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15 July 2019

Virgin Media introduces mmWave wireless to its rural fiber model

UK cable operator Virgin Media has announced that it is carrying out trials, in a small English village, described as delivering TV services and gigabit broadband “wirelessly over full fiber” in a world-first.

The Liberty Global-owned operator has hooked up two antennas, three kilometers apart, called trunk points, between which a 10Gbps signal is transmitted using high capacity millimeter wave technology. A cabinet containing the DAA (distributed access architecture) node and inverted node then handles the conversion process into a DOCSIS signal, with the DAA node interfacing with the inverted node, ultimately allowing TV and broadband services to be delivered over a fiber-to-the-home(FTTh) connection to the Virgin Media premises.

These trials represent a significant step forward in the case for shifting to DAA. These technologies are driving the way towards virtualization within core networks – with Virgin Media claiming a world first instance of a wireless trunk link being used to deliver services in DAA models. In the case of fiber, DAA creates a more software-defined network environment and therefore brings digital fiber signals closer to premises.

Lower capacities are congested with TV signals so using mmWave for delivering TV signals and then down converting to fiber could be a serious contender against satellite-delivered TV and broadband services. The shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies of mmWave frequencies above 20 GHz allow for far faster data transfer speeds, albeit over lesser distances.

While it’s unclear if extending further than the current distance of 3km is an aim of Virgin Media in the long term, or indeed technically possible, the operator has noted that the 10Gbps radio link can sustainably support delivery of residential services to 500 homes when considering a 40% average annual growth in data consumption. Furthermore, following configuration changes, the radio link can be upgraded to support a 20Gbps connection – meaning 2,000 homes could comfortably be connected in one area.

For now, the tiny trial has connected 12 homes initially in a UK village near Newbury, using wireless technology from Ericsson. These homes are receiving 1Gbps download and 150Mbps upload speeds in tandem with a full line-up of TV services from Virgin Media. Residents are connected directly with fiber and use Virgin Media’s Hub 3.0 router and V6 set-top, manufactured by Arris and running TiVo software.

Crucially, cost savings for fiber operators could be substantial by breaking up the delivery process with a wireless leap between points of presence.

Tying mmWave technology so explicitly to delivering TV and internet services without a single mention of 5G is a rarity these days, though these bands have been used in the past for broadband wireless experiments including the ill-starred boom in deployments in the USA’s LMDS bands at the start of the century.

Virgin Media CTO Jeanie York said: “As we invest to expand our ultrafast network, we’re always looking at new, innovative ways to make build more efficient and connect premises that might currently be out of reach. While presently this is a trial, it’s clear that this technology could help to provide more people and businesses with the better broadband they deserve.”