A bitter row has erupted between BT and Virgin Media over the more than £120m a year the cable operator pays its broadband rival for the BT Sport channels now being offered free to millions of EE mobile subscribers.
BT is seeking to capitalise on its £12.5bn takeover of Britain’s biggest mobile operator by boosting distribution of its football rights.
EE’s monthly subscribers have been given six months of free access to BT Sport via a mobile app, in a move that it hopes will increase loyalty and television revenue once charges are introduced next year.
The promotion has enraged Virgin Media, however, which played a key role in the launch of BT’s football push three years ago and has a wholesale agreement to provide BT Sport to millions of cable households as part of their television package.
Virgin Media agreed to pay upfront to carry BT Sport, which helped the channels justify their heavy spending on sports rights to investors.
For the cable operator, the arrangement was seen as an advantage over Sky in the pay-TV market.
BT has not done a wholesale deal with its biggest rival, leaving satellite households to face a separate subscription at higher cost if they want both Sky Sports and BT Sport.
Virgin Media, owned by New York-listed Liberty Global, is understood to have claimed that EE’s offer represents a breach of its contract, which bars BT from giving wholesale access to BT Sport at a lower price than it pays.
Virgin Media argues the arrangement with EE effectively represents a wholesale deal at zero cost and has demanded that the mobile operator suspend the promotion.
BT has so far refused, and EE is advertising the deal heavily with a campaign fronted by the actor Kevin Bacon and BT Sport pundits such as Rio Ferdinand.
It sees the chance to bundle BT Sport with smartphone contracts as an important part of the rationale for its return to the mobile market.
A source described Virgin Media as “absolutely furious” over the dispute, which illustrates wider concern in the telecoms and media sector over BT’s increased power following the takeover of EE.
Virgin Media directly competes with EE via its Virgin Mobile service, which has three million customers.
The cable operator does not own a mobile network infrastructure, instead renting capacity from EE.
Since the BT takeover, it has become keen to shift its business and is understood to have held talks with Three.
BT said it did not comment on customer contracts, and Virgin Media declined to comment.
© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2016.