Virgin challenges Freeview to free TV fight

1st Apr 2007 | 23:00

Virgin challenges Freeview to free TV fight

Branson also swells pressure on Ofcom-awaiting Sky

Virgin Media has ratcheted up competition in the free-to-air TV market with the launch of Virgin Free TV for people living in non-cable areas. The extension of Virgin's TV services to the digital terrestrial platform does come at a price though - you will need a different set-top-box and have to subscribe to Virgin's ADSL broadband package.

The new boxes will offer viewers over 40 free-to-air TV channels and 25 digital radio stations, while subscription-based extra channels are sure to follow.

The extra set-top box will cost £40 for non-cable customers also taking a broadband service, but is free to any Virgin Media non-cable customer taking the 8MB broadband and Talk Anytime phone bundle at £19.99 a month.

The move is important for Virgin, since it takes its services beyond the restrictive cable network. Cable only serves 55 per cent of UK households. Crucially, the box is also a plug-and-play install, so no costly engineers are needed for home visits.

"Launching a basic TV service into non-cable areas enables us to expand availability of our quad-play of broadband, phone, mobile and TV," says Philip Snalune, MD of Virgin Media's non-cable business. "This is just the first step and our aim is to offer more advanced TV services in all areas throughout 2008.

"The digital switchover is just around the corner and we can now offer consumers across the UK a simple and low-cost way of making the digital leap, even if they can't get cable services."

With the switchover looming, competition for digital subscribers is hotting up. Virgin's new service is designed to appeal to viewers who don't want to pay for extra channels and find a service such as Sky too expensive. It also steals a march on Sky , whose own plans to launch a digital terrestrial service are due to be investigated by Ofcom over the coming months.

Sky also faces extra competition from the BBC , which has announced plans to launch a new free-to-air satellite service to counter Sky's Freesat from Sky .

As with Freeview boxes, other Virgin set-top boxes can be purchased to bring the service to other rooms in the house. Virgin will also have its own branded EPG (Electronic Programme Guide) and the 19cm by 9cm box boasts low power consumption - using just 1/15th of the energy of a standard 60W light bulb, says Virgin. The box also comes with a remote control extender, which means you can hide the box out of sight while continuing to use the remote.

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