In recent years I’ve been involved in business discussions around the technology and infrastructure of optical fibre – the foundation of broadband connection to homes and businesses across the country.
Too much of investment in fibre upgrade is piecemeal; an approach wholly inadequate towards making a step change that would transform the potential of a region such as Northern Ireland.
Recently I started to write a policy paper. I live close to the North Coast and wanted to initiate a discussion on investment at a strategic level, with a vision for a digital Causeway 2.0. This was inspired by being reminded that Coleraine was an entry point for the black fibre of Kelvin; the single fastest data transfer route between continental Europe and North America. Project Kevin allows data to cross the Atlantic in 0.066 of a second. There is a second similar link not far down the coast at Ballykelly.
The current definition of ‘superfast broadband’ within current Government ambitions is not that super, or fast; download speeds need only be at least 24 megabits per second (Mbps).
The next generation of digital entrepreneur and future business requirements need to have gigabit broadband capacity on hand and ready to use. This is already becoming a standard in South Korea. It is where the future will be in a connected world. The Kelvin links seemed to provide the catalyst for a Causeway 2.0 plan, a gigabit economy – a Silicon Coast.
If combined with new expansive Enterprise Zones, at Ballykelly and the Coleraine Campus of the University of Ulster, and with an aggressive marketing international marketing programme there was potential in the concept. City Deal and DCMS Local Full Fibre Network programmes offered the possibility of gignificant investment towards implementation.
What wasn’t anticipated in thinking about a gigabit fired Causeway 2.0 was the state of far more basic Northern Ireland infrastructure.
Northern Ireland’s electricity power supply is unstable and insecure, generally. A 2017 House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Report lays out all the issues – and there are many. A taster by way of example: “Northern Ireland is anticipated to fall into a generation supply deficit in 2021. In order to invest, generators require long-term policy clarity from the NI Executive and a clearer idea of how they will be compensated through the new Integrated Single Electricity Market.”
Specific to Causeway Coast & Glens, and more generally across the wider area including Derry City Council, is the inability to assure businesses that require stable and secure power supply, such as data centres and high-end users of data services, that Northern Ireland electricity infrastructure is guaranteed to meet their needs.
In an even worse state is the infrastructure of NI Water. From Londonderry to Ballycastle water treatment works are at, or near, capacity. Reports from those involved in housing and business development in the Limavady area are already being told they can’t proceed without new investment in water infrastructure. That is probably the case in towns across Northern Ireland if the last NI Water Annual Report (2018/19, page 34) is to be believed. A NI Water phrase is “drains before cranes” – talk about City Deals is all very well, but the full potential is unrealisable without the groundwork – investment in the infrastructure underlying construction and development.
We simply can’t imagine a local digital economy that would be competitive in a digital world when the basics – power and water – are in such poor shape. Indeed, we have to question any politician who talks about future economic development when the fundamentals simply aren’t being addressed; strategic decisions, essential to our future, are being ignored. No wonder economic development is piecemeal – we have limited capacity to do anything more.
Some might blame three years without Stormont for the failure to address these fundamentals of strategic infrastructure. Some might blame austerity. Some might blame the stop/go from 1998 to 2007. Some might blame the recent conflict that saw funds poured into just keeping the country afloat.
When all is said and done, politicians can point blame at many things in the past, but that is no excuse as to why these issues are not topping the priorities for attention now. At least there was a passing nod to investing in waste water services in the New Decade New Approach document – for which no funding was secured to deliver that launch towards a new Northern Ireland Executive.
Fundamental infrastructure improvement, the basics of water and electricity, is essential for any prosperous economic future – we can’t even start to imagine a digital future if we struggle on analog.
There are governance issues in how that investment is managed going forward – NI Water is probably incapable while a public sector one-year budget focused organisation. What we need to achieve secure and stable electricity supply is political clarity and regulatory authority working to a common long-term plan of what is required, and how to make that happen.
What started as an exercise in the imagining a gigabit future brought me back to the hard realities of the poor state of our basic infrastructure that we take too much for granted.
Instead of laughing at Boris’s bridge, or indulging the idea as having great merit, perhaps step one is banking the idea that infrastructure is essential and can be transformative. However, to imagine something transformative, we need to get address fundamentals. If there is to be investment in infrastructure, in Northern Ireland it needs to start with the basics.