Business

Providers must 'step up and prioritise improving broadband coverage'

Over recent years there has been extensive development of communications networks in Northern Ireland but there's more to do before people and businesses get the services they need.

As communications play an increasingly critical role in our lives, the supporting infrastructure must keep pace with the needs of people and businesses.

Ofcom's Connected Nations report, which takes an in-depth look at communications networks in the UK and its nations, shows super-fast broadband (defined by Ofcom as a download speed of 30Mbit/s or more) was available to 85 per cent of Northern Ireland homes and small businesses by May 2017, up from 83 per cent a year earlier.

The report also shows average download speed of a connected broadband service in Northern Ireland rose by 15 per cent in the year, from 34Mbit/s to 39Mbit/s.

Super fast broadband availability for SMEs is also increasing. Some 75 per cent of small and medium-sized enterprises now have access to super fast broadband or faster – up from 71 per cent in 2016.

But while these numbers are improving, there remains a digital divide between urban and rural areas. Access to faster services is lower in rural areas, where properties are often situated a long way from the telephone exchange or local street cabinet.

Around 23 per cent of rural premises in Northern Ireland (53,000) are not getting decent broadband services, compared to just one per cent in urban areas. Ofcom currently defines this as broadband offering a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s, with an upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s.

Everyone should have good access to the internet, wherever they live and work. We are supporting government plans for universal broadband. Ofcom is also taking a range of steps to help improve broadband coverage and speeds, including promoting industry-wide investment in full-fibre networks.

These connections can deliver far quicker, more reliable broadband. Ofcom is making it easier and cheaper for competitors to lay their own ultra-fast networks using BT's network of telegraph poles and underground ducts.

Mobile services too are playing an increasingly important role in our daily lives. We all expect that mobile devices will work reliably wherever we are, whether at home, at work, or on the move.

Ofcom has changed the way we measure mobile coverage, to reflect the growing usage and expectations of smartphone users. Today's devices receive far more data, but also require stronger signals, than older phones.

We have raised our requirements for what constitutes coverage, using new crowd-sourced information from thousands of handsets to capture mobile users' real experiences.

This means people can get the most accurate ever picture of mobile coverage, using Ofcom's updated interactive maps and smartphone app. These tools provide clear, detailed information on the availability of mobile calling, text and data services in different parts of the country.

Our updated coverage data shows that ‘total' geographic 4G coverage, where reception is available from the four main mobile operators, is available across 60 per cent of Northern Ireland's landmass, up from just 30 per cent in 2016.

This is higher than the overall UK coverage figure, however, too many people in the Northern Ireland still struggle to get a sufficiently strong signal – particularly in rural areas, where 4 per cent of premises have no voice coverage from any operator.

We are calling for further investment from mobile providers to improve coverage. Ofcom is also taking direct action, including: plans to improve coverage in rural areas by setting appropriate coverage obligations on mobile airwaves being released in future; enforcing existing coverage obligations placed on operators; increasing network capacity; extending the use of controlled mobile phone ‘repeaters'; and providing better information for consumers.

With all the technological advancements we've seen in recent years, people shouldn't have to second guess where they can and can't get decent mobile reception. The public and our economy depend on mobile coverage that allows people to call, text or get online wherever they are. So we need to see mobile companies step up and prioritise improving coverage across the UK.

• Jonathan Rose is Ofcom's Northern Ireland director.Ofcom's Connected Nations Report is available at www.ofcom.org.uk

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