One of the largest broadband initiatives delivered by multiple public sector organisations across Northern Ireland has successfully delivered the full fibre infrastructure required for high-speed connectivity to public sector buildings in order to fast track digital transformation and help improve the rollout to surrounding areas.
Thanks to the Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN) and Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) projects, over 887 public sector buildings have access to high-speed ‘gigabit capable’ infrastructure throughout Northern Ireland.
The initiative was delivered by the Full Fibre Northern Ireland (FFNI) Consortium, which is made up of 10 councils outside Belfast and the Business Services Organisation (BSO), and led by Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Its aim was to implement an exciting new collaborative programme to drive greater investment in fibre infrastructure and digital related projects across Northern Ireland at a local authority level.
Director of Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism at Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, Conor Mallon, explains: “Shortly after it was established in 2018, the Consortium applied for up to £15 million from the Local Full Fibre Networks Challenge Fund (LFFN) to invest in full fibre connectivity services. This bid placed a heavy emphasis on a multi, local authority collaboration that would help to integrate services to serve the public sector and stimulate further rollout of full fibre to residential areas. This was later supplemented with a subsequent successful bid for up to £9 million of UK Government funds from the Rural Gigabit Connectivity Fund (RGC).”
The project concept was designed and delivered by a centralised hybrid operations team within Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, which brought together a powerful blend of public sector commitment and local knowledge, with highly experienced technical, commercial and legal consultants, and expert digital infrastructure providers, all carefully selected through a rigorous and robust procurement process.
Build partner and local full fibre broadband provider, Fibrus, supported the rollout of the project on behalf of FFNI. The installation phase, which was delivered between February 2021 until March 2022, connected over 240 GP surgeries, 148 community centres, 90 council offices, 79 recycling centres, 69 fire stations and 63 leisure centres, which now have the required infrastructure to access internet speeds at least 10 times faster than their old, mostly copper-based connections. And, as requirements increase in the future, they will be able to tap into gigabit capable speeds of 1,000 megabits per second and above.
Talking about the work undertaken to achieve this rollout in such a short period of time, Mallon says: “To connect these public sector buildings, Fibrus extended its own fibre broadband network and commissioned Openreach in places where it was better value to do so or where Fibrus had no plans to move into an area.
“During installation, Fibrus and Openreach employed a combination of new civil work and utilised Openreach’s existing Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA), which enables other communication providers to share its existing access network infrastructure. Utilising PIA not only reduced costs, it provided an efficient route to getting connections setup quickly.”
This multi-million-pound investment has contributed to the development of an important telecoms infrastructure. Additional connections can now be made to nearby residential and commercial properties from these public sector sites through separate commercial investment plans, allowing communication providers to extend the rollout of gigabit capable connectivity.
Better digital infrastructure is widely considered to drive economic growth and assist the region to flourish. Mallon continues: “FFNI is essentially an economic development and regeneration vehicle contributing to the advancement of an important telecoms infrastructure and providing increased access to full fibre within public sector buildings.
“Councils involved in the FFNI project have now started to put measures in place to make use of this infrastructure through separate Wide Area Network (WAN) plans. The FFNI infrastructure and these overlaying projects will help to enable more efficient delivery of digital services, achieve improved productivity for residents, local businesses and employees, and support the development of new technology initiatives from within each of the local councils.
“In the long term, the infrastructure will help to develop better digital quality services and the high-speed network will complement the digital projects under the City and Growth Deals currently operating in Northern Ireland. Moving from an ageing copper network to a cutting-edge, next generation, ‘gigabit capable’ network, provides tremendous opportunities for SMART City applications and new innovative digital services to be implemented.
“For Newry, Mourne and Down, this new network will help to upgrade the delivery of our frontline public sector services, lower operational costs, and boost business productivity. This will help to address the growing demand from residents and businesses for digital services and support the improvement of educational resources, whilst reducing the digital divide across the district. By revolutionising how the public sector operates, the positive impacts will be even more far reaching for years to come.”
Both the LFFN and RGC projects delivered under FFNI, mark the completion of one of the largest, public sector broadband initiatives delivered by multiple public sector organisations across Northern Ireland, funded as part of the UK Government’s Levelling Up Strategy. The committed efforts of the FFNI Consortium and its component Councils and public sector partners, together with the significant investment from UK Government (BDUK) and Fibrus, will help make a tangible difference not only to the public sector, but also to the lives of families, people, communities and businesses at risk of digital exclusion across the province.
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