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Virgin Media: ‘Regulation should foster competition’

Tom Mockridge, CEO of UK quadplay operator Virgin Media, has called for a number of regulatory initiatives better to allow alternative telcos to compete with BT.

Delivering a Keynote Address at the Broadband World Forum in London, Mockridge noted that consolidation of the UK cable industry had culminated in the merger of NTL and Telewest, which was to become Virgin Media. “But that was a capital-constrained company,” he pointed out, accepting that the roll-out of cable had effectively ended a decade previously.

Following the acquisition of Virgin Media by Liberty Media in 2013, things had changed. “One of the joys of being part of the Liberty Global group and working for a guy like [Liberty Chairman] John Malone who sees the vision of broadband cable is that our shareholders are prepared to fund a huge expansion of the network in the United Kingdom.”

Accordingly, Virgin Media was able to announce earlier in 2015 a £3 billion programme over five years to pass an additional four million premises giving access to some 17 million premises across the UK. However, Mockridge felt that the operator was constrained in certain areas, describing the challenges of “Victorian Policy in a Digital Age”. As the only true competitor to BT, he felt it didn’t benefit from the same historic entitlements as the dominant telco – particularly in respect of ‘wayleaves’ – a means of providing rights for a company to install and retain its cabling or piping across private land in return for annual payments to the landowner.

He encouraged delegates to raise the matter with their local council, MP or [Minister of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries] Ed Vaizey. “If we want to have the breadth of a full digital economy with full head-to-head infrastructure competition in the United Kingdom, we need to make that more pragmatic, more practical for the newcomer to gain access to those premises that is enjoyed by BT by virtue of it having inherited the 100-year old copper network.”

Nevertheless, Virgin Media was not joining other operators in calling for BT’s network division Openreach to be divested. “That’s not something we agree with. It’s not a good message to send to any investor,” he said, suggesting that such decisions should have been taken 30 years ago when the telco was privatised, rather than the state take away the asset. He felt that economic competition between competing networks was preferable.

He expressed concern that BT’s proposed acquisition of cellco EE would result in too much mobile spectrum being owned by one company. “Having two-thirds of the UK mobile spectrum would not be a good outcome.”

In terms of Virgin Media’s position in the broader Liberty Global group, he noted that there were opportunities in Europe to develop scale, but that this was best achieved by a pro-market regulatory environment.

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