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All households and firms need access to good broadband



Getting a strong, reliable internet service is crucial for users in NI

Getting a strong, reliable internet service is crucial for users in NI

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getting a strong, reliable internet service is crucial for users in NI

Access to high quality communications services is increasingly vital for consumers and businesses but there's still work to do to ensure we have adequate mobile coverage and decent broadband.

As communications play an increasingly critical role in our lives, the supporting infrastructure must keep pace with the needs of people and businesses.

We have come a long way in the last decade to a point where more people than ever have access to good broadband and more of the country is covered by mobile phone services.

However, there is a lot more to do, especially in rural areas, as our latest research points out.

Our Connected Nations report, which takes an in-depth look at communications networks in the UK and its nations, shows the number of homes and offices in Northern Ireland unable to get a decent broadband connection has fallen by 7,000 within a year but some 56,000 premises (or 7% of properties) still cannot get the broadband speeds needed to meet a typical household's needs.

Ofcom currently defines this as broadband offering a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s, with an upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s.

And most of these are in rural areas where properties are often situated a long way from the telephone exchange or local street cabinet.

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Around 23% of rural premises in Northern Ireland (53,000) are not getting basic broadband services, compared to just 1% in urban areas.

Local authorities that are more rural and with more dispersed properties have a higher number of premises that cannot access 10Mbit/s. Nearly a quarter of premises (10,800) in the Fermanagh and Omagh Council area can't get a service delivering more than 10Mbit/s.

Mid Ulster (7,900) and Newry, Mourne and Down (7,900) also have significant numbers of premises that fall into this category.

However, our research does highlight an improving picture over the last year.

Superfast broadband - defined by Ofcom as a download speed of 30Mbit/s or more - was available to 85% of Northern Ireland homes and small businesses by May 2017, up from 83% a year earlier. The UK-wide figure is 91%.

The Connected Nations report also shows the average download speed of a connected broadband service in Northern Ireland rose by 15% in the year, from 34 Mbit/s to 39 Mbit/s. Average download speeds are lower in rural areas but have increased to 24Mbit/s in 2017, compared to 21Mbit/s in 2016.

Superfast broadband availability for SMEs is also increasing. 75% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) now have access to superfast broadband or faster - up from 71% in 2016.

We expect the picture to continue to improve on the back of a number of government funded UK-wide and regional initiatives that have and are being undertaken to improve broadband speeds, especially in rural areas.

But everyone should have good access to the internet, wherever they live and work.

So Ofcom is supporting the UK Government's plans for universal broadband, so homes and businesses across the country - including in rural and remote areas - have the right to request a broadband connection with a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s, and an upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s

Ofcom is also taking a range of steps to help improve broadband coverage and speeds, including promoting industry-wide investment in full-fibre networks.

These connections can deliver far quicker, more reliable broadband. Ofcom is making it easier and cheaper for competitors to lay their own ultrafast networks using BT's network of telegraph poles and underground ducts.

Further action is also needed on mobile coverage.

Using Ofcom's enhanced coverage measurements, four in 10 premises (44%) in Northern Ireland can receive an indoor 4G mobile signal from all four main networks, up from 34% last year.

Total geographic 4G coverage, where a signal is available from all four main mobile operators, is available across 60% of Northern Ireland's landmass - up from 30% in 2016.

We are calling for further investment from mobile providers to improve coverage.

Ofcom is also taking direct action, including: plans to improve coverage in rural areas by setting appropriate coverage obligations on mobile airwaves being released in future; enforcing existing coverage obligations placed on operators; increasing network capacity; extending the use of controlled mobile phone 'repeaters'; and providing better information for consumers.

While the industry works to improve mobile coverage, it's vital people can get a trustworthy picture of reception across the UK. Using our tools, mobile users can see which network offers the best service in areas where they live, work and travel, before they take out a new phone contract.

  • James Stinson is regulatory affairs manager for Ofcom in Northern Ireland