The final nine telephone exchanges in Northern Ireland have now been enabled with ADSL technology giving broadband availability to 98.5 per cent of the region. The announcement was made by BT Northern Ireland in association with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and the Building Sustainable Prosperity programme.
A total of 191 exchanges have been unbundled in the area since local loop unbundling began in the UK. In doing so, Northern Ireland has become the first UK region outside of London to have every one of its exchanges enabled for broadband.
A contract to provide 100 per cent broadband coverage in Northern Ireland, which was to be funded under the EU Building Sustainable Prosperity programme, was awarded to BT at the end of March 2004. Prior to winning that contract, BT had enabled between 55 and 60 per cent of exchanges in Northern Ireland.
Following the enablement of BT's exchanges, over 200 internet service providers and other companies will be able to use the upgraded infrastructure to deliver broadband services to customers in Northern Ireland.
Demand for broadband in Northern Ireland has increased dramatically as exchanges have gone live. In just 12 months, the region has moved from having one of the lowest levels of broadband uptake in the UK to becoming the fastest growing area. The latest industry figures show 150,000 broadband users and demand is still growing.
"Northern Ireland now has a first-class telecommunications infrastructure, allowing our businesses to compete in the global marketplace and enabling all citizens to make full use of the possibilities of the internet," said Enterprise Minister, Barry Gardiner MP. "Our goal now is to become the first region in Europe with 100 per cent broadband access. Therefore, over coming months, BT will focus on providing wireless broadband infrastructure to the remaining 1.5 percent of the population that cannot access broadband via the existing BT exchanges."
The broadband situation in Northern Ireland contrasts sharply with that of the Republic where only a handful of exchanges have been enabled. "From a geographical point of view, broadband availability in Northern Ireland is now above that of Spain, France and Germany," Bill Murphy, managing director of BT Regions and CEO of Esat BT, told ElectricNews.Net. "I've been saying for a long time that there are ways of building public/private partnerships in order to push broadband coverage. What has been done in the North can also be achieved in the Republic but in order for that to happen there needs to be more government intervention."
Despite a rise in the number of broadband subscribers in the Republic in recent years following the launch of cheaper high-speed internet access services, the country still lags behind most of Europe in terms of penetration. In a Forfas report released last year, Ireland ranked an embarrassing 18 out of 21, surpassing only Hungary, the Czech Republic and Greece in terms of broadband usage. At present, fewer than 0.2 per cent of Eircom's 1.6m phone lines have been unbundled and some customers living within enabled exchange areas have been told that lines are not of sufficient quality to allow ADSL.