Northern Ireland to roll out universal broadband coverage

A multimillion pound investment aims to ensure that Northern Ireland is first to cross the finish line in the race for 100 percent broadband availability

The Northern Ireland Executive announced today that it intends to live the dream of 100 percent broadband with the news it has picked BT to supply the high-speed Internet technology to every single home and business in the country.

The contract was awarded by the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) and means BT will ensure 100 percent 512Kbps broadband access for anyone that wants it -- however rural their location -- right across the province by the end of 2005. The deal is a multimillion pound contract but no figure has been disclosed.

The expansion of Northern Ireland's broadband network will be no mean feat -- currently, around 65 percent of the country has access to the high speed service, compared to over 80 percent of mainland Britain.

While Whitehall has drawn criticism for its less than prolific push for greater broadband accessibility, Northern Ireland aims to be a broadband tiger. Last year, it set a handful of aggressive targets for broadband accessibility, including 20 percent take-up by businesses and 12 percent by homes by the end of next year and to be the first UK region to have 100 percent accessibility.

Announcing the move towards universal broadband coverage, Ian Pearson, minister for enterprise, trade and investment, said: "By the end of 2005 every household and every business... will have access to broadband at the same price. Local businesses will have the level playing field they need to compete in a global economy."

As well as being a boon to rural Web users, the new scheme must have BT's chief exec polishing his crystal ball. He said in February that universal broadband would only ever get going with government funding and called on regional development agencies to get their wallets out or face an unconquerable digital divide of broadband haves and have-nots.

The drive to be a broadband pioneer won't end when the current target is achieved. The Northern Ireland Executive has also said that it intends to make sure there's universal 2Mbps coverage at "competitive prices" by the end of 2006.

As far back as May, the Executive used the buying power of the public sector to push overall fat pipe availability, using an aggregation scheme. Whitehall announced it was to follow suit earlier this month, with BT making it onto the shortlist of approved bidders.

Universal broadband appears to be a hot issue worldwide. Speaking on Friday, George Bush pledged "universal, affordable access" by 2007 – assuming the Texan wins himself another stint in the White House, of course.