My Department has now invested a total of £7·5 million in rural broadband. This investment has already helped some 17,000 rural dwellers, farms and businesses to access broadband services. The broadband improvement project, which is led by DETI and to which I am contributing £5 million, has been responsible for an additional 14,000 rural premises being able to connect to broadband if they wish. In the Newry and Armagh area specifically, 4,591 premises have been connected through this investment, giving rural dwellers in the area the same opportunities as those living in urban areas.
Broadband is a priority of mine. I want to see all rural dwellers in the North being able to connect to broadband if they wish. To that end, I am investing a further £1 million in the broadband improvement project and allocating £2 million of the next rural development programme to tackling the harder-to-get-at areas that still do not have access to broadband. I want to encourage as many rural people as possible to make more and better use of broadband. I have asked officials to carry out a scoping study to see how my Department can encourage more and better use of broadband so that rural businesses and farmers can benefit from the wide range of government services that are now available online.
The additional funding from the tackling rural poverty and social inclusion budget will help to reduce the number of not-spots to around 20,000. The broadband funds in the new rural development programme will also target those remaining not-spots. Other government programmes are in the pipeline, and these will also impact on the remaining not-spots. Signing of contracts is to take place once the business cases and programmes have been approved. The target date is mid- to late May.
As I said earlier, I understand the frustration within rural communities. We have made progress in reducing the number of people who cannot access broadband. However, we still have a way to go. In terms of my contribution, I am committed to working with DETI and the broadband improvement projects. I have very clearly set out my intention to invest additional funding to tackle broadband and to try to plug the gaps that are there.