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76,000 Extra Premises in Northern Ireland to Get FTTP Broadband

Wednesday, November 18th, 2020 (12:01 am) - Score 2,592

Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy (DfE) has today confirmed what we first revealed in September (here), which is that alternative network ISP Fibrus have secure the £165m Project Stratum contract and will be extending “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) coverage to 76,000+ extra rural premises by March 2024.

At present around half of all premises in Northern Ireland Northern Ireland can already access a gigabit-capable “full fibre” network (here), which is more than any other part of the UK, and 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 just 90% and that’s lower than any other part of the UK.

NOTE: The funding for this project includes £150m from the UK government and £15m from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).

Suffice to say that rural coverage remains a weak point and something that Project Stratum hopes to change, not least by harnessing £165m of state aid (see above) to help extend superfast broadband to “approximately” another 76,000 premises (this is down from the previous ambition of 78,750 premises and 97,000 before that). Better yet this will all come via a gigabit-capable “full fibre” network.

At present Fibrus already has a plan to cover 145,000 premises with a gigabit speed capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network 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). The new contract will thus enable them to stretch further into poorly served and commercially unviable rural areas (i.e. the final c.10%).

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

Diane Dodds, N.I Economy Minister, said:

“After a competitive and very robust procurement process, I am pleased to announce that the contract has been awarded to Fibrus. This announcement means that we are one step closer to bringing next generation broadband services to those businesses and people who need it most.

Fibrus proposes a full fibre solution, capable of offering speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second to almost 97% of premises in the target intervention area. Deployment of the new infrastructure is expected to commence immediately and implementation will run until March 2024.

While always recognised as important, the pandemic and restrictions we have all had to live under have underscored the importance of broadband connectivity. Project Stratum will transform the broadband connectivity landscape for many of our citizens and businesses across primarily rural areas of Northern Ireland.”

Conal Henry, Fibrus Chair, added:

“This investment partnership with the NI Executive positions Northern Ireland a digital global leader. Full fibre broadband is key to unlocking the full economic and social potential of our rural communities and is as vital a part of our 21st century infrastructure as power, water or transport. This investment enables towns, villages and rural communities to change the narrative, keep people and communities connected and facilitate the increasing demand for working and studying at home. The benefits of Full Fibre Broadband are more relevant now in a Covid context than ever before.

In South Down, Mid Ulster and now in the North Antrim area we have already invested £65million to bring full fibre broadband to regional towns. The Stratum project, in partnership with the NI Government, brings the total investment in Fibrus’ network over the next 4 years to £350million radically accelerating and extending FFB to those that need it most. Today’s announcement is a milestone for Fibrus and for Northern Ireland.”

The announcement represents a big win for the alternative network (AltNet) provider, which had to beat a rival bid from BT (Openreach) and others in order to scoop the contract. Arguably choosing BT would have been the safer bet, particularly given that local authorities tend to be quite risk averse and the operator has a good reputation for delivery.

However, the people behind Fibrus, including major investor Infracapital, have plenty of experience with running bigger companies and will should know to smoothly scale-up the business, hopefully without running into too many of the usual expansion problems that can occur during rapid growth spurts (provided they can find enough skilled engineers to achieve the target).

NOTE: Infracapital also backs Gigaclear, SSE (Enterprise Telecoms) and WightFibre etc.

The exact rollout plan, which should push 30Mbps+ coverage to almost 97% by completion, is likely to follow at some point in the near future (it often takes a few months to get through the final engineering surveys and other bits etc.). The N.I government has also pledged to “work closely with the supplier and, through continued engagement with DCMS, will deliver infrastructure to serve all premises in the target intervention area, including those not currently in scope, as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile Openreach’s commercial investment will currently see them reaching at least 525,000 premises (60% of NI) by the end of March 2021 with FTTP and they’ve already indicated that they “don’t plan to stop there.” We wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Openreach clash with Fibrus (overbuild) in a few areas, just as they already do with Virgin Media.

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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. Lamps says:

    I’m underwhelmed by the thought of fibrous. The executive have risked a sizeable investment on a company that looks to have been setup solely to get this funding with no supporting infrastructure in place.

    A quick look on social media sees lots of people complaining about very poor speeds and the service they get. I know it’s a new company and there will be teething problems but the amount of people having similar issues doesn’t fill me with confidence. I would have thought the experienced employees wouldn’t have to learn on the job with the technology and I’m surprised to see this with full fiber as I thought these kinds of issues would disappear.

    Do they have to publish where and when they are going now it’s been announced?

  2. NGA for all says:

    If BDUK repeated this 5 times in England using the £900m clawback identified by the NAO, you could have 99%+ coverage with a good 1m FTTP at the edge of the network.

    1. Andrew Ferguson says:

      How much of that £900m has already been committed to doing what you say they could do?

      The rural FTTP appearing in various BDUK areas from Openreach suggests they are doing a fair bit, just not at the scale you are dreaming about.

      Why? Because the equation of throw resources at the final 3% today and fix them and will then have a bigger short fall in teh Gigabit target in 2025.

      To do what you dream of needs a whole new workforce to solely concentrate on those areas.

    2. NGA for all says:

      The NAO could only point to some £111m actually re-cycled and contracted. It does not record what LA’s/BDUK have taken back and banked.

      BT are only 5k a month, and there is still 250k contracted and to be delivered.

      This suggest a great more can be done.

      Finishing this work using these funds I think is less fantastic that proposing to spend £5bn doing this work and overbuilding what has been done since 2013.

      It is only another 5 regional English contracts of broken into 100k each.

      If the Capital Deferral is already being recovered as a cost, then it is I think proper to make sure these monies are spent on rural upgrades.

    3. Andrew Ferguson says:

      What you think is proper is something you should discuss with those running the various local authorities and their accountants then.

      Suspect they will point out some of the other competing uses of the money that they are able to banked.

      Councils are NOT a bottomless pit of money, choice might be provisioning for homeless people or better broadband for some rural properties.

    4. NGA for all says:

      Andrew, if you go through the oral evidence for PAC on Nov 9th, the Perm Sec said finishing rural was a priority, so I guess it could happen.

      She also referred to ‘operational’ clawback which will be the BT capital the Minister in his evidence said was paid during the 2016 CMS inquiry. This was unlikely to be true. It needed to emerge at some point.

      At least demand is pretty much guaranteed if the work can be arranged.

      Final question if NI can get 99%+ why not England given most of the money needed is sitting there?

      Is it in BT’s interest to give this money back?

    5. Andrew Ferguson says:

      NI is not yet at 99%+, the small matter of actually doing the work.

    6. NGA for all says:

      Indeed, but at least they are contracted.

  3. Rural Fermanagh says:

    Will there be exact addresses to be upgraded along with a timeframe, as the postcode lottery of the past always goes against rural premises, and they keep you from asking by saying it is not the end of the intervention period.
    It also says ‘almost 97%’ will get over 30Mbit, meaning a population of 56,550 will be passed over again! (NOTE: Fermanagh’s population in 2019 was around 62,527)
    Therefore, as it is not 100% coverage, 99% of Fermanagh and South Tyrone will fall into the “Not financially viable to upgrade you” bucket and not be done. No different to every other intervention so far!
    The low hanging fruit will be upgraded first, and BT, Virgin, and Fibrus (with this new found pot of money) will continue to overbuild all the non-rural locations first.

    1. Andrew Ferguson says:

      The assumption is that the footprint I can find today is their commercial footprint.

      Delivering the commercial ambition along with the rural element and some of the distances involved in Northern Ireland means it is going to be interesting watching the roll-out.

      The money is just for Fibrus, BT, Virgin are not getting any of these so the overbuild each other with their own money can continue.

  4. BigBadDom says:

    Has anyone seen the reviews Fibrus are getting on Facebook and Google? They’re seriously struggling with what they have already without taking on any more. Speeds are bad and they seemingly don’t answer tech support calls. Sure as long as they get a few quid in their pockets, who cares?

    1. Dondon says:

      Fibrus provide a really poor service. I took on there gigbit package back in October. Speeds where great at 6am in the morning. But at 6pm in the evening they where really poor. Now they have downgraded me to 200mbps says they can’t keep up with the big demand for it. Again speeds at 6am get near the full 200. In the evening really poor. So bought a vpn service. in the evening when speeds get bad. I switch on my vpn using the wireguard protocol. And quess what my speeds is back up to 180mbps

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