Project Stratum

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 8th December 2020.

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Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 2:00 pm, 8th December 2020

1. Mr McAleer asked the Minister for the Economy to outline the oversight mechanisms in place to ensure Project Stratum is delivered in budget. (AQO 1287/17-22)

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

2. Mr K Buchanan asked the Minister for the Economy for an update on the roll-out of Project Stratum. (AQO 1288/17-22)

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

4. Mr Blair asked the Minister for the Economy whether there is a prioritisation plan for the roll-out of rural connectivity to be delivered by Fibrus through Project Stratum. (AQO 1290/17-22)

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I will group questions 1, 2 and 4. Again, with your permission, I would like to avail myself of the extra minute to answer that grouping.

I am delighted that Project Stratum, delivered through the DUP's confidence and supply deal, is up and running. Project Stratum will utilise public funding, together with Fibrus Networks investment, to deliver gigabit-capable broadband infrastructure to more than 76,000 primarily rural premises across Northern Ireland. The citizens and businesses in these areas have waited far too long for acceptable broadband, and their struggles have been deepened by the COVID-19 crisis. As some 97% of these premises are classed as Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) band H, which covers settlements that have fewer than 1,000 people and are in open countryside, the entire intervention area is a priority for my Department. Deployment work is already under way. That is very significant because, within the nine-month period initially thought to be required for network design, the figure of 19,000 premises will have been passed.

I appreciate that Members will want to know how Project Stratum will impact on their area. My Department is engaging with Fibrus Networks to ensure that citizens and businesses can access further information on deployment plans and project implementation dates. An online portal has been developed by Fibrus Networks to provide this key information throughout the deployment phase of the project. Details of the deployment plan are available on the portal, and a premises checker will be added over the coming weeks. Links to the Hyperfast NI portal can be found on my Department' s website and the Fibrus website. The portal will be updated and expanded as the project progresses.

I understand that some Members may feel disappointed that their areas are further into the roll-out cycle than they would prefer, but I ask for their patience. It is vital that the network is designed with technical and economic efficiency. That will enable as many premises as possible to benefit from the intervention. I hope that Members agree that the important message for citizens and businesses is that a solution is now in reach and that all those premises that were struggling to access acceptable broadband will be served by this intervention, making them among the best-served places for broadband in the United Kingdom and, indeed, throughout Europe.

I assure Members that the management structure for Project Stratum contains the required tiers of project oversight to support robust governance procedures. These include a project board and a project management team. The project board will monitor progress โ€”.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Minister's three minutes are up, some time ago.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Sorry. There is a lot of information to get out.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her very comprehensive response. Many MLAs, particularly those who, like me, represent rural areas โ€” I represent West Tyrone, which is in the Sperrins โ€” are itching to know when it will come to our local town or village. When Project Stratum was conceived, it was estimated that the number of premises with no access to superfast broadband was over 100,000, whereas Project Stratum now targets 76,000. Will the Minister explain that gap and advise whether there is a solution for the 30,000 premises not currently part of the Project Stratum intervention area?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I apologise for my lengthy response, Mr Deputy Speaker, but my Department is receiving a lot of questions about this, and we want to give a fulsome response to Members in the Chamber.

The identification of the projects came about through an open market review that identified the potential number of premises available. Those were then looked at in conjunction with the already existing commercial access to broadband, and that gave us the number that we are looking at in the Project Stratum intervention area. There are about 3% of other premises that we would like to have within that intervention area, and we are currently working with our national Government to try to work out a solution for those premises. We will come back to the House as quickly as possible with information on that.

I know that the Member will be interested in this: in West Tyrone, 9,591 premises will be able to avail themselves of superfast broadband as a result of Project Stratum.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I welcome the Minister's work in getting this rolled out. We are now indeed seeing confidence and supply money rolling into Northern Ireland, and we will now see confidence in and supply of our broadband, and to all communities, I might add. At the very start, some were very negative in their comments about the project, but it is going to be rolled out across all communities and will support all of them. There are 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland, but obviously there is only one, Minister, and it is the most important one: Mid Ulster.

[Laughter.]

What is Project Stratum going to do for the average homeowner, pupil and student in Mid Ulster?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I looked up the figures on the portal before coming to the House. In Mid Ulster, 8,785 premises will benefit from next-generation broadband thanks to the Project Stratum intervention. We have all seen how families have struggled with homeschooling and homeworking during the pandemic. The intervention will increase their ability to do those kinds of things no end.

It is also very important for the economy. One of our economic goals is to have a regionally balanced economy. The new connectivity for the economy is fibre, and that will help us get a regionally balanced economy so that people in rural areas, where before they might have been served by very poor broadband, can now be connected and work in the same way as those in more urban settlements.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

What work is the Department doing on community fibre partnerships to ensure that areas that are not yet included and those that are harder to reach can be included in this or future programmes? I have some such areas in my constituency, and I am sure that the Minster has some in hers.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

As I said in response to other colleagues, a small number of premises are still in the very-hard-to-reach category and thus outside the scope of the current Project Stratum. We are in discussions with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and with Fibrus Networks on how we can bring solutions to those premises. That will most probably be on a cost and a case-by-case basis, but we are determined to try to have the best broadband service in the whole of the United Kingdom, if not Europe, for Northern Ireland. It is an enormous selling point when we talk to investors across the globe.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Project Stratum is indeed a very welcome initiative, and it could not come sooner. What review mechanisms has the Minister in place if, for example, the project is delayed or the roll-out is just not up to the standards or expectations that her Department has?

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I am not anticipating problems. This is an exciting project, the goal of which is to give us a better-connected and more regionally balanced economy. It is a really important initiative. We have a project board and different levels of guidance and governance for the project.

Of course, payment will be dependent upon delivery, and that is the most important element. I do not anticipate there being problems. There are always glitches in life, but I am looking forward to a smooth roll-out and to 19,000 properties in Northern Ireland having, by the first six to nine months of next year, a level of broadband that they would not have received commercially. That will make an enormous difference.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I welcome today's announcement. The Minister and I have had a number of conversations in the corridor in relation to this project. I want to be a wee bit selfish and ask about the number of premises that are being targeted in Newry and Armagh and the time frame for that. It is most important that this project be rolled out to those premises, most of which are in the open countryside, that have been waiting a number of years for broadband provision.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

The Member opposite and I clearly understand how absolutely important this is for, and the economic opportunity that it can bring to, rural communities across Northern Ireland. Project Stratum will target 8,101 premises in the Newry and Armagh constituency. That will give an average coverage of access to next-generation broadband in that whole constituency of 99ยท5%. That will be a pretty good record, when we reach it.