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News & opinion

3 MAY 2018

Northern Ireland needs an upgrade

The government has committed to ensuring that everyone in the UK will have access to universal high-speed broadband through a Universal Service Obligation.

Following the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017, the government announced in December of last year that it intended to introduce regulations that would grant everyone the legal right to request a broadband connection of at least 10 Mbps, the speed that Ofcom has determined is needed to meet the requirements of an average family.

High-speed internet access, once thought a luxury for many households, is a modern necessity. Whether it’s homes with children studying or small and medium sized businesses, the digitisation of our society demands that everyone is given equal access to a basic internet standard.

Beyond basic need, however, the link between access to digital services and economic growth is well established.

Research commissioned by Ofcom published this month has demonstrated that in the period 2002-16, the rise in adoption and speed of broadband services supported a cumulative increase in UK GDP of 6.7%. Investment flows to those areas with advanced infrastructure and that increasingly means digital infrastructure.

Setting the standard

Universal high-speed broadband is not a new idea. It was a proposal made by David Cameron’s government in 2015. This has raised some concerns that the 10 Mbps speed adopted isn’t ambitious enough for a project due to finish in 2020.

The Scottish government is currently engaged in a dispute with the UK government over its own plans to provide 30 Mbps broadband coverage to every premises in Scotland by 2021.

Similarly, the Irish Government has published a National Broadband Plan with the ambition of providing at least 30 Mbps broadband coverage to every premises in the Republic of Ireland by 2020.

This compliments the European Union’s Digital Single Market vision which also sets a target for member states to provide citizens with 30 Mbps broadband coverage by 2020.

The Northern Ireland challenge

The particular profile of rural communities in Northern Ireland, with more widely dispersed developments, will make achieving a universal service more challenging.

Figures released this week show that of all the devolved regions, Northern Ireland has the highest rate of premises without access to the USO 10 Mbps standard. Rollout of high-speed broadband has been slow, particularly in rural communities.

The challenge we face is reflected in local authority area statistics which show that 21% of premises in the Fermanagh and Omagh Council district are unable to receive the USO speed standard, placing it in the bottom 5 of all UK areas.

 

As a result of the Confidence and Supply agreement between the DUP and the Conservative party, the UK government has made a number of financial commitments to Northern Ireland.

Among the package of measures, the government has committed to providing £150m over two years to support the provision of ultrafast broadband across Northern Ireland.

The Department for the Economy is moving to consult with political parties on the way forward for this funding which BT has already suggested could ‘change rural broadband provision forever’.

The question now is where this investment will be focussed – improving the base position of rural communities to increase their economic product or further enhancing urban centres with a proven economic draw.

Will this investment secure the USO commitment in Northern Ireland? Will resource now be made available to pursue a 5G future for urban centres?

Can physical infrastructure investment enhance the digital offering to secure cloud computing services and other bandwidth intensive industry?

Infrastructure development is critical to unlocking Northern Ireland’s economic product. It’s time we prepared for a digital shift.