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A Virgin ferret. Cheap, willing, eager to please - and damned attractive

Must have Mustelidae: Virgin Media finds novel way to bridge the digital divide

Posted By Martyn Warwick , 01 April 2010 | 1 Comments | (4)
Tags: Technology Finance cable

In a statement that is bound to cause consternation to animal rights activists and will worry its competitors, Virgin Media, the big UK cableco, has revealed that for more than a year it has been training and using ferrets to help lay broadband access cables. Martyn Warwick reports.

Virgin Media recently launched the UK's fastest broadband service and says much of its recent success in being able to deploy new cables so quickly and efficiently is down to the stable of ferrets that now do work for the ISP daily.

Virgin Media also says that the ferrets are friendly and always keen to get down into the holes and ducts. However, and although volunteer Virgin employees have been trained in ferret handling techniques and are provided with gauntlets, the company admits that staff do get the occasional nip from an over-enthusiatic animal.

The working ferrets (all of whom are male) wear miniature jackets fitted with a microchip which is able to pinpoint and analyse any breaks or damage in the underground network, humans then take over and dig down to repair the fault. Virgin adds that the use of ferrets could help increase broadband penetration in remote rural areas because the ferrets are lithe and pliable enough to gain easy access to places that humans would find inaccessible.

Jon James, the director of broadband for Virgin Media, says; "For hundreds of years, ferrets have helped humans in various jobs. Our decision to use them is due to their strong nesting instinct, their long, lean build and inquisitive nature, and for their ability to get down holes. We initially kept the trial low-key as we wanted to assess how well the ferrets fitted into our operations before revealing this enterprising scheme."

It seems that the scheme is a resounding success but Virgin won't reveal how much it expects to save in infrastructure costs other than that they will be "considerable".

The cost of housing, training and feeding the ferrets is surprisingly and gratifyingly low but trained ferrets do need a special diet.

Virgin Media says that as ferrets are obligate carnivores they require a diet high in animal protein and fats (in the wild ferrets usually hunt, kill and eat rabbits) and low in carbohydrates and sugars. The healthiest food and treats are are meat-based, with little or no sweetening except at Easter when they do get a small chocolate treat and a day old chick.

In fact, Virgin's ferrets live like kings and after their four hours of work a day get balanced meals comprising of a minimum of 35 per cent per cent protein and around 20 per cent fat. They live in warm dry cages, don't work on Saturdays and are allowed frequent conjugal visits with female ferrets in heat to ensure a constant supply of new recruits.

One of Virgin's ferret fettlers, speaking under conditions of anonymity, said, "We were a bit surprised when management came up with this scheme and a lot of us thought it wouldn't work but these furry things are as tough as old boots and very bright. They do a grand job. Some of our staff have become very attached to them, especially if they forget to wear the regulation bicycle clips issued by our health and safety people. Before handling ferrets you have to put the bike clips on to make sure the little buggers can run up inside your trousers when they get a bit cold. That happened a few times early on and there were some nasty injuries but we've got the measure of them now and our specialist ferret wrangling teams do get danger money."

Several big US cablecos have expressed interest in emulating Virgin Media's bold experiment and it is hoped that in using ferrets for cable laying tasks across America's vast plains it will be possible cheaply to bring Internet access to the settlers in the hills and resolve for once and for all that perennial problem of the plains; overpopulation by the prairie dog. A fully grown ferret can eat at least 250 prairie dogs a year. The cost savings will be tremendous.


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(1) 01 April 2010 10:03:13 by James Latham

Could the prairie dogs also be trained to deliver the cables to site, and then be roasted in time for the ferrets` lunch?