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Watered Down £150m N.Ireland Broadband Project Faces Uncertainty

Friday, January 4th, 2019 (8:24 am) - Score 3,082

Back in 2017 the Conservative UK government committed £150m to “help provide ultra-fast broadband” (100Mbps+) across Northern Ireland, which formed part of a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to secure the support of their MPs. But the plan now focuses upon 30Mbps+ speeds and is stuck in limbo.

The main problem appears to be that Northern Ireland is still in a state of political deadlock following the collapse of a power-sharing arrangement at Stormont, which has left the region without a fully functioning government (i.e. tasks are being managed by civil servants). On top of that a recent court case has suggested that the permanent secretaries may not have the power to approve key plans (here).

So far this hasn’t been such a problem because N.I’s Department for the Economy (DfE) has been able to focus on some initial “preparation work“, such as conducting the N.I equivalent of an Open Market Review (OMR) in order to establish which areas remain poorly served. They’ve also been engaging with some “political and industry stakeholders” on how best to design the future solution.

Curiously though the most recent consultation, which is due to end on 14th January 2019, has only been asking about “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) coverage and not “ultrafast broadband” (usually 100Mbps+ but Ofcom alone defines it as 300Mbps+) as stated in the original announcement.

NOTE: The £150m investment is called Project Stratum and is likely to be matched by additional public funding to total £200m (if matched by the private sector this could be worth up to £400m).

Noel Lavery, DfE Permanent Secretary, said:

“I would encourage people to review these lists [postcodes with premises unable to get 30Mbps+ speeds] to ensure that we have identified those postcodes where broadband services of at least 30 Mbps are not available. If you believe the information relating to your postcode is incorrect then please contact us soon as possible.

This is an important and necessary step in preparing the ground work that could see an investment of up to £200 million of public money in telecoms infrastructure in Northern Ireland, primarily in rural areas.

There has been significant investment in telecoms infrastructure across Northern Ireland, but there are still areas, particularly rural, where difficulties remain. This exercise aims to identify those areas so that we can ensure funding is targeted appropriately.”

Ofcom recently reported that 40,000 premises still cannot access a minimum USO broadband download speed of 10Mbps+ in Northern Ireland and around 11% of premises are unable to get superfast speeds of 30Mbps+ (the consultation says 100,000 premises still cannot get superfast speeds), which are mainly in rural areas.

northern ireland dec 2018 broadband coverage

Despite the 30Mbps+ focus we’d still expect the bulk of any deployment to deliver 100Mbps+ speeds and it will most likely focus upon “full fibre” (FTTP) connectivity, although this has yet to be confirmed. According to the most recent consultation, the DfE expects to move into tendering for the Project in the first quarter of 2019, and to award the contract(s) in the third quarter of 2019 (i.e. deployment could begin during spring 2020).

However, as stated above, there’s now a big question mark over this because of the concern that there is nobody who could approve such a plan. The DfE has previously said that the original deal did not specify in which years’ the funding had to be spent and the BBC suggests it could be used between 2020-21 (£75m) and 2021-22 (£75m), although the DfE are known to be negotiating for more flexibility from the UK Government.

Meanwhile it’s not impossible to envisage a change of UK government over the next few months, which could potentially throw another spanner into the works. No doubt many people will be hoping that the politicians get their act together sooner rather than later.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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12 Responses
  1. lyncol says:

    I’m 1.4 km from my Vdsl cab in a rural area.
    My current line rate is app 17Mbp/s.

    To get me over the 30 Mbp/s bench mark what needs to happen… technically?

    1. Joe says:

      A new closer cabinet or fttp. @1.4km you are getting what i’d expect (roughly) for vdsl2

      have you looked for fttp rollout in your area?

    2. Mark Jackson says:

      Depends on the best technology for the area. If using the existing setup then Openreach could extend the fibre and build another cabinet closer to your home, but in some cases it may be easier or cheaper to run FTTP to very remote properties. The solutions can vary.

    3. Matt says:

      Anyone know for example if the cabinet in this case was upgraded to G Fast if it would make a big difference at that distance from it?

    4. Marty says:

      @Matt not really G.fast only seems to favour copper lines sub 350 meters in the long run I imagine it will be upgraded to FTTP for the whole country when the politician’s get there act together.

  2. Philip Cooper says:

    ” Meanwhile it’s not impossible to envisage a change of UK government over the next few months, which could potentially throw another spanner into the works. No doubt many people will be hoping that the politicians get their act together sooner rather than later. ”

    This last paragraph sums up my fears, I currently use a 4G service as fixed line is < 2meg and so near enough unusable. If there is a general election and change of government I`m afraid the funding will be withdrawn or there will be even more delays in getting upgrades done. Most people in N. I. care about these practical things but our politicians are more interested in squabbling about the orange and the green.

    1. Matt says:

      Yeah I have the same worry I really hope they can just get on with it.

    2. jabuzzard says:

      I am not in Northern Ireland or have any connection to it (other than being a British citizen/resident), but the idea that a minister who oversaw the scandal that is “Cash for Ash” could remain in public office is beyond preposterous. An elected public official anywhere else in the United Kingdom that had presided over the wasting of £500 million in tax payers money would have long been out of public office.

  3. SuperFast Dream says:

    We couldn’t have an NI related Broadband story without a whinge from me :).

    It’s a Postcode lottery again, god help us, it will be as inaccurate as it has always been…. fortunately, I’m in…

    I find it incredible that we are being asked to submit our Postcode into a form to see if we are in future 30+ Mbps Broadband plans and if not to then go around the houses shouting so that our local Councils or Government take note that we may have been missed off.

    Let’s just hope they don’t bump up the wrong end of my Postcode creating an even wider divide than there is now: One end of the Postcode = 60Mbps VDSL, the other end of the Postcode = 4Mbps ADSL/ADSL2+ (makes no difference which of these two you choose the speed remains the same).

  4. Matt says:

    Mine is listed for improvement hopefully that actually turns into some action. By road I am pretty more or less exactly a mile from my cabinet and get 15Mb (about right for the distance).

    The cabinet is on the edge of town and most of the people it serves are very close to it just a few of us are way out I am guessing FTTP would be the better solution in the long run.

    Honestly at the moment I am just using 4G Broadband along with a 4G Router ever since 3 introduced the unlimited plans.

  5. Robert says:

    My area is labelled for upgrade, speed at the moment about 2Mbps and 3KM from fibre cabinet.

    Also on 4G with Three, currently getting about 100Mbps down 30Mbps up for £20/mnth unlimited.

    So I couldn’t care if they ever upgrade as even if they get FTTP here they are never going to do it for £20/Mnth

    I’m looking forward to 5G coming, have already had the landline disconnected.

  6. Andrew says:

    We’ve been living with 1mb speed, 6.5 km from cabinet, and practically no mobile signal in the property so 4g not an option. I’ve been using satellite broadband to work from home, but it is expensive, I only get about 10mb and crucially it doesn’t work with vpn. I was happy to see my postcode in the list of white postcodes on the project stratum website. Even let myself get a bit optimistic about joining the 21st century within the next couple of years, but the fact that it might all be in jeopardy because of the lack of ministers to approve… how depressing.

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