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Connecting the unconnected in West Tyrone

IN today’s world, access to reliable broadband is essential. Much of our lives involves being online whether for work, education or staying connected with friends and family.

However, for many in rural areas this is not always possible because of poor connectivity.

This has been a problem for many years but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the problem into sharp relief as more people are working from home, trying to home school their children or study online.

This has led to issues with children and young people trying to access online education resources and difficulties for parents trying to help them.

With schools likely to remain closed in the immediate future and the possibility of more blended learning and increased use of home schooling, the need for access to reliable broadband becomes all the more pressing.

Local businesses who have had to close because of the necessary Covid restrictions have had difficulties applying for financial support schemes online and others who have tried to switch their businesses online to protect jobs, have struggled with connectivity issues.

If businesses are to be competitive then they need to have better connectivity.

It has also led to increased isolation as people, including older people who have been unable to see relatives and loved ones because of the Covid restrictions have found it hard to speak with them online because of poor internet connections.

The pandemic has exposed the digital divide in the north between rural and urban areas. In areas such as Dromore, Trillick, and the Sperrins, the problem is so bad that getting online can be almost impossible. That cannot be allowed to continue.

The Executive has committed to addressing this and is rolling out a strategy, known as Project Stratum, to improve access to broadband in rural communities.

It’s a £350 million project aimed to deliver better connectivity across the north, particularly to rural areas and will deliver full fibre, superfast broadband of speeds of 30mbs to 76,000 premises across the North.

The contract for Project Stratum has been awarded to Fibrus Network Ltd and Sinn Féin has met their senior Executives to discuss how this will be rolled out locally.

West Tyrone has been specifically recognised as somewhere where improvements are urgently needed and in recent correspondence with the Economy Minister we have established that almost 10,000 premises in the Omagh and Strabane districts will be connected to superfast broadband during 2022 and 2023.

We have also urged the Department for the Economy to work with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport at Westminster to make sure that areas which currently fall outside the Project Stratum intervention area are reached with superfast broadband.

We recognise that there are many ‘not-spots’ and areas where broadband is weak or non-existent and we continue to lobby the various departments and broadband providers to improve connectivity while Project Stratum is rolled out to your area.

My party colleague Declan McAleer recently tabled a public petition in The Assembly demanding better broadband for the Sperrins, while my colleague Maolíosa McHugh MLA recently lobbied the DAERA Minister for a broadband scheme to assist rural students to take part in remote learning on the same basis as their peers.

The lack of access to a reliable broadband connection has also led to a lack of devices for many people. This is a serious problem for children and young people in particular as they may not have access to devices such as laptops and tablets to allow them to access online learning.

We have called on the Education Minister to bid for more money to deliver devices to those who need them most so that their learning is not disrupted through lack of access.

Increased broadband connectivity and speeds are essential but these should not come at an increased cost to consumers. Those living in rural areas should not have to pay more for their broadband.

The delivery of improved internet connectivity is a priority for Sinn Féin and we will continue to raise this in the Assembly, in local councils and with the broadband providers until the people of West Tyrone get the broadband they deserve.

– Nicola Brogan MLA

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