Author(s): Kester Mann
This morning, Virgin Media announced the launch of Intelligent Wi-Fi, a service that aims to optimize the broadband experience for consumers by eliminating "black spots" and boosting speeds.
Bringing enhanced connectivity into the home is an emerging area of competition among UK operators. Virgin Media's offer bears strong resemblance to BT's Complete Wi-Fi, which was announced in November 2018 (see BT Unlocks Complete Wi-Fi). Vodafone is understood to be planning the launch of a similar service, Super Wi-Fi, in summer 2019, following its debut in Spain later this month.
The moves are important on two fronts: to support accelerating demand on devices as well as services (Virgin Media says that data usage in the home has doubled in the past year), and to create a stronger platform on which to roll out new products in the future, for example in the area of the connected home.
Intelligent Wi-Fi works with Virgin Media's latest Hub 3 router, which has now been installed in about three quarters of its broadband households. The company says the smart, cloud-based system adapts to the needs of the home and the devices within it to ensure the best possible Wi-Fi performance. Tests show that speeds could be up to three times faster in certain areas of the home.
A leading feature is Virgin Media's new Connect App, which acts as a control panel for all Intelligent Wi-Fi features. The most interesting aspect is that customers can use it to test the strength of their Wi-Fi in each room. If the app shows that connectivity in a certain location isn't strong enough to stream video, it will recommend a series of basic fixes. If these fail, customers will receive a powerline Wi-Fi booster from Virgin Media within 24 hours, although the company believes this will only be necessary for about one in four of its customers.
The app can also manage devices, pause connectivity (Virgin Media demonstrated how a tablet's connectivity could be stopped within seconds), provide guest passwords and offer access to beefed-up customer support.
When I challenged Virgin Media on how it intends to position Intelligent Wi-Fi against alternative offers, the company homed in on its speed advantage. It claims its broadband is up to five times quicker than that of rivals and reiterated plans to raise its top-tier speed from 350 Mbps to 500 Mbps in the coming weeks.
Virgin Media also trumpeted the inclusive pricing for Intelligent Wi-Fi, which will be offered as standard to all its customers. The boosters will be free of charge to subscribers to its Full House and VIP services, and will cost £3 per month to other customers. BT's Complete Wi-Fi is priced at £5 per month for its premium Plus customers and £10 per month on all other fibre packages.
Virgin Media's Testing Facility
Last week, I was granted a very privileged peek inside Virgin Media's top-secret testing facility in Buckinghamshire, where Intelligent Wi-Fi was put through its paces.
The venue, which has benefitted from millions of pounds of investment from Virgin Media parent Liberty Global, is three times the size of an average UK home. It can be adapted to replicate different types of residence, from the design and layout of the rooms to the materials used for interior and external walling. It's fully shielded from the outside world to create a controlled environment, without interference from Wi-Fi, mobile or other signals.
In a device testing room, Virgin Media uses a portfolio of up to 180 connected laptops, smartphones and wearables, spread across different generations and operating systems, to ensure the best performance on a wide and representative range of customer equipment.
Speaking as a consumer and an analyst, it's easy to underestimate just how rigorous testing processes need to be and Virgin Media certainly leaves no stone unturned. Such efforts are often taken for granted as we become ever-more demanding for instant and seamless connectivity. It was certainly a fascinating insight.