Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications

Digital Switchover: Discussion

11:15 am

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, Ms Mary Curtis, director of digital switchover, and Mr. Michael Keogh, network business manager, RTENL, who are here to discuss the switchover from analogue to digital television through the digital service, Saorview.

I wish to advise Ms Curtis and Mr. Keogh that the opening statements they submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website following this meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise nor make charges against a person outside of the Houses or an official in such way as to make him or her identifiable.

I now invite the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, to make his opening statement. On conclusion of the Minister's opening statement, I will invite Ms Curtis and Mr. Keogh to make their opening remarks.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it. I take this opportunity to congratulate Deputy Tom Hayes on his appointment as Chairman of the committee and wish him well. There is a heavy agenda to be addressed in this area. We had a good working relationship with the Chairman's predecessor, Deputy Andrew Doyle, and members of the committee, with whom we managed to get through a good deal of work. I have no doubt this will continue under the direction of the current Chairman.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the committee about the analogue switch-off campaign which has been under way since this time last year. Giving television viewers a full year's notice of what was coming down the track was deliberate. In addition to my discussions with individual colleagues, some of whom are here today, two separate presentations were made in the audiovisual room on the implications of digital switchover.

I am accompanied by the assistant secretary at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Mr. Eamonn Molloy, who has oversight of this campaign from the Department's point of view. Ms Mary Curtis is the head of RTE's digital television services and director of the digital switchover campaign for RTE. Mr. Michael Keogh is a technical genius. His ingenuity has been tested as he travelled the country to ensure a smooth roll-out of the digital network. Should members have detailed or technical questions they wish to raise, one of us will, it is hoped, be able to provide answers for them.

I understand each member of the committee received a briefing document from my Department and RTE earlier this week. I do not wish to go over the details contained therein. This meeting presents me with an excellent opportunity to get several messages out, the first of which is that the analogue switch-off will take place on 24 October. It is important that people are persuaded that it will happen and that it is not a frolic by the Irish Government or me, as the signal is being switched off across Europe. The date and time for the switch-off in Ireland is 10 a.m. on 24 October. It will happen. People who have not switched before that date will have no signal on 25 October. It is important that people appreciate this. This is not a case of "It will never catch on down here." People will not be able to view "Coronation Street" if they do not make the switch before 24 October. In this regard, it would be immensely preferable if people did not wait until 23 October to do so. It is the nature of people in Ireland to wait until the last minute to do things, at which point there will be queues and many people will be disappointed. We do not want to see that happen.

Irish television customers have a choice in terms of the three different television platforms available. In order of scale, these are satellite, cable and digital free-to-air. Saorview is the national digital free-to-air network. Following switch-off, we expect Saorview to be the exclusive television viewing platform of between 12% and 15% of households in this country. The range in respect of households with a second or third television is somewhere between 20% and 25%. Some colleagues here have raised with me the fact that Saorview will only be available to 98% of the population. One hundred percent of the population is covered by the free-to-air Irish satellite option, Saorsat. This solution was developed to cater for the 2% who cannot get Saorview. As such, there is, for the first time, virtually full coverage nationwide for free-to-air viewers choosing to use Saorview and Saorsat.

The digital switchover campaign has been a national one, involving efforts across a range of areas, including information, advertising and PR and community initiatives and campaigns locally.

I would like to record today my appreciation for the work done by the voluntary organisations and the 26 local digital champions we put in place working under the auspices of The Wheel and Irish Rural Link, which are the national co-ordination groups. I have been around the country to some of the voluntary organisations and there is tremendous commitment from them, including the GAA. Its social initiative in this regard is very important, and other contributing organisations include Age Action Ireland, the Irish Farmers Association, the Disability Federation of Ireland and the rural transport initiative. I was in Meath last Friday evening at an event with approximately 150 people. There is also the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to consider, as well as a myriad of other local community and voluntary organisations.

These voluntary groups have given the digital switchover campaign a particular focus in getting the public at parish level and in local communities to assist neighbours and relations in making the switch to digital. The campaign has also received strong support from An Post, which I acknowledge, as it conducted a very successful national mailing of publicity information on time. Post offices nationwide are currently offering switchover information and services to consumers, and I commend the staff and management of the company for the contribution to the campaign. I know the committee is examining the future role of the post office network in a different context, and I suggest that the company's role in this campaign is a useful pointer to the type of service that it can offer to the State and general public in what is a rapidly changing business environment.

Through the committee I also emphasise my advice to those making the switch to digital in the days and weeks ahead to use a trusted and approved installer. The names of the installer organisations are available from Saorview if anybody is in doubt. That is important, as we have had regular contact on a range of issues, technical and otherwise, with installer organisations. We do not want people to be taken advantage of.

The aim of the digital switchover campaign is to ensure nobody is left behind in this move to digital broadcasting. All the international experience suggests that a substantial proportion of television viewers leave the change to the last minute, which could be a concern. I am encouraged by reports in recent weeks from around the country of a significantly higher level of retail sales of set-top boxes, as well as increased installer activity.

Since the launch of the digital switchover campaign in October last year, I have taken an active role in the programme. A former Fianna Fáil spokesman, Deputy Ó Cuív, asked if there is an alternative if 20,000 people are left without a television signal. I told him I had one - for me to emigrate - so for that reason I have been closely involved in the process. We do not want such a scenario, so we have operated a campaign of public information and advice and hand-holding by local organisations where possible. I have attended many of the public events during the campaign and we have had a special digital switchover awareness week, as Deputies know, and we have attempted to respond to requests from Deputies for information in so far as we can. I am very impressed by the efforts put in by local communities, in particular, across the country to ensure we have as smooth a transition as possible to the world of digital broadcasting for all.

We will do our best to answer questions. Perhaps the Chairman can give a few minutes to my colleague, Ms Mary Curtis, who can provide some up to date statistics, as the process is monitored week by week.

11:25 am

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I welcome Mr. Molloy, whom I neglected to introduce earlier.

Ms Mary Curtis:

The most recent figures we have are from Nielsen, taking in conversion rates from August. Currently, 300,000 homes have Saorview, with approximately another 200,000 homes to go. This is positive, although it may not sound it, as we have discussed the matter with people in other jurisdictions and countries, where people left the process until the last minute. We are working very closely with retailers and installers to ensure there is sufficient stock, and we are pushing for people to buy the approved technology now rather than leave it until the last minute.

We have an extensive television advertising campaign on Saorview, and we have outreach partners in Macra na Feirme, Muintir na Tíre and Energy Action. They have been very good collaborative partners in going out to talk to people specifically about Saorview. We have had a very strong presence at events, and we are at the National Ploughing Championships this week. We have also been at the Tall Ships festival, the Bloom festival and all around the country. During the summer we also held trade retail weeks, covering every county and working very closely with local retailers. We had advertising in local press and radio to ensure we reached a granular level in the community.

We have a comprehensive website and we also have a phone line, and there is a big push for the last four weeks in trying to get this work done. Our "Let's Get Connected" campaign has worked extremely well, with loved faces from television asking people to go to others in the community to see if they need to be connected. Any support is welcome, and the committee is probably sick of receiving letters from me. We also sent out a handbook for public representatives, and I hope that is of assistance. Members may also wish to ask questions, and for their constituents, we have a phone line, website and other needed resources.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and his officials and thank them for the presentation. The advertising has reached a certain level; Ms Curtis mentioned a figure of 200,000 people.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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Members wish to make contributions so we will take everybody's questions before getting a response from the witnesses. There is much interest in the topic and it is important to get out the right information.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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A percentage of the 200,000 people may have already upgraded to a Saorview box. As with all processes that go down to the wire, there is a percentage of people, particularly elderly people living on their own, who will be left behind. These are people with little access to facilities of the State or interaction with their communities. I know individuals have been contacted by Meals on Wheels or home help, and such people would almost be in fear of another gadget sitting on top of the television. They might think it would monitor their every move. The vast majority of people have Sky boxes, etc., and most people will have switched over quite willingly because of the advertising campaigns. There will be a percentage of people who will not get the Saorview signal after 24 October. There will be another cohort who will have installed a Saorview box but because of their location will not be able to get a signal.

They are looking at alternatives and some have been advised that it might not be possible. The local communities have become involved. They have bought into it and have put in huge work on getting people connected, but there is a percentage of people outstanding. The Minister has clearly indicated there is no plan B. I am not sure, bar some form of divine inspiration, that we can get to some sectors and to the people who have problems due to mountain ranges and so forth. There needs to be further awareness raising, perhaps through An Post. These people are predominantly elderly so perhaps there could be a way through social welfare to communicate with them. A mighty effort is required.

What is being spent on the overall scheme in terms of advertising? There was a huge advertising campaign dating back to this time last year. The most effective piece of advertising I saw was the leaflet that was sent to each house. It was a direct hit where elderly people are concerned because they read through their post. Much of the time they do not buy into the advertising on television because they do not have a notion about it. What has been spent on it? As we approach 24 October, what contingency measures are there, if any, to target the remaining people who have not been connected? These are the people who will hit the headlines because they will be branded as being isolated and so forth. What does the Minister have in mind or what has he targeted?

11:35 am

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his presentation and acknowledge the presence of the officials from RTE and the Department.

To follow on from Deputy Moynihan's comments, one of my concerns is that while there is a temptation to ensure that everybody has a Saorview box, unfortunately there is a group in society that is already mobilising to use Saorview as a way to get inside the front door of elderly people's houses. That is very sinister. It has been reported in the media that some people are traversing the country and claiming to be at the house to connect it to Saorview. They are picking on vulnerable people. They will do this for everything, be it a gas connection or anything else. A message must be conveyed that the Department and RTE are not sending people door to door and that people should be wary of somebody calling to the door under the auspices of Saorview to try to get into the house.

Has the connection been subjected to trials? Have we tried the signal and satellite to ensure that after 24 October in the far-flung corners of the country the satellite will be turned on once the analogue is switched off? If there was such a trial, how did it go?

I believe the most effective piece of advertising was the "Let's Get Connected" advertisement. The Minister referred to the personalities and the warm faces. Until then, the cartoon cat and dog lost many people. However, when people saw Derek Mooney telling them their televisions would be switched off on 24 October it was very effective. My concern is about isolated rural areas outside the main urban centres. When the analogue signal is switched off and people do not have access to it will there be a contingency plan in place for the following fortnight, three weeks or month to try to identify the people affected and help them? Bear in mind that in many of these houses, the arrival of the second RTE channel was a big thing. The people in these houses might not have a great connection with their neighbours and they might not be the best communicators, but they expect to be able to sit down and watch the news to find out what happened in the Dáil or to watch "Coronation Street" and so forth. What contingency plan is there to reach out to those last few people? It will be a small number and they will be widely dispersed.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister and the officials from the Department and RTE for attending this meeting. I compliment them on the information campaign they have conducted at various levels to keep public representatives informed. The success of that is evident for me from the lack of queries I have received in my clinics. Certainly, the queries I have received in the last few weeks did not match the number of queries about All-Ireland tickets in Mayo.

The presentation referred to virtually full coverage. The worry for us in these last few weeks is the 'virtual' part. Have there been extra notifications or information provided to the people in the vulnerable areas to let them know they are in a vulnerable area or that they need to get Saorsat? How is that being dealt with? There was a reference to 200,000 or 300,000 taking this up before 24 October. Is there a county by county breakdown of the uptake for Saorview? What is the situation in Mayo, my constituency? What are the vulnerable areas and what has been the uptake in Mayo?

Photo of Brian WalshBrian Walsh (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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The previous speakers have asked many of the questions I intended to ask so I will not repeat them. I compliment the Minister on his contribution to this campaign. He has had an active role and taken a hands-on approach, and it is important to acknowledge that. Ms Mary Curtis provided data for the end of August and the uptake at that stage was at approximately 60%. Congratulations are due for that. The nature of the Irish people is that they tend to leave things to the last minute so a 60% uptake rate at that stage is very positive. Well done. It is running slightly behind the household charge payment rate so perhaps the Minister could get some tips from the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan.

In the context of other countries that have gone through this process already, is it possible to project what figures or percentage should be expected for the month of September, which is not included in the data, and up to 25 October? Invariably, there will be people who do not make the necessary adjustments. As regards communicating to those people the length of time they will be without a service, is there any estimate, depending on the numbers, of how long it will take to reach 100% uptake? After the event will people be waiting a week or two weeks? Is it possible at this stage to project what type of delay one would expect? It might be a useful exercise to communicate that to the public as well that is, tell them they have the opportunity now to avail of this and if they do not do so, they will be discommoded for a period of time thereafter.

Photo of Tom FlemingTom Fleming (Kerry South, Independent)
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I also welcome the Minister and the officials and thank them for their presentation. There is a particular problem or difficulty in County Kerry. There are pockets of the county, particularly in the south, south east and west, where the existing transmitters were put in place with the co-operation of RTE to provide coverage to black-spot areas where historically there was huge difficulty in getting a signal. The introduction of Saorview will not address the problems with coverage in these areas. It appears that the transmitters will be decommissioned on 24 October but thousands of people are living in isolated remote areas, valleys and so forth.

Given the mountainous terrain, these people will be left with blank screens. Many of them are elderly and live alone. They already have problems with isolation and with few people living in the neighbourhood. It will pose terrible difficulties for many communities.

Saorview appears to be the solution and Saorsat the alternative. In many respects, it is not workable because of the sheer size and physical shape of the masts. They will be prone to obstruction and being blown down during windy conditions, which are frequent in the south west as winds come in from the Atlantic and there is very little protection. It will also be a cost for many of these people who are living on low incomes and who may not have the budgets to meet the cost, which is €300 for installation of Saorsat.

There is a very simple solution, which is to retrofit and upgrade these particular transmitters and this work has been undertaken in other areas. Recently, we were informed that four have been upgraded in County Cork in areas similar to those in County Kerry. Will something be done immediately to address this problem and get these people out of the dilemma they face because they are genuinely frightened and very concerned that they may be left in the dark within a month?

11:45 am

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak. I welcome the Minister, Mr. Eamonn Molloy, Ms Mary Curtis and Mr. Mick Keogh, the genius from RTE, whom, we need at this time. Given the way things are looking, I am afraid the Minister might have to emigrate, even though the Government cannot afford to lose any more members, because we have a serious problem. Despite this mighty publicity campaign and public awareness roll-out with people going around giving talks and explaining what will happen on 24 October, the one thing nobody thought prudent was to have an engineer with those people. It is one thing to talk about a problem but it is another trying to come up with engineering solutions to it.

Many people do not get what is happening and are missing the point. I raised this issue twice with the Taoiseach and, unfortunately, on both occasions, the man failed to grasp the point. The point is that there are people who have a service today but who will not be able to get coverage after 24 October because engineering solutions are not available to them. The Taoiseach thought I was speaking about places which already had a problem with the service but I was not. These places do not have a problem now but they will have one after 24 October.

Do people realise there are parts of our country where one cannot get Sky? Everybody thinks that if one has the money and cannot get any other solution, one can always pay for Sky but there are places which do not have coverage by Sky. What solutions will be available for those people?

I am very friendly with a number of people who work in the business of selling televisions, putting up the aerials and that type of work and it is a real problem for them in certain locations. As my colleague, Deputy Fleming, outlined, people dismiss it and say only 2% of the country is in trouble. I believe the majority of the 2% are in County Kerry.

With all due respect to my colleague from Cork, Deputy Harrington, what did we do wrong in Kerry given that the investment was made in Cork? Flip all was given to County Kerry. One mast was put up in Dingle, for which I am grateful.

I highlighted the fact that I wanted a solution. Does the Minister realise the enormity of what will happen? There are places in east Kerry and in Bonane where people pay their taxes but which will have no coverage after 24 October. In Lauragh, fine hardworking people will have no coverage after 24 October. The local television men in that area are Bertie McSweeney and his son but the solutions they have come up with will not work in that a windy night will upset the dish and people will have no coverage the next day. What does the Minister propose for these people? It is a really serious situation.

A couple of years ago people might not have been as worried about television because they did not have time to watch the damn thing but now with the lack of work and everything else, in many homes, the only thing people have to do at night is to look at television to see what is happening and who is resigning from the Government.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I need the Deputy to conclude because he is straying a little into-----

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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I would really be interested to hear from the people with the Minister. I do not expect the Minister to have all the answers but I expect that people should realise what will happen. I can only talk about County Kerry. I have been sent here by the people to speak for them and after 24 October, many households will have no coverage.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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We want to get answers. We need to move this on. The Deputy has taken extra time. I call Deputy Harrington.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry South, Independent)
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I ask Mr. Keogh, in particular, what will we say to those people. I thank the Chairman.

Photo of Noel HarringtonNoel Harrington (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister and his officials. In response to Deputy Healy-Rae, one of the cases the Cork people made was that the appalling prospect of not having reality TV shows such as that in which Deputy Healy-Rae starred being broadcast in Cork was far too much.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Noel HarringtonNoel Harrington (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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We are very grateful to the Department for allowing continued coverage with those masts so Deputy Healy-Rae and others would grace our screens.

If somebody breaks an appliance in the household, they might put replacing it on the long finger, but if they lose the television, it is a disaster. Deputy Healy-Rae touched on this issue and I want to focus on the 2% who cannot get coverage on the Saorview system. That 2% is not dispersed around the country. One hundred percent of a community may not get Saorview coverage and I would like to focus on that. The obvious answer is Saorsat. It should, and probably would, cover a lot of it but I have a concern which has come from many of the recognised and registered installers. The signal strength Saorsat offers is strongest where the Saorview is strongest and is weakest where one cannot get Saorview. As Deputy Fleming said, that is directly affected by weather conditions, location and topography.

The lily is being gilded where it is unnecessary while not enough strength is being provided where it is needed most. I have a real concern about some people being left behind, apart from what other members said about the set top box, the additional costs and connectivity issues. People who want to subscribe to Saorsat cannot get the signal to allow them view a proper picture. Has there been feedback from registered and recognised installers who have looked at signal strength in peripheral areas of this country and who have said there is a problem in adverse weather conditions? That should be addressed.

11:55 am

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Like my colleagues I welcome the Minister and representatives from RTE. I wanted to raise the same issue because it has been covered in great detail, particularly for the south west, but it was brought to my attention by a colleague in Waterford, Councillor Michael Joseph O'Ryan, who has been leading the campaign in the Nire valley in particular, where there is a similar problem. This has become so acute that people in the Ballymacarbry and Nire valley area will lose the signal. Many of them are elderly and are operating off aerials. In the last week, Councillor O'Ryan sent a petition to the Minister to ask that the analogue signal not be turned off in that area on those boosters until there is a solution to this. From what I heard earlier about upgrading in Cork, there was a similar problem in Kilmacthomas and that has been addressed by the provision of new transmitters. The problem remains, however, and I know there are parts of Donegal that will suffer. I wanted to bring this element to the attention of the committee and Minister. I appreciate much of it will be in the south west; my wife comes from Castletownbere and I know it well. It is not even possible to get TV3 on an aerial in Castletownbere so there is a real problem in the south west but it also exists in the south east.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry South, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and the representatives of RTE. We know an issue is serious when we see the three Deputies for Kerry South sitting side by side and speaking from the same page. People have contacted me in recent weeks from all over Kerry because they are very concerned about the switchover. They have had the tests done and have been told Saorsat will not work for them. A guesthouse owner told me he is afraid he will not have television for the guests who stay with him. His only option will be to go with Sky or another provider and that is not viable for him. There are others who simply want a television in their own homes but cannot get it and they are worried about 24 October. Around Kenmare, Bonane, Baile na nGall, Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, Dún Chaoin, Feothanach, Ceann Trá and even Kilgarvan there are many concerns about the switchover. Three weeks remain before the switchover and there is time to get these issues sorted out. It would be incredibly unfair and embarrassing, with all the time we have had, if on 24 October people are unable to turn on the television. Those areas should be looked at.

Referring to Deputy Harrington's comments, I believe that the 2% is concentrated in the areas I have mentioned. Deputy Jim Daly raised the matter as a Topical Issue in June in the Chamber and he was concerned about large areas of Cork South-West. This area, the south west in particular, has this problem and needs focus. Special attention should be given to the area because we have had more complaints and calls to our offices from that area than from any other part of the country.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I will ask the Minister to respond giving particular attention to the small area concentrated in Kerry and Waterford and how it will be addressed. I appreciate the efforts the Minister has made but it is important we deal with this.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I congratulate Deputy Michael Moynihan, who recently assumed the position of spokesman for his party in this area. I can tell Deputy Moynihan and Deputy Brian Walsh that we will have new statistics in coming days for the end of September and will be able to measure how far things have progressed, and again on 10 October. We will have a close handle on the speed of uptake. That is not to deny that we will have latecomers or that some people will be left behind. That is human nature and we are conscious of that. That is why we are putting so much into alerting people to understand what is involved. We are not going to go out of business on 24 October; we must follow up on the situation immediately after the switchover.

Deputy Moynihan's suggestion about An Post is a good one that we should consider. In reply to Deputy O'Donovan, Saorview has been conscious from the beginning that its brand will be used as a means for people interested in subterfuge to gain admission to the homes of vulnerable people in particular. Great pains have been taken to ensure that does not happen in so far as it is within our control. Ms Curtis might want to give some examples of that.

On the net point outlined by the Chairman of the difficulties involved for the 2%, I say to Deputy Healy-Rae that this is not the first time people sitting around this table have become aware of this; the technical challenges have been there since the start. RTE is to be commended on the substantial investment it has put into the roll-out of the digital network and it has responded to claims from particular Deputies who have highlighted where for topographical and other reasons there are particular difficulties. We have taken that seriously. The existing signal never reached 100% of the country.

I take the point being made by the Deputies for south Kerry and west Cork that the figure of 2% is not dispersed equally across the country. It could well be the case that 100% of the members of a small local community have no reception. I can assure Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, knowing his county very well, that the last thing I want to do is to deprive his constituents of the opportunity to see either replays of himself or his work on their behalf in the Dáil. The objective is the opposite. People should have access to the station's programmes. We have put a great deal of work into that issue; in particular, RTE and Saorview have put a lot of work into it.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae also makes the point that we did not send an engineer around the country, which is not entirely correct. In many cases, engineers concerned with this problem have been around the country. It is acknowledged in the case of County Cork that visible solutions have been suggested to protect against this problem. I heard what Senator Paschal Mooney had to say about the Nire valley, about which he had spoken to me privately. It would be best to ask Mr. Keogh to comment on the technical difficulties that have been encountered in parts of the country and how we propose to respond to them.

12:05 pm

Mr. Michael Keogh:

I will respond to the questions raised; however, I did not take note of the names of the individuals who raised them.

The word "virtual" has been a cause of concern. Let me give an example of a house built under the north-facing slope of a mountain and hidden from a satellite. It is built in an area that cannot receive terrestrial television services. I imagine that across the country there are between 100 and 200 houses in which it will not be possible for the residents to receive a satellite signal or a signal from Saorview. Without going to all 1.6 million houses, I cannot say where these houses are located. If a house never catches the sun, which rises in the east and sets in the west-----

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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How many are there in the country?

Mr. Michael Keogh:

A couple of hundred houses fall into the category that they are not able to receive a satellite signal and or a signal from Saorview. I cannot tie down the exact figure without visiting every house. As the Saorsat satellite is at a higher orbit than that of Sky, it will get a signal to places the Sky satellite signal cannot reach.

When we set out to consider this new network, the first objective was to meet the obligation under the legislation to replicate analogue coverage. Analogue services reach about 98% of the population. We sought to replicate this through Saorview. It is a bugbear that a percentage of people have never been able to receive free-to-air television services. We also put in an effort to see if we could develop a solution to that problem. The solution we came up with was Saorsat, a new satellite launched just about two years ago. Between the two services, virtually every home in the country has access at the chimney or rooftop to the Irish public service channels, free to air.

An issue arises in counties Kerry, Donegal and Wicklow, which have a similar topography. The Saorsat solution will be more beneficial to them than it will be in County Kildare, which is more or less flat. It can reach places that line-of-sight analogue or terrestrial technology cannot.

We must also consider the spectrum available. When the original sites were built back in the early 1960s, we were able to do whatever we wanted to do with the available spectrum. There was no one else using it. Now we have wireless phones in the house and mobile broadband services, as well as mobile phones. As a result, the spectrum available for broadcasting has shrunk. We are not using the VHF spectrum, which was good in mountainous areas. In addition, approximately 20% of the UHF spectrum is being given over to meet the digital dividend in order that it can used for the mobile phone services. We are very much constrained in what we can do. The digital network must be different from the original analogue network. Given this, we believe we have free-to-air television reception in virtually house in the country.

There is an international satellite with spot beams covering the whole of Europe. We were lucky enough that one of the beams was pointing at Ireland. It was not the case that somebody launched a satellite for Ireland. None of our television services can be freely available in the United Kingdom. If we turn up the power too high, people living in Liverpool and Manchester will receive Irish services. However, Irish broadcasters do not have the right to transmit to them. They must be turned off or they must be encrypted. We have to keep within a power window which means that Irish people can receive the services but population centres in the UK cannot. We are fortunate enough that every home in the country can receive them with a dish one metre in size. The beam happens to be pointed at somewhere in north Tipperary. It is operated by Eutalsat, one of the biggest satellite companies in the world, and we are buying capacity from it. It works quite well with us to try to find a solution for Ireland.

The signal strength in County Kerry is similar to that in County Donegal because they are located on the outer edges of the beam. The satellite has been operational for virtually 18 months. It was formally announced that it was operational by the Minister in March this year. It running for the best part of 18 months. We have been through a number of humps and hollows. Members will be happy to learn that TV3 is available on Saorview in Castletownbere and we have measured the signal and it works.

In the extremities one needs a 1 m dish; however, in the middle of the beam a 60 cm dish is sufficient. Installing a 1 m dish seems to be an issue for some installers, but we have provided training and will provide more. As there seems to be a particular issue for some installers in south Kerry, we are providing extra training for them next week. There were similar issues when Sky services first became available when an 80 cm solid dish was required. There were similar statements then to what we are hearing now 20 years later. It is a slightly different technology and needs to be a little more accurate in pointing it. One cannot use a €10 B&Q beeper; one needs to have a 1 m dish in order that it can be pointed more accurately. We also have the issue that it moves when the wind blows. Anyone who cannot have a 1 m dish that will not move in the wind should consider changing. We have heard accusations that the 1 m dish will blow away the gable end of a house. In the case of a 1 m dish in high winds in County Kerry, it is the equivalent of me pushing against the wall or four or five guys learning up against it. If anybody is living in a house which has a wall that might be pulled down by a satellite dish, they need to move out for health and safety reasons.

We have made a significant effort to educate public representatives. We know that there are vulnerable people, as well as old people. We are also aware that there are dodgy dealers and, unfortunately, installers are not regulated. We have made a great effort to ensure that when public representatives speak, they give accurate information. As I said, there will be houses sheltered under the north face of a mountain which we will have to deal with individually. We cannot say a satellite dish will pull down the gable end of a house. We cannot say it will cost €450 more in County Kerry than it will in County Cork. It will cost €100 more to install a Saorsat solution than Saorview. We have done our best to get the price down as far as we can, but it is a different technology. There are people looking at these small transposer sites. They were receiving RTE 1, RTE 2 and TG4. If they move to Saorsat, for an extra €35, they will have 200 channels, as they will be able to pick up all of the European free-to-air satellite channels.

There is a small cost overrun for the person who only wants RTE 1 and RTE 2. In County Kerry, for example, TV3 would have been available as an analogue service to approximately 44% of the population. It will now be available through Saorview to 95% of the population of the county. If TV3 decides to go onto Saorsat - as a commercial operator, it can make that decision for itself - the rest of the population of the county will be covered. There has been a huge improvement in the area covered by TV3 and, to a lesser extent, TG4, in counties such as Kerry and Donegal. The rate of RTE 1 coverage in County Kerry was 90% under the analogue service, but that figure will increase to 95% under the Saorview service.

There has been a big improvement, although some homes are still inconvenienced. I am aware of the problems in the Nire valley, particularly in four or five houses nestled in the Forest View area where the bottom of the Nire road approaches the main junction. When I drove up the road, I noted that three of the houses in question have Sky satellite dishes. If they can get Sky, they can get Saorsat more easily. There is a solution there for them. We have to do a bit of work in these individual areas to educate the local installers. We seem to have done a good job in County Donegal, which would have roughly the same types of coverage figures as County Kerry. We seem to have failed to educate some of the installers in County Kerry about what Saorsat is and how it works. There are 20 or 30 houses in places like Headford, Bunane and Lauragh that can get RTE 1 and RTE 2 as an analogue service and will now have to go to Saorsat. We need to work with the local installers to facilitate that. We have some extra training lined up for them next week.

12:15 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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Senator Mooney's colleague seems to be under the impression that we can leave the analogue signal on after 24 October. Can Mr. Keogh comment on that?

Mr. Michael Keogh:

All of those smaller transposers are depending on signals from the big sites. If the transposer serving the Ballymacarbry area is somewhere to the south of the village, it will be getting its signal from Mount Leinster. The small transposer gets the signal from Mount Leinster and repeats it. Therefore, the analogue signal for the whole country has to stay on, or the signal for the whole country has to go off. We cannot decide to leave the signal at an individual small site on for an extra few weeks. Technically, that is not possible.

I have said that there is no reason for a blank screen. I think I have covered the issue of costs. We have engineered a technical solution while avoiding getting involved in any conversations about things like whether County Cork should get more sites than County Kerry. We did all the main sites - all the big transposer sites - before doing a technical review to see how they were performing against what we had planned. Parts of County Cork were not performing, so an extra three or four sites were put in the county. An extra site was put in each of counties Donegal, Kerry, Louth and Tipperary because the system as planned was not working as we expected. Wireless signals do not recognise geographical or political borders. We are trying to deal with areas where there are coverage issues, rather than areas where there are political or county borders. We have had issues. County Waterford has been mentioned. Historically, we had an issue in a place called Kilmacomma. The only way we could possibly get a service into the area was by bringing it through Clonmel. Kilmacomma is in County Waterford, whereas Clonmel is in County Tipperary. It was a little difficult to get planning permission in County Tipperary for something that was going to help people in County Waterford.

Photo of Timmy DooleyTimmy Dooley (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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It should have been a job for Deputy Mattie McGrath.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick, Fine Gael)
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Is the Deputy saying he had gone off air?

Mr. Michael Keogh:

There are difficulties in certain areas. At this stage, our biggest issue is to try as best we can to get this information to the installers. Many of them are members of the various bodies, but a number of them are not. Unfortunately, some people are trying to make a quick buck. We are doing our best locally to try to keep people informed about that. If I have missed anything-----

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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Before we go back to the Minister, can Mr. Keogh give the members of the committee a commitment that he will go to the obvious blackspot areas that have been identified today? As he said, the information needs to be brought to such areas so that it gets through. We are all guilty of giving wrong information at times. Is it possible for Mr. Keogh to send his technical people and people with the proper information to those areas?

Mr. Michael Keogh:

Yes, that is possible. We have already been to a number of places where local installers have said there are problems. It is better if it can be tied down to a house or a couple of houses in an area. If somebody says that west Kerry is a problem, I cannot deal with that. If somebody gives me details of specific problems, involving a house or a couple of houses, I can make sure someone has a look at it. We always did that in the analogue era. We have two people permanently on the road doing that. We can deal with those specifics when they are raised. I cannot deal with generalities.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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Mr. Keogh and his colleagues are available to provide assistance in particular areas. It is very clear.

Mr. Michael Keogh:

That is what we do.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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If the members of the committee are to be able to give proper information to their constituents, it is most important for us to know that this support is available.

Mr. Michael Keogh:

It is very easy to look at a map of County Kerry and say that 20% of it is not covered. People do not live on top of the MacGillycuddy Reeks. If those who are concerned can tie it down to specifics, we can deal with the particular issues.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister want to say anything else?

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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No, I do not really. As I have said, these difficulties were anticipated a year ago. RTE has put more investment into it than it can afford in the present climate. The view was taken that if this is to be done, it should be done well because everyone is entitled to a service and some people cannot be left behind. As a result, the investment has been very significant. Where issues regarding certain areas have been raised, steps have been taken above and beyond the call of duty. I particularly remember the issues in County Cork that were highlighted when these issues were raised in the audiovisual presentation some months ago. If our colleagues from south Kerry want to give us details of areas of particular concern, we will seek to address them.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry South, Fine Gael)
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I would like to ask a technical question. Am I right in understanding that there are no households where Saorview or Saorsat will not be options? Is it the case that those who have the correct installation will ultimately have a television service after 24 October as long as they choose through one option or the other?

Mr. Michael Keogh:

That is true, with the exception of what I described as the "virtual" number - a small of number of houses that are on north-facing slopes of mountains but are not in areas covered by Saorview. I guess there are a few hundred houses across the whole country where people are living without direct sunlight.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry South, Fine Gael)
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What are the options for those people? Is Mr. Keogh saying that a couple of hundred people will not be able to get Saorview or Saorsat?

Mr. Michael Keogh:

It is likely that such people are not getting any television at present. We will have to try to deal with them on an individual basis.

Photo of Tom FlemingTom Fleming (Kerry South, Independent)
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It appears that in some of the problematic locations that have been mentioned today, the existing masts that were put up with the co-operation of RTE a number of years ago offer the only answer. Is RTE giving serious consideration to the retrofitting or upgrading of these masts, which could be done for a reasonable sum of money? We have already asked for this to be done. I think it is a simple solution. It has been done in certain counties. Why can it not be done in the area of south Kerry to which we are referring? These masts are prevalent in the area. They are working. They have provided transmission to people over the years.

Mr. Michael Keogh:

The Saorview digital network is necessarily different from the analogue network. There are technical constraints and differences between them. We have addressed what we can address. Analogue services are currently being transmitted from 149 sites. From 24 October next, Saorview services will be transmitted from the 64 sites we are building. We have worked with communities. Apart from other financial aspects, it costs approximately €60,000 to build a small transposer site.

That is the real cost. It also costs a couple of thousand euro a year to keep it running but one needs a willing landlord, access and planning permission. A number of the existing sites are on the basis of goodwill rather than any legal standing. There is a solution because at the chimney of every house in the country, bar a few hundred, people receive free-to-air services. Getting it into the house is the €100 issue.

12:25 pm

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the witnesses.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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Perhaps the Chairman would allow Ms Curtis to reply to several questions which were asked about her domain.

Ms Mary Curtis:

The helpline will continue to operate after 24 October. A series of radio and newspaper advertisements will ask whether people have lost their signal. We are working very closely with retailers to ensure sufficient set-top box technology. It will not end on 24 October. It will continue until it is sorted.

We take brand policing very carefully. We work very closely with the National Consumer Association and anything we hear about rogue traders or misrepresentation is dealt with immediately. We have had very few complaints because we make it very clear that if anybody calls to one's door one should look for identification and one should not hand over money.

We encourage any committee member with queries or questions on public information to come to me or to Mr. Keogh with regard to coverage.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister and his officials and the witnesses from RTENL. We have far more information now than we did. I wish them well and I hope it goes well.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.45 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 October 2012.