Tuesday, 30 May 2006
Question 67: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if he will report on the recently established digital terrestrial television pilot; the timeframe for a national roll-out of DTT; the way in which he intends to manage spectrum space as the digitisation process advances; if he will confirm that 2012 is the date for analogue switch-off; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20861/06]
I hope Deputies opposite will not complain about not getting through too many questions at the end of this Question Time given that they will not allow answers to be given.
The digital terrestrial television, DTT, pilot programme is being implemented by my Department. The purpose of the pilot is to bring further momentum to the transition to digital terrestrial broadcasting and to test and trial various aspects of the service. Detailed procurement processes, inviting expressions of interest and tenders for various aspects of the infrastructure build programme, were recently completed by my Department. The infrastructure for the DTT pilot is in the roll-out phase and is expected to be operational by autumn 2006.
The initial transmission sites are at Clermont Carn in the north east and Three Rock covering parts of the Dublin region. The trial is planned to continue over a two-year timeframe and will provide the opportunity for technical and user testing of both existing and new broadcast services.
In regard to spectrum for DTT, a major conference under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union is taking place in Geneva between European, African and Middle Eastern countries, which will set the rules to ensure that each country gets equitable access and protection for spectrum for digital broadcasting. Ireland is represented at the conference by a delegation headed by an official of my Department and includes representatives from ComReg, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and RTE.
Once the conference has concluded we may begin to develop a plan to manage the digitisation process to ensure protection to our existing analogue services and to manage any moves to digital terrestrial television in Ireland.
The DTT pilot project under way demonstrates my commitment to the long-term provision of free-to-air DTT in Ireland. I expect the pilot will generate awareness and discussion among broadcasters, investors and other interested parties with a view to moving towards a full national roll-out of DTT in time.
As the pilot is developed and proposals for a national DTT roll-out emerge, I will outline my intentions regarding possible dates for a switch-off of analogue to digital terrestrial television broadcasts. Switch-off of analogue television services is being strongly advocated by the European Commission, with 2012 a target date suggested by the Commission. While the pilot is under way, I intend to hold discussions with all relevant stakeholders around the issue of analogue switch-off. When decisions have been taken about the nature and timing of analogue switch-over, it will be necessary to ensure that Irish viewers are fully informed of all the issues arising. All stakeholders will have a role in so informing viewers.
I thank the Minister for his reply and the fact that from August there will be a pilot DTT scheme. Why is the Minister just launching a pilot in the dying days of the Government and why has he not carried out the necessary research and preparation for the digital switch-over? What impact will the digital switch-over have on households? How many households will be affected? What percentage of total TV viewing households will be affected? Why has the Minister not decided on a switch-off date? He has been talking of the EU date, but the UK has a definite switch-off date for of 2012 and Northern Ireland and Wales will switch from analogue to digital in 2009, just three years away. In the committee discussion, I said the Minister was an analogue politician in a digital age. Is there a danger we will have a re-run of the broadband disaster? We are at the bottom of the EU league for broadband and will be the same for digital TV and broadcasting. Has the Minister's lethargy in recent years laid the basis for this?
Has the Minister given ComReg any role in this area? What is ComReg doing? Where are the reports such as we read from Ofcom, the BBC and the British Government, regular reports on public broadcasting in the digital age, for example? We have nothing similar here. It is a complete wasteland.
When we move to digital, the analogue spectrum will be very valuable. Has the Minister any plans in this area, or has he evaluated the best approach towards the management of our spectrum as the digital age develops? Will the Minister adopt a market-led approach with TV companies bidding, or how will he maximise the value to the country? For what uses should the switched-off spectrum space be made available? Will the Minister put the bulk of it into high-definition TV, mobile TV, or what? Within eight or nine months of a general election, has the Minister thought about any of these matters?
As far as I can, I try to develop policy very carefully, do the background work and then make decisions on what is in the national interest, rather than from party political reasons or anything else.
I am delighted to tell the Deputy that everything he has started thinking about——
We have carefully thought about all the matters the Deputy mentioned. Various bodies with responsibilities in the area are developing their policies and working on recommendations and advice.
Deputy Broughan asked about the pilot project in 2002-03. My predecessor launched a competition for DTT in the private sector to gauge a response. There was no response to that from the private sector. The UK ploughed ahead in a similar experiment and lost some €2 billion. When I came into office I set about asking ComReg to put in place the regulation that would allow us to set up a pilot scheme. We carefully laid out all the tendering procedures and allowed people to tender for the pilot, to construct the platforms. From autumn we will be in a position to roll out the pilot scheme. I have done the research and organised a pilot scheme because I want to ensure that when we do this, we do it properly. A pilot scheme is a fairly conventional way of ensuring that.
If we are going to full digital television, DTT, every house will be affected. If we go that route, everybody will have to change from analogue televisions to digitised sets.
It is quite a simple sum. One must add up the cost of the televisions that will have to be bought, perhaps one or two per household. That is a matter for the individual householder.
We are using the 2012 date as a guideline. Clearly there is no point in putting out a pilot, seeing how successful it is, finding out what the difficulties might be and ignoring all of that by setting a date which is not realistic.
I am trying to inform the Deputy. He has asked me a series of questions which I have noted.
As Deputy Broughan noted, ComReg has a role with regard to broadcasting and the use of spectrum and so on. We had to consult with it with regard to getting regulations in place as part of the lead-in, so we could roll out a pilot scheme. ComReg is considering the use of spectrum. Tomorrow I will address an OECD conference with regard to spectrum use into the future. The ITU is also involved in this. When that conference is finished in Geneva we will have a much clearer picture.