Northern Ireland

NI broadband network improvements explored

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMore needs to be done to improve broadband speeds in rural areas, says Ofcom's James Stinson

The Department for the Economy (DfE) is "exploring" whether it can progress work to improve the broadband network without a minister.

DfE is carrying out a consultation to find out which areas of NI have the slowest broadband speeds.

The work is due to be paid for with £150m from the DUP and Conservatives' confidence and supply deal.

DfE said it is exploring whether the projected timescale for the work can also change.

In October, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill was passed to give civil servants greater flexibility in making decisions.

Image caption DfE is carrying out a consultation to find out which areas of NI have the slowest broadband speeds

That followed a court ruling that the Department for Infrastructure's permanent secretary did not have the power to approve plans to build an incinerator plant in County Antrim.

The ruling led to doubt over which decisions civil servants are empowered to take.

Postcode check

The DfE consultation asks the public to check if their postcode is in an area which is unable to access 30 megabits per second (mbps) broadband speeds - commonly the threshold speed for superfast broadband.

Previous research by Ofcom has shown that about 40,000 premises still cannot get the broadband speeds required by a typical user.

Rural areas were worst affected.

The confidence and supply deal said the UK government would "contribute £75m per year for two years to help provide ultra-fast broadband for Northern Ireland".

Ultra-fast broadband provides speeds of 300mbps of more, according to Ofcom.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Previous research by Ofcom has shown that about 40,000 premises still cannot get the broadband speeds required by a typical user

However the department has now said the aim is to improve broadband for Northern Irish homes and businesses unable to access speeds of 30mbps or greater.

DfE also said the confidence and supply agreement did not specify in which two years the £150m had to be spent.

'Tight timeframe'

"However recent indications are that these will be 2020-21 and 2021-22," the department told BBC News NI.

Yet according to DfE, industry representatives have expressed concern whether the money can be spent in such a tight timeframe.

Therefore the department is negotiating with the UK government over whether the timescale for using the money and carrying out the work can change.

DfE also said it was exploring whether it could issue a tender for the work in the absence of an economy minister.

"Assuming that the project business case is fully approved, and a positive outcome to the open procurement is achieved we anticipate contract award by the end of quarter three in 2019 and the first deployment of infrastructure by April 2020."

Related Topics

More on this story