In the latest part of its campaign to see gigabit broadband made available across at least 85% of the UK by 2025, the UK government has announced new financial backing to enable thousands of homes and businesses in hard-to-reach rural areas of Northern Ireland to get access to high-end connectivity under the Project Stratum programme.
The £165m project comprises a £150m investment by the UK government, allocated to the Department for the Economy as part of the Confidence and Supply Agreement of the previous Theresa May-led UK government, and £15m from the UK’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
Project Stratum is said to be the largest broadband roll-out in Northern Ireland’s history and will see more than 76,000 rural homes and businesses connected to gigabit broadband by December 2023.
Currently, 76% of Northern Ireland’s geography has access to a gigabit-capable broadband connection, making it the leading UK region for the roll-out of this next-generation digital infrastructure. The extra funding is expected to connect about 8,500 more homes and businesses in very rural areas across all of Northern Ireland, but in particular those that currently have the slowest speeds, such as in Mid Ulster, Fermanagh and South Antrim.
Network supplier Fibrus Networks has been awarded the contract to deliver Project Stratum and has already invested £65m to bring full-fibre broadband to regional towns in South Down, Mid Ulster and North Antrim. The Stratum project will bring the total investment in Fibrus’ network to £350m over the next four years.
“Fibrus is already making big strides in addressing the digital imbalance which exists across rural parts of Northern Ireland through Project Stratum, and this additional investment will mean a significant number of premises in the digital wilderness of Northern Ireland will not get left behind,” said Fibrus chief executive Dominic Kearns. “We are calling Project Stratum ‘The Rural Revolution’, transforming the lives of those living and working in rural and regional parts of Northern Ireland, and this additional investment will help us achieve our mission to ensure 100% of homes and businesses have access to full-fibre broadband by 2025.”
Project Stratum is complemented by the Full Fibre Northern Ireland (FFNI) programme, which received £24m of UK government funding in June and aims to connect nearly 1,000 public buildings – including hospitals, GP surgeries, council offices and community centres – to gigabit broadband by March 2022. The most recent development in the project showing how gigabit-capable broadband is reaching very remote and rural communities across the UK has come at the Portballintrae Community Centre in the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area.
This is part of a strategy to hook up publicly owned and community buildings to gigabit-capable networks. The buildings then act as full-fibre “hubs”, from which other commercial broadband companies can build their own networks to connect surrounding rural homes and businesses. This not only helps deliver better and more efficient public services, but expands the full-fibre broadband footprint across Northern Ireland.
Portballintrae Community Centre’s connection has already helped stimulate and enable the commercial market to reach more homes and businesses in very rural areas of Portballintrae and across the Causeway and Glens.
“Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council is committed to developing the digital infrastructure of our borough, and as part of the wider FFNI consortium ensuring as many citizens as possible can access high-quality broadband,” said Ashleen Schenning, deputy mayor of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.
“Portballintrae Community Centre is currently utilised by 17 different groups, which offer a range of outlets and activities for the community. The added provision of high-speed connectivity will enhance its position as an important central hub for the area by allowing it to extend its services even further, reach out to more potential users and encourage even greater community involvement.
“We want everyone to feel the benefits of improved digital connectivity and through the FFNI programme we can bring people closer together and create greater opportunities for all.”