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Our digital economy rests upon a vast infrastructure of broadband lines and transmitter masts.
No wonder the £57bn communications sector is the second largest in the economy. People of all ages rely on these networks for shopping, entertainment, and to stay in touch with friends and family. Companies of all sizes need them to do business. They are the essential tools of the information age – central to modern finance, healthcare, transport and agriculture.
As communications play an increasingly critical role in our lives, the supporting infrastructure must keep pace with the needs of people and businesses.
Part of Ofcom’s role is to help ensure people across the UK can access a decent internet service, watch TV and make phone calls where and when they need to.
Over the last decade Northern Ireland’s digital infrastructure has significantly improved, but there are some areas that still don't have an acceptable level of service.
While challenges remain in extending coverage to harder-to-reach areas, continued investment by communications providers and government means more people than ever before in Northern Ireland now have access to high speed fixed-line and mobile services.
Broadband and fixed telephone services typically rely upon a fixed connection from the local telephone exchange to a home or business premises. This is known as the ‘access network’. In most areas there are only one or two physical networks that provide this connection, usually they belong to BT or Virgin Media.
In the past, BT’s network used a copper connection between the customer’s premises and a local exchange. This copper phone line was usually carried by a combination of telegraph poles, underground ducts and street cabinets.
BT has been upgrading its access network by introducing fibre connections. This usually involves deploying fibre between local exchanges and street cabinets to make a fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) network, with copper still used between the street cabinet and the customer’s premises.
The distance between your house and the nearest fibre-enabled cabinet or exchange can have an impact on your broadband speed. As the broadband signal travels along the copper line, it becomes weaker and this slows down the broadband speed. So, the longer the copper line, the slower your broadband.
In a growing number of cases BT is deploying fibre to the premises (FTTP), which removes the need for a copper connection, even to the cabinet.
Virgin Media’s access network is different: it provides a connection between a customer’s premises and a street cabinet using a coaxial cable to support TV and broadband. This network also has a twisted copper cable to support standard telephones. Virgin Media then uses fibre rings to connect the street cabinets to a hub site (the cable equivalent to an exchange). Although, Virgin Media is increasingly deploying FTTP in its new network deployment.
With copper-based networks, telecoms providers can offer standard broadband services. With fibre and cable-based networks, telecoms providers can offer superfast or ultrafast broadband services, depending on the technology.
You can check what broadband speed you’re currently getting, and what speed you might get in the future at the NI Broadband website.
Mobile networks require a network of interconnected ‘base stations’, often called masts. The masts transmit and receive radio signals to provide voice and data services – usually called 2G, 3G or 4G.
When you make a call on your mobile phone or tablet, your call is transmitted as a radio signal to the nearest mast. From there the call is carried back over the network of masts to a switching site where it connects to the network of the person you are calling, and that may be a fixed-line or mobile network.
A mobile mast covers a limited geographic area and can only handle a limited amount of traffic at any one time. Mobile devices are relatively short-range devices and so masts need to be sited close to where people live, work and travel.
Mobile networks are made up of a mix of several types of base stations: freestanding masts, rooftop equipment and sometimes lamppost-style masts or even indoor transmitters the size of a standard modem or router.
You can check the check indoor/outdoor mobile coverage and availability for voice, 3G and 4G services from all major providers on the Ofcom website.
Digital television services can be received in three ways: via satellite, cable or TV aerial. This last platform is Digital Terrestrial Television – more commonly known as ‘Freeview’.
There are 46 TV transmitters across Northern Ireland broadcasting the Freeview service. Of these, 43 are TV ‘relay’ transmitters, which provide terrestrial TV to communities where signals from the three primary TV transmitter masts – Divis Mountain, Limavady, and Brougher Mountain – are not available. Across the whole UK, there are 80 primary transmitters, and around 1,000 relays which typically serve relatively small areas.
Relay transmitters carry fewer channels than primary transmitters. This is because when the digital TV switchover took place, only the public service broadcasters (the BBC, ITV/UTV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) were required to match the near-universal coverage of their former analogue channels. Therefore, relay masts only carry services from the public service broadcasters. All relays transmit around 18 standard TV channels, and a further six high definition channels can be received by relay viewers who have Freeview HD TV equipment. The three primary transmitters carry the full range of around 70 TV channels.
You can check the predicted Freeview coverage and the channels available at your address on the Digital UK website.
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