Wednesday, 15 June 2005
Question 4: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources his views on whether his revised projections on the provision of broadband facilities throughout the country are attainable in view of experience to date; the number of service providers engaged in the provision of such facilities; the number required to achieve the targets he set on time; the number wishing to enter this field; if he has satisfied himself that ready access to the infrastructure is available in line with deregulation and loop unbundling requirements; if he has identified the extent to which he can act by way of direction through the regulator to accelerate the provision of such facilities to achieve favourable comparison with other jurisdictions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20296/05]
The telecommunications sector is fully liberalised and regulated by the independent Commission for Communications Regulation. With the repeal of section 111 of the Postal and Telecommunications Services Act 1983 on 25 July 2003, the former licensing regime has been replaced by a general entitlement to provide telecommunications networks and services, including broadband, subject to compliance with standard conditions set out by ComReg in a general authorisation.
Before providing networks or services to third parties, operators are required to submit a notification to ComReg for the purposes of compiling a register of such operators.
In March 2004, my predecessor issued a number of policy directions to ComReg on competition, broadband, wholesale and retail line rental, interconnection leased lines and national and cross-Border roaming.
While access to suitable infrastructure is a major factor in the provision of broadband by the sector, the Government recognised by 2002 that investment by the sector had failed to keep pace with demand. In March 2002, the Government decided to target the widespread availability of open access affordable infrastructure using funding from the European Regional Development Fund and State funding under the National Development Plan 2000-2006. The metropolitan area networks, MANs, programme is the mainstay of the Government's broadband strategy and has given the sector access to world-class infrastructure which it could not have afforded to build for itself. Full details of the MANs programme and my Department's other broadband roll-out initiatives can be found on the website www.dcmnr.gov.ie.
It is an indicator of the increasingly buoyant state of the broadband market in Ireland that the ComReg register of authorised undertakings currently lists 169 service providers which offer Internet access using a variety of technologies, including DSL, fixed wireless, cable modem, fibre, leased lines and satellite technology. My Department's website at www.broadband.gov.ie lists 190 different service offers from the sector ranging from 0.256 mbps to 56 mbps. Of those, 25 are priced at €25 per month or less. The number of broadband users is now over 160,000, which represents an increase of more than 400% since January 2004. I am confident the industry can achieve the target I have set of 500,000 broadband customers by the end of 2006.
Is the Minister aware of concern in the industry at the strong possibility that the targets he correctly set are unobtainable despite their revision given the current speed and notwithstanding the number of service providers already in the field? Does the Minister also recognise that the level of access to infrastructure required to achieve his targets does not exist? Does the Minister believe that the lethargy of the regulator's response indicates that the directions of his predecessor fell on deaf ears? Does the Minister recognise the possibility of a long drawn-out argument in the courts and elsewhere on the infrastructure which must be made available to facilitate service providers?
I take it the Deputy's last question refers to the Eircom court case and the company's appeals to many of the orders which have been made. Whether I agree or disagree with the company is academic as it is entitled to take the action it has taken and we must afford it the opportunity to do so. I assure the Deputy, who has raised the matter before, that I have taken steps to ensure the appeals system will function well in this instance and I will announce in the next couple of days that I will increase the number of people available to the electronic appeals panel. I might as well make the announcement in the House as Deputy Durkan prefers.
In future, a number of appeals may be heard at the same time to avoid undue delay. If people decide to go to court, I hope their cases are heard by the commercial rather than the normal courts to expedite matters. As Deputy Durkan is correct continually to point out, this is a matter of significant national importance and interest. While I am satisfied the directions of my predecessor are being implemented and pursued by the regulator, appeals mechanisms are in place in this area also which may slow things up. The fault is not with ComReg.
I dealt with access to infrastructure in my initial reply. I would like to see speedier progress. We saw the example of the local loop unbundling that has been challenged and appealed, which is certainly not the approach I like to see people take. I would like people, especially the incumbent, to accept the process is in the national interest and that they should co-operate fully with it. There is a great deal of business potential in the process for the incumbent and, apart from the competition which comes in, it will be good for the industry.
Deputy Durkan also asked about concern in the industry that the target might not be achieved. All these questions are related to one another and I have responded to each. I would be concerned if we did not reach the target which is the minimum required. While we hope there will be a sea change in attitudes, we intend to ensure through ComReg that the benefits of local loop and unbundling and an open market are available to all consumers as soon as it is legally possible. Some of the actions which have been taken over the past two or three years have shown what can happen. The recent report demonstrates that prices for telecommunications have fallen in Ireland by approximately 20% over the past 12 to 18 months as a direct result of deregulation. Companies can well afford to allow them to fall further, which is what we would like to see happen.
In the event that the degree of acceleration sought by the Minister and consumers does not materialise, is there an initiative the Minister can take to ensure the primary targets he has set are met at the earliest possible date in the national interest?
While I am open to suggestion, I do not see what other initiatives are available. We have the MANs programme, school broadband and group and county broadband schemes, all of which are playing a role. Short of moving in and buying the exchanges back or coming to some arrangement with Eircom, which I can imagine would be very popular politically, I do not see what can be done.
While I am prepared to explore it if necessary, MANs will provide competition for that infrastructure. Eircom will have to make up its mind and decide whether to be in the market. If it continues as it has and we continue to develop the MANs programme, I can see it becoming attractive for other companies to come in to provide the last mile of access. That is the route we will go if we can.