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Three UK turns to Virgin for 5G backhaul

Virgin Media Business has signed a deal with Three UK to provide dark fibre backhaul for a bunch of its 5G cell sites.

The deal covers over 3,000 existing and future cell sites around the UK, presumably any that Virgin has fibre to. On top of that Virgin has committed to build new fibre connections to a bunch of urban hotspot locations. This represents a good win for Virgin, building on the backhaul work it got from Vodafone as part of the MVNO deal the two of them signed back in November.

It should be noted, however, that Three UK also recently signed a 5G backhaul deal with CityFibre that covers the country outside of London, so it seems likely that this deal is mainly a London thing.

“We’re building the high capacity fibre backbone that will link mobile phone masts and cell sites across the country and power the UK’s 5G future,” said Peter Kelly, MD of Virgin Media Business. “With a powerful network and skilled engineers already in place, our infrastructure will help mobile operators to roll out their 5G network at scale. Virgin Media Business is fast becoming the backhaul bastion for 5G rollout.”

Virgin says that even before this deal it accounted for the backhaul and aggregation of around 40% of the UK’s voice and mobile data traffic. Momentum seems to be in its favour and it could end up grabbing a bigger chunk of the 5G business. One reason for this is presumably the desire on the part of other MNOs not to give business to their direct competitor BT in they can possibly avoid it.

According to the FT, Virgin is also chatting to O2 UK about a similar deal, which would give it the full non-BT set. However, the two are also mulling a merger, which would turn Virgin into a direct competitor of Vodafone and Three too. Existing backhaul deals would presumably be honoured, but if that merger goes ahead smaller providers such as CityFibre may benefit further.

In other Three UK news, its CEO Robert Finnegan has published an update on how the company is dealing with the current unique circumstances. Most of it is the standard corporate stuff about how caring and conscientious the company is, but there are some interesting data points concerning the changes in network traffic after the country was locked down in late March.

  • Calls – increase of 8% to 2.5 billion in March.
  • Average call duration increased by 21% to almost 4 mins.
  • Data usage up 12% despite main video providers reducing the quality of their streaming
  • Use of Zoom up 1325% and Facetime up 100%.
  • Calls to prayer lines doubled in the first two weeks of lockdown

Finnegan also mentioned that Three has had over 30 attacks on its mast sites, which seems consistent with what other MNOs are reporting. “There is absolutely no link between 5G and Coronavirus,” he said. “The 5G rollout by all UK MNOs complies with all global standards on health and safety which have been developed since the early 1990s.” That should do it.

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