£165m gigabit broadband boost for Northern Ireland

Following the recent ramping up of gigabit broadband deployment across Great Britain, the Northern Ireland Executive (NIE) has announced Project Stratum, a development programme aiming to bring next-generation broadband services to premises across Ulster that are currently unable to access speeds of 30 Mbps per second or greater.

Project Stratum represents a £150m investment by the UK government, allocated to the Department for the Economy as part of the Confidence and Supply Agreement of the previous Theresa May-led UK government, and £15m by the UK’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera). This is alongside a substantial investment in network build costs by Fibrus Networks, which has been awarded the contract for the delivery of Project Stratum.

In revealing the investment, the NIE said that Project Stratum is a step closer to bringing next-generation broadband services to those businesses and people in Northern Ireland who need it most.

Fibrus proposes a full-fibre solution, capable of offering speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second to almost 97% of premises in the target intervention area. Deployment of the new infrastructure is expected to commence immediately. Implementation will run until March 2024.

Calling the announcement a significant milestone, Northern Ireland Assembly economy minister, Diane Dodds, said Project Stratum would transform the broadband connectivity landscape for citizens and the businesses of Northern Ireland primarily across rural areas.

“While always recognised as important, the pandemic and restrictions we have all had to live under have underscored the importance of broadband connectivity,” she said.

“The investment of £150m by my department [Department for the Economy], combined with £15m from Daera and the investment by Fibrus in the project, will deliver gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure to more than 76,000 premises in the intervention area.

“The Department for the Economy will work closely with the supplier and, through continued engagement with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), will deliver infrastructure to serve all premises in the target intervention area, including those not currently in scope, as soon as possible.”

Fibrus has already invested £65m to bring full-fibre broadband to regional towns in South Down, Mid Ulster and North Antrim. The Stratum project will bring the total investment in Fibrus’ network over the next four years to £350m.

Such investments bolstered by the new announcement ,which Fibrus chair Conal Henry said positions Northern Ireland a digital global leader, are radically accelerating and extending full-fibre broadband to those that need it most.

“Full-fibre broadband is key to unlocking the full economic and social potential of our rural communities and is as vital a part of our 21st century infrastructure as power, water or transport,” said Henry.

“This investment enables towns, villages and rural communities to change the narrative, keep people and communities connected, and facilitate the increasing demand for working and studying at home. The benefits of full-fibre broadband are more relevant now in a Covid context than ever before.”

The news comes as the UK government carries on with its ambitions to complete the gigabit broadband roll-out to all homes and business in the UK by 20205.

The main stumbling block to these plans has been addressing the hard-to-reach rural areas. Attempting to crack this issue, BT’s broadband provision division Openreach announced plans in July 2020 to deliver gigabit-ready broadband to another 3.2 million rural homes and businesses across mainland Britain.

Following the introduction of such schemes across non-metropolitan locations in England and Wales, homes and business in rural Scotland were given access to more financial help in October 2020 to attain top-of-the-range broadband speeds. This is facilitated through a collaboration between the Scottish and UK governments that will see the UK government’s Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme extended north of the border.