As many as 76,000 properties in Northern Ireland that are currently underserved for internet connectivity will be provided with full fibre broadband as part of a new deal agreed by the country's government.
The Northern Ireland Executive's Department for the Economy (DfE) has confirmed that a £165 million contract for the work has been awarded to alternative broadband provider Fibrus.
This will include a £150 million investment by the UK government, allocated to the DfE as part of the Confidence and Supply Agreement, as well as £15 million to come from Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Fibrous is also expected to make a "substantial investment" to cover build costs.
Economy minister Diane Dodds said the plan, known as Project Stratum, will see full fibre-to-the-premises connectivity provide speeds of up to 1Gbps to 97 per cent of properties in the targeted areas, ensuring that next-generation broadband services will be available to the homes and businesses that need it the most.
The rollout will focus on rural parts of Northern Ireland that may otherwise have missed out on purely commercial efforts to build out broadband infrastructure, helping to unlock the full economic and social potential of these locations.
Chair of Fibrus Conal Henry said: "This investment enables towns, villages and rural communities to change the narrative, keep people and communities connected and facilitate the increasing demand for working and studying at home.
"The benefits of full fibre broadband are more relevant now in a Covid context than ever before."
He added that Fibrus has already invested £65 million to bring full fibre connectivity to regional towns in locations such as South Down, Mid Ulster and North Antrim. The new partnership will bring the total investment in Fibrus' Northern Ireland network to £350 million over the next four years.
Ms Dodds said she was pleased to have signed the contract with Fibrus after what was described as a "competitive and very robust procurement process." Work on the scheme is scheduled to begin immediately and be completed by March 2024.
The agreement was also welcomed in Westminster, with UK digital minister Oliver Dowden noting it will ensure rural towns and villages are not left behind in the transition to ultrafast connectivity services.
He added: "With Fibrus on board, we can bring the benefits of next generation broadband speeds to tens of thousands of homes and businesses - helping people work remotely, take advantage of new tech and boost economic productivity."
The news will certainly be a boost for rural parts of Northern Ireland, and may also help cement the country's position as the UK's leading nation for full fibre rollouts. According to figures from Ofcom, almost half of premises in Northern Ireland (41 per cent) were already able to access full fibre services as of May 2020.
This compares to just 14 per cent for the UK as a whole. The figures for other parts of the union are 15 per cent for Wales and 13 per cent for both England and Scotland.