Gerry Mullan, SDLP MLA for East Derry has called on the Minister for the Economy to ensure that broadband speeds and infrastructure are improved in rural areas.
Speaking in the Assembly, MLA Mullan said : “Many individuals and families, including farmers, have contacted me to express their deep frustration at the slow progress made with broadband provision across the constituency. From places such as Benone, Blagh and Drumsurn, which are on my doorstep, to places right across the constituency, such as Waterfoot, Kilrea and Glenullin in the east and Feeney and Claudy in the west, I have not seen any broadband improvement in recent years. That is in spite of having Project Kelvin in Portrush, a £28 million fibre-optic cable connecting my constituency to North America in a matter of seconds.
I understand that DETI spent a considerable amount of money on rolling out broadband schemes, but my constituency has yet to receive any tangible benefit from it, despite multiple promises of higher speeds and upgrades to service infrastructure. That failure to improve rural broadband services has exacerbated the digital divide, and that is having a severe economic impact on many business across my constituency. Business owners have told me that poor Internet connectivity is stifling their business growth, job creation and productivity in the area.
Many homes and businesses throughout East Derry struggle to obtain a mere speed of 2 megabits per second. What business would want to come and invest in an area that does not have the proper broadband infrastructure?
According to research carried out last year, 11% of Internet connections in East Derry have a speed of 2 megabits per second or less: in 2016, that is unacceptable. Compare that with areas like north and south Belfast, where the figure sits at a very comfortable 2% and 3% respectively. With the opening up of many online markets and the emergence of the digital economy, rural businesses simply cannot compete.
The broadband voucher scheme promised much to many rural businesses, but less than a year ago it was stripped of funding, leaving many rural businesses stranded and disconnected once again. I call on the Minister to clarify whether he or his Executive colleagues have plans to reinstate the scheme and deliver fully on what was promised to so many rural businesses, especially those located in east Derry.
Satellite broadband and blue boxes have been used as stopgap provision in many rural areas, but they do not provide a consistent, reliable or stable connection.”
Responding to comments by Sinn Fein’s Oliver McMullan, the SDLP man said : “I thank the Member for his intervention. There is no doubt that the farming community suffers greatly from the lack of broadband. I sympathise with his comments and hope that the issue can be addressed by the Minister. There are better long-term solutions. We simply cannot have a glass-half-empty approach for rural broadband; it is much too important for the survival of many businesses in rural constituencies like East Derry.
Mobile phone coverage is an equally important issue in my constituency, which is littered with what have been referred to in the Chamber today as “not spots” — areas where there is little or no mobile phone coverage. In preparation for today’s debate, I went onto Ofcom‘s website, which details mobile phone coverage throughout the North. When I looked across the map of my constituency, I saw that areas surrounding Limavady, Dungiven and Magilligan Point were marked in red, which means that there is limited outdoor and indoor phone network coverage, whilst access to 3G and 4G Internet is almost non-existent.
Drawing his remarks to a close, Mr Mullan said : “I understand that DETI, in collaboration with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had intended to improve service through a mobile infrastructure project with £150 million earmarked to improve mobile phone coverage to over 60,000 remote areas in the UK.
The people of my constituency need assurances that the superfast broadband scheme will reach them soon and that the mobile phone infrastructure will be progressed in a timely fashion.”