ICBAN welcomes the release of the report by the Northern Ireland Assembly Public Accounts Committee on ‘Broadband Investment in Northern Ireland’. The report examines how the Department for the Economy implemented projects to support broadband investment since 2009, including the 2020 £165 million Project Stratum, awarded to Fibrus, to improve broadband speeds in rural areas where it would not be commercially viable to do so.

It is appreciated that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has now examined the broadband reports completed by the Northern Ireland Audit Office and concluded this process before the dissolution of the NI Assembly ahead of the forthcoming elections. The PAC Report makes 10 key recommendations and it is important that these are all followed up, including the key recommendation that the NI Government should claw back some £14 million in 2023/2024.

This clawback, which should include any BT capital outstanding, must be used to support further digital connectivity projects, such as those being developed by the likes of the MSW Councils in their Growth Deal strategy.

It was ICBAN’s  research on the subject which was the starting point for the Northern Ireland Audit Office investigation. In 2017 we submitted evidence in the form of two reports titled ‘Fibre at a Crossroads’ and ‘Fibre at a Crossroads Part II’ to the Comptroller and Auditor General of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO). The NIAO report in June 2021 subsequently backed up the finding of the ICBAN Reports. These ICBAN reports highlighted the potential underspends,  missing or late BT capital contributions and substantial clawback outstanding.

ICBAN will also write to and ask the Comptroller and Auditor General at NIAO to actively monitor delivery of Project Stratum by Fibrus, because the lessons of past programmes show that it is very possible that excess costs have been included in the latest bid process. We will also ask NIAO to ensure that there is clarity and evidence of the Fibrus investments that have been promised.

On the back of the PAC report it is important that the Minister for Finance will ensure receipt of the £14 million clawback, and will also oversee and seek the re-use of potential substantial underspends and clawback as soon as this can be identified in the Project Stratum contract.  It does not appear that the lessons on excess costs and abuse of process have been applied in the new contract.

As a cross-border development organisation we also wish to see the effective delivery of the National Broadband Ireland programme investments. Similar bid frameworks have been used in both jurisdictions and therefore we will engage with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General for Ireland to bring their attention to the findings in NI, and ask that they also examine the value of broadband investments in Ireland and carry out an audit also.

We would like to put on record our thanks to Mr. Mike Kiely of The Bit Commons,  formerly of BT and BDUK for not just his work on the two ‘Fibre at a Crossroads’ reports, but for his long-standing commitment and tireless pursuit for fair and equitable delivery of broadband services, especially for those in harder to reach rural areas. The investigations into broadband spending in recent years would not have been possible without Mr. Kiely’s scrutiny, championing and passion to fix rural connectivity over the past decade.  It took the questioning of the efficacy of the existing contracts, combined with the ambition of local Councillors to fix rural broadband, that enabled the funding requests for what became Project Stratum to emerge.  Policy makers in Stormont and Whitehall in 2016-17 told us there was no policy and no money to complete rural broadband. ICBAN’s research showed more was possible.

Finally, we must 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.