The government of Northern Ireland has re-iterated its pledge to bring 100 per cent broadband availability to the region and announced new funding for broadband.
"Government's vision is for Northern Ireland to be the leading broadband region in the UK and the first region to have 100 percent broadband availability," said Northern Ireland's Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment, Ian Pearson, MP, speaking at the Broadband NI conference titled Connecting Commerce, Creativity and Community on Tuesday.
The government's targets for the next three years are set out in a new publication "Broadband Northern Ireland - Fully Connected," which was launched at the conference.
Back in July, Pearson said he was aiming for the region to achieve 100 per cent availability within two to three years. At the conference he made it clear he wants that target reached by the end of 2005, by which time all households and businesses in the region should have access to broadband at a minimum of 512k.
In that time the government is also aiming for 12 per cent take-up of broadband among households and 20 percent among businesses. By the end of 2006, the aim is 100 percent broadband coverage at a rate of 2Mb per second at competitive prices.
At the moment there is 65 per cent broadband coverage across Northern Ireland. This represents growth since the minister's first bold announcement in July but it is still 10 per cent less than the coverage across the UK. Acknowledging this comparison, Pearson said, "Clearly we have work to do if businesses across Northern Ireland are to have cost effective access to broadband, irrespective of their location."
Niall Curran, managing director of Armagh based content management company Libertas Solutions, told ElectricNews.Net that he thinks 100 per cent coverage is realistic. Curran, who also spoke at Tuesday's broadband conference, said that with the limitation of proximity to phone lines posed by ADSL, the most efficient way of reaching the target would be via wireless networks, such as those used in parts of the Republic.
Curran said that a monthly cost of between £25 and £30 would probably be acceptable to businesses, and a slightly lower cost for households. By way of encouraging businesses to take-up broadband, Curran cited the support offered by Invest NI. The agency, under the scheme, offers 40 per cent installation and running costs of broadband to businesses for the first year, regardless of how it is provided, satellite, ADSL or wireless.
Pearson also announced the reopening of the UK Broadband Fund in Northern Ireland, which he hopes will further the development of broadband networks and not just service areas that are commercially viable. The minister announced £700,000 in new funding for the sector.
"Since we first opened the Fund, broadband technology and availability has surged forward and now I want to refocus the Fund towards broadband content, to make sure we make the best of the availability," he said.
The minister also announced that he has agreed in principle to the aggregation of public sector demand for broadband in Northern Ireland and has set up a team to see how this can be effected quickly. Such an agreement would mean that public sector bodies would no longer buy broadband connectivity separately, but would pool their demand to provide a clearer market for sellers and stronger buying power for the government.
With respect to North-South mobile phone roaming charges, Pearson said he is working closely with Minister for Communications Dermot Ahern in the Republic and supported the comments Ahern made in late September. Ahern is expecting the end of roaming charges North and South early next year, describing existing rates costs as a "rip off." At Tuesday's conference Pearson also called on industry to quickly put in place single flat rate charges for the island as a whole.