More than 400,000 homes in Northern Ireland can now access gigabit-speed broadband – fast, reliable connections that are fit for the future – Ofcom has found. And among the four UK nations, Northern Ireland has the highest coverage of gigabit capable broadband.
The findings are from Ofcom’s annual Connected Nations Northern Ireland (PDF, 2.2 MB) report, which analyses the availability of broadband and mobile services across the UK and each of its nations.
This year’s report comes as millions of people across the UK continue to work from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen a significant shift in when, where and how people get online and make calls.
Gigabit-capable broadband offers download speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s, many times faster than the UK's current average broadband speed (72 Mbit/s). This faster connection can better support households wanting to stream, work and study online – all at the same time.
More than half of Northern Ireland homes (56%) – 422,000 - can get gigabit broadband. Northern Ireland has the highest availability of these faster services, compared to 42% of Scottish homes, 25% in England and 19% in Wales.
And this is set to improve further with the main network providers planning further investment. Openreach says it expects its full fibre network to reach 60% of premises in Northern Ireland by March 2021,while Virgin Media and Fibrus are continuing to expand their full fibre footprints. Virgin Media’s recent speeds upgrade to its network in Northern Ireland will further boost gigabit coverage.
One of the main advantages of new networks is its greater reliability. This is important, as Northern Ireland’s data-hungry households used an average of 444 gigabytes (GB) of data each month in 2020 – up 38% from last year (322GB), and 255% from four years ago (125GB in 2016).
For those premises that still can’t get good broadband, the report highlights the key role of Project Stratum.
Project Stratum, which is being funded by £150m from the UK Government and £15m from the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, aims to bring next generation broadband to premises across Northern Ireland, which are currently unable to access superfast broadband (offering speeds of 30 Mbit/s or more).
The Department for the Economy, which is managing the project, estimates it will benefit 97% of those premises. The winning bidder to deliver the project, Fibrus Networks, is proposing to connect more than 76,000 premises with a “full fibre solution” - capable of delivering 1 Gbit/s download speeds.
The contract was awarded in November 2020 with work expected to start immediately and run until March 2024. When complete, the project would still leave around 3,000 premises unable to get a superfast service. The Department for the Economy has said it will continue to work with Fibrus and the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to help deliver infrastructure to serve these premises.
Ofcom Northern Ireland Director Jonathan Rose, said: “Lockdown would have been even more difficult without reliable broadband to work, learn, play and see loved ones.
“So it’s encouraging that future-proof, gigabit broadband is now available to more than half of homes in Northern Ireland, and we expect that to rise even faster in the coming months.”
Since the initial rollout of 5G networks last year, UK mobile network operators have continued to deploy 5G, largely on existing mobile infrastructure. The main focus of this activity has remained predominantly in urban areas where such deployments provide additional capacity in areas of high demand. For example, more than half of the 5G sites in Northern Ireland are in Belfast.
This is in line with our expectations, with current 5G deployments for customers largely focusing on delivering mobile broadband and providing enhanced capacity to 4G services, particularly in areas of existing high demand.
Across the UK, 5G is now carried on around 3,000 mobile base stations (around a ten-fold increase in base stations reported to us last year), with 87% of these base stations in England, 7% in Scotland and 3% in both Wales and Northern Ireland.
Broadband and mobile networks have been in high demand throughout the year, with the coronavirus pandemic leading to major changes in people’s usage patterns.
Daytime traffic on home broadband increased significantly as many people worked from home. Mobile networks saw record levels of voice traffic during the first UK-wide lockdown.
Both broadband and mobile services have remained resilient as networks put in place measures to increase capacity and manage this extra demand. Our data shows the number of network resilience and security problems – including outages – reported to us was broadly in-line with recent years, suggesting the networks have generally coped well during the coronavirus lockdown periods.