Virgin Media O2 is planning an online television service. It would enable the operator to offer the service beyond its traditional cable television network footprint. So why has it taken 20 years?

Speaking at the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge, the chief executive of Virgin Media O2 said the service would be available soon.

“We are almost flat with our TV customer base,” Lutz Schüler told delegates. “We’ll be launching soon our first IPTV offering, targeting more at the younger segment.”

The number of Virgin Media television customers in the United Kingdom has actually fallen from 3.82 million in June 2019 to 3.45 million in March 2021. Under its new management, Virgin Media O2 did not report television customer numbers in June. It preferred to report 5.76 million fixed-line customer relationships.

For more than a decade, Virgin Media concentrated on broadband as its hero product, emphasising the speed of its cable network. More recently the story has been about building out its fibre network. It plans to upgrade its fixed network to fibre to the premises by some time in 2028.

The technology to deliver internet protocol television has been available for two decades, although classic IPTV services over managed networks have been displaced by services that can be delivered over the top of any internet protocol network using standard web technologies.

Virgin Media has long offered online and mobile television services. Yet it has taken until now for the company to embrace online television.

Virgin Media O2 was formed in June 2021 as an equal joint venture between Liberty Global and Telefónica through the merger of Virgin Media and O2 UK.

Notably, the combined company now has 24 million mobile connections, with 40% of broadband customers also having a mobile contract.

The company competes directly with the incumbent national telco BT, which now also owns the EE mobile network. BT also operates BT TV, using the YouView hybrid internet and terrestrial television platform.

Meanwhile, Sky is poised to launch its own online television service in the United Kingham, already available in Italy, Germany and Austria.

Could they be somehow related? It is not such a mad idea. Sky and Virgin, once uncompromising competitors, already share the Sky AdSmart technology, enabling advertisers to target a potential audience of more than 30 million viewers across Sky and Virgin Media households.

Sky also provides the NOW service, formerly known as Now TV, which offers live and on-demand programming online without a long-term contract.

Digital UK, which now manages The Freeview and Freesat platforms on behalf of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, is planning its own online offering.