Broadband: Fermanagh and South Tyrone

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 21st November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 21st November 2016

1. Mr McPhillips asked the Minister for the Economy to outline the discussions his Department is having with broadband and mobile phone providers to increase connectivity in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. (AQO 701/16-21)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

My Department has ongoing discussions with the communications industry on issues affecting consumers across Northern Ireland, including in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. My officials meet regularly with representatives of the major telecommunications providers, which operate in this privatised and independently regulated market. Ongoing investment by mobile network operators has led to increases in mobile coverage across Northern Ireland, however I recognise that services still need to be improved. In Northern Ireland, 99·3% of premises are in areas where there is outdoor 4G coverage from at least one operator, and 3G coverage is among the best in the UK.

There are regular meetings with BT to discuss the roll-out of broadband under the contracts managed by my Department. In June, BT reported that 5,607 premises have benefited from the Northern Ireland broadband improvement project in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and 1,390 have taken up new broadband services. BT also reported that the superfast roll-out project has improved services to more than 500 premises in the Fermanagh and Dungannon areas. The contract with BT has a mechanism whereby funding can be reinvested when take-up of services exceeds a certain threshold or underspends are identified. This is currently around £3 million and we have begun clarifying where these funds might be used.

It is important to recognise that where fixed-line broadband is not viable, other technology alternatives are available. In particular, for premises that continue to have access to services of less than 2 megabits per second, my Department offers assistance with the cost of installing a basic broadband service using satellite or wireless technology. It ensures that no household or business that meets the eligibility criteria need pay more than £400 to access a broadband scheme over a 12-month period.

We will continue discussions with the telecoms industry and with other interested parties, especially through the consultation phase of the draft Programme for Government.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he outline the approach his Department is taking to recover some of the £258 million clawback owed to the UK Government by BT on broadband contracts? Will he outline whether he will direct these funds to rural areas?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

The figure that the Member quotes of around £250 million is perhaps the totality of the potential clawback across the United Kingdom. Gain share, or clawback as it is sometimes referred to, comes in when uptake exceeds expectations for the broadband improvement contract that was initially agreed with BT. As I mentioned, the estimated figure for Northern Ireland is around £3 million. We are in a process of identifying where that might be best spent. Obviously, that will have to be consistent with value-for-money principles and targeted to where there is most need. As we have already invested, as I outlined to the Member, in his constituency, which I recognise as an area that has issues with getting acceptable broadband speeds, I am sure that some of that £3 million will be invested in his constituency. At this stage, I am not able to say how much or where, but I am sure that we will target some of that £3 million at Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Thank you, Minister, for your answers thus far. Are you aware of concerns raised by the border councils through their Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN) report 'Fibre at a Crossroads'? In particular, it outlines many practical solutions to providing greater connectivity and achieving equitability recompense from BT for its failure to adequately support my constituents.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I remind Members to make sure that their questions are short.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for her question. A couple of weeks ago, I met a delegation of ICBAN representatives, which was led by my party colleague Councillor Paul Robinson, who came to discuss their 'Fibre at a Crossroads' report with me. We had a useful discussion. I have a lot of sympathy for the points that they made about ensuring that people in border counties, particularly Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and other parts of Northern Ireland have acceptable broadband speeds. While the Member is critical of BT — and I have been critical of BT sometimes in the House — we have been able to make a substantial investment in the broadband infrastructure across Northern Ireland. Some £64 million has been invested across Northern Ireland since 2008. As I pointed out to Mr McPhillips, some 5,600 premises in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency have benefited from the broadband improvement project, and 1,390 have taken up new broadband services.

I also point out to the Member and the House, as I have done on other occasions in the Assembly, that whilst there is a focus, as there is in the ICBAN report, on getting fibre into premises, at this time, alternative technologies such as wireless and satellite broadband are available. Support is provided through my Department for alternative technologies for those who cannot get an acceptable broadband speed through fibre or cannot get fibre at all.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Have the black spots and gaps in broadband provision in Fermanagh and South Tyrone been identified? Will the Minister give his reaction to the proposed changes by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Minister can choose which question he answers.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I very much welcome the news last week that the Advertising Standards Authority has taken a decision to reform or change the rules on advertising broadband speeds. The Member and the House might recall that, some months ago, I wrote to the Advertising Standards Authority particularly on the issue, which had been brought to my attention by Members such as Lord Morrow, of the perception in parts of Northern Ireland, because of advertisements that appeared on billboards, in newspapers and on television, that broadband speeds of 30 megabytes per second and beyond were achievable. However, in parts of Northern Ireland, such speeds are not accessible. People were buying broadband packages from providers and paying the same as what I pay for having that sort of speed in my home, and I do not think that that is fair. That was the basis upon which I wrote to the ASA, and I am glad that it has identified the problem and will change the rules next year.

This is, in part, an infrastructure problem. The Member mentioned black spots. In respect of the £3 million of gain share that I mentioned in response to Mr McPhillips, we are in contact with councils to get them to do an audit of their area to identify where there are black spots with a broadband speed that is not acceptable. I think that Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, if it has not started, is about to start its audit. I look forward to getting that information back because I believe that councils will be in a good position to identify where there are weaknesses and black spots. That will then help to inform where we spend that £3 million of clawback that we will get as a result of the broadband improvement project.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

I suggest that the Minister spend some of that £3 million in BT70, because my children are about to divorce me.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Will the Member come to her question?

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

I listened carefully to the Minister's answer. What more can he do to maximise connectivity to black spots and hard-to-reach areas?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

We have made a lot of investment over the last number of years. As I pointed out before, some £64 million has been invested in broadband projects since 2008. That helped to give Northern Ireland the competitive advantage of being the first region with 100% broadband capability in the whole of Europe. We have not maintained that advantage in recent times in spite of the considerable investments that we have made. I want to regain that competitive advantage. It is not just about helping households to get a good speed of broadband; it is also about helping our economy. I have visited some companies, including some in the Member's constituency, that sometimes struggle to get the speed that they require to do business in an increasingly closely connected global economy. I want to make sure that those businesses have that competitive edge. We are looking at options that, although some considerable investment would be required, would give Northern Ireland back its competitive advantage in broadband connectivity.