Think inside the box: Liberty Charge CEO on convergence of telecoms, data and transport


Liberty Charge CEO, Neil Isaacson, outlines its plan to enable a national network of on street electric vehicle chargers through telecoms infrastructure. Get this right, he suggests, and everybody wins.

Liberty Charge is rolling out 1,200 on-street electric vehicle chargepoints leveraging telecoms infrastructure. Virgin Media, a subsidiary of Liberty Global, operates some 40,000  powered cabinets across the UK. Its subsidiary, Liberty Charge, aims to deliver a scalable smart network using the connectivity they provide.

The ‘VPACH’ project, which has InnovateUK backing, brings together a consortium of partners, including: Vattenfall, SMS, Cenex, Ginger Town, Fully Charged, Connected Kerb, DETA and Loughborough University as well as local authorities in the West Midlands, Oxfordshire, Liverpool, Southend on Sea, Worcestershire, Wandsworth, Croydon, Northamptonshire, Hammersmith & Fulham and Belfast.

Save a packet

Liberty Charge, a joint venture with Zouk Capital, has been formed to deliver the network (Zouk runs the government’s £400 million Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund). CEO Neil Isaacson says the aim is to provide “infrastructure as a service”, essentially, providing a standardised baseplate that allows any chargepoint operator’s kit to sit on top.

“Our view is that by leveraging Virgin Media’s existing infrastructure, the cabinets and ducts, alongside its network expansion capabilities, we are able to deploy quicker and at lower cost,” Isaacson explains.

“So it’s not only cheaper, but deploying ‘as a service’ moves the operator away from having to sink all that capital on day one. That allows them to better align costs with revenues.”

Meanwhile the operators get connectivity to boot. But Isaacson thinks the company can also leverage other kinds of connections.

“Virgin Media has existing relationships with local authorities. So where we do hit a roadblock, we can turn to people and get things moving,” he says. “We have found that to be a very important aspect.”

Sites halved

The original aim of the VPACH project was to deploy double headed charging stations at 600 sites, though Isaacson indicates the plan is now for 300 sites. Liberty has been working with local authorities on the first batch of locations.

Isaacson says councils are at various stages of their EV infrastructure journeys, with the consortium “investing time to ensure partners are fully aligned in preparation for the rollout,” he says. “The impact of Covid-19 puts further pressure on councils, so InnovateUK projects such as this one are key to helping make quicker progress.”

Getting local authorities to sanction dedicated charging bays can be a political challenge, adds Isaacson, as residents do not always see eye to eye with that approach. There can also be a disconnect between those setting the political ambition and officers tasked with delivering on the ground.

“It’s a challenge for local authorities, but if you wind forward a few years, residents will probably be asking why they haven’t got more dedicated charging bays. So it’s a difficult transitional phase to navigate.”

What next?

Funding for the VPACH trial ends in March 2021, but Isaacson indicates this deadline may be extended due to Covid disruption. Either way, the end game is to be on the path to creating a sustainable business, he says.

“As far as possible, we want to be in a situation where local authorities can share learning with other local authorities in order to move more quickly. That has benefits for everyone.

“For Liberty, the aim is to create a long-term sustainable business providing infrastructure as a service to any chargepoint operator.”

In the coming years, Isaacson believes more chargepoint operators will come to market, while local authorities may be interested in adjacent data services enabled by its network, such as air quality and noise monitoring.

Crack this, go anywhere

Delivering an on-street public charging network is not easy. But Isaacson thinks if Liberty Charge can succeed, significant opportunity knocks.

“It’s a challenge. National government is telling local authorities to rollout infrastructure. Local authorities have even less money in the current environment – and generally, as with any new field, they don’t have access to enough expertise,” says Isaacson.

“That’s why chargepoint operators generally aim for the low hanging fruit, which is domestic, destination and corporate charging. They tend to stop short of on-street charging, because it is very difficult.

“Our view is that not only can we provide a service that will be relied upon by 30-40 per cent of the population, but if we can crack this, who knows what the future holds?” says Isaacson.

“There are probably only a handful of players that have the national footprint and appetite to do this at a scale that makes sense. We believe we can make a fundamental difference to EV charging infrastructure across the UK.”

Free download: The 2020 EV report

This article is one of a number of in-depth interviews conducted for our The Energyst’s new 2020 EV report. It contains expert insight across a range of sectors, plus a survey of more than 300 firms around EV charging infrastructure plans.

Sponsored by Arup, EDF, Good Energy, New Motion and Total Gas & Power, the report also includes views from: Arval, Cenex, DPD, Dreev, Engenie, ev.energyHitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions, Mitie, National Grid, Nottingham City Council, the John Lewis Partnership, TLT, UPS, UK Power Networks and Western Power Distribution.

Download the report here.


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