16/08/2011

Guarded NI Welcome For 'Broader Internet Access'

The Stormont Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has welcomed additional money to help get NI firmly on the Internet highway - but has also said that it falls short of the level of help expected.

The DUP Minister said: "I welcome today's announcement by Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, that Northern Ireland will receive £4.4m to help ensure that everyone is able to access a 2Mbps broadband service.

"However, this allocation is considerably less than we had hoped for.

"It was encouraging to note the acknowledgement of the work to date, as the Executive has already succeeded in providing access to superfast broadband to a significant proportion of the population," she continued.

But, she added: "While our plans are well developed in scoping the costs of providing such services across Northern Ireland, I believe it will be a significant challenge for the Executive, businesses and communities to ensure funds are maximised to deliver this goal."

The Executive Minister said: "It is clear that we have the skills, experience and track record in ensuring Northern Ireland remains at the forefront of delivering innovative broadband projects.

"I look forward to taking up Mr Hunt's offer of utilising further additional funds by developing a pilot superfast broadband project here that will bring real benefits, not just to Northern Ireland, but also to the rest of the UK."

The Minister was speaking after London's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced the allocation of the £4.4m to help Northern Ireland fill in any remaining spots of weak broadband ISP coverage with faster internet access services.

Some 97% of homes and businesses in the region can already access superfast broadband, with 81% being covered by the BT-Infinity style FTTC (up to 40Mbps) technology.

This afternoon, the Alliance Enterprise Spokesperson Trevor Lunn MLA has also warmly welcomed the news that the Executive is to receive around £4.4m to enable the further rollout of broadband in Northern Ireland.

"This is very positive news for Northern Ireland. While there is already quite a high standard of coverage across Northern Ireland this funding will hopefully help ensure that everyone will be able to have access to a high speed broadband internet service.

"Broadband is vital for many businesses in helping them reach their potential and I am very pleased that this funding has been provided to help us boost coverage. Broadband is extremely important to our economy and this is a very welcome development," he said, adding, "Excellent infrastructure is one of the key factors when it comes to trying to build and grow a business."

The money will come from the Government's Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) office, which has a budget of £530m (rising to £830m by 2017) to help 90% of 'people in each local authority area' gain access to a superfast broadband (25Mbps+) service by 2015 (the last 10% must make do with a minimum speed commitment of 2Mbps).

The DCMS Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, said: "Broadband is essential for economic growth and increasingly for our everyday lives.

"I am delighted the Northern Ireland Executive shares our view of the importance of broadband and has provided so many homes and businesses with superfast broadband access.

"Our investment will help provide everyone with decent broadband access and ensure no-one is left behind in the digital age," he said.

At present the average broadband 'modem sync speed' (i.e. a more optimistic download rate than real-world performance) for Northern Ireland is just 6.3Mbps, with 23% of the region's population still receiving less than 2Mbps.

The figures are surprising, especially given the wide availability of superfast services, and point to a limited uptake of superfast connectivity.

Related services are often more expensive and this may be discouraging some adopters, while others may not be aware of its availability.

He said that the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont would decide how to use this money to support the rollout of broadband across the country.

Investment

Just last month, the 'Next Generation Broadband Project' was completed on time and on budget.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster announced that over £52m had been invested in the telecommunications infrastructure as part of the project, which involved the introduction of new technology to increase broadband speeds, primarily for businesses users, across Northern Ireland.

In July, the Minister said: "The initial construction phase of this project to develop Northern Ireland's telecommunications infrastructure completed on time and on budget and Next Generation Broadband Services are available."

She said that, over the past 18 months, the Next Generation Broadband Project had seen BT invest close to £30m in this initiative, with a further £16.5m coming from the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI) and the EU under the ERDF Competitiveness Programme of which £10.5m was invested in rural areas and £6million in urban areas.

Also £1.5m has been invested from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) under the EU ERADF Rural Development Programme. This has attracted a further investment from [other Govt departments] DARD, DETI and BT totalling some £4m, the Minister explained, prior to today's announcement being made.

See: NI Broadband Infrastructure Boosted

(BMcC)

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