”I love this title – Towards a Better Britain,” exclaimed Barry Gardiner MP in Belfast, at the second in a series of New Statesman/BT round tables on broadband taking place across the regions and nations of the UK. Gardiner is a broadband evangelist, and recently assumed ministerial responsibility for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) in Northern Ireland.
Broadband, he believes, might have the same economic and social significance as the electrification of the north roughly 80 years ago. Who would have thought that electricity would bring about such conveniences as dishwashers and television, he asked – and hence, who knows what applications broadband might bring in 80 years’ time?
It is a pertinent question for Northern Ireland, a region with its fair share of social, geographic and economic problems to tackle. For much of its recent history, Northern Ireland has been synonymous with social exclusion, sectarianism and violence, but much has changed in the past few years. It is now keenly looking to the fut-ure – and has figures to prove it. Employment is the highest since records began. Unemployment is not only lower than in Scotland, the north-east of England, the West Midlands and London, but is 2.8 per cent below the EU average. Northern Ireland is performing well, and seems poised to build on its gains.
The venue for the round table – W5, in the recently built Odyssey arena – is testament to the resurgence of Northern Ireland’s economy. From the arena, it is possible to see the wholesale redevelopment of Belfast City, from apartment blocks to office complexes. The numerous cranes signal Belfast’s continued renewal and growth. And it was the occupants of some of these new premises who, as participants in the round table, were most passionate about the role of broadband in the future of Northern Ireland. In a lively debate, five main issues were raised: coverage, cost, content, speed and spectrum.
Bill Murphy, chief executive of Esat BT and managing director of BT Regions (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), was optimistic about Northern Ireland’s progress on broadband. With the help of the government, BT aims to achieve 100 per cent broadband coverage by April 2005. That does not mean 100 per cent of towns or villages, but that the entire population of Northern Ireland will have access to broadband. This will be achieved by upgrading local telephone exchanges and by providing wireless solutions for rural areas. The issue of cost will also be addressed. Consumers will not pay more to gain access to broadband through wireless technology – all users will be charged one flat monthly fee.
The roll-out of broadband is already picking up speed across Northern Ireland. A year ago, the region was ranked 12th out of 12 in terms of broadband take-up. It now ranks much higher. But Murphy was not complacent. “I will not sleep until we are second or third,” he said.
Bro McFerran, managing director of Northbrook Technology – the largest IT company in Northern Ireland – shared Murphy’s enthusiasm, but was also critical. Broadband availability had enabled his business to expand, he said, but it still proved more expensive to buy bandwidth from Belfast to Derry than from Belfast to Chicago. He argued that cost was the most important issue in the debate, and that businesses in Northern Ireland should pay no more for broadband than companies in other countries. Otherwise, how could Northern Ireland be expected to compete?
Other participants agreed that cost was a critical factor in the take-up of broadband. Anne Conaty, head of telecommunications policy at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, put it simply: there is no point in having 100 per cent coverage of Northern Ireland if people cannot afford it. Ruairi Jennings of NTR Broadband asked at what point residential broadband would become available for less than £10 per month. Denis Wolinski, director of Ofcom (Northern Ireland), drew a parallel between broadband adoption and the take-up of mobile phones in the late 1990s and, more recently, digital satellite television: if prices were right, people would come.
Jimmy Stewart, director of Northern Ireland’s C2k project, felt that a primary concern, and perhaps a primary driver of broadband take-up, should be education. People will not be able to use broadband, not to mention computers, if they do not improve their basic skills. Professor Gerard Parr of the University of Ulster suggested that, in order to deal with the issues of accessibility and cost, current state assets should be made more available for use by local communities. At present, all 1,200 primary, secondary and special schools in Northern Ireland, as well as 126 public libraries, enjoy 2Mbps broadband connections. Parr highlighted that these facilities pretty much shut down at 4pm only to gather dust. Why not use these assets, he suggested, to “stimulate demand and promote awareness”? Gardiner was quick to point out that a project to use schools after hours was currently under way in his own constituency, and that applying such a scheme to Northern Ireland would be considered seriously.
Some participants, including Leslie Orr of Nortel Networks, suggested that Northern Ireland should take the lead in switching off analogue television earlier than the rest of the UK and use the frequencies that such a move would free up to transmit wireless broadband. Using this spare spectrum would open up a raft of possibilities, he argued, as well as make Northern Ireland a world leader. Wolinski responded by saying that Ofcom was “looking at spectrum very closely”.
While many of the participants felt that 100 per cent broadband coverage would be achieved next year as planned, they were less sure about the content to which people would gain access through it, and particular concerns were raised about protecting minors from inappropriate material. In response to questions about content, Anna Carragher, controller of BBC Northern Ireland, outlined a range of projects. These include making large portions of the BBC’s archive available for download. Broadband would be vital to anyone wishing to access such material. Carragher also highlighted the concept of ultra-local television, with community involvement in production. There is huge appetite is for such projects, she said, and broadband will play a significant role in creating such content.
Bruce Robinson, permanent secretary at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, caused quite a stir by suggesting that, in terms of coverage and take-up, the job was pretty much done. Once 100 per cent coverage was achieved at the 512Kbps rate, the market would dictate take-up, he argued; Northern Ireland is ahead of the game in terms of coverage, and demand will follow as a matter of course. Robinson questioned whether the government should be intervening at all to aid the roll-out and take-up of broadband.
This was met with incredulity by several participants, notably Richard Sterling, president of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, who insisted that the region’s peripheries required intervention to drive take-up. And Murphy argued that, without such intervention, the target of 100 per cent coverage could not be met. Orr also took issue with Robinson’s comments, pointing out that 512Kbps was only a first step, and that broader-band networks would have to be rolled out later.
Gardiner was unmoved by the criticism and remained as enthusiastic as ever about the future of broadband in Northern Ireland. “This is the most fantastic opportunity . . . Let’s decide that we are going to drive it on.” If Gardiner’s enthusiasm could be bottled and sent to every home, take-up would no longer be an issue. However, it seems the solution will not be quite so simple. By the end of the round table, the overwhelming conclusion was that a great deal had been done, but that there was much still to do.
Anna Carragher Controller, BBC Northern Ireland
Andy Carty Chief executive, Strategic Investment Board Northern Ireland
Anne Conaty Head of telecommunications policy unit, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment
Barry Gardiner Minister for enterprise, trade and investment
Gerry Gault Deputy director of information systems, Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Victor Hewitt Director, Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland
Ruairi Jennings Commercial manager, NTR Broadband
James Kerr (chair) Business and industry editor, BBC
Billy McClean Comm.unity campaign manager, Business in the Community, Northern Ireland
Bill McCluggage Director, Northern Ireland eGovernment Unit
Jim McCusker Member, Economic Development Forum for Northern Ireland
Bro McFerran Managing director, Northbrook Technology of Northern Ireland Ltd
Leslie Morrison Chief executive, Invest Northern Ireland
Bill Murphy Chief executive, Esat BT, and managing director, BT Regions (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales)
Leslie Orr Customer centre manager, Nortel Networks
Gerard Parr Professor of telecommunications engineering, University of Ulster
Bruce Robinson Permanent secretary, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment
Richard Sterling President, Londonderry Chamber of Commerce
Jimmy Stewart Director, C2k
Campbell Tweed President, Ulster Farmers’ Union
Denis Wolinski Director, Ofcom (Northern Ireland)