Following the broadband money

Broadband balls-up in Northern Ireland

with 30 comments

In many ways Northern Ireland has been the UK’s next generation broadband laboratory. The results to date should worry every county council with a rural constituency.

After spending more than £56m and 18 months rolling out next generation broadband, Northern Ireland (NI) still has the lowest uptake of users in the UK, and there are on-going service problems in rural areas.

Ofcom says rural and urban broadband penetration in NI are both at 69%, the lowest in the UK, despite spending £3.9m on advice to SMEs and 100% broadband connectivity.

In its latest communications market report, published in July, the regulator doesn’t split penetration figures for “superfast”, saying only that 6.6% of all UK broadband connections are superfast. Assuming the NI has an average take-up of superfast, that makes the average cost per connected household to date £1,156.

NI’s business department, DETI, planned to have a contract in place by December 2009 that would see 85% of NI’s businesses having access to next generation broadband. The 2011 census shows that NI has 1,810,900 people, and 703,300 households.

BT won a £48m contract on 3 December 2009 to roll out fixed wire broadband. At the time it said it would spend nearly £30m of its own money to upgrade more than 180 exchanges to provide a 10Mbps download service in urban areas, and 2Mbps in rural areas.

“All of the technologies to be used will be fixed line with fibre being the predominant solution. There are few, if any, parts of the British Isles which will have anywhere near the amount of fibre that is going to be deployed in Northern Ireland, particularly in our rural areas,” ministers said then.

Ministers then claimed the project was complete on 27 July 2011.

BT and Northern Ireland Executive (NIE) press releases show that the project went over budget, despite claims to the contrary (see table below). BT contributed around £32.7m, the NIE £250,000, the NI business department (DETI) £18.3m, and the agriculture department (DARD) £2.5m. This amounts to £76.32 per household, or £29.64 per person. BT has upgraded 167 exchanges and installed 1,265 Infinity-capable street cabinets.

Separately, Project Kelvin, completed November 2010 for around £24m and co-financed with European money, gave NI its own fast link to North America and a better connection to Europe via the Hibernia North Transatlantic cable.

In May this year, posts to the online BTCare community forum revealed problems with BT’s fibre to the home Infinity service in Co Antrim and Down.

“There is a clear trend of full performance in the morning (i.e. downstream speed of 96.7% of your IP Profile + max supported upstream speed) which then deteriorates any time from 9am onwards down to a low of < 1 meg downstream but with full speed upstream. This issue then remains for the rest of the day before returning to full performance after midnight,” said one, and endorsed by another poster. There was no BT response on the message thread.

Five months later, the BBC yesterday reported the problems are ongoing, and more widespread, seemingly affecting all NI rural areas. The broadcaster reported that DETI has commissioned a consultation into the issue.
“There are more than 5,000 postcodes currently on the list of weak broadband coverage, but the irony is that the survey is taking place online,” it said.

Note: The -£1.9m is a balancing figure, mainly for wireless broadband projects.

Northern Ireland timeline
Source Date BT NI Executive DETI DARD Total
NI Exec release 07/08/08 -1,900,000 -1,900,000
NI Exec release 09/02/10 237,000 237,000
NI Exec release 19/02/09 3,900,000 3,900,000
NI Exec release 19/02/09 108,000 108,000
NI Exec release 11/01/10 88,000 88,000
NI Exec release 27/09/10 250,000 250,000
BT press release DC10-240 07/10/10 29,800,000 16,500,000 1,500,000 47,800,000
NI Exec release 11/11/10 46,000 46,000
BT press release DC10-318 13/12/10 865,000 250,000 1,115,000
NI Exec release 04/07/11 500,000 500,000
NI Exec release 08/09/11 2,000,000 1,000,000 1,000,000 4,000,000
NI Exec release 20/10/11 215,432 215,432
TOTAL 32,665,000 250,000 20,944,432 2,500,000 56,359,432

Written by Br0kenTeleph0n3

2012/09/29 at 21:14

30 Responses

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  1. 191 exchanges and 184 on latest list if that is of interest. And you can check cabinet status –


    2012/09/29 at 22:21

  2. you link two completely different issues as the same problem. Are you Roald Dahl?


    2012/09/29 at 22:24

  3. Ireland can’t say they weren’t warned. Patching up the old phone network is no way to spend public money, and despite all the ‘superfast’ hype it is a scandal about to be replicated all through the uk as councils fall over every day and get suckered into it.
    It is not fibre broadband unless its fibre to the home, and its far better to invest in that than a silly train for a few commuters who want to save 20 minutes on a journey.
    It is far better to do the job once, and do it right rather than playing catch up for another decade. The copper has to go, service has to be consistent and reliable, so if BT can’t do it then the funding should go to those who can go the extra mile and get everyone online with fibre, real fibre not ‘fibre based’. The Altnets lead innovation in the USA and should be given a chance in the UK. The incumbent is wrapped up in protecting its obsolete assets. Time for a change. Which county will be the first to prove it has moral fibre and stand up to the bloated Goliath?


    2012/09/30 at 08:20

    • As you keep repeating the manta I will remind that many of the countries with massive fibre deployment in the cities are actually not FTTH, but FTTB.

      You may feel it is a nuanced difference, but it is important in the world of fibre deployment.

      Altnets are leading innovation in the UK surely, or are you actually saying B4rn is not innovative and leading the way?

      Andrew Ferguson

      2012/10/01 at 09:52

  4. Usual meaningless sound bites from Chris! HS2 is needed for capacity, so more complex than just quoting a 20min time saving.
    Fibre into every UK property would be ideal but we won’t see it soon. Is there a ‘altnet’ that could fund (ie borrow for) a deployment across a county and see a return where only a percentage of users would change over as their current speed is adequate for their current needs? Particularly in towns and villages where there are pavements to dig.
    How are the altnets funded in the US? Chattanooga was quoted by some as a brilliant model to follow and then we find it’s set up by the power company.


    2012/09/30 at 10:13

    • i dislike the term “altnet” as it implies they are somehow a lesser alternative to the incumbent supplier . “altnets” are either commercial companies that provide Broadband or community groups in their own right. not some 2nd rate”alternative” to openreach. Hanpshire county councils recent open market review recognises other providers but still refers to them as “alternative”.

      bill lewis

      2012/09/30 at 11:01

  5. A well researched article Ian – many thanks.

    @somerset Nothing to say about the obvious network fault the chaps reported to BT? It is shortsighted to pretend that copper bearer rural broadband has a future. It is also subjective to suggest that investment of public funds into BT copper infrastructure on the scale seen in Northern Ireland, is justified. A chunk of chocolate today, will ensure we will not enjoy a bar of the stuff tomorrow. The right approach is to *meaningfully* start the FTTP journey. Investment in VDSL2 is a regret spend – the infrastructure will be junked. It cannot be reused when it is inevitably replaced. Show me a sensible price list for FTTP from BT, with a map of where it is available, today. It is simply not available and affordable (you need both) today. Milton Keynes is the biggest rollout I am aware of, with BT doing a “pilot” of 1000 premises across the UK. Not impressive numbers, clearly indicating where their preference lies. One more time, “BT Infinity is NOT fibre optic broadband – it is COPPER”. Geez that winds me up.


    2012/09/30 at 12:54

    • Robl

      Cornwall 10,000 properties passed with FTTP, and 1,000 are live. BT Retail also sell this as BT Infinity, so if criticising the retail product one needs to be clear on where the criticism is placed.

      The FTTP rollout from Openreach in the pure FTTP areas is slow, but they are going for the easy low hanging fruit first, and given the moans about when will my cabinet be done, this is possibly the right way around.

      FTTP is 7 hours per property roughly, i.e. going from manifold to actually having modem active inside home.

      Openreach being slow at FTTP is presenting their competitors a perfect opportunity to get people signed up to their infrastructure, instead we have lots of metro rings being built with the promise of FTTH, but once all the council buildings are connected we hear no more.

      Andrew Ferguson

      2012/10/01 at 09:59

      • Andrew On the metro rings not delivering FTTH, is that because of the apparent prohibition on carrying private traffic on a public sector network? I though Hampshire had found a way around that, and I’m aware of at least one community wireless operator who is using a public sector network for backhaul. If the public was allowed to tap into for example, the various fibre schools neworks, what a difference that might make to FTTP take-up.


        2012/10/01 at 10:18

      • So who prohibits carrying private traffic on a public network? Good story, but could it actually be because of the complexity in setting it up and managing it 24×7? Dealing with billing, security, traffic management etc. is not trivial.

        Maybe you could expand on the words ‘tap into’ a school fibre network.


        2012/10/01 at 11:25

      • With so many equipment suppliers offering to look after users on a managed services basis, I doubt that it’s as hard as you try to make out. If it’s OK for Ericsson to look after tens of millions of mobile customers, I’m sure one could have an interesting chat with them to do it for a fixed network.


        2012/10/01 at 12:02

      • So who prohibits carrying private traffic on a public network?

        Maybe you could expand on the words ‘tap into’ a school fibre network.


        2012/10/01 at 13:06

      • Thanks Andrew – to clarify my criticism of “BT Retail” Infinity, it is targeted at the overwhelming majority of subscribers which are VDSL based. BT Retail releases no official numbers, so we must guess. The national TV advertising tells us all that it is “fibre”. It is not. If I have one gold coin, and 99 tin coins painted yellow, can I sell you 100 gold coins? No I cannot. It frustrates me that the Advertising Standards Authority backs BT Retail’s advertising, saying that the “majority” of the cable is fibre, therefore it is fair to call it a fibre service. Missing the point entirely, as it’s the customer service that matters, not the bearer. Fibre gives the impression that the benefits of fibre will be delivered when clearly they will not. It is not a “fibre” quality service. It is a copper service, predominantly.

        I’d embrace a healthy discussion sometime on BTs annecdotal exclusion of business lines and leased lines in the £2.5Bn being invested in broadband. Another time perhaps …


        2012/10/01 at 13:39

      • I’ll ask again:

        So who prohibits carrying private traffic on a public network?

        Maybe you could expand on the words ‘tap into’ a school fibre network.


        2012/10/02 at 19:33

      • Please correct if this is wrong, but I was told that public sector networks that are built with state aid may not carry private traffic. I know that CLEO carried backhaul for Wray and other villages, but I understood that to be an exception. When BT took over CLEO, all the private users were given notice, as you will recall. In case you don’t, here’s the link: * *


        2012/10/02 at 20:00

      • Or is it just the boring answer that councils would not consider it ‘core business’ and could not justify the costs of the network upgrades and management required when there are other solutions available.

        ‘Tapping into’ is the words of a non engineer!


        2012/10/02 at 21:13

      • Never pretended to be an engineer. Many things, but not that. Does that make me a bad person, to be not an engineer? Perhaps Ian Livingston should resign too, since he’s an accountant.


        2012/10/02 at 21:41

      • But you use ‘tapping into’ a term without explaining what you mean.

        ps. I don’t remember you explaining how ALA was going to save the government some money.


        2012/10/02 at 23:28

      • Tapping into as in used for backhaul cf CLEO and the local villages.

        ALA shouldn’t cost of save the government anything, but it could save operators a bundle.


        2012/10/02 at 23:36

      • Please explain how ALA saves money and how telcos interconnect now.


        2012/10/03 at 08:13

      • No. Not because I can’t, but because you are being vexatious. You are also distracting from a far more important issue, which is that millions of pounds of taxpayers money may be spent extremely unwisely because BT has found itself, deliberately or by accident, as the effectively the sole likely bidder for BDUK money. Unless that changes, ALA and telco interconnect are irrelevant. Perhaps you would like to address that.


        2012/10/03 at 22:58

      • It’s clear you cannot justify your claim about ALA, and yet again try to change the subject.

        Telco interconnets are happening everywhere, how do you think VM and C&W connect?

        ps. ICS pulled out of Selling. £50k gone.


        2012/10/04 at 21:44

      • I have addressed this before. You are obsessed by it. Standards allow economies of scale to develop. That makes things cheaper, whether it is ALA or GEA or driving on the left hand side of the road. There are more important matters at stake. “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

        Interconnect between CPs is old hat. But it is very difficult for community networks to avoid BT in Market 1. It is also expensive for them because they cannot amortise their costs over a large pool of customers, which is precisely what BT Is trying to do with its standard model for BDUK procurements.

        What more can you tell us about ICS and Selling?


        2012/10/04 at 22:28

      • You haven’t addressed it before…

        What has this got to do with BT in Market 1? You have just brought up something else. Market 1 areas are Market 1s because Sky and TalkTalk have not unbundled.

        Selling –

        Interesting story here about support for faster broadband –


        2012/10/05 at 07:51

  6. The allowed to call it fibre is because Virgin Media can call their service fibre, and in the same way you see lots of FTTx coverage from Europe, where they take journalists to the FTTP area, but ignore the areas with FTTC or B. Also what are TalkTalk and Sky calling their FTTC products?

    On business and leased lines – not ignored at all, they provide a totally different level of service, with uncontended bandwith and guarantees for fault repairs or penalties for not meeting them.

    Business parks often miss out currently because the economics don’t stack up, i.e. those cabinets have less lines on them. The same as a small cabinet in the middle of a housing estate may be missed. Remove all thoughts of fairness and think like an accountant and you have the roll-out mindset.

    The fact that the government investment has been so well signposted since 2008 means that Openreach can happily just go for areas with the best commercial opportunity. Talk to community projects about why they stop at a certain point, and lines like it will cost too much to go further come up, so really not that different, apart from we attach a ‘BT is evil’ label to anything they do, they need watching but they are not the spawn of the devil either.

    Andrew Ferguson

    2012/10/01 at 18:07

    • @Andrew – So, Virgin calling their patchwork quilt of coax cable networks “fibre”, and anyone else calling their FTTC implementation “fibre” is all fine, because everyone is doing it? Lemmings, please follow the big neon sign to the cliff – it’s just over there. Agreed, BT/Openreach are not the spawn of evil, however they are the incumbent with ownership of the final mile, and with that ownership comes a moral responsibility. A fine balance with shareholders to please. Don’t get me wrong – if I was BT/Openreach, I’d play the game just the same way, more or less.

      It’s those very economics, with CFOs defining rollout plans, that make community projects like B4RN feasible. That is, providing the communities can see through the misleading (back to “fibre” again) advertising by the incumbent operators flogging their non-fibre services.


      2012/10/03 at 17:44

  7. On the BBC site back in 19 August 2010 – Ofcom reports broadband increase in Northern Ireland —> – Broadband

    “Five years ago, only a quarter of homes in Northern Ireland had broadband, but now take-up is at 70%, almost matching the UK average of 71% and well ahead of Scotland (61%) and Wales (64%). … I am confused.. so now ofcom has what? changed its mind? Messed up its figures? “


    2012/11/15 at 12:12

  8. […] have so far chipped in nearly £24m of the £56m spent so far to get next generation broadband into Northern Ireland, only for Ofcom to report NI […]

  9. […] represents no change in 18 months from Ofcom’s findings […]

  10. […] represents no change in 18 months1 from Ofcom s findings […]

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