Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 October 2006

Priority Questions

Telecommunications Services.

3:00 pm

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Question 5: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources when he will bring forward legislation to ensure that the telecommunications sector is effectively regulated in view of the ongoing Smart Telecom debacle and the recent disconnection of over 45,000 Smart Telecom customers from their telephone and broadband services; if he will adopt ComReg's suggestion of establishing a statutory basis for notice of withdrawal of service by a telecommunications operator; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33856/06]

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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As I stated earlier, the telecommunications market in Ireland is fully liberalised and open.

Statutory responsibility for the regulation of the electronic communication sector rests with the independent regulator, the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, under the Communications Regulation Act 2002 and the regulations transposing the EU Regulatory Framework for Electronic Communications Networks and Services.

As the Minister with responsibility for policy in the sector, I am concerned about the disruption and inconvenience caused to so many customers and I have asked ComReg to examine how, in light of the recent situation regarding Smart Telecom, this could best be prevented from happening in the future. All options, including legislation if necessary, will be considered following that review.

4:00 pm

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The Minister stated two and a half weeks ago, when 45,000 people woke up to find they had no telephone or broadband services, that he would rush emergency legislation through the House. Almost three weeks later, there is no sign of it.

Ms Isolde Goggin, chairperson of ComReg, stated that she would like to see a statutory basis for a notice of withdrawal of service, in other words, every company would have to give a notice of withdrawal of service. Could the Minister have provided this already and why is he not providing it?

Has the Minister asked ComReg for a review of this debacle? When we invigilated it at the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, it was unclear. For example, the media tell us that ComReg knew about this for three weeks and 19 termination notices had been issued by Eircom to Smart Telecom. Was that the case? Can the Minister confirm that ComReg knew well about this and to some extent, like the little boy who cried wolf, was not ready when the wolf finally appeared?

Does the Minister follow the activities of the joint committee? Did he see, for example, Mr. Oisín Fanning when he complained bitterly, almost tearfully, to the committee about portability, and the difficulties of enabling exchanges and of getting broadband without changing numbers, and asked that the Minister, who leads this House in legislation on communications, take some action? Did he feel at that stage he had a responsibility to act in regard to the only independent Irish company in the market but failed to do so?

Is the Minister concerned about the business models used by companies in this market? Earlier this week, Mr. Joe Duffy presented a programme that featured a litany of complaints about another operator that offers an apparent low cost package. However, citizen after citizen rang the programme bitterly upset about the treatment they received. At the end of the day——

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy has asked three or four questions and I would like the Minister to be given time to answer them.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Is it not the Minister's job to legislate on behalf of the regulators such as CER and ComReg? He is not doing it.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy falls into the trap, which the Labour Party and others always fall into, of taking everything printed in a newspaper as gospel. I said nothing about rushing emergency legislation on this matter through the House.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The Minister did so.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I said that the matter would be dealt with in consultation with ComReg and if legislation was deemed to be necessary, we would introduce it.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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That is rushing.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Ms Goggin wants legislation.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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This is slightly different from the Deputy's breathless description of rushing emergency legislation through the House, which I never stated.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Fianna Fáil never rushes.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with the Deputy that the situation that emerged on 2 October, whether it is addressed by legislation or regulation, should not happen. I am not sure whether a 24-hour notice would do much good in similar circumstances and, therefore, I will maximise the notice customers will receive of being cut off.

Everybody following the telecommunications industry knew there had been signs for some time, and more frequent signs in the three or four weeks leading up to the cut-off, that there was a major problem. Smart Telecom also knew that. We all beat up on Eircom occasionally but, in this instance, Smart Telecom was also not a shining knight. This is an industry and one company owed another money. I do not care who owes money to whom but I care if customers are cut off as a result, and that is what I want to address.

The Deputy referred to local loop unbundling, number portability and so on. These are matters for the regulator and they have been legislated for. Talks are ongoing between the regulator and the industry to ensure they are rolled out as quickly as possible.