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Fibrus Win Contract for N.Ireland Superfast Broadband Project UPDATE

Monday, September 14th, 2020 (1:09 pm) - Score 5,164
northern ireland uk map

Multiple credible sources have informed ISPreview.co.uk that the Northern Ireland Executive are set to announced that alternative network ISP Fibrus has beaten BT (Openreach) to be chosen as the main supplier for their £165m Project Stratum programme, which will extend “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) coverage.

At the end of July around 48% of premises in Northern Ireland could already access a gigabit-capable “full fibre” network (here), which is considerably above any other part of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile commercial deployments alone (Fibrus, Openreach, Virgin Media etc.) are predicted to extend this to c.88% (here). On the flip side, 30Mbps+ coverage stands at almost 90% and that’s lower than any other part of the UK.

Suffice to say that rural coverage continues to be a weak point for NI and Project Stratum hopes to change that by harnessing £165m of state aid (mostly from the UK Government) to help extend superfast broadband to “approximately” another 78,500 premises (we won’t know exactly how much they’ll deliver until the final contract details are published).

Originally there were several potential bidders vying for this contract, although only Fibrus and BT were left after Granahan McCourt dropped out a few months ago (here). Both Fibrus and BT (Openreach) have been busy making significant investments into their respective roll-outs of 1Gbps Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) tech.

For example, Fibrus already has a plan to cover 145,000 premises by around 2024 (here) and they recently committed to help ensure that 100% of homes in Northern Ireland can access such services by the end of 2025 (here).

Meanwhile Openreach recently upped their FTTP deployment plan in NI to target 525,000 premises for their FTTP build (60% coverage) by March 2021 (here), which was later followed by the news that this would also include 94 rural villages and towns (here).

At the time of writing Fibrus has declined to comment, while we are still awaiting an official response from the NIE’s Department for the Economy (technically the tender process is still on-going until they formally confirm otherwise). We also queried this with Openreach.

An Openreach spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“The Stratum tender process is still ongoing, so we can’t comment on that.

However, our Full Fibre build continues, with the aim of reaching at least 525k premises (60% of NI) by the end of March 2021 – and we don’t plan to stop there.”

We should point out that Fibrus hasn’t formally signed a contract yet, but they have been awarded “preferred bidder” status, which is usually the final step before a contract signature. In the meantime, Openreach’s confirmation that they will go beyond 525,000 premises indicates that there may be more private FTTP investment to follow in the future, perhaps to help compensate for the contract loss.

Arguably choosing BT for this contract would have been the safer bet, particularly given that local authorities tend to be quite risk averse and they already have a large civil engineering team. However, the people behind Fibrus, including major investor Infracapital, have experience running bigger companies and should be able to scale-up, but securing enough engineers to correctly plan and do the work won’t be easy (they’ve already started a large recruitment drive).

NOTE: Infracapital also owns or has stakes in Gigaclear, SSEEnterprise Telecoms and WightFibre etc.

Fibrus thus stands a good chance of avoiding the same sort of mistakes that Gigaclear made in England, when they also had to scale-up rapidly in order to meet some major Building Digital UK contracts and ended up struggling (this has since been largely rectified following Infracapital’s acquisition, but many projects were delayed and one contract – Devon & Somerset – scrapped).

We should point out that Fibrus also recently secured the £15m Full Fibre Northern Ireland Consortium (FFNI) contract, which will construct a new gigabit-capable fibre network to connect around 880 public sector sites across 10 council areas by March 2021 (here).

The question now is how many premises will actually receive FTTP as a result of Fibrus winning the contract and how long will that take to deploy? Answers like this often, but not always, tend to follow a few months after the contract signature. We will of course update again once an official response arrives.

UPDATE 15th Sept 2020 – 8:42am

A spokesperson for NI’s Department for the Economy said: “DfE cannot respond to any speculation regarding its intent to award a contract for Project Stratum.” Despite this we are confident that the contract (or a big part of it) has gone to Fibrus, so expect the official announcement soon.

UPDATE 20th Nov 2020

The deal with Fibrus has now been confirmed and, including private investment, is said to be worth £350m. Fibrus added that Stratum will help ensure that every home in the region will have access to full fibre broadband by 2025. Oddly though, the press release mentions two figures, stating both “approximately 79,000” premises and then later saying “more than 76,000“.

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Mark Jackson
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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15 Responses
  1. Avatar McNugget365 says:

    Very surprised by this to be honest. Also not sure whether to be pleased or disappointed, time will tell.

    I’m currently living in a rural village with fttc so I can’t complain too much (3 years ago could only get up to 8 Mbps which was actually 0.5Mbps in the real world).

    The openreach fibre first roll out has basically encircled our village with most of the nearby towns and villages covered. If openreach don’t win the contract they probable won’t infil our village, at the same time if Fibrus win it they might not target our area as the surrounding area is already covered by openreach.

    Not sure if we will get FTTP for a long time, but at least I can still get fttc.

  2. Avatar Mark says:

    I’m getting fibrus installed soon in Ballynahinch, 300mb

  3. Avatar Fermanagh says:

    NI government betting project stratum on a can of magic beans. This company didn’t exist 18 months ago, have more press releases than fibre coverage and they get handed the job to give rural NI fibre. What could go wrong…

    1. Avatar Rural Fermanagh says:

      @Fermanagh: BT have been shafting us rural consumers for years, and if they HAD won the contract, then those that need it the most (with less than 10Mbit) would still be the very last to get it, if they get it at all. They would continue to try and milk it for all they can will provide the minimum in return.
      The OFCOM USO implementation selected BT and they managed to shaft us with that also, as it is a useless pile of overpriced rural 4G poop.
      Even if they contract was awarded to no one, I would experience no difference.
      Hopefully with a bit of competition on staff and sales, someone will benefit, but I am sure it will NOT be the rural Fermanagh households.

    2. Avatar MagicalMunster says:

      Fully agree with Fermanagh this is a very high risk gamble on behalf of the executive if true, and one I sincerely hope doesn’t backfire for the sake of the long suffering residents of the rural communities. You need to be able to walk before you can run and if this project stretches the resources of Fibrus too far too quickly then it is surely doomed to fail. Not long after setting up, Fibrus ditched Ancore (a contractor highly experienced in FTTP) for Charles Brand (a contractor with no FTTP experience) and all the noises coming out of Actavo at the minute suggest they too are close to partnering up with Fibrus. Actavo struggle at the best of times in NI as they cannot attract or retain direct or indirect labour and having worked for the company previously I should know! Openreach would surely have been the safer bet to ensure the project actually reaches the finishing line, call me sceptical but I can see a complete car crash coming………….

    3. Avatar Rural Fermanagh says:

      @MagicalMunster: You mean a second car crash following the car crash that is BT?
      Where I live (Rural Fermanagh), BT took the last bunch of government money and installed FTTC, knowing that only 30 to 40% of houses on the road would get decent broadband. When doing line work which they seem to do around 4 times a year, they always subcontract the work out to KN Circet/Group. The KN people doing the work always mess it up, leaving me connected to neighbours lines or just not bothering to connect my 2x lines. Then I have no phone or broadband for most of the week.
      I have 2 lines coming to my house (1 physical cable), it took 2 years for them to agree to send an engineer at MY expense of around £130 to fix the fact I could get 4.5Mbit on 1 line, and only 1.5 Mbit on the other line, which was always crackling! They would say That my line tests within the correct range of >1Mbit, and that they cannot hear the crackle, and the line tests fine.
      The enemy of my enemy is my friend!

    4. Avatar MagicalMunster says:

      @RuralFermanagh: In a word…..yes, but more of a pile up! I merely suggesting Openreach as being the safer bet with what was on the table, Project Stratum ended up being a two horse race and I would rather back a horse with some legs than a horse with none! I think it is complete madness to award such a high profile contract to a company with no history just because they submit a piece of paper that says then can do the job at ‘x’ cost!! Fermanagh rightly called out that Fibrus “have more press releases than fibre coverage”, and whilst I am all for competition from alt nets, awarding a contract of this magnitude and importance to Fibrus is surely a disaster waiting to happen. Good luck to them but having bumped into some of their crews (who incidentally do not seem to advertise they are operating for Fibrus) I fear for them as a company and this project as a whole. If they tackle Project Stratum in a similar vein to the way they have tackled Warrenpoint and Ballynahinch then it is only a matter of time before DFI Roads step in and stop them………unless of course DFI Roads are told to turn a blind eye with this being a government funded venture! I fully agree with your comments about KN as I have had an experience that is not dissimilar to your own and the customer service when trying to rectify the issue certainly left a bad taste in my mouth with both KN and Openreach. KN are very similar to Actavo in that these are In essence management companies who utilise any Tom, Dick or Harry to carry out their works. From my own time in Actavo I know only too well it’s just about getting the numbers in to satisfy the client, and standards on the ground more or less go out the window for fear of not hitting targets. Project Stratum is vital and a potential lifeline for residents in rural communities, COVID 19 has demonstrated the need at times to work from home so this project must succeed and be given every chance to succeed. Hopefully those in the executive who have issued this contract to Fibrus are open and transparent with residents throughout by way of issuing regular updates and progress, personally I feel Project Stratum boiled down to a choice between two wrong answers but time will tell mon ami!

    5. Avatar SuperFast Dream says:

      Well, my first impressions of Fibrus have not been good.

      I personally made a couple of enquiries via their website a few months ago on possible rollout of FTTP in a rural but not hard to get to area and… well they just didn’t bother responding at all. That is a big black mark in my book.

      The funny things is, this particular area is covered by Project Stratum, perhaps any response from them would have been too commercially sensitive at that time *rolls eyes*, it doesn’t take much to reply with a sorry not yet, we are currently looking at ways to bring FTTP to your area, or something along those lines.

      They are a young company, certainly won’t have the manpower yet to deliver such a large and sparse project in a reasonable time one would have thought. This project is critical, aiming to finally deliver an essential service to those that desperately need it, a company so fresh really can’t afford to get it wrong.

      Is this yet another mistake by the executive, let’s hope we don’t have to wait a further 10 years to find out…

  4. Avatar SlowInt says:

    I’ll believe it when I see it (probably never). We’re in rural county Antrim and average less than 1 Mb/s download. Thought our problems were going to be solved when fibre came to our cabinet a number of years ago, but of course we’re too far away from the cabinet to use it.

    Numerous emails to openreach have done nothing, unless we raise the money ourselves they say they won’t do anything. Maybe fibrus will be better, but I’m not holding my breath.

    When are we going to prioritise those who have little or no internet connection, instead of those who already have fast, usable internet?

    1. Avatar Terry O'Toole says:

      “When are we going to prioritise those who have little or no internet connection, instead of those who already have fast, usable internet?”

      Pretty simple – commercial network builders, including Openreach, will build where there is the best expectation of return of investment. That rarely includes long, rural lines.

      Time perhaps for some rural communities in NI to explore some self-help options regarding broadband internet rather than keep complaining about everyone else not looking to serve them.

  5. Avatar Matt says:

    Competition is always good but i worry that because Fibrus will have to start from scratch in most areas its going to take longer/they wont be able to make the money go as far as open reach would.

  6. Avatar C.J says:

    “Possibly excellent news!” We’ll keep our fingers crossed and watch with anticipation!
    Hopefully now FIBRUS will be able to bring “Super Broadband” to
    many of my friends and customers in the East Antrim, BT42 area.

    They have been waiting so long and so patiently over the years.
    Promises were made several times but never fulfilled.

    This area is crying out for Super BB as it has such a large farming
    and rural area. Most were lucky to get 1.5 Mbps maximum download speeds!
    Perhaps now, after all this time, things will change for the better.

  7. Avatar Aidan McNally says:

    Northern Ireland… I predict another RHI Fiasco two years down the line

  8. Avatar NeverLaughedSoHard says:

    As a Tyrone native I just can’t see Fibrus coming up my road any time soon. Probably more chance of hell freezing over or a Dunloy man managing our hurling team for more than 5 minutes.

  9. Avatar mark says:

    i have fibrus in county down and the service has been awful, high pings, speeds not what is advertised, when it works is is quick, but its un-stable and not fit for purpose.
    regularly slows down in the evenings even though its full fibre!
    total lack of communication between supplier and customer.

    rather have bt fibre and have a slower speed, at least i know it works when i want it to!

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