Virgin boosts customers and eyes HD sports

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The Independent Online

Virgin Media attracted customers at its fastest pace ever in the first three months of the year, and is banking on cheaper Sky Sports and high-definition services to further take the fight to rival BSkyB.

The cable company, along with BT Vision and Top Up TV, is waiting for the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) to rule on whether Sky has to cut its wholesale price of its sports content. A decision is expected imminently.

Should the CAT uphold Ofcom's ruling that Sky must cut its price on Sky Sports 1 and 2, Virgin will cut the prices on sports packages for its customers, Virgin chief executive Neil Berkett said. He added that the "main benefit of the ruling is that we would have access to the channels in HD".

The cable group reported yesterday that revenues had risen 2.9 per cent to £963m in the first three months, the fourth consecutive quarter of growth.

It also attracted 38,300 net new customers between January and March, up from 7,100 a year earlier, the fastest pace of growth since the company was created in 2005 from the merger of NTL and Telewest. Mr Berkett said: "We are developing our services to exploit our natural network advantage, both now and in the future."

The number of broadband users grew by 72,300 net additions to 4.2 million. More people, Virgin says, are looking for faster internet connections, so they plan to roll out speeds of 100Mb by the end of the year. The number of homes taking Virgin's TV service rose by 46,600 to over 3.7 million. The group has been helped by the rise in its video-on-demand service. They said, on average, customers pressed "play" more than 2 million times a day in the past three months.

The group is also hoping to win customers with the release of its high-definition box. Sky has posted huge growth in the past year from customers paying extra for HD, while Virgin said it will offer the service for free.