Connecting communities and changing lives
Chief Operating Officer of Fibrus, Shane Haslem, talks to David Whelan about the transformational impact that Fibrus’ full fibre broadband rollout is having on rural communities across Northern Ireland.
Founded in July 2019, Fibrus, born into a pandemic, has quickly established itself as one of the leading providers of full fibre broadband in Northern Ireland and has ambitious plans to reach over one million premises across the UK.
In March 2023, the Belfast headquartered company announced the delivery of network and services to 250,000 premises across Northern Ireland and the north of England, an impressive milestone for an organisation which cut its teeth targeting smaller towns and villages as well as the most rural areas across the UK.
However, while the numbers point to business success, Haslem insists that the real measure of Fibrus’ accomplishments on the ground lies in the positive impact these services are having on individuals, communities, and businesses across the region.
“The pandemic served not only to highlight the critical importance digital connectivity has in our society, but also the digital divide that exists between urban and rural areas in Northern Ireland,” he explains.
“Fibrus came into being to address a noticeable gap in the market, where large swaths of our rural communities had been missed by high speed, reliable broadband provision and effectively left behind in digital poverty.”
Underpinning a need to narrow the digital divide in Northern Ireland, the Chief Operating Officer indicates that the testimonies of teachers having to travel great distances to connect to a reliable network, of students unable to access online teaching resources and of businesses limited by poor broadband connectivity during the pandemic, were not isolated instances.
“Digital connectivity has become such a massive part of our daily lives that it is now largely regarded as the fourth utility.”
Shane Haslem, Chief Operating Officer of Fibrus
“Digital connectivity has become such a massive part of our daily lives that it is now largely regarded as the fourth utility. The full fibre network connectivity we are providing means that individuals, households, and businesses in areas such as Belleek or the Glens of Antrim have the same level of connectivity as those in Belfast, Manchester or London.
“It is life-changing for the individual, but also for the economic prospects of local communities and Northern Ireland PLC as a whole. Network connectivity drastically improves the chances of rural communities to retain and attract talent, foster entrepreneurship, and become appealing places to live, work, and do business.”
Historically, some rural areas of Northern Ireland have struggled to get 1Mb download speed, primarily because of poor and outdated infrastructure. These areas are deemed ‘hard to reach’ given that they are often further away from telephone exchanges, resulting in slower speeds. Additionally, the sporadic nature of dwellings makes the establishment and maintenance of quality rural internet connections expensive.
To this end, Fibrus’ offering of full fibre broadband is important. “Many people are unaware of the two different types of broadband – copper wire and fibre-optic cable. For years, phone and TV companies have run slow copper phone networks into their customers’ premises and called that fibre broadband. Fibrus is a full fibre broadband company meaning that we only use a full fibre optic cable all the way from the network to the premises, providing a high speed, reliable connection. The underlying fibre optic technology we use to build our network is also future proofed to support higher speeds to the home as new technologies and trends manifest over the next 20 to 30 years,” the Chief Operating Officer explains.
Fibrus is well aware of the need to minimise environmental disruption, and Haslem reiterates that around 80 per cent of the rollout reuses existing network. The re-utilisation of existing network builds on the organisation’s green credentials, which includes a commitment to be a net zero organisation by 2040.
The recent roll out of a fleet of electric vehicles underpins plans to have all its vehicles switched to electric by 2025, following on from other company-wide initiatives such as a paper-free office environment, renewable energy supply to company premises, and biodiversity projects.
Fibrus’ initial ambitious rollout of full fibre infrastructure to build network to smaller towns and villages across Northern Ireland was “supercharged” by the award in November 2020 from the Department for the Economy of Project Stratum.
“The underlying fibre optic technology we use to build our network is also future proofed to support higher speeds to the home as new technologies and trends manifest over the next 20 to 30 years.”
Project Stratum, developed to improve connectivity for premises unable to access broadband services of 30 Mbps, primarily across rural areas of Northern Ireland, is the largest publicly funded telecommunications infrastructure project of its kind here.
At the end of March 2023, Project Stratum surpassed 60,000 premises against the 85,000 target through to March 2025, and is ahead of schedule. Haslem points to the organisation’s agility and the utilisation of technology throughout its workstreams from the beginning, as central to the ability to mitigate disruption during the pandemic.
“In addition to Project Stratum, we are rolling out our own commercial network across smaller urban towns and villages, targeting a total build across Northern Ireland of 400,000 and we plan to expand on this,” outlines Haslem.
Project Stratum is financed by the UK Government, the Department for the Economy (DfE), the Department of Agriculture, Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), and Fibrus. Their combined investment is £197 million. In addition to this, Fibrus is investing over £48 million to support network build costs.
“This is a once-in-a-generation infrastructure project. This critical infrastructure is addressing a historical lack of investment in rural communities from a broadband perspective and touches the most hard-to-reach locations across Northern Ireland,” explains the Chief Operating Officer.
“To offer an example of the reach of Project Stratum, we have a customer with full fibre broadband capable of 1 Gbps bandwidth but, incredibly, they do not have running water.”
Haslem reiterates the community connection Fibrus’ work retains and the mutual benefits the rollout of a network is creating. As part of Project Stratum, the company has recorded 3,405 new entrant training weeks to date, significantly above a target of 2,640 net hours for the contract.
The company now employs 400 people directly, with another 450 employed via its sister company and build partner Viberoptix, who have developed a large subcontractor base to underpin build plans.
“We want to reiterate that when we commit to an area, we commit wholeheartedly, developing the network in full, but also bringing the benefits associated with investment, such as job creation. We are proud that we are employing and utilising the people and skills from the area that we are investing in. Additionally, where we see a gap in skills provision, we are establishing skills academies to develop those skills and contribute to the economic and social improvement of rural areas.”
Underpinning this commitment to communities, Haslem explains that Fibrus has recently announced the doubling of its Fibrus Community Fund. Delivered through the Community Foundation NI, the fund which aims to help address digital poverty in rural areas, with a particular focus on organisations that support older and younger people, has committed to a total contribution of £120,000 by the end of 2023.
“It is embedded in our culture that we continue to support projects which are specifically aimed at young people who have a need for increased access to technology or connectivity, as well as initiatives that combat digital exclusion amongst the elderly or those more vulnerable in our society,” explains the Chief Operating Officer.
“We are heavily investing in new ways of working, implementing new technologies and hiring passionate and dedicated departmental colleagues to help drive our customer experience mission.”
Fibrus has also recently completed the build programme for the Full Fibre Northern Ireland (FFNI) Consortium of Councils and BSO. FFNI contracted Fibrus to deliver full fibre service to over 900 public sector sites across Northern Ireland.
Such has been the success of Project Stratum to date, Haslem explains, that it is often used as an exemplar for the potential impact of the UK Government’s recently announced Project Gigabit programme, the largest broadband rollout in British history backed with £5 billion to deliver faster connections to hard-to-reach areas.
In 2022, Fibrus expanded beyond Northern Ireland into Great Britain, initially targeting 8,000 properties in their first connectable area of Penrith, Cumbria. The commercial expansion into the north of England was followed at the end of the year by the company becoming the first to be awarded a contract under Project Gigabit, a £108 million contract to deliver to around 60,000 premises in Cumbria.
In what has been hailed as a huge boost for jobs and skills for Cumbria, Fibrus has committed to creating at least 90 apprenticeships and establishing an apprentice training academy at Newton Rigg, near Penrith, in partnership with Viberoptix.
Haslem explains that Fibrus’ commitment to changing the lives of people living in regional areas has grown. “This win helps us further our mission and commitment to bring fast, reliable, and affordable broadband to all areas in which we build,” he says.
Haslem explains that the expansion into Great Britain does not mean that Fibrus has reduced its ambitions for Northern Ireland. “As an organisation we want to constantly evolve and deliver the best solutions for all our customers. While Project Stratum and our commercially funded build in Northern Ireland are delivering speeds that will see us as one of the best-connected regions in Europe, we are also keenly aware of the future needs of our customers.
“Emerging technologies are continually pushing bandwidth demands in the home and in businesses. Offering our customers best-in-class broadband services is what we pride ourselves on as a company. The demand for higher speed services is growing and we see consumers connecting more and more devices and consuming much more data.”
In response, Fibrus is beginning to rollout the use of XGS-PON technology in upgrades to its network to support broadband products at 2 Gbps and above having already connected its first customers in Rathfriland. Haslem says that as each area is upgraded, it will update the market and provide a rollout schedule in due course.
“Over the next number of years, we are expecting to see the demand for 10 Gbps capable networks increase and, as such, we are committed to building the best network possible for our customers.
“We are investing in our future by preparing for a rapid upgrade via XGS-PON access technology,” he adds.
Fibrus is also devoted to improving customer service. “We are heavily investing in new ways of working, implementing new technologies and hiring passionate and dedicated departmental colleagues to help drive our customer experience mission.”
Concluding, the Chief Operating Officer says that the ambitious growth of the network is happening in parallel with the ambitious growth of the organisation, whose head office is in the city centre, itself. In August 2022, the company opened its Service and Network Operations Centre at Dargan Crescent in Belfast, which Haslem says will act as a central hub for Fibrus’ service delivery function and represents “another major investment in the ever-growing company in people and in the Northern Ireland economy”.
Profile: Shane Haslem
Haslem was appointed Chief Operating Officer of Fibrus in March 2022, having previously worked as commercial and project director. He has over 20 years telecoms experience, including senior engineering and designing roles in Energis and Cable & Wireless. Prior to joining Fibrus, Haslem worked for eir, rising from senior engineering pre-sales commercial roles to general manager. He is a graduate of Ulster University in computing science. Outside of work, Haslem is a sports enthusiast and enjoys football, cycling, and time spent with his family.