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Access to broadband in Northern Ireland improving but rural areas lagging behind

Rural areas are still lagging far behind towns and cities in Northern Ireland when it comes to accessing broadband and mobile coverage, a new report has found. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
Rural areas are still lagging far behind towns and cities in Northern Ireland when it comes to accessing broadband and mobile coverage, a new report has found. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

By Mark McConville

Rural areas are still lagging far behind towns and cities in Northern Ireland when it comes to accessing broadband and mobile coverage, a new report has found.

Around 98% of homes in urban areas now have access to superfast broadband but this figure dropped by 32% for rural areas, where only 66% of households had access.

The details emerged in Ofcom's annual Connected Nations report, published yesterday.

In Northern Ireland as a whole, 89% of households now have access to superfast broadband, compared to the 95% figure for the UK.

The report also revealed that more than 232,000 homes (31%) have access to full-fibre broadband while just 6% of households are unable to get decent broadband.

This has increased sharply from last year's figure (12%), with 160,000 extra homes now able to access the latest broadband technology. Northern Ireland has the highest full-fibre coverage of any UK nation.

The figures show that 75% of Northern Ireland's land area is covered by good 4G coverage (mobile data) reception from all four networks.

Around 97% of the country can get reliable 4G from at least one operator but the difference between urban and rural areas is stark. Some 90% of urban areas can get 4G coverage from all four operators, compared to 74% of rural areas.

However, rural mobile coverage is set to increase as a result of an industry project announced in October. Mobile operators have worked with Government and Ofcom on a plan to introduce a 'shared rural network'.

Ofcom said this will see high-quality 4G coverage reach 95% of the UK by 2025, as mobile companies share their existing masts and invest in new sites.

Jonathan Rose, director at Ofcom Northern Ireland, said: "This year we've seen full-fibre broadband grow at its fastest ever rate, and the first 5G services launched in Northern Ireland.

"But despite this progress, there is more to do to bring all parts of the country up to speed, particularly rural areas. So we're working with industry and the Government to bring better services to people who need them."

5G - the fifth generation of mobile technology - launched in the UK this year, with all four mobile networks rolling out 5G across 40 UK towns and cities.

Initially, 5G will be an enhanced version of 4G - offering faster speeds, more capacity and far fewer connection delays. But in the longer term it can support a host of innovative new services for mobile users and businesses, from farming to factories.

The report shows the average download speed delivered to premises in Northern Ireland has increased from 43 megabits per second (Mbit/s) in 2018 to 55 Mbit/s, reflecting increasing availability of faster broadband services.

Demand for getting online has also increased, with average monthly broadband data use going up from 240GB per connection in 2018, to 322GB in 2019 - the equivalent of watching four hours of HD video content a day.

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