Broadband divide threatens Northern Ireland

18 Dec 2008

A broadband divide between the east and west of Northern Ireland has emerged, and action is needed to avoid a potential economic fallout.

Broadband investment and penetration must be significantly increased if the digital divide that exists between east and west in Northern Ireland is to be reduced, according to a new Analysys Mason report published by the Western Economic Strategy Team (WEST), a joint committee set up by the five district councils within Fermanagh and Tyrone.

The report examines the Northern Irish telecoms market, including fixed and wireless provision.

It compares the Western Sub-Region (which comprises Co Fermanagh and Co Tyrone), and Northern Ireland, with leading regions in the field of telecoms provision. Telecoms users in the region were also surveyed to gauge the level of satisfaction with services.

One of the key conclusions from the report was that, within Northern Ireland, the west significantly trailed the east in terms of internet and broadband penetration.

“Despite Northern Ireland’s commitment to 100pc broadband provision, and leading-edge communications, the Western Sub-Region is significantly disadvantaged,” said Patrick Kidney, head of Analysys Mason’s Dublin office.

“The challenge now will be to build on that momentum through the rollout of next-generation networks, and ensure the region remains an attractive place to do business.”

The report highlights a number of barriers for the west, including low population density, and high cost of fibre deployment, in addition to issues that operators have with the planning process.

The availability of suitable wireless sites, cost-effective backhaul and spectrum have also been identified as key issues facing the wireless operators.

Key to addressing these barriers will be three strategic initiatives: firstly, extending the existing high-capacity fibre-optic backbone network to major towns in the region.

Secondly, there is a need to extend the reach of fibre deeper into the access network, and, thirdly, there is a requirement for a network of ‘ready to go’ wireless sites, strategically placed to support backhaul and access requirements.

“Currently, there is a lack of choice for western residents in terms of the number of fixed, mobile and broadband operators. Residents also have lower access to mobile and broadband technologies, and are generally less satisfied with their telecommunications service,” said Kidney.

Also commenting on the report findings, Councillor Sean Clarke, and former chairman of WEST, said mobile telephones and broadband are of paramount importance to SMEs, which are the lifeblood of the region’s economy.

“But to enable this sector to grow and expand, and indeed to attract much-needed inward investment, it is vital we have the cutting-edge technology to do so.

“I hope that the deficiencies in provision clearly identified in this study can be addressed – and quickly – to help halt the digital divide that exists in Northern Ireland, and give our region the opportunity to compete on a level footing with the rest of the country to attract much-needed investment,” Clarke added.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years