The Northern Ireland Executive has awarded a £165m contract to local infrastructure provider Fibrus Networks to expand gigabit-capable, full-fibre broadband to more than 78,500 rural homes and businesses.
The initiative – called Project Stratum – will target regions where the prevailing speeds are under 30Mbps. These will largely be concentrated in the area described by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency as "Band H", which mostly consists of open countryside. Deployment is slated to start immediately and forecast to conclude in March 2024.
Project Stratum is largely a direct result of the 2017 Confidence and Supply agreement between the Theresa May government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This controversial pact saw Northern Ireland promised £1bn in additional central government funding in exchange for the DUP propping up May's minority government.
The bulk of the costs – £150m – will come from this pool, with the remaining £15m in funding secured from DAERA (Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs).
Fibrus was long regarded front-runner for the Project Stratum contract, beating BT-owned Openreach. The firm, a joint-venture between B4B chief Dominic Kearns and Irish ISP Enet founder Conal Henry, is a relative newcomer to the space, and was only founded in September 2018. Since its inception, the startup has led gigabit deployments across the region, deploying full-fibre connections to towns across South Down, Mid Ulster, and North Antrim.
This is the second major bit of broadband good news to hit Northern Ireland this month, following Virgin Media's announcement it had expanded gigabit connectivity to all customers in the region.
Fibrus Networks chair Conal Henry commented: "This investment partnership with the NI Executive positions Northern Ireland as a digital global leader. Full-fibre broadband is key to unlocking the full economic and social potential of our rural communities and is as vital a part of our 21st century infrastructure as power, water or transport.
"This investment enables towns, villages and rural communities to change the narrative, keep people and communities connected and facilitate the increasing demand for working and studying at home. The benefits of Full Fibre Broadband are more relevant now in a COVID context than ever before."
UK Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden added: "This £150m investment from the UK government will help deliver lightning fast gigabit speeds not just to Northern Ireland's towns and cities but also to rural areas stuck in the digital slow lane. As the impact of COVID has shown us, it is more important than ever that we connect people to their families, jobs and services." ®