Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP 3:00 pm, 24th January 2017

5. Mr Robinson asked the Minister for the Economy how he will ensure that broadband providers do not mislead consumers when offering their products and services. (AQO 978/16-21)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Misleading advertising of broadband speeds by Internet service providers has been an area of concern for me. It is less than acceptable that residential and business customers cannot get accurate information on the broadband speed that they will receive when entering into contracts with service providers.

I wrote to the Advertising Standards Authority in August 2016 to offer my full support to the call by the Local Government Association for changes to the advertising rules for broadband suppliers. That is particularly relevant to Northern Ireland, as we are a largely rural community. Therefore, I welcome the news that the Advertising Standards Authority has taken the decision to reform or change the rules on advertising broadband speeds to offer better clarity.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. What does his Department plan to do to improve broadband speeds across Northern Ireland, particularly in rural areas such as those in my East Londonderry constituency?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I know that it is an issue that exercises him and, indeed, his constituents. He has written to me and contacted me on several occasions about poor broadband speeds in part of his East Londonderry constituency.

As I have done many times in relation to different parts of Northern Ireland — I will do so later this evening — I accept that the speeds that some businesses and residential customers get are not acceptable. They are slower and are not as reliable as they ought to be. The Executive have put considerable investment into broadband speeds over the last number of years. Some £16 million has been put in, which has helped to unlock private sector investment from BT and others.

We have had success before in being the first region in Europe to have 100% broadband capability, and we need to get back to the days when we had a broadband infrastructure that was among the best in Europe. A commitment contained in the draft industrial strategy that has been published today is to get back to the days when Northern Ireland had an enviable broadband infrastructure.

My Department has also been working on a comprehensive and ambitious plan to look at rolling fibre out to premises across Northern Ireland, whether in urban settings or in rural areas. It was an ambitious plan that I had hoped to bring forward through the Budget process and get commitment for. Unfortunately, as we know, that has been hampered by the circumstances in which we find ourselves and that is not something that I believe we will be able to take forward in the next little while. It is an idea that is developing and growing in the Department. I hope that we will be able to take it forward on the other side of the election.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Minister for his answers so far; I really mean that. As a fellow MLA for the Strangford constituency, he will understand that our concern regarding broadband is that although suppliers may say that there is very good coverage, the speeds are quite pathetic in some areas. What measurements have been taken by the Department to discover where those difficulties are? We need to ensure that there is access to schools, where science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects have been limited. Businesses, rural businesses in particular, are finding that speeds are making it difficult —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I think that we have the question.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for her question. We do not have figures on a constituency basis but the north Down and Ards area includes most of the Member's and my constituency. On a global level, speeds in that area are not that bad. Some 98% of premises are able to get two megabits per second or more; 96% are able to get five megabits per second or more; 93% are able to get 10 megabits per second and 83% are able to get 30 megabits per second. That is one of the best in Northern Ireland. Clearly, there are still those who are getting intermittent or not strong speeds and speeds that are simply not acceptable.

There is a range of different alternatives. I have emphasised to the Member and the House before, that, whilst I accept that those are not good enough — that is why we have been developing the plan — there are alternative technologies in place that can present opportunities for those who just cannot get acceptable speeds. There is support from my Department to do that and I have said to Members before that they should contact the Department about that. Fibre is the gold standard, but it is not possible to get it in all locations. I think that sometimes people think that if they cannot get that they cannot get anything. That is not always the case. There are satellite and wireless technologies that can provide a decent speed. It is not necessarily the speed that people want, but it is at least a decent speed.

The Member asked about analysis. Some analysis has been done. I will write to her with precise numbers but I think that in the range of about 30,000 premises across Northern Ireland, the majority of which are in rural areas, cannot get speeds of two megabits per second or more. That is not acceptable. I want to bear down on that and see it improved and that is why we were developing the plan. As I said to Mr Robinson, I hope that, in spite of the current political difficulties, we will still be able to take that plan forward in the not too distant future.