The Northern Ireland government has unveiled a stg£48-million investment plan to deliver next-generation broadband over the next 18 months and ensure 85pc of businesses in the North have next-generation infrastructure.
The investment is targeted at areas across Northern Ireland, both urban and rural, which will deliver the greatest economic benefit by receiving high-speed broadband.
The economic imperative to a region investing in next-generation infrastructure to regenerate its economy can be seen in the plan resulting in a potential 1,000 new jobs a year.
BT is investing close to stg£30 million in the project, with a further £18 million coming from the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI), under the European Regional Development Fund’s (ERDF) European Sustainable Competitiveness Programme and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), under the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) Rural Development Programme.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said: “Following a competitive tender exercise, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has entered into a contract with BT for further development of Northern Ireland’s telecommunications infrastructure, specifically the provision of next-generation broadband services.
“This is hugely significant. At a time of economic slowdown, when private-sector companies are scaling down their investments, this multi-million pound injection in our infrastructure has the potential to indirectly create up to 1,000 additional jobs per annum.”
Under the project, BT will deploy fibre to the cabinet technology to a majority of businesses with other fixed-line solutions being used where appropriate.
The tender specified that businesses in urban areas should receive a minimum downstream speed of 10Mbps and ones in rural areas 2Mbps. This will be delivered with many businesses set to receive speeds well in excess of those benchmarks.
Foster continued: “This project is designed to deliver on the key Programme for Government objective to ensure 85pc of businesses in Northern Ireland will have access to next-generation broadband speeds by 2011.
“Broadband is an enabler – use of these new services will enable our businesses to increase their productivity, improving the competitiveness of the economy as a whole. In order to do so, it is essential that our businesses take advantage of the exciting new opportunities this project creates so all of Northern Ireland can reap these benefits.”
The contract with BT will deliver faster speeds through the accelerated deployment of fibre-optic cable. There will be upgrades to equipment across 166 exchanges and the introduction of new technology to increase broadband speeds to businesses.
Foster explained: “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.
“This project will leave a significant legacy. The extent of fibre deployment deep into the network will mean further evolutions of broadband will be easier for us to achieve in the future.
“The aim of the project is to stimulate the competitive market, delivering more choice and using a variety of technology. Other communication providers of broadband services will benefit from this investment by being able to use the enhanced access.”
Step into the future
BT’s chief executive Ian Livingston said: “Today marks a bold and visionary step in Northern Ireland’s next-generation broadband journey. Fibre-based broadband will underpin future competitiveness and economic growth. BT and DETI have developed an innovative technical and commercial solution that sets the pace for other economies to follow."
BT’s investment is on top of its existing commercial investment plans for Northern Ireland.
“Telecoms is one of the jewels in our crown and this investment in faster broadband, which builds upon our earlier investments and the provision of 100pc access to first-generation broadband, provides further opportunity for companies based here to improve their productivity,” Foster said.
“It is essential that this asset is exploited to the full so that all of Northern Ireland can reap the benefits of a dynamic and innovative economy.”
Analysys Mason advised the Northern Ireland Government on the project.
Pat Kidney, head of Analysys Mason in Ireland, said, “This project is among the first next-generation broadband interventions, and builds on Analysys Mason’s experience around the world of advising governments on these types of projects.”
Kidney added: “The major investments by BT Ireland and the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment will have a significant impact on Northern Ireland’s economy. Broadband penetration is well known to have a positive effect on GDP, and this project will boost broadband take-up in the region – particularly in the business sector.
“The process has highlighted the challenges for any region seeking to invest in next-generation broadband. It requires careful compliance with European State aid guidelines, the development of complex contracts, and at a strategic level needs to balance intervention with natural market forces,” Kidney said.
While the North proceeds with this visionary investment it is clear that business there will be given a real competitive over their counterparts in the Republic.
By John Kennedy
Photo: Next-generation broadband is to be rolled out across Northern Ireland in the next 18 months, according to a Northern Ireland government stg£48-million investment plan.