Call for broadband fund for NI to be focused on rural areas

Industry leaders want £150m pot to boost SME activities with ultrafast fibre broadband

There may be 100,000 premises in Northern Ireland, including many rural-based SMEs, which do not have access to superfast broadband.

There may be 100,000 premises in Northern Ireland, including many rural-based SMEs, which do not have access to superfast broadband.

 

A £150 million (€168.4 million) pot of money earmarked to help speed up broadband in the North, under the DUP’s £1 billion pact with the Conservative Party, should be spent mainly in rural areas, a group of key industry leaders and government representatives has urged.

The group, members of the NI Broadband Industry Forum, believe if the £150 million fund was used to bring ultrafast fibre broadband to rural and semi-rural areas across Northern Ireland this could ultimately deliver a £1.2 billion boost for the Northern Irish economy.

It is estimated there are 100,000 premises in Northern Ireland, including many rural-based SMEs, which do not have access to superfast broadband and who can only access less than 30 Mbps.

There are also an estimated 51,000 premises that cannot access a broadband connection which provides download speeds of 10 Mbps or more and an upload speed of 1 Mbps or more.

Ofcom, the UK telecommunications regulator, has warned this could put rural entrepreneurs at a competitive disadvantage and might even prevent some from setting up a business in the first place.

Remote operation

In a new report released on Thursday, the NI Broadband Industry Forum said research shows that SMEs account for over 75 per cent of all private sector jobs in the North and that small businesses would be most likely to benefit from the introduction of ultrafast broadband.

The forum said this would enable them to operate remotely from urban centres where costs are lower and possibly also from home.

Angela McGowan, director of the Confederation of British Industry and chair of the forum, said bringing ultrafast connectivity to rural areas in Northern Ireland could be a game-changer.

“Investment in new future-proof broadband infrastructure is vital to overcoming decades of neglect and unlocking the potential of businesses across Northern Ireland. Using the NI broadband fund effectively will attract private investment, help create jobs, grow the economy and deliver broadband that’s fit for the future,” Ms McGowan said.

The NI Broadband Industry Forum has recommended that the £150 million broadband fund should be spent on ensuring that 100Mbps is deployed in Northern Ireland in rural and semi-rural areas that currently receive less than 30 Mbps. It also advocates the networks deployed should be “future-proofed” and mainly revolve around fibre with other hybrid technologies to support hard-to-reach communities.