Usain Bolt speeds up the fortunes of rivals O’Brien and Malone

Cantillon: Digicel’s ‘chief speed officer’ also pushing Virgin broadband on Irish consumers

 Usain Bolt needs to keep both rivals happy. Photograph:  Peter Parks / AFP

Usain Bolt needs to keep both rivals happy. Photograph: Peter Parks / AFP

 

Virgin Media, which is ultimately owned by US billionaire John Malone’s Liberty Global, is heavily plugging its broadband speeds with sci-fi style advertisements fronted by the one-time fastest man on earth, Jamaican former sprinter Usain Bolt.

The Virgin Media brand is three years old in this country, having switched over from UPC Ireland in October 2015. Bolt, meanwhile, has been appearing in Virgin ads globally since 2012. Less so in this State, however.

It is only since it rebranded its Irish television station, formerly TV3, to the Virgin moniker in August, that the brand has developed something close to an Irish omnipresence. Bolt’s recent fronting of its broadband push means he has lately become very closely associated with the Virgin Media name in the Republic.

What must Denis O’Brien, whose Digicel is one of Bolt’s longest-serving sponsors but also a major competitor of John Malone’s Flow and Cable & Wireless businesses in the Caribbean and Latin America, make of it all?

We are assured that Usain Bolt, who was appointed Digicel’s “chief speed officer” in 2016, is still sponsored by Mr O’Brien’s company, despite the former sprinter’s now close association with the businesses of his biggest rival.

Digicel says Bolt has been signed up on a “lifetime” sponsorship arrangement. If he can keep both rivals, Mr O’Brien and Mr Malone, happy, then good for him.

Broadband plan

Meanwhile, what must Mr Malone, renowned globally as the “cable king”, think of the Irish State’s stuttering efforts to bring high-speed fibre optic cable to rural Ireland, via the soap opera that is the National Broadband Plan?

The NBP, which has just one bidder and is embroiled in political chaos, is paused and in serious trouble. The Irish Times reported on Friday that the State estimates it could cost taxpayers €3 billion. It sounds like the State may be laying the groundwork to scrap it.

The Enet-led consortium that is currently in line for the NBP may end up disappointed. That consortium includes, of course, a company owned by O’Brien.

But if Enet somehow still makes it to the NBP finishing line, he will end up operating yet again in the same sector as Mr Malone, via Virgin Media, but this time in the Irishman’s backyard.

What a small world we live in.

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