ICBAN COMMENT ON RELEASE OF NORTHERN IRELAND AUDIT OFFICE REPORT ON ‘BROADBAND INVESTMENT IN NORTHERN IRELAND’, 17 JUNE 2021

ICBAN welcomes this report by Northern Ireland Audit Office, in taking on board the issues raised in our ‘Fibre at a Crossroads’ reports and in carrying out this thorough examination.

ICBAN is happy to have played a role on behalf of our 8 member Councils in championing the need for internet connectivity improvements across our Region. We have helped challenge the orthodoxy that full fibre broadband services were unaffordable in rural areas and have encouraged and supported public representatives to demand more from existing subsidies, in the interests of our rural communities.  We are therefore glad that NIAO have taken the Fibre at a Crossroads documents as a starting point for their study.

Importantly, this NIAO report shows that BT Group now owe DfE more than £14m, while leaving many rural areas still waiting for upgrades. Unfortunately, there is still no record of what contribution BT made to match the £78m it received in subsidies in NI.

The need for reliable affordable and accessible broadband for everyday living has been brought to the fore especially since the onset of the pandemic and our lockdowns. ICBAN is keen to understand what additional steps can be taken to ensure people in rural areas should have the same access opportunities as those in more populated areas. We recommend that the Stormont Public Accounts Committee actively considers this report and asks a number of key searching questions arising: Given the high take-up rates, should there have been any government intervention in the market?; Why confusion exists over BT’s contribution, if BDUK controls were in place; and how mechanisms to clawback £14 million in public funding on broadband can be expedited as quickly as possible, to help ensure rural communities can access what is now a key service.

We also recommend that OFCOM extends the fair bet analysis favoured by BT to include all public subsidies. OFCOM should check the BT self-certification of its own capital for all subsidised works in the last decade.

Finally, we acknowledge that much has already been achieved in broadband delivery and improvements and those involved should be commended. We have fibre delivery and access across many parts of our Region. However, too many frustrations still exist and many citizens don’t have a service that meets their needs and indeed many have no service yet at all. Efforts must therefore continue to work towards these ambitions and ensure that such digital isolation is adequately addressed and the learning from this NIAO report must be effectively advanced. ICBAN will play its part in this work but we would encourage all interested parties to bring their positive energies to bear on this fundamental issue.

Notes:

The Irish Central Border Area Network (ICBAN) Ltd was founded in 1995 to promote cross-border co-operation and communication, at a Local Government level.

ICBAN has recognised that some of the poorest broadband and mobile connections can be found in the Central Border Region, on both sides of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. Since 2012, the organisation has been actively working with and engaging to help bring about much-needed technological and infrastructure improvements across the area. This has driven a number of initiatives to investigate, analyse and profile the value of broadband infrastructure improvements. These improvements are necessary to help local communities and businesses realise the benefits that stand to accrue from digital and technological advances.

ICBAN has drawn upon the specialist technical expertise of The Bit Commons, to produce a series of reports for both Northern Ireland and Ireland. In 2016 and 2017, ICBAN, together with The Bit Commons prepared the ‘Fibre at a Crossroads’ Part 1 and Part II reports.

The ‘Fibre at a Crossroads – Part 1’ report recommended completion of “true up” (or audit) of the level of DfE subsidies and the actual capital funding contributions from BT. The report highlighted that if actual costs incurred on broadband projects were lower than anticipated and subscriber take-up was higher than anticipated, then public subsidies paid to BT were likely to have been higher than necessary. ICBAN’s view was that, if that additional subsidy could be recovered from BT, then funds would be available to invest further into the rural areas of NI.