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

northern ireland regions map uk

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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