Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 5 June 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment
National Broadband Plan: Discussion
Mr. Garrett Blaney:
Tá muid buíoch as ucht an chuiridh bheith i láthair anseo inniu. On behalf of the ComReg, I welcome the opportunity to appear. I am joined today, as the Chairman mentioned, by my fellow commissioners, Mr. Jeremy Godfrey and Mr. Robert Mourik, and my colleague, Donal Leavy, director of the wholesale division. This is my first opportunity to appear before the committee in my capacity as chair of ComReg. Mr. Mourik and I only joined the organisation in January, but Mr. Godfrey has been with the organisation for the past six years so he is an old hand.
As the committee will be aware, ComReg is the national regulatory authority for electronic communications. We promote competition and investment in the sector, uphold end user rights and manage the radio spectrum.
In our recently published strategy statement, we have confirmed our vision for the sector that consumers and businesses in Ireland have affordable, high-quality and widespread access to communications services and applications that support their social and economic needs. Our role in achieving this vision is to ensure that communications markets operate effectively in the interests of end users and society. In recent years, predictable and proportionate regulation has created an environment which has led to investment in high-speed broadband networks covering three quarters of the premises in the State. At the same time, there has been an increasing choice of service providers. In the coming years, operators plan to make effective direct fibre connections to most of the premises I mentioned. There are, however, parts of the State where the population density is lower and high-speed broadband would not be a viable commercial investment. Consumers and businesses in these areas have not benefited equally. That is why we welcome the Government's national broadband plan, NBP, which will address this market failure and result in the availability of high-speed broadband to all.
ComReg has two roles in respect of the NBP. First, we have significant technical and regulatory expertise and have been advised the Government on matters in respect of which this expertise is relevant. Second, we are the independent regulator of the market. This includes regulation of certain products that National Broadband Ireland, NBI, may require as inputs to its network. We are happy to provide more details to the committee, as needed, about ComReg's role to date and in the future. As we stated in our letter to the committee, however, ComReg has no specific legal functions in determining the roll-out time or in respect of value-for-money or ownership issues. To date, our primary role as adviser to the Government has been in respect of issues highlighted in the European Commission's state aid guidelines. More specifically, we have been consulted on the approach taken to define the intervention area to ensure that the NBP does not distort competition in commercially viable areas. We have also advised on requirements to ensure that the NBP wholesale intervention facilitates an open competitive market among retail service providers that will be selling broadband services in the intervention area. This has involved matters such as wholesale product design and pricing, access and non-discrimination obligations and enforcement approaches, all of which are very similar to the issues we consider in our regulatory role in respect of Eir's wholesale broadband products.
In connection with the Government's state aid application, and in response to a request from the European Commission, we confirmed in writing last year that we have been consulted on all matters where state aid guidelines recommend consultation with the national regulatory authority, NRA, including, in particular, pricing and the mapping exercise carried out under the guidelines. We expressed the opinion to the European Commission that the Department has considered our views on such matters. We confirmed to it that, based on the information available, there were no issues arising from the consultation process that ComReg wished to bring to the attention of the Commission.
The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment established an expert working group, of which ComReg was a member, in order to provide detailed technical and regulatory advice, and detailed technical questions were discussed. ComReg also attended the Department's steering group as an observer. The steering group acts as an advisory body and the Minister is the ultimate decision maker. ComReg did not participate in the steering group's decision-making.
We should add that ComReg had no role in advising on policy matters such as value for money or prioritisation of the NBP within the Government's expenditure plans. We were not involved in the procurement process and played no role in assessing the proposed roll-out timelines, ownership structures or financial capability of the bidders. We were not involved in the preparation of the cost-benefit analysis. That was carried out by others. These matters are properly the responsibility of Government and its spending Departments rather than an independent regulator with a defined statutory role.
In our role as independent regulator, we established a mechanism for interested parties to pose questions about current and possible future regulation where appropriate. We have published our responses to these questions on our website. These have covered issues such as access to Eir's ducts and poles and the possible applicability of significant market power and universal service obligations after the NBP network is complete.
We have also taken the initiative to share our early thinking on the retirement of the copper network once fibre-based services are available.
For the future, it is possible that ComReg could play a role in advising the Minister or his or her representative on certain post-contract governance matters to the extent within ComReg's expertise, primarily involving the issues on which we have been advising to date, such as product design and non-discriminatory access for retail service providers. The precise scope of any role for ComReg will be determined by the Government in due course.
We will also continue to provide independent regulation of the sector during and beyond the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP, infrastructure. Regulatory matters relevant to the NBP might include duct and pole access, the application of the significant market power regime, universal service obligations and the upholding of the rights of consumers of retail service providers.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear today and to make this statement. We are happy to take questions members may have arising from our statement and follow up with written responses on anything we cannot cover specifically today.