Broadband speeds in parts of rural Newry and Armagh are akin to basic computer game speeds of more than 30 years ago.
Businesses are suffering, families and students are at their wits end and promise after promise has been made to no avail.
Questions have also been raised as to why constituents should have to pay some of the big providers the fees they do for a service which is far inferior to that which other areas are enjoying.
The issue again came before the Northern Ireland Assembly today (Tuesday), the last debate before Stormont was officially dissolved, and sponsored by Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy.
All of the main parties had their tuppence worth in the chamber this evening.
But one image which really brought it home was that painted by the SDLP MLA Justin McNulty.
He said: “I remember, as a child, Santa bringing me and my brothers and sisters a Spectrum 48K. The first game that we played on that Spectrum 48K was ‘Horace Goes Skiing’.
“We used to load the game from a cassette tape, and the game loaded over three or four minutes. In my home on Aghmakane Road, the download speed is equivalent to loading ‘Horace Goes Skiing’.”
All four parties spoke, their local representatives quoting from correspondences received on the difficulties experienced right across the constituency.
It was a unifying issue for once in the chamber, with all expressing the constant stories and anecdotal evidence brought to them, and which they will be hearing more of on the impending election trail.
Mr McNulty said:”I know of many communities in Newry and Armagh where 90% of the premises have less than a 10 megabits per second download speed. The Department for the Economy is creating pockets of disadvantage that did not even exist 10 years ago.
“It is well for the Minister sitting up there in Strangford, where the download speeds are second only to those in Belfast. Broadband is not a luxury; it is a necessity for modern life. Young primary-school children and students at university need access to broadband. If a householder wants to do online shopping or banking or keep up to date with work, they need access to broadband. Indeed, the farmer who wants to complete his or her single farm payment application online needs access to broadband.
“Small businesses in rural communities are struggling to survive using current broadband download speeds. I know of one business near Madden in County Armagh that is competing on a global playing pitch, innovating beyond belief on an annual basis and growing its workforce, but is being held back by a lack of broadband provision.
“I have met many of these people. They are deeply frustrated, to the point at which they are fed up with announcement after announcement about investments in broadband, only to be told, “Oh, sorry, that doesn’t impact on you”.
“I am talking about people on Ballyscandal Road or Battleford Road in Tullysaran; Mullan Road, Tynan; Slaterock Road, Granemore; Drumgreenagh Road, Madden; Tullyah Road, Beleeks; Dundrum Road, Tassagh; Tandragee Road, Portadown; Listrakelt Road, Derrynoose; Lake Road, Cullyhanna; Ballydogherty Road, Lissummon; Skeriff Road, Cullyhanna; Polkone Road and Glenmore Road, Aughanduff; and the Tullyherron Road, between Whitecross and Mountnorris. I can go on and on and on.
Ulster Unionist MLA Danny Kennedy said a “serious deficit exists in the quality of broadband offered to rural areas” of Newry and Armagh.
“This situation is also prevalent in other rural areas of Northern Ireland,” he added. “People in areas such as Lissummon, Ballygorman, Cladymilltown, Altnamackan, Loughgall, Mullaghglass and countless others, unfortunately, all of which are located in my constituency, find themselves in a position currently where they are provided with little or no effective broadband provision.
“Whilst there has been an indication that some postcodes located in those areas will be included in future broadband improvement projects, the reality is that many families and business owners who reside in those areas have no confidence in the ability of the Executive or of BT, as the network supplier, to deliver on their promise to provide the necessary improvements required.”
Quoting from examples – including the family who can only talk to their son in Canada with no picture on Skype – Mr Kennedy added: “We are living in an age where the world is heavily dependent on digital services. Frankly, it is not acceptable that so many households in my constituency, and across Northern Ireland, find themselves at a clear disadvantage to others as a consequence of being unable to avail of high-quality broadband provision.”
DUP MLA William Irwin spoke of the approaches which had been made to the big companies and the work done by the local representatives in bringing the issue constantly to the Assembly.
But he added: “The bottom line remains that, in most rural areas, fibre to a cabinet with copper from the cabinet to the home is completely inadequate over any reasonable distance and delivers a very slow speed, to the point at which internet access is almost non-existent. This ineffective service means that, for families, businesses and anyone who relies heavily on the internet, any online activity is extremely difficult and protracted.
“I have had many people contact me to state that, on countless occasions, when online for banking, shopping or business ordering, a programme crashes or takes so long to load that the process is unworkable. That situation needs to change.”
Sinn Fein MLA Cathal Boylan said that over recent years the Assembly had given money to try to address the not spots right across rural areas.
He added: “As recently as 20 January, residents across Armagh city received a letter stating that the superfast broadband team was ‘delighted’ to tell them that superfast broadband was now available on their street. The team had checked the speed line, and certain urban areas could get up to 79 megabytes. Urban settings have been availing themselves of quality broadband for a number of years, so this is no news to us.
“When we agreed on wanting to go forward to address the issue of broadband — Mr Kennedy has been here on a number of occasions, as has Mr Irwin — the whole idea of the schemes was that they were about rural broadband.”
Mr Boylan quoted the experiences of a woman who lives at Armagh Road in Newtownhamilton, who is registered to go on to the Newtownhamilton line, and the box is eight kilometres away.
He added: “That does not give her access to suitable broadband. Openreach has been out to get her connected on three separate occasions. Each time the engineers called out, they advised her that she is better off getting connected to the Keady line, which is only three kilometres away. Still and all, she is three kilometres from the nearest line, but she would not get a connection. For some reason or other, unbeknownst to me, no matter how many times you contact BT, she cannot be connected to that line.”
Economy Minister Simon Hamilton gave an update, saying his department is managing a contract for the delivery of the superfast rollout programme, which, by December 31, will “provide access to superfast broadband with speeds of at least 24 megabits per second to a further 38,000 premises, both business and residential, across Northern Ireland, including in the Newry and Armagh constituency”.
And he added: “Under those recent initiatives, work has led to broadband improvement work at 169 exchanges across Northern Ireland, many of which are in the Newry and Armagh constituency.”
Mr Hamilton referred to Ofcom’s report that 28% of rural and 1% of urban premises in Northern Ireland cannot achieve speeds of 10 megabits per second or better.
He added: “That is largely due to Northern Ireland premises having some of the longest line lengths in the UK as a result of population spread. However, Ofcom does add that the deployment of my Department’s superfast programme will change that landscape rapidly. It is anticipated that, by the time those projects have completed, some 87% of premises across Northern Ireland will have access to superfast broadband services compared with 77% when the project began.”
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