Belfast's Broad Horizons: In Recent Times, Northern Ireland Has Been Troubled by Social Exclusion. but Thanks to New Technology, the Future Looks Brighter
Sheridan, Gavin, New Statesman (1996)
"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 future--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 [pounds sterling]10 per month. …