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News | Business | UK Economy: Fibrus wins £165m deal to improve rural broadband


Richard Morgan

3-4 minutes - Source: BBC

A stock image of fibre optic lights

A £165m deal to improve broadband connectivity in Northern Ireland will be "transformational" for people living in rural areas, according to the company chosen to carry out the work.

The contract for the upgrade work has been awarded by the Department for the Economy to broadband provider Fibrus.

The aim of the investment - known as Project Stratum - is improving rural internet connectivity.

About 76,000 premises are to benefit from full-fibre broadband access.

The total funding for Project Stratum is £165m, with £150m coming from the confidence-and-supply agreement deal signed between the DUP and the Conservative Party in 2017.

The remaining £15m is being provided by Stormont's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Economy Minister Diane Dodds described the announcement as a "significant milestone".

"We are one step closer to bringing next generation broadband services to those businesses and people who need it most," she said.

"Fibrus proposes a full-fibre solution, capable of offering speeds of up to one gigabit per second to almost 97% of premises in the target intervention area."

'Full potential of rural communities'

The process is set to run until March 2024.

The latest Connected Nations report from Ofcom suggests Northern Ireland has the best full-fibre coverage.

However, the September report said the number of premises unable to access decent internet is higher when compared with other UK nations.

Fibrus chair Conal Henry said superfast broadband was a vital part of infrastructure and "key to unlocking the full economic and social potential of our rural communities".

"This investment enables towns, villages and rural communities to change the narrative, keep people and communities connected and facilitate the increasing demand for working and studying at home," he said.

"The benefits of full-fibre broadband are more relevant now in a Covid context than ever before."

'Lockdown exacerbated everything'

Paddy McEldowney, who lives in the Sperrin Mountains outside Draperstown, County Londonderry, is one of those hoping to see a vast improvement in his broadband speed.

"We're getting speeds of probably just less than one megabit per second, which is atrocious when you're trying to live a normal family life," he told BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme.

"It was difficult before lockdown but lockdown just exacerbated everything - working from home and Zoom calls every day and home-schooling on Google classroom, with myself and my wife both working from home and three children.

"We had a situation for a couple of years where we just couldn't be on the internet together - we had to take it in turns, we had to around the house seeing who's on and who's off."

He added: "My biggest concern about the Project Stratum would be is everyone going to be looked after or are there still going to be in four years' time houses like mine where the broadband is still atrocious?"

Fibrus said it has already invested £65m to improve broadband in towns across Northern Ireland.

UK Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: "This £150m investment from the UK Government will help deliver lightning fast gigabit speeds not just to Northern Ireland's towns and cities but also to rural areas stuck in the digital slow lane."


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