Northern Ireland leads the way

by Dec 12, 2011 No Comments

The Scottish Government has only itself to blame for any perceived shortfall in funds from Westminster to pay for the rollout of a high-speed fibre-optic broadband programme, according to a leading telecoms analyst.

In August government leaders complained about the share of a £350m broadband pot announced by UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt where £68.8m was allocated for Scotland. Alex Neil, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, claimed it fell short of expectations especially when it came to providing coverage to the more remote and rural parts of the country.

However, Scots-born Mark Giles, a London-based analyst with Datamonitor’s Ovum telecoms research unit, said: “The amount set aside for Scotland may be contentious. But I get the impression that the Scottish Government aren’t being as proactive in driving this forward as other regions. Also, that the allocations to Wales and Northern Ireland, announced before Scotland, could indicate a lack of co-ordination between Westminster and certain regions.”

Giles added that he believed the Welsh government is expected to top up the Welsh broadband fund out of its own pocket, “but there is no mention yet if Scotland will.” He said that Northern Ireland’s broadband initiative – started in 2009 with BT as the contracted partner – represented a model to which others should aspire. In September Northern Ireland’s enterprise minister Arlene Foster signed the programme off “on time and on budget.”

Foster said that Scotland’s Finance Secretary John Swinney should knock on her door to see what Scotland can learn from its neighbour. More than £52m has been invested in Northern Ireland’s telecoms infrastructure programme, aimed at increasing fibre optic broadband speeds primarily for business users while attracting foreign investment. Foster described the broadband initiative as a “tremendous asset” for Northern Ireland.

She told Connect: “Broadband is an enabler. Use of these new services help local businesses increase their productivity and improve the competitiveness of the economy as a whole,” she said. “It’s essential that our businesses now take advantage of the exciting new opportunities this project creates so all of Northern Ireland can reap these benefits,” she added.

Foster said the Next Generation Broadband Project was designed to deliver on the key Programme for Government objective; to ensure 85 per cent of businesses here will have access to next generation broadband speeds by 2011 and this has been achieved. The minister added that the project has stimulated a further £2m by the Executive and encouraged BT to make further substantial investments in Northern Ireland.

“Significant investment has been made in pushing fibre optic deep into rural areas across Northern Ireland. There are few, if any, parts of the British Isles which have anywhere near the amount of fibre deployed here and particularly to our rural areas.” When it comes to Scotland, Foster said: “I know John Swinney well. He should give me a call and I’ll give him the details of what can be achieved on the broadband front. Telecoms is one of the jewels in our crown and we must exploit it to the full so that all of Northern Ireland can reap the benefits of a dynamic and innovative economy.”

BT has, in fact, invested close to £32m in the Northern Ireland project and Graham Sutherland, Scots-born chief executive of BT Ireland, said: “By March 2012 at least 89 per cent of phone lines will be connected to a fibre-enabled street cabinet. This represents exceptional progress, propelling Northern Ireland ahead of major European countries.”

Giving evidence last month to the Scottish Parliament’s broadband inquiry, Matthew Conway, director of regulatory development and nations at Ofcom, was asked how the Scottish Government could best fund infrastructure: “Northern Ireland is one part of the UK that it might look at to see how things have been done. Superfast broadband availability there is 97 per cent, so it is clear that the Northern Ireland Executive has done something.”

Brendan Dick, BT’s Scottish director and managing director of regions, defended the Scottish Government which he claimed was now “coming up to speed” on the broadband front. “Scale is everything and a commercially viable broadband initiative, covering the whole of Scotland and involving a partnership of the public and private sectors, represents the best way forward.”

Dick added that BT remained committed to delivering large-scale broadband projects and playing a leading role in bringing faster technologies especially to rural communities. Dick called on the private and public sectors to work together to make faster broadband available especially to the still many rural, less populated areas in existence in Scotland.

Recently, BT announced six more exchanges in the Scottish Borders, Perth, Stirlingshire, South Lanarkshire and Morningside, Edinburgh, as part of its £2.5bn UK-wide programme. In addition, the telco said that 22 communities ranging from Hopeman in the north to Kirkcudbright in the south were among the latest in Scotland to be included in the roll-out plans for BT’s next generation copper broadband service. They will have access to a faster service by next spring.

The Scottish Government has pledged £144.3m to support improvements in the country’s broadband infrastructure. As part of that funding, Neil last month announced a £5m award to help kickstart a £120m South of Scotland Alliance (SOSA) project which aims to deliver up to 30Mbps to every house in the region.

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