Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 2 July 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
National Broadband Plan: Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources
We now resume in public session. The purpose of this morning's meeting is to engage with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in respect of the announcement on 25 April 2014 that the Government has committed to a major telecommunications network build-out to rural Ireland in order to address the connectivity challenge in rural Ireland in a meaningful and sustainable way. I welcome the Minister and his officials to this morning's meeting and invite the Minister to make his opening statement.
-----I might skip the formal statement, because the launch of the ESB-Vodafone joint venture is proceeding this morning. The purpose of the work that preceded the national broadband plan and the publication of the plan itself was to enhance commercial investment in the provision of broadband. Where the commercial sector will not invest or cannot invest adequately, the State must intervene. Given the recessionary times we have come through, I am very pleased the commercial sector has exceeded commitments entered into at that time. As a result, the footprint of areas in which the State must intervene has shrunk. The new ESB-Vodafone joint commercial venture company will further shrink that footprint by rolling out fibre-optic broadband to some 50 towns in the first phase and between 450 and 500 premises using the ESB supply infrastructure.
The commercial sector has performed very well. For example, Eircom is now committing in its programme to pass 1.4 million premises. There are 2.2 million homes in the country. In respect of the investment engaged in by the likes of Eircom and UPC, their minimum and maximum speeds have greatly increased since the commitment was entered into. They are covering some 700,000 premises. The investment from the commercial sector is of the order of €2 billion. There has been an acceleration in recent years, which is responding to the acceleration in demand in terms of new applications, some of which were not even thought about as recently as a few years ago.
The gap between the provision in urban Ireland and the very basic broadband in parts of rural Ireland must be addressed. We have concluded that it can only be dealt with by Government intervention. We have rethought, tweaked and responded to what has happened in the market in the past couple of years. We have decided that we ought to go for the Rolls Royce solution, which is a fibre-optic network, because it is future-proofed, reliable and resilient. It is the future. People talk about the plan being expressed at publication in terms of minimum speeds and so on, but that is out of fashion. Nobody comes into this meeting and asks what wattage of electricity is being used in this room. People unthinkingly plug in their computers, turn on the lights or plug in their phones; they do not say "I wonder will there be enough electricity?". We must bring the broadband argument to that level.
That is what fibre does, as distinct from the existing situation.
Yes, the process will be concluded by autumn and will be published for whatever consultation and response will happen. I do not mean, for example, the new joint venture company will not intrude in some of those areas. Where they do, and those villages fall off, we will have the capacity to add them on.
Of course. Eircom may also intrude into some of those areas and all the people in the areas are concerned about is whether they can get it.
The Minister is correct about the "Rolls-Royce" being required. Maybe we should specify that it is the minimum requirement for every part of the country to have accessibility. We have had a constant stream of complaints, during the past couple of months in particular, about the mobile phone coverage in rural communities. People in places that had been well served say they can get only minimal coverage and, almost like the "rabbit ears" long ago, coverage depends on where one stands. We must accept that the results of various attempts by the Government and State over recent years regarding wireless broadband and other schemes have been less than desirable. We must get full fibre optic connectivity into rural communities.
As I have said numerous times, this is the great divide between urban and rural communities. This also applies to some less rural communities. I regularly receive correspondence regarding the unavailability of coverage some 15 or 20 miles from O'Connell Street. We must make this a major priority. Over the past seven to ten years, numerous new broadband schemes have been announced and their shortcomings have been stark. While the new joint venture which the Minister announced at 11 a.m. is very welcome, it goes only to a certain level. It is extremely urgent that the State intervene to ensure these communities are connected. Mobile phone coverage in rural communities seems to be dying a death. That is the word we are hearing from communities.
I agree with the Deputy's substantial conclusion, that fibre optic connectivity will address the issues about which he is concerned regarding the disparity between rural and urban Ireland. The Deputy is correct that one or two pockets close to O'Connell Street are black spots due to historical reasons. Senator Eamonn Coghlan has spoken to me privately about a particular area with which he is very familiar where there is such a problem. Generally speaking, urban Ireland is as well provided for as any country in western Europe. The kind of past interventions to which the Deputy referred aimed to provide a basic level of broadband. People are no longer satisfied with basic broadband and are not prepared to accept it. That is why we must address it.
The mobile phone issue has been brought to my attention on a few occasions. Problems exist mainly along the route of the new motorways. There is a history on this point going back to attitudes taken at the time by the National Roads Authority, NRA, and decisions taken at that time. I have received complaints that mobile phone calls are being dropped with unreasonable frequency along there. The mobile phone companies have their own ambitious roll-out plans in terms of preparing for 4G services, which may be causing a deterioration in service during this period of preparation. They are preparing for a service upgrade. Local authorities have a role. Members are aware of the situation in Kerry where an attempt was made to enshrine in the county plan a prohibition on masts being erected in certain areas. These decisions have an impact.
While the Minister wants to move away from speeds, his note on the delivery of the national broadband plan stated that by 2015 he wanted more than half of the population to have between 70 and 100 Mbps. Are we on target for that? Deputy O'Mahony hit the nail on the head regarding the recent announcement. People in the 40 targeted locations are anxious that it be rolled out as fast as possible. On which roads will the ComReg survey be carried out? While surveys are often carried out on the larger roads, it is on the smaller roads that connections are dropped. That is the case in Meath.
I recently heard from a lady in Dunboyne, which is extremely close to Dublin. While her neighbours three houses down to the left have perfect Internet coverage, she and her five neighbours to the right have none. Eircom has said it is because the Government needs to upgrade the ports. What plan is there for current lines that need to be upgraded in such circumstances?
I was asked about the 50% commitment this morning. It was a commitment of the commercial sector at the time of the preparation of the broadband plan, and the commercial operators - Eircom, UPC and others - have exceeded it. The Eircom plan will take until mid-2016 and will exceed 1.4 million premises, compared to its commitment of 1 million.
In view of the trends here and internationally with greater uptake, increased use of smart devices and new applications and so on, it is proceeding at a faster pace than we anticipated.
My reference was to the major motorway routes where it is defective at the moment. ComReg conducts analyses of this from time to time, which is not confined to urban areas or which does not exclude rural areas with a low population density. It throws up, as the Deputy said, what one would expect. It throws up what is thrown up among rural populations across western Europe and the US. There is a basic service in some parts of rural Ireland and that is why the State has to act. It is not a commercial proposition as it stands for the private sector.
I thank the Minister. It is a good news story and, therefore, I do not have many questions. I take his point that we should not get too hung up on speeds and I am not concerned about the lights going out but the Australian strategy said that to be capable of transmitting electronic health records and providing education electronically, it is seeking to have a speed of 1 GB per second available to 93% of households. It is good to set targets and to have a strategy. It is not so much about speed but whether we will be capable of maximising the use of various technologies in the years to come. We will be future-proofing by using fibre and that is why a strategy is important.
Page 11 states at least 2,000 new installations around Ireland may be required to facilitate the delivery of wireless technologies and road openings and planning permissions will be required. That number seems high. Is there a prospect of companies sharing installations or is that provided for in the strategy? Have providers in the Six Counties been spoken to about nearest point of connectivity there? This number of installations will result in significant costs and disruption.
There are two other issues - availability of technology and affordability for customers. Is there anything we can do to ensure that side by side with making the technology available, we can have an influence on the affordability? There is little point in having Rolls Royce-level technology if it is beyond the reach of customers.
On the supplementary question from Deputy McEntee, that will all be exposed in the detailed mapping exercise that will be completed by autumn. More than half of the work has been done on that. That is a minute exercise in planning and comparisons in terms of being able to persuade the Commission that there is not a private sector alternative available. To do that, this detailed exercise had to be done.
Deputy Colreavy again asserted his support, as was evident across the House, in respect of the legislation I was required to put through to enable projects such as that announced today by the ESB and Vodafone. However, I suspect from memory he is reading from the plan as published in 2012 when the focus was not on fibre and we envisaged a wireless solution to a great deal of the challenge and, therefore, 2,000 installations would have been necessary in those circumstances. He is correct as that is a fair measure of the challenge and it would be likely to be challenging for some local communities as well. The step-change to fibre will obviate that necessity.
The Deputy is not wrong but we have moved on for a number of reasons. The funding prospects are not as gloomy as they were in 2011. The rate of acceleration in applications is greater than we envisaged and a further important change is the commission has clearly indicated that its assessment of projects that seek permission for the State to intervene will be more demanding in terms of whether they are future proofed solutions. We have, therefore, moved on for these reasons and others to a better outcome.
Sharing of infrastructure is provided for in the legislation. We spent a great deal of time with the County and City Management Association discussing the question of facilitating build out because local authorities and county managers are key players in this. We will leverage to the optimum existing State property or facilities to assist the roll-out.
I apologise. The influence we can have, which is bearing fruit, is better competition. The entrance today of a new commercial company is being portrayed in some quarters as a State intervention. The ESB is a commercial State company and the joint venture with Vodafone is a commercial enterprise. That is a new player in the market. We have to improve competition because that is the greatest downward pressure on prices. We have been involved in a number of measures with other members states in Europe such as the introduction of new roaming charges yesterday and so on. Better competition is a priority.
I thank the Minister for the update. I welcome the progress that has been made in the national broadband plan. Penetration levels are increasing and they are projected to increase substantially up to 2018, according to the plan. However, the challenge is also increasing. Demand generated by the use of mobile devices, tablets and so on is putting pressure on capacity. I commend the Minister and his officials on how swiftly they acted on the enabling legislation, which has led to announcements such as today's. It was important to do that ground-work. We are moving on to the implementation and roll-out phase, which will result in significant benefits, which I welcome.
We had the rural broadband scheme and the national broadband scheme - the current schemes. Has a value-for-money audit been carried out to establish the penetration levels we have achieved with the roll-out of those schemes? The Minister has identified €350 million of funding with half coming from the public purse and half from commercial interests. It is important to get the best bang for our buck and I ask the Minister to elaborate slightly on that.
Is there a point of contact for members of the public or commercial interests where they can access the information on the plans and where it is being rolled out in an easy way? Is there a simple one-stop-shop point of access for that information?
I will be a bit parochial. The south east is one of the only regions that does not have access to the dark fibre cable. I believe the Minister previously told me that we would be depending on commercial interests to extend that to the south east. Has an evaluation been done to see if there is a commercial interest in extending the dark fibre broadband cable to the south east where it can link up with the MANs, the metropolitan area networks? As we all know access in urban as well as rural areas is vital for commercial interests and business. I will continue to pursue the matter. For balanced regional development it is important to have infrastructure in those areas.
I welcome the Minister's presentation because as I have said before it is not broadband we would have had in certain parts of County Limerick, but bog-band. Certainly trying to do business in any kind of remote setting in the area I represent with an intermittent service that breaks down every now and again is very difficult. Anything that can be done is very welcome. I welcome that the Minister has already acted even though the ink is hardly dry on the legislation.
I will also be parochial. I know the Minister's announcement in April included 48 locations, for instance in County Limerick. Will there be an opportunity to address obvious black spots where there are either employment opportunities or where there are isolated commercial enterprises that are having obvious difficulties?
The Minister for Education and Skills has done considerable work on increasing the speed available to schools. One of the key aspects to trying to get children to be active agents in their own learning is having a good Internet service, which is not available in many rural schools at the moment.
I refer to the work done by Shannon Development a number of years ago on metropolitan area networks across the mid-west from south Offaly down into Listowel through Limerick. How does the plan the Minister has announced dovetail with the use of them? They were put in at considerable cost to the Exchequer and include a lot of physical infrastructural work. What is the overall plan as to how those MANs, metropolitan area networks, will connect into this overall publicly-funded broadband infrastructure? In other words, will there be a single broadband one-stop shop for Government-supported broadband across the country or will it be disparate? I believe people will be concerned if it is to continue to be disparate.
I welcome the Minister. We all welcome the fibre-optic service coming into the country. For me it certainly is not fast enough at 0.8 MB per second. Companies such as Sky and Eircom advertise bundles, incorporating television, telephone, mobile phone and high-speed broadband for a particular price. People get excited when they see an offer of a 70 MB, or whatever it is, to download material and they sign on for it. When they sign on for it they are stuck. They then realise that the broadband speed has not improved whatsoever. When they contact the company they are told that it is not its fault because the customer is still operating on the copper wire as opposed to fibre optic. Is there any fall-back for the consumer who is not receiving what they were promised in the contract?
Deputy Coffey is correct. People are not prepared to tolerate a very poor or inadequate service anymore. The traditional division that might have been between rural areas and urban areas 30 or 40 years ago is no longer the case. Therefore we have to respond. When the national broadband scheme was introduced the alternative was nothing. In addition the expectations were a great deal lower. Almost nobody at that time forecast how things have developed since the NBS was put in place. While it has been reviewed, for example, by the Comptroller and Auditor General in terms of value for money and so on, the contract will continue to run until the end of August. We will certainly be assessing it after that.
To some degree it relates to Senator Coughlan's question on advertising. Sometimes speeds are advertised and not realised in practice. That is a very difficult area of consumer law where there is not uniform broadband quality. We had a very good arrangement with NBS where we were able to channel complaints and address issues that arose during the course of the contract and I believe it worked quite well. However, it was for a basic level of broadband and there is no point in me trying to dress it up for something it was not.
The expenditure on the rural broadband scheme was negligible based on the amount of uptake. It was focused on premises that could show that no alternative was available and so on. However, times have changed and intervening to provide a basic service at that time was necessary. Looking back on it could decisions have been taken differently? We are all wiser in hindsight and so on. It has been a big factor in influencing the step change to fibre. We have realised, even since the publication of the broadband plan, that some aspects we were advocating at the time are likely to be quickly out of date. That is why we have gone for the fibre solution.
I suppose the one-stop shop will be the map when it is published. It will go out to public consultation and so on at that time.
I say to Deputy O'Donovan that we will not stop at the 1,000 villages but they are first in the firing line. The funding envelope has also changed. In the approval we got from Government we have envisaged that there could be a spend of up to €520 million, I believe, in this first phase. However, that would depend on the extent to which we are leveraging existing infrastructure. It would depend on the contribution the commercial sector will make in terms of that build out. In terms of an initiative such as ESB-Vodafone and Eircom, for example, some of those villages will fall off the list and new villages will come on to it.
The second-level schools programme will be completed by the beginning of this academic year - by September. I had the extraordinary experience of visiting Arranmore Island last Thursday and being able to Skype from the school to a conference I was supposed to attend in Dublin Castle.
That is a very confidential matter and I could not possibly comment. The fact the school attracts pupils from the mainland who come across on the ferry in the morning and back in the evening is evidence of how this technology can revolutionise the teaching environment. We are examining with the Minister for Education and Skills how we can address the undoubted growing demand from the primary school sector.
The MANs were an investment of their time. A large investment of €170 million was involved. Many significant companies, including transnational companies, are located in various parts of the country which simply would not be able to conduct business today if it had not been for the installation of the MANs at the time. A total of 98% of the MANs are now lit and functioning, and some are developing innovative new products to facilitate local small businesses to link up. The pilot modelled in Claremorris is likely to be adapted elsewhere in terms of facilitating at a cheaper and more efficient level small traders in the town to be able to access the MANs. Three more are under preparation in Ardee, Loughrea and Kilkenny.
What about bringing all of the infrastructure together? At present the MANs, this initiative and the schools initiative are separate. Is it possible to have a one stop shop for State-involved broadband infrastructure?
We have been examining this. This year there has been a change in the franchise for the operation of the MANs, which has prompted this type of examination. I do not want to commit myself at this stage, because the other side of it is that competition in the sector is very important. The ESB and Vodafone would take offence at their venture being characterised as the State intervening. The ESB sees itself, quite rightly, as a commercial enterprise. I understand what the Deputy is stating in terms of tidying up and having more efficient use of and better value for money in the State's total involvement in the sector. We are examining this. At the same time I do not want to constrain normal competition, and there is fierce competition in the sector at present. The improvements could not have been envisaged three or four years ago.
Coming back to the advertising of various bundles and packages, the corporate cable does not facilitate the delivery promised in advertising. Should there be some form of an asterisk on the advertising, whereby it is subject to the line going into the house as opposed to people getting sucked in and signing up with no comeback?
The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland operates a code which provides against misleading advertising. Separately ComReg assesses promised speeds as against delivery. I suspect the most egregious examples to which the Senator is pointing relate to a generalised advertisement not being appropriate for a particular pocket which has basic connectivity problems, and when it comes down to the micro somebody being sold this package should be warned the general validity of the advertisement may not be appropriate. It probably comes back to the issue we were discussing that we must improve the quality of connectivity where it is inadequate.
I sincerely thank the Minister and his officials for updating us this morning on this very important matter for rural and urban areas, and for continually updating us. I wish him well on any team selections being made in the next week. We hope to see him here again, as well as meeting him at the Connacht final.