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N.Ireland Broadband Project Appears to Scale Back Rural Focus UPDATE

Friday, May 8th, 2020 (12:01 am) - Score 3,006
farming rural broadband mobile and cows

Concerns are growing that Northern Ireland’s long awaited £165m Project Stratum, which originally hoped to extend “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) to cover around 97,000 extra premises, may shun many rural villages due to a decision that could see it only focus on areas with a larger population. But the project team denies this.

At present data from Thinkbroadband indicates that around 89% of premises in Northern Ireland can access a “superfast” service, which is the lowest level of such coverage in the United Kingdom. On the flip side 44% can access a “full fibre” (FTTP) network, which is up sharply from 35.42% at the end of 2019 and represents the highest level of such coverage in the UK.

NOTE: Ultrafast (100Mbps+) coverage is 55% but, thanks to Virgin Media, that isn’t too different from the rest of the UK.

Sadly N.I doesn’t have many alternative network (altnet) ISPs to choose from – even though Fibrus has recently entered the market in quite a big way (here) – and thus most of their existing fixed “full fibre” and “gigabit-capable” network coverage exists thanks to efforts by Openreach (BT) and Virgin Media.

However commercial investment will only get you so far and so Project Stratum was created. The majority of funding for this stems from a 2017 deal between the Conservative UK government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to secure the support of their MPs (didn’t that work out well..), which included £150m to “help provide ultra-fast broadband“. A further £15m came from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).

Despite this, the official project later scrapped any talk of “ultrafast” and began discussing the need to bring “superfast” (NGA) connectivity to 97,000 poorly served premises. The expectation was that the local Department for the Economy (DfE) would announce a contract award sometime during Spring 2020, but that was before COVID-19 sent everybody into lockdown.

The project has so far experienced a rather bumpy road toward creation and it looks like that trend may be set to continue. A councillor for the Fermanagh and Omagh District, Adam Gannon, has been told by the Northern Ireland Assembly that Project Stratum will now only apply to areas with a population of 1,000 or more (here).

Cllr Gannon said:

“In Erne West I think the highest population is Derrylin, in the village itself where you have 600-700. You could very well be excluding the whole of west County Fermanagh on those numbers. I think it doesn’t go far enough at all.”

At this point we don’t know whether the figure is more of a general expectation or a strict requirement, but we’d hope the former because it doesn’t make too much sense to strictly exclude communities based purely on size. One reason for this is because as you build fibre around the country then that cable will pass some smaller communities too (i.e. incidental coverage), where such deployments can become more viable.

In researching for this article we also noted how the DfE now mentions that it will only aim to deploy NGA infrastructure to “approximately78,500 premises (a fair bit lower than the previous target) and the contract award is now “anticipated in lateSeptember 2020, rather than the spring.

The reason for that change from 98,000 to 78,500 is due to a data refresh, which was undertaken in January 2020 by several broadband operators (i.e. their commercial coverage will reach further than expected). The Open Market Review (OMR) has been amended to confirm (here). Nevertheless it seems likely that, given the current political focus, whatever gets deployed will probably still be FTTP.

UPDATE 15th May 2020

We’ve had a response from Nigel Robbins, Broadband Project Director (DfE), which appears to refute the suggestion made by Cllr Gannon, albeit with the caveat that we won’t know the final outcome until a contract has been awarded.

Nigel Robbins told ISPreview.co.uk:

“The article stated that the planned intervention area for Project Stratum will only apply to areas with a population of 1,000 or more. This is not correct.

Project Stratum’s target intervention area consists of just under 79,000 premises. Some 97% of those are rural, located in communities of fewer than 1,000 people and open countryside. This is an important clarification to make, since the main focus of Project Stratum is to address broadband connectivity challenges common to rural areas and to correct a connectivity gap that exists in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the UK.

While the exact number and location of premises that will see improvement will not be known until the procurement is complete and a contract has been awarded, expected in September 2020, the Department for the Economy’s main objective is to maximise the number of premises to benefit from the funding available.”

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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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14 Responses
  1. Terry O'Toole says:

    Cllr Gannon is right in bringing up these concerns. Fermanagh is a rural county with a very spread out population , only one settlement has more than 10,000 people (Enniskillen) and a further four have between 1000 & 3000 (Ballinamallard, Irvinestown, Lisbellaw and Lisnaskea), everyone else – accounting for 65% of the population of Fermanagh – lives in a settlement of less than 1000, be it a village, hamlet or one-off settlements (e.g. farms). Granted, most of the small villages & hamlets are able to avail of Superfast BB via Openreach’s FTTC and some FTTC is being carried out for new builds, but an awful lot (about 20%) are still out of range with only slow ADSL, often 2Mb or less download speed, the only option via phone line. Some fall back on satellite broadband and more recently 4G, but it’s not seen as ideal.

    Funnily enough, Project Stratum was conceived with the idea of bridging this rural broadband divide, not only in Fermanagh but the other five counties as well. To suddenly restrict these plans to settlements of at least 1000 people seems odd considering that Openreach have been doing a decent job (pre COVID-19 lockdown) of rolling out FTTP to many of the smaller towns, including Enniskillen. If it’s a case of a lack of available funds, I’d rather see the NI Assembly be open about this. Those of us with household FTTC connections of at least 24Mb+ should be all right for a few years yet at least with those speeds providing accessible & usable internet content – the public funding should be significantly allocated to those premises which still have only < 2Mb speeds, as once you've got them on optical fibre lines instead of copper, you've pretty much future proofed them as you can.

    P.S. The NI First Minister's (Arlene Foster) home village is Brookeborough, in Co. Fermanagh with a population of less than 600. I'd be surprised if it was kept off the Project Stratum list for long! 😉

  2. NGA for all says:

    Derrylin already has FTTP at its fringes and cabinets in its main street, as will Brookeborough. There is an FTTP connectorised block on a pole outside what looks to be a public toilet in the main street, but you will not find them outside the local schools.

    The estimates of work were as high as 120k premises at one point, when the data was showing less than ~95k while work was still outstanding and monies owed, hence the less than ~80k number.

    Given the budget, there is no reason why NI cannot reach ~100%. There has been a lack of appetite which is contributing to the delays. There is a need to prove the presence of a uniform capital contribution to allowable costs from BT in support of the £80m subsidies already received. Hopefully Audit NI will eventually report on the matter so some oversight is visible.

  3. Packet Switched says:

    “Hopefully Audit NI will eventually report on the matter so some oversight is visible”

    Was audit oversight – quite sensibly considered before everything was locked in a contract – the root of the delays in Devon and

    1. NGA for all says:

      The gaming of costs and capital have plagued the whole programme – 2015 – second NAO report revealed 38% inflated costs in BT’s models which Local projects called efficiencies and savings in their press releases. How this impacted early resourcing decisions and ambitions, particularly for full fibre in-fill, the consequential multiple rounds of procurement and the overbuild of Virginmedia using state aid is a matter for individual projects to reveal.

    2. The Facts says:

      @NGA = probably discussed before, but please explain the issues with ‘the overbuild of Virginmedia using state aid’. Is this where a FTTC cabinet area covers some, but not all, properties with Virgin Media?

    3. GNewton says:

      “Is this where a FTTC cabinet area covers some, but not all, properties with Virgin Media?”

      Why do you care? Can’t you do your own research for once?

    4. The Facts says:

      @GN – your obsession with me is to be admired.


    5. GNewton says:

      @TheFacts: You keep avoiding answering simple questions, yet at the same time continually post silly questions on ISPReview. Why is that? Are you on BTs payroll?

    6. The Facts says:

      @GN – specific request for NGA to explain his concern about VM overbuild by BDUK FTTC, yet to be explained.

    7. GNewton says:

      @TheFacts: I know you don’t like Google, but it only takes a few seconds to answer this:


      Why are you so obsessed about NGA for all’s question here? If you think his statement is wrong, then say so, and come up with your own research on this!

  4. Robert says:

    I thought the current situation would have helped focus their attention.
    My wife and I are both working from home but it is a real struggle as I only get 1MBps.
    We could both work from home but after the lockdown is relaxed we will both be forced to go back to driving to work every day due to the poor infrastructure in rural areas.

    1. Packet Switched says:


      Enabling better working at home immediately and there might be an appreciable economy in minimising commuting in the future.
      Have you considered:

      Firstly, going to the right sort of ISP who will effectually chase BT up and ensure that your line is working as well as it can.

      Secondly, simply getting another line which might be promptly done if there is a spare pair of wires already in the connection into your house.

      The only people I know of as likely are Andrews and Arnold aa.net.uk. They have been going for over ten years and have an
      established reputation. I have never used them myself but it has been comforting to know that that they are about and that I could
      have recourse to them if my line gave the sort of performance you are getting. They can supply an advanced router “Firebrick” which will effectively optimise two or more lines for maximum capacity using all of them together.

    2. Robert says:

      Believe me I have tried everything since I moved here 10 years ago but no chance due to distance from exchange and Fibre Cabinet. I have chased BT and my local MP but no success.

      I am 3KM from the Fibre cabinet so no chance of Fibre and 6KM from the exchange so 1-1.5Mbps maximum speed. The connection breaks down at least a couple of times a year and then an engineer comes out to repair another broken joint, this usually results in breaking one of the neighbour’s connection and so on.

      BT did install a Fibre cabinet closer to me, 1KM away but the poles from that cabinet stop 300M (6 poles) short and they won’t extend the reach even though it would enable another six houses.

  5. Barry says:

    Robert, similar plight here. I live outside Portadown, fibre speed 3Mbps connected to exchange 2KM away. There is a cabinet 40 metres from my house but they won’t connect me as it supplies another road. Very frustrating. I have considered Three mobile broadband but the reviews are appalling.

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