A DELEGATION from Cookstown District Council travelled to Belfast on Monday 5 September 2011 to meet with the Enterprise Minister, Mrs Arlene Foster, MLA, to discuss a range of telecoms deficiencies in the Cookstown District.
The delegation included Councillor Sean Clarke, Council Chairman, Councillor Sam Glasgow, Councillor Ian McCrea, MLA and Councillor James McGarvey, together with Council Officers, Adrian McCreesh, Director of Development, and Fiona McKeown, Economic Development Manager.
Accompanying the Council representatives, were a number of rural business representatives, namely Mr Ronald Turkington, Turksystems, Mr Eugene Carson, Ardboe Coldstore and Mr Michael McCrory (Transoft International).
In his opening address, the Council Chairman indicated that there were a number of serious telecommunications deficiencies in the Cookstown District currently being experienced by local residents and businesses. He added that whilst there have been some telecoms improvements in recent times, these did not adequately address the systemic broadband problems that continue to blight the Cookstown District.
Fiona McKeown, Council’s Economic Development Manager then presented a report, outlining the key gaps in telecommunications provision in the Cookstown District.
Ms McKeown highlighted that Cookstown District Council has been at the forefront in lobbying for improved broadband services for the District for some years now. She indicated that Council has gathered a strong evidence base to make representation for improvements to the existing broadband services across the District.
Ms McKeown added that the District has the highest percentage of homes with broadband speeds not achieving 2Mbits, and has the second slowest connection speeds across the entire UK. She outlined that some of the key problems arise from Cookstown not being situated on the ‘Saturn Ring’, the high capacity fibre optic backbone network used by a number of major telecoms operators, nor has the area a direct fibre link to Project Kelvin, the high speed fibre connection to the UK, Europe and US markets.
Additionally, Ms McKeown stated that a recent broadband survey completed by Council, provided strong evidence that rural businesses and residents are experiencing acute broadband difficulties. From the 187 respondents, 30% indicate they still cannot obtain broadband, 65% report extremely poor speeds, and 46% give an account of a regular loss of service.
From the findings, Ms McKeown indicated that serious broadband problems still remain, particularly in rural communities. She explained that immediate and urgent action is required by DETI to improve the broadband services in rural areas, where 65% of local residents live, and 80% of indigenous businesses are located. Further information on Council’s broadband survey can be obtained in the ‘Latest News and Events Section’ of Council’s website at www.cookstown.gov.uk
Finally, Ms McKeown outlined a series of recommendations for the Minister’s consideration, including the need for:- A direct fibre link to Project Kelvin from Cookstown.
Improved telecoms services to match Cookstown’s Sub-Regional Centre Status, as defined in the draft Regional Development Strategy.
Ring-fencing future broadband funding to priority regions such as Cookstown District, having the slowest broadband speeds across the UK. Prioritising improvements to broadband services in the rural areas, as highlighted by Council’s survey.
Extending the Fibre to the Cabinet Roll-out into Rural Areas where not-spots and extremely poor speeds exist and improvements to mobile phone coverage.
Three local business representatives Mr Ronald Turkington (Turksystems), Mr Eugene Carson (Ardboe Coldstore) and Mr Michael McCrory (Transoft International), then reported individually on how the lack of an adequate broadband service is impacting upon each of their businesses.
One of the companies noted that they had made a sizeable investment in an on-line warehouse management system to give customers remote access to stock data, but their broadband connection is insufficient to allow this to happen. Another representative advised that he works as an IT Consultant for an international currency management company and requires a reliable and good quality broadband service, as he trades on-line, but recently his broadband service was down for an entire month, which meant he had to relocate his business temporarily in order to stay operational.
The Council representatives joined together to request the Enterprise Minister, Mrs Arlene Foster MLA, to focus her Department’s future broadband funding in areas which are poorly served, such as the Cookstown District.
Evidence clearly exists documenting the District’s inferior and inadequate broadband services and Council Members called for the introduction of a modern fit-for-purpose telecommunications solution. They highlighted that unless this was achieved, the Cookstown District would only suffer from greater levels of ‘digital exclusion’ and fall further behind in terms of accessing next generation telecoms services.
Members thanked Minister Foster MLA, and her team for meeting with the Cookstown delegation and signalled their willingness to work closely with her Department to improve the quality of broadband service provision in the Cookstown District as a matter of urgency.
Minister Foster, MLA, concluded the meeting by giving an undertaking that her Department would review each of the telecoms issues raised within Council’s report, and provide a full written response in the coming weeks. In the interim period, Council has sought an urgent meeting with Ofcom, the independent telecommunications regulator, to discuss the key telecoms deficiencies in the District.