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Meeting growing demand for ultrafast Full Fibre broadband across NI

Openreach has continued to expand and grow across Northern Ireland as a key service amid Covid-19. Mairead Meyer, director Openreach Northern Ireland, outlines the business’s further expansion plans, hiring 150 new staff, hitting record demand amid lockdown all while dealing with the challenges of a global pandemic

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Mairead Meyer

Mairead Meyer

Mairead Meyer

The last few months have shone an even greater focus on the importance of high-speed and reliable broadband connections for both our homes and our businesses.

And for Mairead Meyer and her 1,000 strong team at Openreach – Northern Ireland’s largest digital infrastructure provider – it’s meant continuing to expand and roll-out its ultrafast Full Fibre broadband connectivity across Northern Ireland, aiming to reach 525,000 premises, around 60%, by March this year.

The burgeoning business and team have also been faced with soaring demand for connectivity, adapting to Covid-safe working for its engineers, and moving to home working for hundreds of its staff here.

“For me it’s all about adapting to change, supporting our people and focusing on the future and making Openreach a strong brand,” Mairead says.

“Our focus is also on growing and expanding our ultrafast Full Fibre broadband network right across the region.”

Mairead took on her current role in September 2018, following her time in charge of NI Networks, the engineering and servicing arm of BT, and has led Openreach through its growth and expansion over the last two and half years.

“We have been growing significantly, year-on-year and helping support that huge growth in Full Fibre means we have grown the team to close to 1,000 people,” Mairead says.

“We also have a lot of third parties which are there to support build programmes across Northern Ireland.”

Openreach is also going through a further expansion of its team here. That includes recruiting around 100 new apprentices – from across age groups and backgrounds – along with around an additional 50 new hires.

“The new roles help bring a real energy to the place,” Mairead says. “We have so many new staff coming through.

“With our apprentices, it’s a mixture of everything. Years ago it was primarily school leavers – now it’s a lot of people who are seeing it as a second career option. In some cases, people who are self-employed but like the stability of working for a larger business. And there’s no age limit, so we have people from their late teens up to those in their 50s.”

It’s ramping up its investment here, reaching 50% ultrafast Full Fibre broadband coverage and well on the way to 60%, at a time when the demand for top-end and strong connectivity couldn’t be higher.

On Boxing Day, Openreach hit a record with 210 petabytes of data consumed across its network. To put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to streaming around 44 million films from Netflix.

“The pandemic has hugely accelerated digitalisation,” she says. “As more people are working from home and businesses are having to adapt how they function, demand for faster and more reliable broadband has increased exponentially and we’re working hard to meet that demand.

“People are also much more aware of what options they have – what the products are and what they need from the service. They never really worried about it before – as long as they could stream and send emails. But now, with multiple people working from home in the household and children needing to access schoolwork online, there is much greater consumer awareness.”

That expansion is seeing Openreach extend to 94 towns and villages across Northern Ireland. It also runs a Community Fibre Partnership scheme – operating with a local community to build a customised solution to bring ultrafast Full Fibre broadband to homes and businesses.

“It has been a really nice way of bringing Full Fibre into the community and getting people engaged,” Mairead says.

“Openreach continues to be a growth story in terms of recruitment and also moving away from just the traditional copper network.”

As for what helps set Openreach apart from some of the newer players on the market, Mairead says: “One is our ultrafast Full Fibre broadband coverage. We’ll have reached over 60% by the end of March and we will continue to grow and build it throughout NI.

“We are also an open access provider – meaning that many communications providers can access and sell products across our network. In fact, we support 600 communications providers across the UK. Customers are therefore able to choose whichever company they wish. It’s that freedom of choice allowing people to choose the package that best suits their needs.

“The great thing about the ultrafast Full Fibre broadband build is that it is available at an affordable consumer level.”

Openreach, like many businesses across Northern Ireland, the rest of the UK and Ireland, and the world, has had to deal with operating a huge company amid the challenge of Covid-19.

“For us, it was first about getting all the right processes in place for our teams,” Mairead said.

“We are classed as key workers, so it’s about keeping the infrastructure build going during lockdown. In a way, we are there to help look after people and to keep them connected to what matters most.

“We make sure we have safe working practices and adhere to the guidelines – how the engineers work within homes, making sure they have all the correct personal protective equipment (PPE).”

Openreach was also front and centre in ensuring the greater data demands and connectivity were met across a range of key infrastructure – from hospitals to key businesses involved in the fightback against coronavirus.

“For staff, it’s also adjusting to new ways of working – with desk-based staff working from home. We have been adjusting to that as most others have. For engineers, it’s about keeping them as a safe as possible.

“It’s about supporting the teams. We have roughly 250 now based out of the office. It’s also about flexibility for people. Everyone is juggling their professional and personal lives and the boundaries are not as clear as they once were.”

The future is focused on ultrafast Full Fibre broadband, and getting it into as many homes and businesses across Northern Ireland as possible.

“We have ambitious plans ahead and will continue to make sure that as many people as possible, right across the region, have access to reliable broadband. Northern Ireland will have a good infrastructure story to tell and with widespread ultrafast Full Fibre broadband coverage, we will be able to take advantage of the socioeconomic benefits and help the region in its recovery from the pandemic.”

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