile operators" admits the release, explaining that its access to street furniture - lamp posts, traffic lights and so forth - makes it the ideal partner for network operators looking to deploy small base stations.

A cellular base station can only host a certain number of connections, and carry a certain amount of traffic, so the easiest way to increase capacity is to increase the number of base stations. A modern small cell is little bigger than a Wi-Fi router, and with Virgin's fibre for backhaul available, an operator can increase capacity very cheaply.

Last year Virgin trialled the technique in London to establish that cellular traffic would slip happily over its network. With the Birmingham deal in place, there's little reason for network operators to look elsewhere.

In exchange for access to all that street furniture, Virgin will fund the free Wi-Fi in the centre of town, and the city council gets a cut of the revenue from the network operators too, so cellular users will end up paying for the free Wi-Fi service ... even if it's not directly.

The networks don't have to pay Virgin, of course; they can build their own backhaul using wireless or wired links. Finding points to mount the kit will be an ongoing challenge, though. If they do, then Virgin will be in the interesting position where a Brummie using Wi-Fi is a cost, but make him switch to cellular and his traffic becomes pure profit.

Virgin say the Wi-Fi will be offered without caps on time or flow, but they're reserving the right to plaster the connection with adverts if it proves necessary. They'll also have the ability to control the access speed, which could become awfully tempting when throttling the Wi-Fi shifts traffic onto the revenue-generating cellular network.

But despite all that, this looks like one of the more realistic models for metropolitan Wi-Fi. It's certainly more sustainable than many previous attempts, and for anyone lost in the middle of Birmingham a bit of free connectivity will be a welcome relief. ®

Updated to add

After this story was published, a Virgin Media spokesman got in touch to clarify the governmental body involved.

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