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Fit for purpose? Assembly told 12% in Newry/Armagh ‘less than two megabits per second’

About 12% of people in Newry and Armagh have broadband speeds of less than two megabits per second.

And Economy Minister Simon Hamilton has himself branded the situation “unacceptable”.

He was pushed in the Assembly this week by Newry and Armagh MLAs of all parties who sought an update on what was being done to remedy the situation.

During the course of the debate – when he was questioned by Sinn Fein MLA Cathal Boylan, SDLP MLA Justin McNulty and the DUP’s William Irwin and Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy – concern was also expressed over the effect investment in the Republic of Ireland would have if broadband speeds were not addressed here.

Both Mr Boylan and Mr Irwin had initiated the debate when they enquired about future plans and what was being done specifically for Newry and Armagh.

The Minister said that 83% of households in Norhern Ireland currently had broadband access compared to 86% in the UK.

And he continued: “In Northern Ireland, 94% of premises can now access broadband services at two megabits per second or better. Across the UK, the figure is 98%. Broadband download speeds in Northern Ireland are continuing to increase. The average download speed now stands at 28·3 megabits per second, which is just below the UK average of 29 megabits per second.

“While there is no doubt that that investment has brought significant improvements for many rural dwellers, I recognise that more needs to be done. My Department’s Northern Ireland broadband improvement project has already improved broadband access for over 46,000 premises. Within the Newry and Armagh constituency, almost 7,000 premises have seen improvements, 1,774, or 25%, of which have taken up new services.

“The contract that was awarded to BT has a mechanism that requires BT to return funding for reinvestment when take-up of service exceeds a certain threshold. That will allow more premises to see improvements.

“My Department is also managing the superfast roll-out programme, which, by 31 December 2017, will provide access to superfast broadband with speeds of at least 24 megabits per second to a further 38,000 premises across Northern Ireland. Again, those will primarily be in rural areas. It is important to recognise that, where fixed-line broadband is not viable, there are other technological alternatives available. Details of those can be found on my Department’s website, and we intend to publish further information in respect of that.

“For those premises that continue to have access to services of less than two megabits per second, my Department offers assistance with the cost of installing a basic broadband service using satellite or wireless technology.”

Mr Boylan said people were “crying out for fixed-line broadband” and asked: “Does he not feel that, with the national broadband plan in the South, businesses here will be under threat because, if fixed-line broadband is installed in the South, more customers will go there?”

The Minister said the Republic experienced “similar problems” with rurality except on a much greater scale, and they have “a very challenging job to get more fixed-line and more fibre to premises”.

The Minister said average download speeds were 21 megabits per second – well in excess of the 10 megabits per second that the UK Government wants to set as a universal service obligation.

Mr Hamilton continued: “About 12% of people in Newry and Armagh have speeds of less than two megabits per second. That is not acceptable; in this day and age, we aspire to having fewer people in that position.”

He said there were “always individual circumstances” that mean that you cannot get the very fast speeds to absolutely everybody, and 28% of people in Newry and Armagh have speeds of more than 30 megabits per second.

Minister Hamilton: “So, around a third of the constituency have the fastest available speeds. We need to work on the 12% who have less than two megabits per second by whatever means — superfast roll-out, the broadband improvement scheme or alternative technologies — to make sure that they get a satisfactory broadband speed.”

UUP MLA Danny Kennedy also asked about commitment to broadband provision and investment in the immediate future?

Minister Hamilton said he wanted to roll-out better speeds to people right across Newry and Armagh and the whole of Northern Ireland, but also issued a reminder of alternative technologies available, so people who struggled to get fibre into their premises – and will be some way down the line in getting it – can “avail themselves of the rapidly improving technologies of wireless and satellite”.

Mr Irwin asked the Minister if he had any plans to bid for more funding in next year’s Budget to tackle the problems.

The Minister replied: “We have made improvements, and I accept that we still have work to do. Not all parts of Northern Ireland have benefited from the investments. The £60 million investment that we have made over the last number of years has improved our broadband speeds to the point where we are around the UK average. I want to be better than the UK average; I want to be at the top.

“I want Northern Ireland to have the competitive advantage that comes from having access to superfast broadband for businesses and companies wherever they are in Northern Ireland.

“I very much welcome the Chancellor’s pledge to invest £1 billion for better broadband in the UK. We are looking at the ramifications of that for Northern Ireland, how Northern Ireland might avail itself of that funding and how that is distributed. In the meantime, we have been developing an ambitious plan that would significantly improve speeds across Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas. That will be costly and will take some time to develop, but it is something that I want to discuss in more detail with the Finance Minister during Budget discussions.”

The SDLP’s Justin McNulty asked for assurances that future schemes would prioritise rural border communities like Cullyhanna, Cullaville, Altnamackin, Armaghbreague, Derrynoose, Madden, Collegelands and Blackwatertown?

“Will he give me an assurance that BT will be held to account for delivering fixed-line broadband to a specific number of rural homes and businesses?,” asked the local Assemblyman.

Minister Hamilton replied: “I am not happy with having very good figures just in Belfast, Londonderry or other urban areas. I want to see the same standard of figures spread across Northern Ireland and everybody benefiting from good Internet access. As I say, that will help competitiveness in the economy.

“Many do not have good enough access as it is. I want to see us invest more. I look forward to the Member’s support for more funding in the Budget for broadband investment, which will help people in his constituency and elsewhere.”

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