Belfast Telegraph

Patchy broadband hitting Northern Ireland investment hopes


By Claire McNeilly

Around 40,000 homes and offices in Northern Ireland struggle to get a decent broadband connection, prompting warnings that it could affect our ability to attract high-tech investment.

The region is still not "fit for purpose", according to a report by communications regulator Ofcom.

The findings, detailed in Ofcom's Connected Nations 2018 report, have been criticised by industry leaders and politicians, who are now demanding action.

Angela McGowan, CBI NI director and chair of the NI Broadband Industry Forum, said a lack of connectivity is jeopardising our competitive ability.

"There has been marginal improvement of the connectivity of Northern Ireland over the last year with regards superfast and ultrafast broadband coverage, but there is still more to be done," she said.

"The fact that 5% of residents can't get sufficient broadband speeds and 11% don't have access to superfast speeds is unacceptable.

"Investment in new future-proof broadband infrastructure is vital for competitiveness in the 21st century.

"If Northern Ireland wants to attract high-tech, high-growth sectors to all parts of the region we need a digital infrastructure that's fit for purpose."

DUP leader Arlene Foster, a former Enterprise Minister, said: "The provision of proper broadband infrastructure across all parts of Northern Ireland is vital for families and businesses, particularly in rural areas.

"Making progress on issues such as the delivery of improved broadband connectivity is why we need to see the Assembly and Executive back, with ministers taking decisions that can progress these projects that will improve the lives of people right across Northern Ireland."

Jonathan Rose of Ofcom said that although mobile phone coverage in Northern Ireland has improved, too many people and businesses are still struggling for a signal.

"We're particularly concerned about mobile reception in rural areas," he said. "As we release new airwaves for mobile, we're planning rules that would extend good mobile coverage to areas that haven't had it.

"That will help ensure that rural communities have the kind of mobile coverage that people expect in towns and cities, reducing the digital divide."

Around 40,000 homes and offices - or 5% of properties in Northern Ireland - still cannot get broadband speeds needed to meet a typical household's needs, with most located in rural areas. This is down from 55,000 premises in 2017 - a drop of 27%.

Ofcom defines this as broadband offering a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s, with an upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s - although it expects these requirements to increase over time.

Ofcom's report also shows that broadband remains worse in rural areas, where properties are often situated a long way from the telephone exchange or local street cabinet.

A Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) spokesman said the report was "disappointing".

"If we are to encourage a balanced regional economy in Northern Ireland, it is vital that businesses in rural areas can access broadband with download and upload speeds compatible with running a business," he said.

Around 17% of rural premises here (37,000) are not getting basic broadband services, compared to less than 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. Although significant, the number has reduced over the last year.

In one council area, Fermanagh and Omagh, almost one in five premises (19%) can't get a service delivering more than 10Mbit/s.

Mid-Ulster (11%) and Newry, Mourne and Down (8%) also have significant numbers of premises that fall into this undesirable category.

SDLP MLA Justin McNulty said border communities are the most disadvantaged in terms of broadband and mobile services.

"This report reinforces this fact but it's nothing new to those of us who live and work along the border," he said.

"But I believe the facts on the ground are even worse. This can't continue. We need to see action and we need it urgently."

The broadband Universal Service Obligation, due to be introduced in 2020 and which will give consumers and businesses the right to request a decent broadband connection, will help those with the slowest connections.

Superfast broadband - defined by Ofcom as a download speed of 30Mbit/s or more - was available to 89% of homes and businesses here by September 2018, up from 86% a year earlier. UK-wide availability is 94%.

However, availability is lower in rural areas where only 67% of premises have access to a superfast service.

Coverage of mobile services here has also improved in recent years.

However, as with broadband, coverage it is less extensive in rural areas.

The report states 88% of Northern Ireland's geographic area is now covered by all four operators for telephone calls, up from 80% in June 2017.

Belfast Telegraph

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