Virgin Media thinks outside the box

Virgin Media has had a novel money-spinning idea. It plans to turn 1,200 of its street cabinets into on-street charging points for electric cars.
The company, which has 40,000 powered street cabinets and 170,000km of ducts spread across the UK, has formed a partnership with Innovate UK, the UK government’s R&D department, along with partners including Vattenfall, SMS plc, Cenex, Ginger Town, Fully Charged, Connected Kerb, DETA, Loughborough University, the West Midlands Combined Authority, and Local Authorities in Oxfordshire, Liverpool, Southend on Sea, Worcestershire, Wandsworth, Croydon, Northamptonshire, Hammersmith & Fulham and Belfast.
The consortium aims to help local authorities increase the number of charging points for electric vehicles, resulting in the new Virgin Media Park & Charge service. Virgin says this service will create a scalable electric vehicle charging network that will help the UK move closer to its zero emissions goal. The majority of chargers will be a mixture of 22kWh and 7.4kWh. Pricing will usually be 30p/kWh, though tariffs may vary according to time of day (with cheaper tariffs overnight) or according to residential status (with non-residents charged a higher fee).

“Leveraging street cabinets allows Liberty Global to look beyond traditional uses of telecom infrastructure and make a positive impact on the environment and in communities throughout the UK. By bringing more electric vehicle chargers and associated connectivity to Britain’s streets, we are making a significant contribution to Innovate UK’s ambition to encourage more people to buy electric cars.” Jason Simpson, Vice President Global Energy and Utilities, Liberty Global

Liberty Global has a track record in this area. It’s the largest investor in the Formula E electric car championship, and has recently been included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices for the seventh consecutive year. It has also set itself ambitious targets to reduce Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions.
This move by Virgin Media diversifies it into a new and growing market but more importantly aligns its brand to green, energy saving messaging. This is an area where all telecoms service providers are vulnerable to criticism, or potential targets of activists, because they are major (and increasingly large) users of electricity. Along with other UK service providers, Virgin Media has been publishing sustainability metrics for some time. In July 2019, for example, it:

  • committed to getting 100% of its electricity from energy saving sources. (It has joined the RE100 initiative.)
  • revealed it has reduced its carbon footprint by one-fifth (22%) since 2014.
  • said its paper use was down 70% since 2014.

Virgin Media is not alone in its efforts. BT, for example, reported this year that it uses around 1% of total UK electricity consumption to run its business (making it one of the top 10 consumers of electricity in the UK), but it has also pledged to use 100% renewable energy by 2020, up from 87% this year.
Omnisperience view
The risk to the telecoms business model is that Gen Z, in particular, are increasingly willing to boycott brands that don’t align with their political views – with environmental issues being top of the mind for many. However, these same young people are avid users of technology and seemingly unaware of how much energy is being used in connecting them to one another and to the internet. While service providers are getting ahead of the criticism by moving to sustainably-sourced electricity, their overall consumption of electricity is rising. BT has reported the proportion of UK electricity is uses grew from 0.7% in 2015 to 1% in 2019.
These issues could not only impact service providers’ ability to attract customers but also their ability to recruit young people. It’s one that’s set to roll and could easily catch out the unwary.