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Infra 2018


Building the future

Access to high quality fixed-line and mobile communications services is increasingly vital for consumers and businesses. Over the last decade there has been extensive development of digital infrastructure networks in Northern Ireland but some areas 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 in Northern Ireland now have access to high speed fixed-line and mobile services than ever before.

Also, the way we build infrastructure is rapidly changing. The emergence of digital technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality, the internet of things and artificial intelligence means that we can deliver smart infrastructure which can better deal with future uncertainties.


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 BT or Virgin Media.

In the past, BT’s network used a copper connection between the customer’s premises and a local exchange. The 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. In general BT has deployed 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 the speed of your broadband connection. This is due to the attenuation of the signal as it travels along the copper phone line, and the broadband signal becomes weaker, so speeds decay as the distance between the premises and the exchange increases.

In a growing number of cases BT is deploying fibre to the premises (FTTP) thus eliminating the need for a copper connection, even to the cabinet.

Virgin Media’s access network architecture 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 pair to support standard telephony. 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 substantial 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 device, such as a 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 is routed onto 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 finite 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. 43 of these 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. The reason for this is that 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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