Broadband: Newry and Armagh

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 24th January 2017.

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Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 5:30 pm, 24th January 2017

In conjunction with the Business Committee, I have given leave to Danny Kennedy to raise the matter of broadband provision in Newry and Armagh. The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I thank you and the Business Committee for affording me the opportunity to debate the issue of broadband provision directly relating to my constituency of Newry and Armagh. I also place on record my good wishes to you as you leave the House, and I wish you well for the future. I sincerely hope that this is not the last time that I address the Chamber, but, as there are at least five others in the same position, I think it will be for the electorate to make those decisions.

I welcome the attendance of the Minister and his officials at the debate. It is the last debate of the current mandate, and I welcome the important fact that the very significant issue of broadband provision throughout the Newry and Armagh area is being afforded a hearing in the Chamber this evening.

I, with others, receive regular contact from my constituents on this issue. It is abundantly clear from the representations that I receive that the lack of broadband provision, particularly in rural areas, impacts in many ways on families and businesses that reside in various locations across the constituency. The Minister will know that I have raised this matter frequently with him and with previous Ministers. Indeed, I recently met officials from the Department for the Economy to discuss this very issue.

It is clear, however, that my constituents remain deeply frustrated by our Executive's failure to achieve swift progress in delivering an efficient and high-quality broadband service. There can be no doubt that a serious deficit exists in the quality of broadband offered to rural areas of my constituency. This situation is also prevalent in other rural areas of Northern Ireland. People in areas such as Lissummon, Ballygorman, Cladymilltown, Altnamackan, Loughgall, Mullaghglass and countless others, unfortunately, all of which are located in my constituency, find themselves in a position currently where they are provided with little or no effective broadband provision. Whilst there has been an indication that some postcodes located in those areas will be included in future broadband improvement projects, the reality is that many families and business owners who reside in those areas have no confidence in the ability of the Executive or of BT, as the network supplier, to deliver on their promise to provide the necessary improvements required. For the avoidance of doubt, I should place on record that I am a former employee of BT.

I have met a number of community groups in my constituency regarding the problems that they experience with broadband provision. In one instance, over half the residents in the Lissummon/Ballygorman area, a strongly rural part of my constituency, find themselves in a position where they cannot receive a service of two megabytes per second, whilst over 90% are unable to get 10 megabytes per second. This is far from satisfactory, and it compares very unfavourably with UK and Northern Ireland comparable data.

There is clearly an urban/rural digital divide in the quality of broadband provision offered, but deep frustrations also exist regarding the lack of detailed information provided by the Government and BT regarding broadband improvement plans for rural areas. The lack of high-quality broadband, for instance, has an impact on the ability of many rural businesses to function efficiently, placing them clearly at a disadvantage to other competitors in their particular field. This undoubtedly places additional pressures on such business owners, discouraging them from remaining in their current rural locations.

Also, poor-quality broadband provision has a negative impact on the quality of life enjoyed by families who live in rural areas of my constituency. Students find themselves unable to complete homework or assignments because of insufficient broadband coverage, and they have to depend on alternatives in their schools and colleges, or on other facilities such as libraries or cafes, to access or download materials required to assist their studies. That means that they have to travel to those alternative locations.

Many utility suppliers ask for payment of bills online. Again, families in rural areas are hindered in completing such tasks as a consequence of poor access to broadband coverage. Even communicating with family and friends who reside elsewhere in the world has proven difficult because of this situation.

I want to relay some of the stories and comments from those impacted most by this in rural parts throughout my constituency. I have quotes here from the business community:

"Impossible to complete business deals". "Unable to upload presentations for customers to view — need to use hotels / coffee shops or send USB stick".

Some have even been timed out from completing government sites, which is bizarre and should not be the case. The comments on education are very similar:

"Homework cannot be done on time". "We have children in the house that have not even been able to complete work for university assignments ... had to go to someone else's house".

On social engagement, people have reported:

"Problems in online banking, ordering prescriptions, paying car tax and MOT, accessing e-mails, communicating with friends".

One family said that they have:

"a son in Canada and mostly we can only talk on Skype — no picture."

Aligned to that are the costs. People have said:

"paying for a very poor to non existent service in a rural setting is very upsetting and infuriating."

Some people have expressed themselves tired of phoning BT to come and sort it out; others are concerned about having to change over to satellite broadband. Yes, alternatives are advocated — I have no doubt that the Minister will speak to those — but, in some cases, those have proven to be much more expensive, so we need to look at that. Realistically and properly, some people are asking:

"Why do I pay the same as someone with 20 Mbits per second"?

They are not getting anywhere near that service. People are asking why they are:

"paying the same prices as areas with much better broadband reception".

I could continue to detail many more circumstances, but I want other Members to contribute and to hear what the Minister has to say. I take this opportunity to make an impassioned plea to the Minister to pursue, within a quick time frame, the network improvements that are so clearly required. We are living in an age where the world is heavily dependent on digital services. Frankly, it is not acceptable that so many households in my constituency, and across Northern Ireland, find themselves at a clear disadvantage to others as a consequence of being unable to avail themselves of high-quality broadband provision. Unfortunately, the development of our broadband network in Northern Ireland appears to be well behind that in other parts of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and parts of Europe.

I know the circumstances that we are in, but my hope is that departmental officials will continue to explore these issues and find solutions so that, at the earliest point, those solutions can be delivered to my constituency and to the people who have such frustration with the lack of service. The Department should give priority to improving our local network, within an urgent time frame, to ensure that we do not continue to fall behind others who are investing heavily in their respective networks. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to address the House on this important issue. I know that the Minister takes it seriously and that his officials are working on it. My hope and plea, on behalf of the many constituents all over my constituency of Newry and Armagh, is that better service is provided as quickly as possible.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I would like to thank the Member for his nice comments and to put on record that I have really enjoyed working with him and with the rest of the team here.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP 5:45 pm, 24th January 2017

Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish you well in your retirement.

The issue of poor fibre broadband speed in the Newry and Armagh constituency has been and continues to be a source of great concern for many dwellers. I am sure that other Newry and Armagh representatives in the Chamber this evening will agree that, collectively, we have made hundreds of direct enquiries to many bodies in order to try to improve the situation for those with substandard access to broadband. Only a cursory glance at Members' questions to the Economy Minister is needed to see that it has been a very topical subject in recent times. In my case, such approaches have been the result of concerns raised by consumers in the constituency who remain dissatisfied with the roll-out of an adequate speed of fibre broadband in this largely rural region. The bottom line remains that, in most rural areas, fibre to a cabinet with copper from the cabinet to the home is completely inadequate over any reasonable distance and delivers a very slow speed, to the point at which Internet access is almost non-existent. This ineffective service means that, for families, businesses and anyone who relies heavily on the Internet, any online activity is extremely difficult and protracted. I have had many people contact me to state that, on countless occasions, when online for banking, shopping or business ordering, a programme crashes or takes so long to load that the process is unworkable. That situation needs to change.

In a large number of these situations, residents live within a stone's throw of a green fibre cabinet, but, because of the route of the overhead copper line, the signal that they receive has lost so much strength over the distance that they have very weak broadband speed. That is very frustrating for those in that position, which is representative of a significant number of constituents.

As our Economy Minister, Simon Hamilton, has stated on many occasions, the Department has pumped £64 million into encouraging private sector upgrades to broadband provision. Whilst that has increased provision, there remains a need to increase the speed and usability of the connection. Some 7,000 homes in Newry and Armagh have seen improvements. While that is welcome, the pace of technology and ever-growing reliance on the Internet mean that speed trumps everything. Without a superfast service, most of today's online applications and tools do not perform well enough to be used effortlessly.

I am aware of the commercial sensitivity with regard to BT and the issues that that presents, making it difficult for a devolved Government to demand change. Other options, however, are emerging, and technology is evolving rapidly. Recently, I found it useful to meet a local group that wants to replicate for their premises a model of fibre supply that has transformed Internet speeds in rural north-west England. Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) is an independent, community-led social business. The outworking is an arrangement whereby scores of individual rural homes and businesses have a fibre connection to their premises. This is installed underground and has delivered maximum broadband speed. I encourage Members to look at the project online to see how beneficial it has been to communities there. Locally, the Broadband for Northern Ireland (B4RNI) project wishes to pursue that model, and I am certainly keen that the Minister engage with the group to fully assess the opportunities from such a community-led programme and what it could achieve. I know that my local council is also taking a keen interest in the project and is working to assess how to make broadband improvements in focused areas in the borough. Fibre to premises remains the most reliable and cost-effective method for consumers, and the reluctance of BT to improve services for consumers cannot be allowed to hold up progress.

It is, of course, most unhelpful that the devolved institutions face a period of uncertainty, and the blame for that lies solely at the feet of Sinn Féin. However, it should not stop the Minister continuing to assess the issue of broadband and working to improve provision in Newry and Armagh.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Members have eight minutes to speak.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

A Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, I wish you well in your retirement. I have had the privilege of working with you over the last 10 years in the Assembly.

I thank the Member for securing the debate. I say to the Minister that, over the last number of years, we have made progress on the matter. When you look around, you see a lot of new technologies. I want to refer to some people who have already contacted me. The Minister will agree about the key elements: working in partnership and public funds and the responsibility of ensuring that they are spent properly. Those are the key elements of my contribution today.

I know for a fact that, over the past number of years, the Assembly has given money to address the not spots across rural areas. I say that because I want to remind the Minister. When you hear stories like this, you think to yourself, "What exactly have we been trying to do to address the issues?". As recently as 20 January, residents across Armagh city received a letter stating that the superfast broadband team was "delighted" to tell them that superfast broadband was now available on their street. The team had checked the speed line, and certain urban areas could get up to 79 megabytes. Urban settings have been availing themselves of quality broadband for a number of years, so this is no news to us. When we agreed on wanting to go forward to address the issue of broadband — Mr Kennedy has been here on a number of occasions, as has Mr Irwin — the whole idea of the schemes was that they were about rural broadband. I know that the Minister has taken a lot of questions in his time on the matter, and I want to talk to him about some of the issues that I have been dealing with. I want to read some things into the record, just to get a feel of the issues. To be fair to the Member who introduced the debate, he has had similar experiences to most Members in the Chamber.

I will read out this letter to one of my colleagues:

"Dear Mr Brady, I hope you can help me. I am 15 years old, fourth year, and I have started to prepare for my GCSE exams."

This is 14 or 15 months ago, so the young lad is now 16 years of age:

"I need access to BT fibre-optic Internet to keep up with my studies, but BT refuses to connect my house, even though a new fibre-optic cabinet was installed earlier this year at the bottom of my lane, approximately 250 metres from my house."

That letter is from young Matthew Nugent, 58 Tievenamara Road, Keady, BT60 3JA. When his mother enquired on his behalf to BT and talked about an engineering solution, BT said that, if an engineer was asked, it would not be a difficulty. I know that we are working in partnership and that we have given money. In consultation processes with previous Ministers a number of years ago, we used postcodes to identify areas known to Members who have spoken in debates previously as not spots. I have said this on a number of occasions, including to this Minister, and I appreciate him coming to respond to the debate. It will be difficult to address the issue of fibre-optic broadband in all areas. Every Member here will agree that that is the solution that most people who contact us are crying out for.

The Department and BT are offering an alternative satellite solution, which I certainly appreciate. I could read out lists of names all day of people who have contacted me about broadband services and provision — the likes of young Matthew Nugent, Jacqueline McCullough, Martina Gaffney of Tivnacree Road and all these people in rural areas — and I could read out lists of townlands and parishes as well.

We are giving money to BT, but I do not think it has been upfront on this matter. In saying that, I know that, by the end of 2017, we will get another report into where we are and where the new cabinets have been established. At that point, we will need to collate that information and find out where the gaps are in provision.

I will read out another example. It is from a Mrs Helen Hughes at 99b Armagh Road, Newtownhamilton, BT35 0HJ. Mrs Hughes had been having a lot of trouble getting connected to broadband. By way of a bit of background info, she is registered to go on to the Newtownhamilton line, and the box is 8 kilometres away. That does not give her access to suitable broadband. Openreach has been out to get her connected on three separate occasions. Each time the engineers called out, they advised her that she is better off getting connected to the Keady line, which is only 3 kilometres away. Still and all, she is 3 kilometres from the nearest line, but she would not get a connection. For some reason or other, unbeknownst to me, and no matter how many times you contact BT, she cannot be connected to that line.

Minister, I hope you take on board some of the comments today. You still have a number of weeks in office to discuss where the 2017 programme is and to update it. I would ask the question, and it is about a wee bit of common sense. It cannot be hard for this lady to be connected to the line. When we phone BT or have meetings with them and talk about an engineering solution, they say to us, "It is not a problem", but that is the end of the conversation. I want — I hope this is the case — the money we are giving to BT to be responsible, value for money and to provide a service, particularly to those rural people. That is the basis of why the Member brought the debate today. Like I said, there is no point coming to tell us that urban speeds are up; it is people in rural areas who are crying out to be connected.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Like other Members, I wish you well as you start the next challenge of your life.

The great digital divide: my colleagues in local government and I get contacted about this on a daily basis, like other Members. It is fitting that, as we leave this place tonight and move into an election phase, we discuss this very important issue, which impacts so many families, businesses and farmers across Newry and Armagh. I thank Mr Kennedy for bringing this issue before the House. I am sure that, like me, he is constantly inundated with calls and queries.

The rural/urban digital divide is growing wider and wider. Broadband, or, indeed, the lack of it, is becoming a crisis issue for so many in our rural communities. In the North, 8% of premises have less than a 10 megabits per second download speed. I know of many communities in Newry and Armagh where 90% of the premises have less than a 10 megabits per second download speed. The Department for the Economy is creating pockets of disadvantage that did not even exist 10 years ago. It is well for the Minister sitting up there in Strangford, where the download speeds are second only to those in Belfast. Broadband is not a luxury; it is a necessity for modern life. Young primary-school children and students at university need access to broadband. If a householder wants to do online shopping or banking or keep up to date with work, they need access to broadband. Indeed, the farmer who wants to complete his or her single farm payment application online needs access to broadband.

Small businesses in rural communities are struggling to survive using current broadband download speeds. I know of one business near Madden in County Armagh that is competing on a global playing pitch, innovating beyond belief on an annual basis and growing its workforce, but is being held back by a lack of broadband provision. I have met many of these people. They are deeply frustrated, to the point at which they are fed up with announcement after announcement about investments in broadband, only to be told, "Oh, sorry, that doesn't impact on you".

I am talking about people on Ballyscandal Road or Battleford Road in Tullysaran; Mullan Road, Tynan; Slaterock Road, Granemore; Drumgreenagh Road, Madden; Tullyah Road, Beleeks; Dundrum Road, Tassagh; Tandragee Road, Portadown; Listrakelt Road, Derrynoose; Lake Road, Cullyhanna; Ballydogherty Road, Lissummon; Skeriff Road, Cullyhanna; Polkone Road and Glenmore Road, Aughanduff; and the Tullyherron Road, between Whitecross and Mountnorris. I can go on and on and on.

If this place is to mean anything — anything at all — to the people whom we represent, surely we can get pressure put on BT or central government to sort this out once and for all. A scheme has been rolled out on the Carlingford peninsula — the wild and wonderful Carlingford peninsula — whereby fibre broadband has been delivered to the home. The premises there are all running on superfast broadband.

In the North, however, we do not do it right. We bring fibre to the cabinets, and then copper to the home. If you are over half a mile from the cabinet, forget about it. The greater the distance from the cabinet, the lower the speed. The South is leaving us behind. Why would a company that may be rurally oriented move north of the border?

Why should our rural communities pay the same BT bill as somebody who is getting superfast broadband download speeds when they are getting, say, only 0·5 megabits per second (Mbps)? Why, for two totally different services, should those two bills be the same?

I remember, as a child, Santa bringing me and my brothers and sisters a Spectrum 48K. The first game that we played on that Spectrum 48K was 'Horace Goes Skiing'. We used to load the game from a cassette tape, and the game loaded over three or four minutes. In my home on Aghmakane Road, the download speed is equivalent to loading 'Horace Goes Skiing'.

I am glad to have welcomed representatives here from several communities in Newry and Armagh who are totally frustrated about their situation. They surveyed their communities. In Lissummon, 60% of respondents cannot get 2 Mbps, and 90% cannot get 10 Mbps. Recent figures from Ofcom show that 8% of premises in NI cannot get 10 Mbps, and just 3% cannot get 2 Mbps, so they are well behind in Lissummon.

Not only is the urban/rural digital divide getting wider but we in Lissummon are falling behind our rural neighbours. These are reported individual impacts. These are real-life stories:

"I am no longer able to work from home, which puts pressure on family life and negatively impacts on my business."

"Broadband decisions by government and BT Openreach have created a new pocket of disadvantage in Lissummon."

"I have to sit several hours on the phone to BT, complaining about the connection, but nothing seems to work. As a consequence, my clients' invoices, transactions and important emails are often delayed."

"It is impossible to complete business deals."

"Unable to upload presentations for customers to view. Need to use hotels/coffee shops or send a USB stick."

"I am timed-out from completing government sites."

It affects education:

"We have children in the house who have not been able to complete work for university assignments ... had to go to someone else's house."

"Homework cannot be done on time."

"Children have to use 4G on mobile devices to do homework."

It also affects people socially:

"I cannot buy anything online as it cuts out."

"Unable for multiple people to use internet at once."

"Problems in online banking, ordering prescriptions, paying car tax and MOT, accessing e-mails, communicating with friends."

A more serious problem is that when these people ask questions and try to find out when the provision will improve in their areas, they cannot get any answers. They cannot design for the future; they cannot plan for the future because nobody will give them any answers about when broadband will be delivered to their homes. Who will give them the answers? We have heard in recent election campaigns about people delivering broadband to Newry and Armagh. Where is the broadband that is being delivered to Newry and Armagh? Where is it? People are sick —

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker 6:00 pm, 24th January 2017

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up. I call Jim Wells

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

It is normal for the Father of the House to be the last Member to speak in the last debate on the last day. As one who is truly the Father of the House, unlike the imposter, the young Lord Morrow, it is the appropriate time for me to speak.

I was the last person in the Public Gallery when the Assembly fell in 1976, I was the last person speaking when the Assembly fell in 1986, I was the last person in the Chamber before it burned down in 1995 and I was frequently the last person speaking in various debates in the Assembly before it collapsed. Indeed, it led the honourable Member for Newry and Armagh to come out with the most wonderful one-liner that I have ever heard in the Chamber. After I had recounted the frequency with which I was the last person to speak, he stood up and said, "Would he reassure us that he was not the last passenger on the Titanic?" Well, I was not, although, at times, I feel like it.

It is appropriate that the issue of broadband is raised in this forum. Although I do not represent Newry and Armagh — I represent South Down along with you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker — I have found that there is incredibly poor broadband, particularly in two areas. Those are the Dunmore Road area of Spa just south of Ballynahinch and what you would know as the Yellow Road area around Hilltown, Mayobridge and Rathfriland, where there is also a chronic under-provision of broadband.

I have frequently contacted BT about that problem. They have explained to me that there may only be six potential customers on the road and, with the cost of bringing the fibre-optic cable up that road being tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of pounds, they would not see any return on that investment. The problem is that, often, many of those roads have people on them who are businessmen and students, those who require broadband. The honourable Member for Newry and Armagh summed it up: in rural areas today, broadband has gone from being a luxury to an absolute necessity. As one who lived in an area of poor broadband coverage and who has now moved to one that has a very good connection, I can certainly understand the frustration felt by the Members present. Of course, I moved from a rural area to an urban area and in urban areas of Northern Ireland there really is no problem at all.

Should we not be encouraging people not to commute or undertake needless journeys by working from home and using the connectivity that we now mostly enjoy in order to cut down the number of miles travelled and the congestion in our towns and cities? Of course, the problem is that this is simply not an option for the individuals concerned in many parts of Northern Ireland.

When I have raised this with BT, it has told me that there is satellite provision. I have to say that almost everybody whom I have dealt with as far as satellite provision is concerned has not been happy with the product. First, the cost can sometimes be considerably higher than that which is relevant to landline users. Secondly, there is often a limit on the amount of data that can be downloaded on a satellite system and, once you pass that threshold, the cost of downloading becomes horrendously expensive. Thirdly, for some reason, which I do not understand, the quality of the signal is always much poorer than that available from a landline broadband connection. Until the satellite system is up to the same standard as landlines, I do not think that that would be seen as an option for the people of rural areas in Northern Ireland. Broadband has become such an essential part of provision, in the same way as electricity, water etc, that our rural communities will be left behind if we cannot deal with the system.

I understand that funding is being provided by the Minister's Department to assist BT in carrying out extensions to its cabling in rural areas, but we still have a long way to go. Now, the adverts tell us that 88% of the population in Northern Ireland is serviced by high-speed broadband, or even higher. However, they do that on the basis of population rather than area, and that leaves large swathes of the countryside where provision is extremely slow, particularly in households where there may be three or four people who need to use broadband. Maybe the father is a businessman, architect or accountant who needs broadband in his office, and the older children in the house may need broadband for homework tasks. That puts further pressure on the very limited broadband width that is available. Therefore, I think it is highly appropriate; Mr Kennedy has indeed raised a very important issue.

I just wonder how long it will be before any of us are back in this Chamber to see what the results of this Adjournment debate are. It could be weeks, months or years. I do not know. I have made this speech many times. Sometimes we have come back much more quickly than I expected. When I made this speech in 1986, it was 12 years before we were back — 26 June 1986 to 26 June 1998.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to return to the topic.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Yes, I will return to the topic of broadband. I really do hope that it is not 12 years before we are back to deal with this crucial issue, which rarely features in debate in this Chamber. I congratulate the honourable Member for Newry and Armagh, on the basis that he will not use the fact that he has raised this important issue in his election publications to garner votes from his constituents. Once again, it has been a privilege to be the last Member to speak on the last day as the bona fide, real father of the House.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Principal Deputy Speaker, I join with others in wishing you well in your retirement.

I should like to begin by stressing, as Minister responsible for the Department for the Economy, that I fully recognise — sorry, it would be remiss of me not to congratulate the Member on securing tonight's debate. I fully recognise the importance of access to fast, dependable Internet connectivity in the world of business, as well as the growing reliance on online access for various educational and social needs. Broadband, as many Members have said, has quickly become an essential for everyday life. I am, of course, familiar with many of the issues, particularly with regard to broadband provision in rural areas, and tonight's debate has focused very much on them.

My Department is committed to working to deliver improvements to our telecoms connectivity. Over the last eight years, my Department has channelled some £64 million into a number of projects that have significantly raised the reach, speed and quality of broadband services across Northern Ireland. These initiatives have undoubtedly had a positive impact in the Newry and Armagh constituency. The figures provided by Ofcom in its recent 'Connected Nations' report show that Newry, Mourne and Down and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council areas have superfast coverage of 72% and 79% of premises respectively. In addition, it is reported that 94% and 97% of premises respectively have broadband coverage of greater than 2 megabits per second.

To set this in the wider context of our investment in improved services across Northern Ireland, my Department's broadband improvement project has already ensured that some 38,000 premises, largely in rural areas, have received access to a broadband service of at least 2 megabits per second, and that almost 25,000 premises can now access services of 30 megabits per second or better. BT reported that, at 21 June 2016, almost 7,000 premises across Newry and Armagh could access new broadband services delivered through this project.

While this is encouraging, I recognise that more can always be done to increase the coverage of faster broadband services in Newry and Armagh and other rural locations across Northern Ireland. For instance, under the broadband improvement contract, BT will reinvest certain revenues received when take-up exceeds specific thresholds. Using these funds, plans will be developed to further improve the coverage of faster broadband connectivity across our region. This amount is in the region of £1·67 million. In addition, residual funds of £1·56 million have been identified for reallocation, bringing the total further amount that can be used to improve broadband infrastructure to £3·2 million.

In addition, my Department is managing a contract for the delivery of the superfast rollout programme, which, by 31 December, will provide access to superfast broadband with speeds of at least 24 megabits per second to a further 38,000 premises, both business and residential, across Northern Ireland, including in the Newry and Armagh constituency. Under those recent initiatives, work has led to broadband improvement work at 169 exchanges across Northern Ireland, many of which are in the Newry and Armagh constituency.

Members may be aware that Ofcom reports that 28% of rural and 1% of urban premises in Northern Ireland cannot achieve speeds of 10 megabits per second or better. That is largely due to Northern Ireland premises having some of the longest line lengths in the UK as a result of population spread. However, Ofcom does add that the deployment of my Department's superfast programme will change that landscape rapidly. It is anticipated that, by the time those projects have completed, some 87% of premises across Northern Ireland will have access to superfast broadband services compared with 77% when the project began.

Alternative networks can also offer a viable option for the delivery of broadband services in the most difficult-to-reach and less densely populated areas. Over recent years, my Department has supported projects that have extended fixed wireless and satellite broadband networks across Northern Ireland. In January 2016, my Department launched a scheme that allows consumers with a broadband connection of less than two megabits per second to access a subsidy towards the cost of having a broadband service installed from a list of registered providers, subject to satisfying certain eligibility criteria. That includes wireless and satellite broadband suppliers. Details can be found on my Department's website.

It might be helpful to remind Members of the constraints within which any intervention by my Department has to operate. Telecommunications are a reserved matter, which means that my Department has only limited powers to intervene in a fully privatised and independently regulated market. Mr Kennedy's former employers took a bit of a bashing in this evening's debate, as they would have done, I dare say, had we been debating broadband services in any constituency. Frustrated though Members may be, I hope that they appreciate the limitations on me, as Minister, when we do not have full responsibility for telecommunications matters.

Additionally, initiatives have to be designed in a way that meets European Union state-aid rules, which require us to be technology-agnostic and any procurement to be open and competitive, with the overriding aim of ensuring value for money and delivering the maximum benefit for public funding.

Public funds can and will, therefore, and very much have been, invested in the development of telecommunications networks, but it is ultimately a business decision for providers to decide how, or if, they wish to participate in any scheme that is put forward. In that context, neither the Assembly nor I can direct or compel a network operator on where or when they should invest and what technology they should use. However, as I said, I fully appreciate the importance of, and am fully committed to, the improvement of provision in Northern Ireland, within the reality of budgetary and other constraints.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 6:15 pm, 24th January 2017

I thank the Minister for giving way. I have listened intently to what he has said and understand completely that it is not a devolved matter as such. Nevertheless, are there any ways in which we can improve that situation, even by making representations to, and getting acceptance from, the Westminster Government on the greater devolution of powers over such issues, particularly broadband and its provision in rural areas?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. There are some initiatives that I believe will help and act as a driver to improve broadband access. One such intervention is the broadband universal service obligation (USO), which is being taken forward by Her Majesty's Government. Through that, it is expected that, by 2020, everyone should have the legal right to request a broadband service of at least 10 megabits per second, subject to certain conditions. The Executive, in our draft Programme for Government, set a much higher target: to improve speeds to 30 megabits per second. However, the USO is, at least, a good initiative and puts a floor on service.

It is understood that the USO will be provided on the basis of a reasonable request from consumers, with services delivered using the most cost-effective technology available. Consumers may be expected to contribute to those costs, where they go beyond a reasonable threshold. Recent advice from Ofcom indicates that the USO is likely to include a range of technologies.

My Department is also currently reviewing what has been achieved to date and is considering what will need to be addressed after the current initiatives that I have talked about have been completed. While still at a very early stage, it is already apparent that, if the Department's ambitions with regard to improving Internet connectivity are to be realised, the cost, no matter what technology is deployed, is likely to require significant public-sector investment. Therefore, if my Department is to pursue further interventions, related budgetary decisions will need to be made.

The Chancellor, in his autumn statement, made some more funding available for telecommunications, and my Department is studying that and seeking to avail itself of that to the fullest possible extent. I think that my officials have also engaged with the 11 councils to provide information on what is already available and how it can be better utilised. Indeed, a meeting has taken place with councils that cover the Newry and Armagh constituency. I hope that that gives a view of what my Department is doing, specifically to benefit Newry and Armagh but also to improve broadband across Northern Ireland. <BR/>Before I conclude, in the time that I have left, I welcome the contribution of my colleague Mr Wells. Down through the years, Jim has regaled me with countless stories, so many that I have forgotten most of them. I do remember him many years ago telling me that he was the last Member to speak in the 1986 Assembly, and I hope that, as he said, as I am the last Member to speak in this Assembly — I can see that he is trying to beat me here —

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Very quickly.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

He has reminded me of that. Of course, I would not necessarily be the last Member to speak on the last day of the Assembly because he, as Minister, of course has that position. It would be remiss of me at this point if I did not pay tribute to the outgoing Speaker, Mr Newton, who I think has served the Assembly very well in very difficult situations and to the outgoing Principal Deputy Speaker, Ms Ruane, who will return and who is not going off into the jungle forever. She will return either at Wimbledon or in some other Chamber, maybe Leinster House. I also pay tribute to the two outgoing Deputy Speakers, Mr Beggs and, of course, the honourable Member for Mid Ulster.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Mr Wells has been the last Member to speak.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

Actually, I am going to be the last Member to speak. Buíochas do gach duine. You have been very cineálta, kind, and thanks to everyone. I congratulate Jim Wells on being the last Member to speak. We are the last eight MLAs standing, and I am glad that Emma Little Pengelly came in, otherwise the gender balance would not have been too good. I thank Ciara and her team at the top Table, who have done such amazing work. I thank the officials, who have been here week in and week out, and also our security people, who have been very good to all of us and work long hours. I thank all of them. I will miss you. Jim Wells seems to know where I am going. I do not know where I am going, but I will miss you.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I know where you are going.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I will particularly miss you, Jim, but I am sure that we will meet each other on the hustings. I wish you all the best, every single one of you. I can honestly say that it has been a pleasure working with every single party and individual in the Chamber. Last but not least, I thank the Member who brought this debate, Danny Kennedy, who has been a tremendous colleague in the Speaker team. I also thank Robin Newton and Patsy McGlone. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Adjourned at 6.23 pm.