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Study: Full Fibre key to NI economic recovery

June 23, 2020

By Colin Mann

UK digital infrastructure provider Openreach, who builds and maintains the largest fixed communications network in Northern Ireland (NI), has reached a significant milestone, with 360,000 homes and businesses – more than 40 per cent of properties – now able to access Full Fibre broadband at speeds of up to 1 Gbps.

The milestone achievement comes as Openreach continues to build the Full Fibre future-proof broadband network in NI, with an aim of reaching 525,000 premises, which is 60 per cent, by the end of March 2021. This puts Northern Ireland well ahead of the rest of the UK, to achieve the Government’s target of 100 per cent access to 1 Gbps speeds by 2025.

To coincide with the announcement, a paper, Broadband infrastructure and boosting economic recovery – The role of Full Fibre in Northern Ireland, produced by Economist Richard Johnston, Deputy Director of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, in collaboration with Openreach, has also been published.

As policymakers and industry work to develop an economic recovery plan for NI, post COVID-19 pandemic, the paper assesses the potential economic, social and environmental benefits that could result during the recovery phase and beyond, leveraging the investment that is being made in the Full Fibre network.

The report’s main findings show that there have been ten significant changes over the last few months that will, ultimately impact on demand for Full Fibre. These changes will lead to:

  • ‘Levelling up’ connectivity across the province can lead to greater opportunities for jobs to be located in rural rather than urban areas. Leading to economic as well as social regional rebalancing.
  • Sustainability – supporting remote working to become more commonplace, therefore reducing commuter journeys, traffic congestion and Co2 emissions.
  • Removing barriers to employment – those who are vulnerable or have caring responsibilities can enter the labour market with greater opportunities to work from home.
  • Digitalisation – supporting the use of new technology across health care, education, access to government and facilitating new technologies for home, family and social life.

Access to high speed broadband is a key advantage to Northern Ireland for the growth of high tech industry and to encourage and attract Foreign Direct Investment.

The paper references a recent report conducted by the Centre for Business and Economic Research (Cebr), commissioned by Openreach, which estimates that full deployment of Full Fibre broadband by 2025 could boost the NI economy by £1.3 billion and employment by 1.6 per cent – as older workers, carers and working parents are supported and able to engage in the world of work.

Johnston’s analysis also suggests that investment in Full Fibre broadband would help NI realise its long-term growth potential – reducing economic inactivity, increasing global competitiveness and supporting digitally intensive sectors while unlocking smarter ways of working across all sectors.

“2020 will certainly be a year that will go down in history,” declared Johnston. “A year when restrictions have had a significantly negative impact on the NI economy, leaving the region in the midst of a rapid and relatively deep downturn. It has also been a year that so far has changed how, where and in some cases when, we work, learn and relax. And we’ve seen the acceleration of existing trends such as digitisation, remote working and online commerce as well as a seismic shift towards digital working, learning and consumption.

“Even after the Covid-19 crisis subsides, it is reasonable to expect that infrastructure demand will continue to increase. As NI moves towards reopening its doors for business, the roll-out of Full Fibre broadband infrastructure will be a key enabling technology. It will allow the region to compete with competitor nations, to boost incomes and standards of living and meet policy objectives of digitisation, improved sustainability and further embracing globalisation.”

“The Full Fibre build programme is central to NI’s digital future and economic growth and will provide the region with more reliable, faster and future-proof broadband,” stated Mairead Meyer, Director of Openreach Northern Ireland. “We’re delighted to have reached a milestone of 360,000 premises today and are on track with our plans to achieve 525,000 by the end of March 2021, covering 60 per cent of homes and businesses.  We are building right across Northern Ireland. We have recently finished projects from Bangor and Magherafelt to Enniskillen, as well as building Full Fibre to rural communities in Tamnaghmore and Upper Ballinderry amongst others.”

“We’re also proud that our build programme is making NI a leader within the UK and keeping the region at the forefront of digital technology. We have 72 per cent coverage of Full Fibre in Belfast City, making the capital the second-best covered city in the UK, and seven out of eleven NI council areas are within the top 20 council areas in the UK for access to faster connectivity speeds.”

“This paper highlights the benefits that Full Fibre could bring. With a potential economic boost of £1.3 billion, jobs created across NI and people better able to live and work no matter where they are located – it could boost productivity and renew towns and communities across the region. We’re committed to bringing ultra-reliable and ultrafast broadband to as many people as we can, as quickly as possible, and to build a strong and resilient network that meets the needs of our customers and of the region, now and in the future.”

“Belfast is building a growing global reputation as a tech city with world leading financial technology and cyber security clusters,” noted Simon Hamilton, CEO of Belfast Chamber of Commerce. “As well as our city’s ability to produce skilled and talented people, that reputation has been built on far sighted investments in our telecommunications network.

“Through the efforts of Openreach, Belfast can boast of being the second city in the UK for availability of gigabit- capable broadband. That is exactly the kind of infrastructure we need to continue to invest in and businesses need to take up if Belfast is to continue to grow its economy.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated just how important connectivity is to the business community in Northern Ireland,” added Ann McGregor, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “Further investment in digital infrastructure is therefore essential to not just meet current demand, but to achieve economic growth and prosperity and to further establish Northern Ireland as a digital destination for investment and jobs.’’


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