The policy of the Department is to offer the best quality connectivity to all schools in line with the technical solutions available in the market and financial constraints. Broadband capacity can vary due to geographical location and local infrastructure, and thus impact on the service that can be provided.
Under the current primary schools programme the Department continually reviews the availability of services and upgrades schools where the opportunity arises, in line with contractual and budgetary requirements. A framework involving 14 providers was put in place in 2017 which has ensured improved solutions are available to primary schools and to date, drawdowns from the Framework of Providers of Broadband Services saw some 1,400 primary schools awarded download speeds of 30Mbps or greater (the baseline download speed required under the National Broadband Plan). Those schools have now been upgraded to that connectivity. This represents more than one third of all primary schools. This is a significant improvement over recent years, given that less than 100 primary schools were on those speeds in 2012. Further schools are likely to be upgraded to those speeds in 2019, through EIR's 300K Rural Deployment commitment.
In relation to the school referred to by the Deputy, I have asked my officials to review the service and raise this matter with the existing service provider. If the service provided cannot be upgraded under the existing contractual arrangements, my officials will include this school in the next available mini competition. Through this process, and subject to current contractual arrangements, it may be possible to provide improved service to this school, depending on the locally available infrastructure. The Schools Broadband Service Desk, managed on behalf of my Department by the Professional Development Service for Teachers - Technology in Education, will continue to liaise with the school on this matter.
Currently, 3G/4G services are not available on the DES Schools Broadband Network due to the fact that Service Providers cannot guarantee bandwidth and contention across their networks as outlined in the Department specification of service requirements, and generally their service comes with a restrictive download limit. Connections supplied through the Schools Broadband Network have no download limit, and provide an integrated set of services to schools which includes broadband connectivity, and hosted services including content filtering, and security services including anti-virus control and a centralised firewall.
The Department is obliged to adhere to procurement regulations, and must engage with the selected providers on the DES Framework of Providers of Broadband Services through a tender process to award services. Having awarded a school service to the highest placed tenderer, the Department is then required to work with that provider to install the service. This is the basis on which all state-funding must be utilised to ensure transparency and equal treatment for all schools and providers, and adherence to regulatory requirements.
The need to improve broadband connectivity to primary schools is recognised in the Digital Strategy for Schools 2015-2020, and access to high speed broadband is one of the indicators identified in the Digital Strategy Action Plan. An interdepartmental working group has been established to determine how best to address broadband connectivity to primary schools The Group includes representatives of DES, PDST support service for schools, HEA-net and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The work of the Group will take account of the developments on the implementation of the Governments’ National Broadband Plan and its associated Intervention Strategy and the provision offered by industry. The options identified will be costed and a recommendation made.