When you’re looking for broadband, you have two main options. You can use a provider on the Openreach (BT line) network - which includes ISPs such as Sky, TalkTalk and EE as well as BT - or you can use the Virgin Media broadband network.
Virgin Media offers broadband and TV bundles and very fast broadband that's quicker than many other fibre broadband providers. But when comparing deals, you need to remember that the two networks are completely separate and are not compatible with each other. And, for reasons we will explain below, Virgin Media is not as universal in its reach as a BT line so you need to research to see if you can get it where you live. This guide will show you how.
A short history of BT and Virgin Media
Openreach is the network owned by BT, which is used by almost all broadband providers. BT began as a government entity called the General Post Office charged with taking over the many private companies offering telegraph services and bringing them all under one roof. Its job was to provide telephone services to everyone in Britain and created the public telephone network to do just that. As its government mandate was to provide telephone services to every property, it was - and still is - legally obligated to connect every home in the UK.
Virgin Media began as disparate private cable companies that operated independently of BT. When cable TV first came to Britain in a big way, regional companies were launched to offer these services to their towns and cities. Swindon Cable was the first back in 1984 and was soon joined by many others. These companies were eventually permitted to offer telephony and then cable broadband to their TV customers. These independent companies were all bought by larger operations, NTL and Cable & Wireless to name two. These were all then bought by Virgin Media.
As these cable companies did not have the same obligation to connect every home, they only laid cable where it was economically viable to do so. If they could make a profit by installing cable in a location, they did. If the company thought profits would be harder to come by, they wouldn’t. This is why not everyone can access Virgin Media services.
- Is Virgin Media cable or fibre broadband?
- Virgin Media no longer refers to its services as cable broadband and instead is now calling it fibre optic broadband. The network technology Virgin uses (Hybrid Fibre Coaxial - HFC) is fibre optic up to the street cabinets, and then it uses coaxial cables (hence cable broadband) to reach into homes. HFC is similar to the Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) technology used by most Openreach network fibre broadband providers; except in the case of FTTC, it is an Openreach phone line which connects homes to the street cabinets.
Virgin broadband checker
To become a Virgin Media customer, you need to live in an area where they have laid cable. The Broadband Genie postcode check can tell you whether you’re in a Virgin area or not. Just enter your postcode into the box below or on any of our comparison tables - if you see Virgin Media as an option, you are likely in a cabled area.
Broadband Genie postcode checker
For a definitive check, you need to use the Virgin Media Postcode Checker. They will have the most up to date records of where cable is available and precisely who can connect. This is always the first part of the sign-up process when choosing a Virgin Media broadband deal, so you'll know right away if Virgin is available in your area.
Virgin Media coverage
For the reasons noted above, Virgin Media has not had to connect every home. The company assesses the profitability potential of a given area, calculates the cost and decides whether or not to connect it to the network. That’s why some areas can access Virgin Media broadband and others cannot.
The company has put cable in established towns and cities, and new housing estates and planned town expansions. It is much cheaper to do this while the roads are being constructed than to dig them up later.
Why is Virgin Media coverage so variable?
While BT were legally obligated to connect every property to the public telephone network, cable companies had no such restrictions. They could concentrate on connecting profitable areas first and work their way outwards on their own terms.
Much of the original cable network was built in the 80s and 90s, and while expansion is steady, it is slow. Since its acquisition of the cable network, Virgin has prioritised network speed over coverage and put more money into improving the service for existing customers before adding new areas. This is a laudable way of working but does leave many areas of the UK without a Virgin connection.
What happened to Virgin Media Cable My Street?
The company used to have a special team called Cable My Street, and they were in charge of Virgin Media’s network expansion. They operated a program where you could request a connection to the network. The team disappeared from view a while ago never to be seen again.
Instead, a new page has appeared on the Virgin Media website offering the chance to request connection. It isn’t guaranteed that you will be connected, but it never hurts to ask!
Alternatives if you cannot get Virgin Media broadband
If your postcode is not in a Virgin broadband area, you still have alternatives. There are other companies that use the BT Openreach network that will be able to provide services to you. Speed will vary depending on your location, but it is possible to achieve speeds averaging around 65Mbps using fibre broadband.
Providers such as BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Plusnet and others provide FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet) connections to a good portion of the UK. These services are regularly expanding, so it’s worth checking availability in your area.
Some providers also offer FTTP (Fibre To The Premises) connections which are much faster. These are currently limited to specific regions but are also being steadily rolled out across the UK. Other technologies such as BT’s G.fast are also on their way which offer further speed improvements using the Openreach telephone network.