How Virgin Media Business is connecting education, public services and mobile

Vigin Media Business
Virgin Media Business: making connections

Virgin Media Business, part of the Virgin Group, is a provider of internet and telecommunications services to companies and public sector organizations.

In May, it made London the first region in the UK to connect all its local authorities and services to the Public Services Network (PSN), an initiative co-ordinated by the London Learning for Grid (LGfL) Trust, a consortium of local authorities and 2,000 schools based in the capital.

We spoke to Mario DiMascio, Sales Director at Virgin Media Business, to find out more about the PSN, the company's infrastructure and public sector plans, and its continued push into the education space.

The company

TechRadar Pro: Can you fill us in on Virgin Media Business's background?

Mario DiMascio: Liberty Global Media bought Virgin Media, which has around 24 million subscribers in Europe, and Virgin Media Business, in 2013. Virgin Media Business contributes to 40% of Virgin Media's growth."

At Virgin Media Business, around a third of our business is concerned with the public sector, another third in the backhaul mobile operator space, and the final third is general business, which includes what we're doing with system integrators.

We've had a really good year that's seen us win new customers and launch new propositions into the marketplace.

The network

TRP: What is the company doing on the infrastructure side, and what can you tell us about the PSN?

MDM: The infrastructure side is really important to us. If you look at the stats, we go to around 85% of UK businesses and have planted 200,00k of fibre into the ground, which gives us a platform to provide services.

We were the first to provide a Public Service Network (PSN) in the UK, and we've got lots of them around the country. They allow us to connect together different services - whether that's libraries, housing or a local authority - allowing organisations to share a single platform.

TRP: What's the advantage of that?

MDM: It reduces costs, because one network provides a standard level of service, which gives those local authorities and governments more flexibility.

TRP: Can you give us any examples of how the PSNs are being used?

MDM: On Election Day in West London, the BBC connected to a VMB fibre-optic network and LondonPSN, allowing the transmission of video back to New Broadcasting House without them having to use satellite trucks. That allowed them to broadcast without disruption, and it's an example of how you take what's in the ground and get a real benefit from it.

Another example is our CambridgePSN, which represented quite a significant investment in infrastructure. Cambridgeshire County Council overlaid Wi-Fi hotspots on top of that PSN to provide a better service to its citizens, allowing people to log on and use it when they wanted.

That benefits different segments and citizens in society - from the elderly to public sector organisations, volunteers and other people in the community. It's about making a digital platform inclusive so that people can get easier access to better information and services.

TRP: It sounds like the PSNs provide a similar benefit for the JaNET education network…

MDM: They're similar, but slightly different. JaNET's about high-speed and capacity, so there's no delay in getting information from one place to another, and it's also about connecting up educational establishments.

We continue to go from strength to strength with JaNET in terms of providing infrastructure. The PSNs are different in that every organisation it goes through has different speed and capacity requirements. They're more about including organisations, and while speed, resilience and efficiency are still important factors, JaNET is more about high-speed connectivity.

Building TRUSTnet

TRP: JaNET aside, the company has been busy in the education space this year. What can you tell us about TRUSTnet?

MDM: TRUSTnet is a set of digital services and content powered by Virgin Media Business that's designed to bring a better level of communication, information and education to more than 23,000 students in schools across Britain.

More specifically, it's about four things: providing secure access to educational content, doing it a much more cost-effective way (while providing it faster), and also acting as a vehicle that organisations outside of London can connect to.

TRUSTnet enables content to be securely bundled in a very cost-effective way. We believe that we can save UK education establishments something like £840 million over the next few years by making procurement simpler and more efficient than the current process schools have to through.

TRP: How was that content delivered pre-TRUSTnet?

MDM: Each organization would have procured content themselves, so a local education authority and council would have gone out to get it delivered from different places and in a different way.

TRUSTnet just focuses on the education segment, so that's all they do. It allows organisations to choose the best rate for them while getting the best level of resilience. It's difficult to compare it to something that's generic - it's much more focused and tailored.

One of the reasons that it's launched outside of London is because it's been successful there.

TRP: What's behind VMB's push into learning?

MDM: For us, I think it's more strategic in term of where we're at. We generally believe that the digital economy in the UK is a key strategic weapon in terms of helping us to grow GDP.

We believe that some jobs are going to be created in the future that we currently aren't aware of, and we'd like to play a part in preparing students for those challenges. The government recognised that it had to change the curriculum, which it has. We believe that using the PSN infrastructure that we have, and by working with schools, that we can help to shape educational content and the way it's delivered.

TRP: VMB describes its Generation Tech initiative as "the country's first state-of-the-nation review of the vital role that technology plays in education". What will it involve?

MDM: It's about trying to understand more about how children are using people are using technology, what we can do differently and how we can help. We're sending 20,000 letters to schools asking how they're using tech, what we could do differently, and how we can make tech more inclusive. We're also creating the UK's first Digital Youth Council, which will lead debates and highlight issues.

TRP: Has the use of consumer technology like tablets helped General Tech get off the ground?

MDM: Definitely - the kids are picking it up really quickly - so they're going to be telling us how to use the devices and how to make learning easier. There's a huge amount that we're doing around flexible working in education, and by using these devices the students can essentially show us the way.

Extending reach

TRP: What can you tell us about the small cell backhaul network in Leeds that VMB and Siklu have installed?

MDM: Over the last 18 months we've been working with some of our local authority customers - people in Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham - where we've been installing free Wi-Fi.

The strategic element behind that is that we've been laying down the infrastructure and ensuring that we have access to lamp poles and CCTV posts, allowing us to install small cells (low-power radio access points). They allow huge radio capacity to be spread out over a wide area.

For example, if you was in a city centre where there would be a high density population with more people on their phones, it would concentrate a 4G signal to give you a better experience on your smartphone.

Actual deployment of that could be another 12 months away. At the moment we're trialling some small cell equipment to see how it reacts in the rain, wind and other elements. We need to make sure that if a mobile operator takes on that kind of service then there'll be no deterioration, so it has to work all of the time.

Kane Fulton
Kane has been fascinated by the endless possibilities of computers since first getting his hands on an Amiga 500+ back in 1991. These days he mostly lives in realm of VR, where he's working his way into the world Paddleball rankings in Rec Room.