Virgin Media O2 Use Starlink for UK Mobile Backhaul in Rural Areas

Mobile network operator O2 (VMO2) has begun harnessing SpaceX’s global network of Starlink ultrafast broadband satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), which are being used to help provide mobile backhaul (data) capacity to boost mobile services in some of the United Kingdom’s remotest locations (e.g. sites in the Scottish Highlands).

The use of such an approach is not new to O2, which last year tested a similar Starlink-based method alongside Wavemobile (here) when deploying 4G signals to the area around the South Stack Lighthouse in Holyhead, Anglesey (Wales), as well as other places.

NOTE: The work is designed to support VMO2’s efforts under the £1bn industry-led Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, which aims to extend geographic 4G coverage (aggregate) to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025.

The reality is that some locations remain “extremely difficult or impossible to connect using standard technologies“, such as fibre optic lines or fixed Microwave (point-to-point wireless) connections, which is where LEO satellites can come in handy. Past trials have helped to prove this point.

As a result of all that, O2 are now rolling out Starlink based connections for mobile backhaul capacity to a small but growing number of very remote locations, starting in northern Scotland. The project has been delivered in collaboration with shareholder, Telefónica Global Solutions (TGS), which is an official Starlink reseller.

Jeanie York, CTO of Virgin Media O2, said:

“We’re leaving no stone unturned when it comes to improving rural connectivity and are continuously looking for new ways to boost signal in remote areas. Our commitment to delivering on our part of the Shared Rural Network programme has seen us turn first to helicopters and now to satellites to connect some of the most difficult and remote parts of the country. By constantly finding new ways to deliver for our customers, we are bringing reliable mobile coverage to rural communities faster and helping to close the UK’s digital divide.”

One catch here is that Starlink, while a very useful solution for such locations, does not have the same sort of capacity and network latency as modern fibre optic lines. This may not be such an issue for the previous generation of 4G-based services, but it could limit the potential capabilities of future 5G and even 6G services. On the other hand, a lot of these locations won’t have even had 4G before now, so this is still likely to be a major improvement.

VMO2 are also exploring other ways satellite connectivity can benefit their customers in the future, including providing coverage for emergency services (police, fire, rescue, ambulance etc.) and improved mobile connectivity at special events.

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