The unionist party has hit out after Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd questioned the need for public money to be spent on extending high-speed broadband to rural areas through a scheme known as ‘Project Stratum’.
The project, which is worth over £150 million, was rolled out as part of the £1 billion investment deal negotiated by the DUP in return for their ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement to prop up Theresa May’s Conservative government back in 2017.
In December, the Northern Ireland Audit Office put the total value of the project at £165 million.
A total of £150 million was spent by Westminster on the project, with £15 million coming from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs at Stormont.
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In a meeting of the Stormont economy committee on Wednesday, Mr O’Dowd questioned whether any public money should have spent on the project at all – drawing ire from DUP MLA Peter Weir who accused the republican party of a “disgraceful” attitude to broadband access.
It is the latest in a long line of rows over public money between the two parties, and comes amid an ongoing dispute over a draft budget plan.
The budget row comes after Sinn Fein Finance Minister Conor Murphy said the DUP’s decision to withdraw Paul Givan from the post of first minister means a three-year draft budget can’t progress.
But DUP MLA Keith Buchanan accused the minister of “amnesia”, highlighting that Sinn Fein pulled down the administration in 2017 and left the Province without a budget.
The two parties have also clashed in recent days on funding for a project to revamp sports stadiums.
On the rural broadband project, Mr O’Dowd said: “I’m not convinced public money was needed to invest in this sector.
“I am convinced the outworkings for the public in those houses and businesses who have got it has been lifechanging in many circumstances, and proven very valuable. But given that it’s such a hugely profitable sector I do think that the private sector who are taking it on could have taken on these investments much sooner.”
In a statement, Mr Weir hit back.
“In 2017 the DUP secured £165million funding which is overseeing the roll-out of Next Generation Access broadband to 85,000 properties across Northern Ireland,” the Strangford MLA said.
“It is not just improving speeds, but in many rural areas it is connecting properties that previously couldn’t access any broadband at all.”
He continued: “John O’Dowd’s position at best would have seen thousands of people wait years before securing broadband and at worst would have seen many people never able to access any kind of functioning connection.
“That was reinforced by independent officials who confirmed just how vital this gap funding has been.
“Nearly 3,000 properties across Upper Bann will benefit from this broadband funding. How many of those people would be happy with John O’Dowd’s ‘sit back and do nothing’ policy.”
“The greatest benefits of this project will be seen in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry and Armagh.
“Tens of thousands of people in those areas should bear John O’Dowd’s comments in mind any time they switch an internet-connected device on.
“The DUP wasn’t prepared to sit idly by and wait for companies to decide when or if people could benefit from broadband access. It is the same position we took when public money was used to assist with the extension of the gas pipeline to areas in the west and north west of Northern Ireland.
“Perhaps a video call with John O’Dowd would be the most appropriate way for thousands of people to highlight how disgraceful the Sinn Fein attitude is on broadband access.”
Meanwhile, the firm who won the contract to roll out the infrastructure project – Fibrus – has defended charging customers more on a new rural broadband network than its users in towns and cities.
Wednesday’s committee heard how Fibrus offers the same entry price to all customers in Northern Ireland, but those using the Project Stratum network are unable to avail of the discounts offered to bill payers in urban locations.
The company’s commercial arm is also selling internet packages to newly connected customers on the network.
Away from Project Stratum, Fibrus also offers internet services on other networks across Northern Ireland.
Appearing before the Department for the Economy scrutiny committee on Wednesday, representatives from the company were asked why some customers on the Project Stratum network are paying higher bills than Fibrus customers elsewhere in the Province.
Conal Henry, the co-founder and chair of Fibrus, explained that discounts are offered to customers on more well-established networks because of competition with other service providers and the need to incentivise people to sign up.
Mr Henry said while any service provider is able to operate on the Project Stratum network, competitors have not yet taken that step.
He said in the absence of that competitive dynamic, Fibrus has to be mindful that reducing prices could undermine the overriding aim of the subsidised project – to extend coverage.
“If we reduce the revenue available on the network you increase the amount of subsidy that is required to build that network and the result of that is against policy,” he told MLAs on the committee.