Digital divide narrows, but 56,000 NI homes cannot get decent broadband

15 December 2017

  • Superfast broadband availability has increased to 85% of premises
  • But one in four rural premises can’t access superfast services
  • Mobile coverage improving, but many lack good service, particularly in rural areas

The number of homes and offices in Northern Ireland unable to get a decent broadband connection has fallen by 7,000 within a year, Ofcom has found, but some 56,000 premises still cannot get a good connection.

The findings are part of Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2017 report  – an in-depth look at communications networks in the UK and its nations. This year’s report continues to show progress on the availability of broadband and mobile services, which are crucial to people’s personal and working lives.

But around 56,000 homes and offices, or 7% of properties in Northern Ireland, still cannot get the broadband speeds needed to meet a typical household’s needs. Most of these are in rural 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 – although we expect these requirements to increase over time. The figure has fallen from 63,000 premises last year.[1]

Today’s report shows broadband remains worse in rural areas, where properties are often situated a long way from the telephone exchange or local street cabinet. Around 23% of rural premises in Northern Ireland (53,000) are not getting basic broadband services, compared to just 1% in urban areas.

Local authorities that are more rural, with more dispersed properties, have a higher number of premises that cannot access 10Mbit/s. While this still affects a significant number of properties, the number has reduced over the last year and in previous years.

Nearly a quarter of premises (10,800) in the Fermanagh and Omagh Council area can’t get a service delivering more than 10Mbit/s. Mid Ulster (7,900) and Newry, Mourne and Down (7,900) also have significant numbers of premises that fall into this category.

Ofcom is supporting the UK Government’s plans for universal broadband, so homes and businesses across the country – including in rural and remote areas – have the right to request a broadband connection with a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s, and an upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s.

Jonathan Rose, Ofcom’s Northern Ireland Director, said: “Broadband and mobile coverage are improving, but our findings show there’s still a long way to go before people and businesses gets the services they need.

“We expect the picture to continue to improve on the back of a number of government funded UK-wide and regional initiatives that have and are being undertaken to improve broadband speeds, especially in rural areas.

“Everyone should be able to benefit from broadband and mobile services. So we are promoting investment in full fibre networks that bring faster, more reliable connections. We’re also working with mobile operators to help improve coverage in remote areas and on transport links.”

‘Superfast’ now available to 85% of premises

Superfast broadband – defined by Ofcom as a download speed of 30Mbit/s or more – was available to 85% of Northern Ireland homes and small businesses by May 2017, up from 83% a year earlier (UK=91%). However, availability is lower in rural areas where 57% of premises have access to a superfast service.

The Connected Nations report shows average download speed of a connected broadband service in Northern Ireland rose by 15% in the year, from 34 Mbit/s to 39 Mbit/s.[2] Average download speeds are lower in rural areas but have increased to 24Mbit/s in 2017, compared to 21Mbit/s in 2016.

Superfast broadband availability for SMEs is also increasing. 75% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) now have access to superfast broadband or faster – up from 71% in 2016.

Meanwhile, coverage of ‘ultrafast’ broadband in Northern Ireland, which Ofcom defines as speeds of 300 Mbit/s and above, has risen to 25% of properties, from zero last year (UK=36%). This is mainly the result of Virgin Media upgrading the capacity of its cable broadband network, offering residential customers speeds of up to 300 Mbit/s and businesses up to 350Mbit/s.

However, ‘full fibre’ broadband – where fibre optic cables are used all the way to the property – is only available to 0.5% of homes and offices in Northern Ireland (UK=3%). We expect this figure to grow in the next few years.

Ofcom is promoting industry-wide investment in full fibre networks, which can deliver far quicker and more reliable connections. For example, we are are making it easier and cheaper for competitors to lay their own ultrafast networks using BT’s network of telegraph poles and underground ducts.

Mobile coverage reveals a mixed picture

The Connected Nations report shows some improvements in mobile coverage across Northern Ireland. Using Ofcom’s enhanced coverage measurements, four in ten premises (44%) can receive an indoor 4G mobile signal from all four networks,[4] up from 34% last year.

‘Total’ geographic 4G coverage, where a signal is available from all four mobile operators, is available across 60% of Northern Ireland’s landmass – up from 30% in 2016.

However, coverage is not as good in rural areas. Just 1% of premises in Northern Ireland have no indoor voice coverage from any operator, in line with the UK-wide figure. These are in what are know as complete not-spots. 4% of premises in rural areas have no voice coverage from any operator.

Operators need to do more to ensure people right across the country can be confident they can use their mobile phones to call, text and connect to the internet with ease.

Ofcom is promoting better coverage by preparing to release more airwaves for mobile operators, and providing tools and advice to help people get the most out of their connections. We will also report on mobile operators’ compliance with their different coverage obligations early next year.

An enhanced mobile and broadband checker app

People can check whether their mobile reception and home broadband connections are working as well as they could, using our improved ‘app’ for smartphones and tablets, launched today.

The Ofcom Mobile and Broadband Checker checks the performance of the user’s mobile reception, as well as their home broadband. If the app finds a problem with either, it will explain possible causes, and provide practical troubleshooting advice.



  1. This relates to premises which are not covered by a broadband network able to offer a download speed of at least 10 Mbit/s and an upload speed of at least 1 Mbit/s. Coverage should be distinguished from take-up. Some people may live in an area with fast abroadband, but choose not to purchase it. This in turn influences the average speeds people are receiving. So while coverage data accurately reflects the quality of the infrastructure available in a given area, average speed figures often do not.
  2. Broadband data is from May and June 2017. This is the maximum speed of the connection between the consumer’s premises and the street cabinet or telephone exchange. Our Home Broadband Report measures the speeds actually experienced by consumers; these speeds might be lower at peak times when many people use the network at the same time.
  3. EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.
  4. The Connected Nations report draws on data from May/June 2017.