Broadband balls-up in Northern Ireland
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|
|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|