Tuesday, 30 May 2006
Question 69: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if he will use the occasion of the transfer of ownership of Eircom to set out new ground rules with precise targets and review dates for the development of the telecommunications sector with particular reference to the provision of broadband, fixed-line and mobile services in all areas in the shortest possible time; if he will use his powers of direction through the regulator to set out a precise programme of investment in the telecommunications sector, with a view to extending a full range of modern information technology services to all areas, urban and rural; if he will set out precise guidelines and objectives for the investment in and upgrading of the sector with a view to setting the highest possible standard as befits a developing economy in a competitive market; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21038/06]
The sale of Eircom, which is not a State company, does not affect or change the regulatory environment in the telecommunications sector. The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, fixed-line and mobile services is a matter in the first instance for the private sector companies operating in a fully liberalised market, regulated by the independent Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, in accordance with the requirements of the Communications Regulation Act 2002, and the transposed EU regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services. I have no powers to directly influence the behaviour of private sector companies.
The telecommunications sector employs approximately 14,500 people and is worth over €4 billion. The Central Statistics Office's consumer price index shows that between 1997 and January 2006 telephone and communications prices have fallen by almost 25%. The price of fixed calls in Ireland is better than the EU average for both national and international calls for residential and business customers. Ireland has a mobile telephone penetration rate of 102%, which shows the appetite for consumers for these types of services and the variety of mobile services in the market including 3G services.
In comparison to other European states, broadband providers in Ireland, including the incumbent Eircom, were slow in launching competitive and affordable broadband services. However, the situation is improving rapidly and the current level of take-up is consistent with the stage of development of the market. Ireland is now the fastest growing broadband economy in the EU.
The Government is addressing the infrastructure deficit in the regions by building high-speed open access metropolitan area networks, MANs, in 120 towns and cities on a phased basis in association with the local and regional authorities. The Department also offers funding assistance for smaller towns and rural communities to become self-sufficient in broadband through the county and group broadband scheme. To date, over 150 projects have been approved for funding. A joint industry-Government fund of €18 million has been established for the broadband for schools programme, which will provide every school with broadband. This programme is almost complete with over 90% of schools broadband enabled.
Is the Minister aware of public concern over the lack of speedy provision of broadband? Is he aware of the concerns over the lack of progress in the development of the IT sector since Eircom was privatised? Will the Minister accept that the degree of investment in the infrastructure in the intervening period has not been sufficient, satisfactory or in keeping with the requirements of a modern economy? Will he accept that the opportunity has been presented for him to stamp his authority on the development of the telecommunications sector through ComReg? Is the Minister aware of the fundamental part that the services provided by the telecommunications sector will play in the economy and the need for the rapid provision of such services?
Anyone who has the read all my statements as the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources will be in no doubt that I am well aware of the importance of broadband provision and a good telecommunications infrastructure. I am sure Deputy Durkan reads them avidly on a daily basis.
Over the past several years, the Government has been committed to the roll-out of broadband. The policies put in place have been successful in increasing the numbers in broadband take-up. I agree with the Deputy on private sector investment in the services. That is why the MANs programme, the group broadband scheme and so forth were put in place. In the past several years there has not been the investment from the private sector that there should have been. This hindered the development of the market and left Ireland much further down the list than it should have been for such a thriving economy. The portrayal by others of Ireland as a backwater in IT and broadband is bad for the country's image. It is also false. If there was a truth in it, then the Government would be held to account for it. There is no truth in such a claim. One would not get all of the top companies in IT and in broadband setting up in this country if one did not have a proper telecommunications structure. We have a top class telecommunications structure but there are the difficulties to which the Deputy referred.
There is none of the top companies leaving this country because of broadband. There are still many of them coming in. We have the top 50 in the first flight initiative — like Yahoo, Google and Amazon — operating here and in second flight, we have ten of the top 15 companies. I am merely making the point that I do not let that blind me to the fact that there are blackspots where broadband is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, and it can be very costly. The Government's approach to this is to try to tackle those particular problems.
The thrust of the Deputy's question was to try to see if I can give directions directly to ComReg so that it can give directions directly to the private companies.
There are certainly areas about which we have spoken such as local loop unbundling where ComReg has attempted to issue directives. It has not been very successful in that regard to date. It is for that reason that we are inserting the extra powers into the electronic communications Bill currently being drafted. I accept there is a need for action in that particular area. However, there are areas to which the Deputy refers in which neither ComReg nor I, as Minister, can directly interfere because it would be in breach of EU and Irish law. Wherever we can do something to improve the situation, we do so and will continue to do so.
Would the Minister accept it is not necessarily a good idea for him to announce publicly that he cannot interfere and can do nothing as that gives a carte blanche for getting nothing done? In those circumstances will he make it clear to all investors in that area that the economy depends heavily on the investment, updating and speed with which the technology is introduced and provided to the wider community and that has a bearing on economy prosperity, and will he insist that those guidelines are kept to the fore at all times?
I am doing things. I have met frequently, officially and unofficially, with some of the companies to which the Deputy refers. I have stressed, time and again, the important national interest involved in ensuring a speedy roll out of broadband and a top class telecommunications network.
One of the frustrations in attempting to deal with this was that commercial interests took precedence over the national interest. I hope that will change. It is a little ironic. Whereas often we get lectures in this House from people on the left and from trade unions etc., about the importance of worker participation and full involvement in companies, in one company in which the workers had a 25% stake they did not seem to influence policy in the national interest at all and I hope that will change when they own 35% of it.