Broadband: North Antrim

Oral Answers to Questions — Enterprise, Trade and Investment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP 2:45 pm, 9th February 2016

2. Mr Frew asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for an update on the delivery of superfast broadband in North Antrim. (AQO 9596/11-16)

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

In February 2014, my Department contracted BT to deliver the Northern Ireland broadband improvement project. That is primarily aimed at rural areas and seeks to extend the availability of, primarily, basic and, where possible, superfast broadband to those who have limited choice across Northern Ireland with a target of 45,000 premises. The project was scheduled to be completed by 31 December 2015. However, there was engineering complexity, and that date has been extended by three months to 31 March 2016.

Improvements have already been carried out to over 40,000 premises across Northern Ireland, including almost 5,000 in postcode areas in the North Antrim constituency.

On 22 January 2016, I announced the introduction of a satellite broadband support scheme, which falls under the auspices of the Northern Ireland broadband improvement project. It seeks to provide residents and businesses that are still experiencing speeds below two megabits per second with the option of applying for a subsidy of up to £350 towards the cost of installing a satellite broadband connection.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. Is he aware of my constituents' concerns? It seems to be the case that BT is degrading its copper system and its other old systems. What can he do to make sure that BT meets all its obligations and does not let people wither on the vine with a copper system? People are experiencing even lower speeds than they were at Christmas.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I am aware of a lot of problems, particularly in rural areas. A number of months ago, people from west Tyrone spoke to me. A number of people raised complaints with me that, if there is congestion on the system — the beam and different things — that effectively causes them not to have a service.

Not all areas will be able to access superfast broadband once the Northern Ireland broadband improvement project is completed. We awarded the contract for the second project to BT. That was the superfast broadband roll-out programme.

I will take up those specific issues with BT on behalf of the Member. I had a very detailed meeting with its senior officials last week at which I raised a number of concerns. It is unacceptable, particularly when, first, I have people coming to me whose children have either to be taken back to school or driven to the library just to get their homework done. Secondly, other children are experiencing extreme difficulties just managing against the curriculum, and we are raising that issue with BT. Thirdly, we have some hugely successful businesses in the area of computer-aided design (CAD). They must submit their programmes to tender, so people are literally leaving their machines on at night in the hope that, when they get up the next morning, their CAD or specific design, which they must use to tender for business, has come through. I will emphasise to BT that we cannot condone that set of circumstances into the future.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's answer, but I put this to him: why, after spending millions of pounds on assisting BT to provide broadband, do we still have major gaps right across the North, particularly in Newry and Armagh?

I ask that question on behalf of Matthew Nugent of 58 Tievenamara Road, Carnagh, BT60 3JA, who lives 90 metres from a box that was upgraded last year and is one of a number of people in rural Armagh and south Armagh who has no broadband provision, after we have spent millions of pounds of public money on it.

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

Those are important points. If the Member wants to send me details of that specific case, I will certainly look at it.

We continue to make broadband services widely available via a mix of technologies. Almost £64 million, as the Member says, has been invested since 2008 to encourage private sector upgrade to networks, particularly in rural areas. Seventy-nine per cent of households are currently accessing the Internet. I find that a very difficult figure when I compare it with the UK figure of 85%, and 72% of those who are accessing the Internet are doing so through a broadband connection. The number of premises that are connected to a broadband service offering speeds of 2 megabits per second or higher is continuing to increase, and now stands at 94%. Owing to the extensive next-generation access network put in place by my Department's investments, there have been over 239,000 fibre-based, high-speed broadband connections to date. Although we acknowledge that download speeds in Northern Ireland are continuing to increase, the average download speed stands at 28·3 megabits per second, and that is below the UK average of 29 megabits per second. We will continue to pursue how we can get that to a more level playing field.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 3:00 pm, 9th February 2016

Thank you, Minister, for your answers thus far with regard to BT. I declare a personal interest in that BT totally and utterly failed me in my service for nearly two months. As a result of that, I discovered that BT has set aside only 60% of the capacity of the green cabinets that it has installed to deliver its so-called super-fast broadband. So, in any one area, not everyone, even if they wished to purchase super-fast broadband, can have it. Is the Minister satisfied that 60% capacity per cabinet is a reasonable commercial decision by BT?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I will raise that particular case with BT. I am not satisfied with broadband provision across Northern Ireland. I do not think that anybody who has a genuine interest in seeing all of Northern Ireland develop could be satisfied, knowing how much depends upon a broadband connection, particularly for business. The rules are changing. Businesses in rural areas are saying to me, "We have to present it in this way. We need the connection to actually do this." So, we will have to continue to work to what is a difficult system, but, as Minister, I accept that nobody in the House could be satisfied with the level of complaints and dissatisfaction that we have, particularly in the rural community.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I call Mr Paul Givan for a question.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

Mine was joined to the first question, Deputy Speaker.