Rural broadband roll-out

rural-broadband A new project aims to deliver more broadband in rural areas, while new data shows parity between rural and urban take-up.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is finalising a consultation on a new initiative to fill the gaps in broadband services, particularly in rural areas, where broadband choice is limited or speeds are less than 2MBps.

Responses must be submitted by 12 October. The UK Government has set a target for a basic broadband service of this speed for everyone and a superfast broadband (with minimum speed of 24MBps) for 90 per cent of homes and businesses by 2015.

DETI has produced a map of postcodes where 2MBps services are available from only one or two suppliers, but has asked people to get in touch if their households cannot access a service of the same speed. The department is also seeking information on private sector investment that has happened, is happening or planned in the coming three years in postcode areas with poor broadband coverage. It has asked the industry for information on its other future plans. The contract to deliver service to affected areas will be publicly tendered.

Broadband has been universally available in Northern Ireland since 2005. Ninetyfour per cent of homes now have access to superfast broadband services, compared to a UK-wide figure of 60 per cent. Broadband take-up (fixed or mobile) in homes, however, stands at 69 per cent, and compares with a UK average of 76 per cent. Ofcom’s latest report on Northern Ireland, published in July, found that connection levels are the same in rural and urban areas.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Phil Flanagan has criticised DETI’s consultation process on the new project. The Sinn Féin representative stated: “How you can find out areas that do not receive broadband or are weak by conducting a survey online is beyond me.” He said that the department needs to engage with local councils, elected representatives and community and voluntary organisations to fully assess availability.

Flanagan added that “there are many gaps in rural areas” such as west Fermanagh, as was evidenced by the consultation’s map and list of postcodes. The map shows weak broadband availability distributed widely across the province. DETI declined to respond to Flanagan’s comments.

Ofcom’s report found that of the 69 per cent of Northern Ireland homes with fixed or mobile broadband (via dongle or inbuilt connectivity in a device), only 7 per cent had mobile connections. This represented a decrease from 14 per cent in 2011, which Ofcom has suggested is explained by the rise in smartphone ownership and the use of them for internet access. Ownership increased from 21 per cent of adults in Q1 2011 to 34 per cent in Q1 2012.

DETI’s project is the latest in a series of initiatives to roll out broadband. In January, it awarded a three-year contract to Onwave to deliver high speed satellite broadband services (6MBps for domestic users and 8-10 MBps for businesses) and to areas where broadband cannot be accessed by telephone lines.

July 2011 saw completion of the next generation broadband project. Primarily aimed at business, it involved £52 million in investment (£31 million from the private sector) in new technology to increase broadband speeds.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster told the Assembly in September that her department is working on a project to improve access to 3G mobile services. She aims to reduce the proportion of premises with no such coverage from 11.7 per cent to the UK average of 0.9 per cent. The Economic Strategy re-affirms the UK Government target for universal access to services of at least 2MBps.

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