Northern Ireland’s £165m Broadband Plan to Help 98000 Premises

northern ireland map uk simplified

The Department for the Economy (DfE) in Northern Ireland has finally begun the procurement phase for Project Stratum, which reflects its plan to invest £165 million in order to ensure that most of the 98,000 premises still awaiting access to “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) ISP networks can get it.

The majority of the 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, which included a commitment of £150m to “help provide ultra-fast broadband” (100Mbps+) across Northern Ireland.

At this point the eagle-eyed among you will note that the use of “ultrafast broadband” terminology is nowhere to be seen in this announcement (as predicted), although we’d be very surprised if Gigabit capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) technology didn’t play a significant role in the future rollout (the UK government / DCMS has stopped approving FTTC dominated contracts, mainly so as to focus on full fibre FTTP).

Sadly the announcement doesn’t include much in the way of new detail, although we’re told to expect more information “later this summer.” The lack of alternative network (AltNet) ISPs in N.Ireland leads us to suspect that Openreach will probably hoover up the contract.

Noel Lavery, Permanent Secretary, said:

“The additional £150 million broadband funding allows us to build on the broadband connectivity achievements to date, given that some 108,000 premises have benefitted from recent interventions. I do recognise, however, that there remain many rural areas across Northern Ireland where broadband access remains unsatisfactory and that this is continuing to have an impact on citizens and businesses within our rural communities.

The roll-out of Project Stratum, including additional assistance of £15 million from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, will help ensure that more people than ever in rural areas have access to good quality broadband.”

All the premises eligible for inclusion in Project Stratum will be published soon, however the precise number and location of those that will benefit from the project will not be known until the procurement process is complete and a contract has been awarded. My Department will seek to maximise any industry contribution, over and above the £165 million public investment, to ensure that as many premises as possible benefit from the project.

As Project Stratum aims to address the harder-to-reach, and therefore most costly, premises, it is unlikely that we will be able to provide a solution for the full intervention area with the available funding, which is one of the reasons why industry contribution will be vital.”

Quite how many of the remaining 98,000 premises will be tackled by the future contract is unclear, although if we assume that this investment is supported by some private sector funding then in theory they should be able to do the vast majority. Past a certain point though the subsidy required, particularly if we’re talking about FTTP, could become too much (Wales is a good example of where the usual models can run into difficulty – here).

According to Ofcom, around 90% of N.Ireland can access 30Mbps+ speeds (you may need to upgrade first) today and this falls to 45% for 300Mbps+ (mostly Virgin Media and some Openreach FTTP/G.fast). Meanwhile full fibre (FTTP) networks are known to cover around 16% of premises, which is way above the UK’s 7%.

ofcom_northern_ireland_broadband_coverage_spring_2019

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