The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland wants to make broadband available to 100 percent of its population in three years.
The ambitious target, if met, would make Northern Ireland one of the most wired regions in the UK. Currently, only about 52 percent of homes in the North have access to broadband, compared to about 70 percent in the rest of Britain.
NIO Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Ian Pearson, MP, announced the goal following the release of a Europe-wide tender by his Department. He said that the establishment of such an all-encompassing broadband network in the North would go far to boost the region's emerging knowledge-based economy and would end the disparity of broadband availability between urban and rural areas, addressing the challenge he referred to as "digital inclusion."
Anne Conaty, who handles telecom policy for the DETI, said that the Department is unconcerned about many of the finer details of how the 100 percent goal is reached. "At the end of the day, we are interested in providing a broadband service that will see anyone in the rural western regions have access to broadband at the same price that it costs in downtown Belfast or Derry," she said.
Conaty said that the Northern Ireland government is not looking to own a network; it is instead seeking to provide the boost that private companies would need to build one. She also said it is a technology-neutral initiative, meaning that ADSL, satellite or fixed-wireless services would all be given equal consideration, so long as they can provide a connection speed of at least 512Kbps per user.
"One-hundred percent is our aim," Conaty told ElectricNews.Net. "But we understand the realities of the situation, and if 95 percent can be met at a price vastly lower than 100 percent, we are willing to consider those options too."
The tender follows the publication of a Prior Information Notice in the European Journal on 7 May, which gave advance notice of an initiative by the Northern Ireland government designed to encourage Northern Ireland's telecommunications agenda. Minister Pearson said that over 40 interested parties have so far expressed interest in the tender, and Northern Ireland officials have already met with 19 in person.
The deadline for the first set of submissions in the phased tendering process is 22 August. A shortlist is due to be produced based on initial submissions, and the Department expects to award a contract by year's end. Conaty said that the DETI is not averse to awarding multiple contracts, "but the aim is to award just one."
In announcing the tender, Minister Pearson said that the scheme is only the latest in a number of measures by the Department and Invest Northern Ireland to promote telecommunications. Other measures include technology trial initiatives under the UK Broadband Fund, support for proposals for flagship broadband applications, and demand stimulation aggregation exercises.