Virgin Media has launched a 50Mbps broadband service and claims 40 percent of its 12 million customers will have access to it by the end of the year.

The ISP said the service has been launched in response to consumer demand. Recent research by YouGov revealed that in the last year, 53 percent of Brits have started watching TV programmes or video clips online using services such as BBC iPlayer. Virgin said data consumption by its customers has increased by 70 percent is the last 18 months. Cisco predicts that by 2011, data consumption will have grown by 100 percent.

Virgin's 50Mbps service, which the company said will offer users nearly nine times the current average UK broadband speed, was trialled by 100 customers in Ashford, Dover and Folkestone, earlier this year. The full rollout of the service is expected to be completed by mid-2009.

The service costs £51 per month or £35 if taken with a Virgin phone line, which is priced at £11. That's £10 more than Virgin's current fastest broadband package, XL, which offers up to 20Mbps.

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Virgin said it has been able to offer 50Mbps broadband for the past three years but felt there hasn't been the consumer demand for the service, until now. The ISP also revealed it's trialling a 200Mbps service, which it hopes to launch in the future.

"As the first ISP to roll out next-generation broadband access, our 50Mbps service represents the dawning of a new era of high-speed services in the UK and is just the beginning of what we hope to offer our customers over the coming years," said Neil Berkett, CEO, Virgin Media.

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Berkett said that he hoped by 2011, at least 4m Virgin customers would be using 10Mbps or above broadband packages. He also said he "welcomed competition" from other ISPs.

Virgin's CEO also discussed the company's policy on download limits, something which hit the headlines in June after it was revealed that Virgin was working with the BPI on a programme to 'educate' illegal file sharers. The ISP issued two warning letters, one from itself and one from the BPI, advising customers on "how to prevent account misuse and avoid the risk of legal action" when it came to downloading files from the web. Berkett confirmed the programme was continuing but would need other measures to be completely effective.

"We think the best approach is a commercial agreement between content providers and ISPs to ensure customers get value for money when it comes to downloading content. Then, illegal filesharers may consider changing their ways," he added.

Virgin also revealed it intends to launch three of four new HD channels over the coming months.

See also: Virgin Media offers 16Mb ADSL broadband