Northern Ireland will get new cable franchise

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The Independent Online
THE Independent Television Commission is expected to auction a new Northern Ireland cable television franchise this year. At least four parties, including Ulster Television and Cable and Wireless's subsidiary, Mercury Communications, are thought to have expressed interest.

Northern Ireland is the largest area in the UK to remain uncabled. A network covering the region's 500,000 homes could cost up to pounds 250m. BT was awarded the original cable television licence for Belfast in 1983, but did not build the network and its licence was finally revoked in 1991.

Mercury is interested in using cable to increase its local telephone business. Many of its residential customers in the rest of the UK are connected to Mercury through the local cable television operators.

Other potential bidders for the Northern Ireland cable franchise are believed to include RTE, the national Irish broadcaster, and Princes Holdings - Tony O'Reilly's Irish cable TV company.

Don Anderson, Northern Ireland Officer to the ITC, said: 'We think there may be sufficient and serious enough interest now and we are seriously considering advertising it before the end of the year.'

Northern Ireland is one of many new franchises for the delivery of cable television and telephony that are likely to be auctioned off over the next 18 months. The recently advertised franchise for west Kent has attracted bids from two existing operators, Eurobell and Encom. The ITC has also invited bids for a franchise in the Blackpool area.

Existing cable franchises cover 70 per cent of the UK population. One big difference with new franchises is that bidders will be judged on how much they are prepared to pay the Treasury as well as on the quality of the bid. They will also have to pay a percentage of the revenues from the television service.

But the Cable Television Association expects a stampede of applications from North American firms, which already dominate the UK industry and want to fill gaps in their existing areas. US companies, including Nynex, are already building networks linking contiguous areas where they have licences, enabling them to offer regional television and telephone services.

City interest in cable is at an all- time high. Last week Telewest, one of the largest UK cable companies, announced plans for a stock market listing. Telewest, owned by US West and Tele-Communications Inc, expects to raise pounds 350m, valuing the company at up to pounds 1.85bn.