Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Reflections on Ofcom's 2014 Communications Market Report for Northern Ireland

Over the summer Ofcom published their 2014 Communications Market Report (CMR), an annual snapshot of communications, broadcast, digital media and postal markets. [I’ve a habit of blogging about the CMR report every year.]

Earlier today, an Ofcom seminar explored some of the Northern Ireland-specific aspects of the research and invited discussion. In the end, those present focussed almost solely on digital media literacy and the state of local and devolved government websites and their ease of access to online and offline users. I’ll return to that subject, but first some comments on some findings in the report that the room didn’t want to focus on!


CMR2014 provides evidence to back up what we all know. More and more people are using more and more of the internet on the move. A consequence of this is that websites that aren’t responsive or tailored for phones, phablets and tablets see their usage go down.

Over the last two years, tablet ownership in NI has risen from 9% to 29% and up to 45%.

Smartphone ownership jumped 10% up to 55% in a year as old mobile plans finish and upgrade cycles leave few alternatives to ‘smart’ mobiles. But beware a digital notspot is opening up of people who can’t afford or can’t manage smartphones. Consumer plans are not cheap if you want a modern handset. Online first strategies by public and private sectors can never fully replace Human-to-human interfaces. Citizen Advice Bureaux and libraries have a role. However, it’ll take pubs, schools, third sector organisations, churches and frankly everyone in the community to fill the gaps and help.

Accidental border roaming is still a thing. For me, Three Free at Home is a godsend for roaming. I’m only interested in data. But voice, texts, data used as if you were at home in Ireland, France, Switzerland, US, and 12 other countries. Hopefully a disruptive offering that spreads.

3G coverage is Northern Ireland has always lagged behind Great Britain. At the same conference last year I’m pretty sure I bemoaned how poorly mobile companies were treating NI customers. A single UK-wide coverage target for 3G operators frankly did nothing to encourage rollout in NI. In the last year our 3G coverage has risen from 61.9% to 82.1% … largely on the back of 4G rollout and the rollout of new masts.

4G licenses for traditional operators came with regional targets which will help, though they’ll only be measured at a point in the future, many years into the licence. Definitely more carrot than persuasive stick.
  • 79.2% of premises in Northern Ireland have outdoor 4G coverage.
  • Well above the UK average of 73% and miles above Scotland 57% and Wales 45%.
  • That’s must be mostly down to EE who have reached 72% of premises in NI in a year (over a third of NI geographically). Frankly, that’s outstanding.
  • O2 went live during the summer; Vodafone seem to be active too. With shared masts – like the one outside my house – their 4G coverage is in a belt that basically covers Belfast, Lisburn, Castlereagh and parts of North Down councils. Nothing in Derry.
  • Three are promising to hit Ballymena, Belfast, Lisburn and some other locations by the end of the year, but not Derry or Newry.
  • It’s not all good for EE. My mobile SIM switched from Vodafone network to EE yesterday and at home in Lisburn I’ve gone from great Vodafone signal (the mast is literally a stone’s throw away) to a really weak EE signal that barely supports EDGE.
Shared infrastructure brings its own consumer challenges. When you're inside your house with the windows closed and can clearly hear the fans of the grey base-station cabinet on the other side of the street, there are no phone numbers, no operator names, and no markings on the boxes. O2 picked up a tweet about the fault, Vodafone didn't take any interest. A third party firm installs and maintains them and ended up sending someone over from Scotland the next week to scratch their heads and ponder why the fans were all running at full speed.


I got my first DAB radio at the end of 2000. A Psion Wavefinder. I brought it with me as a prop to the Ofcom seminar, but it remained on the stage under my chair as the conversation never made it to radio! Psion reckoned it would be a design icon. Still looks better than most DAB sets. Unfortunately, it was a struggle to use beyond Windows XP Service Pack 1.
  • There weren’t a lot of stations on DAB to listen to in NI back then.
  • 14 years later there is a noticeable improvement in the number of stations, and the variety of coverage.
  • However, quality [which was always a point of debate even back then] has tanked, with commercial channels squeezing two mono music channels into the space of a single stereo channel.
  • DAB has really turned into digital AM … with bigger batteries.
  • I drive a small car, a Toyota Aygo. The new totally revamped Aygo was launched this summer. It’s got a touch screen, sat nav, go faster stripes. But the basic model doesn’t have DAB. Nor the next model up. Only when you get near the top of the price range is a DAB set provided.
  • DAB radio is still seen as a costly gimmick.
DAB radio ownership in Northern Ireland was 19% five years ago, 28% three years ago [some kind of survey blip?] down to 24% last year and now back to 30%.
  • Way below the UK average of 44% and rising slower than Scotland and Wales who have already caught up with England. We’re behind and will get further behind.
31 DAB stations (13 BBC, 18 commercial) now that the national commercial multiplex has been extended to NI. Only 4 local commercial stations on DAB. Barrier of entry (financial and technical) needs to fall.

There’s good news with improvement in some receivers that present themselves as radio tuners and make no distinction between bands. You flick between FM and DAB and internet-streamed channels by turning the dial, oblivious to the distinction between the frequency band or transport medium. Good audio sells; DAB on its own will not.

There have been some improvements in DAB transmitters and coverage.
  • BBC transmitters in Ballycastle, Bangor and Newtownards … though they won’t help DAB reception Radio Ulster (the biggest station in the country by some measures) since it’s on the commercial multiplex.
  • But will Radio Foyle ever make it onto the DAB platform?

With DAB growing slowly, equipment that’s been on kitchen worktops for 10 years may start to fail. There may be an upgrade cycle. Which is good news for trials of DAB+ (which offers better compression and ultimately offers more channels in the same frequency allocation); the introduction of a new (dare I say, better) standard that isn’t supported by early DAB receivers may not be quite so consumer unfriendly.

Community radio is still alive with 12 station in NI still broadcasting. But the going is tough. Thirteen months after further licences awarded in June 2013, none of the new stations are on air.


Northern Ireland households continue to value satellite as the main TV platform.
  • 52% of households in NI; up to 56% in rural areas.
  • (Overall NI is 11% above UK average of 41%).
  • Reflects cable network rollout being less pervasive in NI.
  • Not great news for a community TV station like NVTV which launched on Monday on channel 8 Freeview, Channel 159 on Virgin Media, but not on satellite. Only 41% of households (assuming Belfast largely follows the NI trend) primarily use Freeview (33%) and Cable (8%). Some will find NVTV online.

From memory, NI were quick on the uptake of HD television sets. But with that upgrade done, we’re thran when it comes to investing in smart TV sets. Wise in my opinion given the many competing standards, support and apps. Purchase levels are much lower than GB and rising more slowly.

We hold our own with levels of online TV/video watching.

In terms of share, the report shows NI as the only nation with share of the 5 PSB channels (BBC1, 2, channel 3/UTV, Channel 4 and Five) less than half (49%).
  • Regionally, London only area with lower share (46%).
  • I wouldn’t panic. Lies, dammed lies and statistics.
  • If you were to view RTE as PSB – but data not directly available as BARB TV monitoring doesn’t include RTE - then I reckon Northern Ireland’s PSB share would be higher and out of the comment zone.
  • However, there is a general trend that Wales, Scotland and NI have less viewing of the ‘establishment’ channels than English regions. And if you view London as a very diverse city with many people living and working there but not born there, perhaps that explains London’s overall lack of connection with the establishment too?
  • Ofcom NI’s James Stinson also pointed to the very different picture if PSB broadcaster’s overall family of channels are added into the mix. Adding in BBC 3, 4, CBeebies, CBBC, news, Parliament, E4, Move4, 5 USA etc means that the PSB broadcasters still have the lion’s share of viewing.
I’m been off the BBC Audience Council for two and a half years now, so I’m rusty. But from a BBC licence fee perspective, the figures look like Scotland and Wales continue to hit the network production targets more consistently than Northern Ireland.

While I’ve heard a spirited defence, I worry when the studio and crew of a series like Sunday Live moves to London that the production roles remaining behind are still valuable, but capacity and reputation is not being built in the sustainable manner that was intended. Network production in the nations is not yet working as intended.


There’s an annex to the CMR report that looks at adult media literacy.

One disturbing chart shows claimed hours of internet usage a week.
  • Across the UK 16.9 hours but only 13.8 hours in Northern Ireland.
  • Home usage down at 10.1 hours (against 11.2 hours UK). Not too significant.
  • The big drop is usage at work or place of education, down from 4.0 hours nationally to 2.4 hours in NI. That's NI running 40% below UK average.
  • Despite the talk of the internet freeing us from our desks, rural digital hubs, the knowledge economy, Project Kelvin’s fast fibre optic link to North America, we’re either not as addicted (hard to believe) or behind in exploiting the opportunities.
Shrinking from 26 to 11 district councils (one aspect of the Reform of Public Administration) is a huge opportunity to revamp the accessibility of local government services and have a much more level playing field, sharing applications and services across councils. (After all, rates do affect the housing market, but not as much as they should.)
  • I see little public effort being made to develop local government service frameworks that could be adopted by all 11 councils to cheaply offer the services that larger (and more go-ahead) councils have implemented. And the facilities offered by the NI Direct portal fall far short of Gov.UK.
  • As my generation grows old and the one behind adopt Google Glass and are glued to screens, the pattern of phone calls to access services needs to efficiently move online.
Ofcom’s Digital Quotient research [you can still take the test] suggests that children between the ages of 6 and 7 on average have a higher digital confidence than adults between the ages of 45 and 49.

(At the moment, peak confidence is at ages 14-15.) I’d argue that standard deviation for the 45-49 year old bracket (and the subsequent age categories too) will be such that the quotient ranges are very wide.

With a subset of the population unable or unwilling to take advantage of online service provision, they must not be left behind, even in an age of austerity and taking people out of the loop.

The Millennium Generation have been blessed with new technology!

Lastly I note that Northern Ireland is falling behind contributing to Wikipedia. There is a twitter account @StormontEdits that should automatically tweets when someone up at Stormont modifies a page on Wikipedia – could be for a good reason or could be for a less. Looks like our shared wiki future is some way off.

- - -

Several parts of this afternoon’s discussion took my mind back to a week spent in Louisville, Kentucky just over two years ago. Part of a group of eleven from NI/RoI on a US State Department-sponsored Boston College-organised study trip about e-Governance, we visited a community broadband organisation Connect Kentucky. Broadband penetration in rural parts of the Kentucky state were appalling with huge gaps in provision due to cost and lack of commercial return.

When Louisville Free Public Library flooded, the opportunity was taken by its director Craig Buthod to convert space on the first floor into adult literacy classrooms and a jobs/CV club with staff teaching adult to read, and helping them prepare application forms to seek employment. The library was a place of learning and opportunity. Libraries NI do a little of this, but like bank branches, the library network is shrinking. Ahoghill no longer has a library. Nor a Citizens Advice Bureau. But it does have a health centre and pubs.

My third memory from Kentucky was a visit to the state capital in Frankfort. A very small IT team were truly agile, churning out new state government web services and citizen journeys, taking weeks to implement and deploy new applications for the Commonwealth of Kentucky that could also be reused in frameworks shared with other states.

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