Thursday, 19 October 2006
The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, is a matter in the first instance for the private sector companies operating in a fully liberalised market, regulated by the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, the independent regulator.
One of my key priorities is to increase competition through the provision of broadband infrastructure so that consumers and businesses can benefit from better quality, competitive prices and increased choice. Broadband prices have fallen consistently since 2003 and Ireland now ranks among the most price competitive in Europe with the third cheapest entry level ADSL for broadband in the EU-15 according to ComReg figures as at the end of June 2006. A combination of competition and regulation is driving prices down, for example, DSL prices fell by approximately 25% during 2005.
I note the Minister referred to private sector companies but, unfortunately, the State has not become involved in this sector because of the selling off of Eircom.
Is the Minister aware of the report from the International Telecommunications Union? It reinforced the point that Irish broadband subscribers fail to get value for money. According to its report, Irish customers pay €30 for a basic Eircom broadband package while customers in the Netherlands pay €8 less and have a connection that is 20 times faster. We are talking in terms our having the slowest broadband connection. Does the Minister agree that we still lag behind most European countries in the uptake of broadband? In that regard, is the Minister concerned about the slow roll-out of broadband, particularly in those regions where no major employer will invest unless basic infrastructure, such as broadband, is available?
I have made no secret of my impatience and frustration at the slow commencement of a broadband roll-out throughout the country. We were left behind in 2002. There is no doubt about that and the Government recognised that fact at that stage. It introduced the MANS programme, the schools broadband programme and the group broadband scheme to try to roll out and provide broadband in regional and provincial areas. On the issue of the commencement of the roll-out of broadband, I have frequently said I am disappointed. However, I am delighted to report that we have turned the corner on this issue. I set a target just over two years ago when we had just over 56,000——
We had 56,000 subscribers in Ireland at that stage and I set a target of 400,000 by the end of this year. We had 410,000 subscribers as at September of this year and 17,000 new subscribers are coming on the system per month. We have the fastest growing broadband increase of anywhere in Europe. It looks as if we have turned the corner.
That is very welcome but as the Deputy pointed out, no matter how fast it is rolled out, there are still areas of the country that will not get broadband access unless the State intervenes. The estimate varies but we are talking about approximately 10% to 15% of the country without coverage.
We are discussing a scheme that will enable us to resolve that difficulty. I understand that Eircom is making an announcement today which will be helpful in facilitating a further roll-out of broadband with regard to enabling exchanges and so on. After a very slow start, we are now accelerating. Over the coming months we can reach even higher targets than those we have set. I hope we will be able to devise a scheme that will provide for the area to which the Deputy referred, namely, the last 10% or 15% of the country, to try to ensure there is coverage.
What technology does the Minister propose to utilise to achieve coverage for the 10% or 15% to which he referred? Will it be wireless, satellite or a combination of the two? Will it include places like the Black Valley in County Kerry, which the Minister has been shyly skirting for the past few years, and areas in the midlands, with which the Minister would be much more familiar, that do not even have adequate traditional telephone services?
The Minister mentioned that we have turned the corner but we have been turning the corner for the past two years.
I would have thought we would be on a straight road by now. We have serious problems in this area and industry is suffering as a result of the slow delivery and high cost of broadband. It is much more costly than has been suggested by the regulator and serious questions must be answered in that regard. I ask the Minister to take a much more serious interest in what is going on, with a view to driving it ahead, regardless of what he is being told by way of statistics.
I cannot help it if the statistics do not suit the Deputy. I have taken this issue very seriously. The statistics show that we are below the average cost in Europe for broadband. If the statistics do not suit the Deputy, I cannot help that. We are very well placed with regard to price because of the policies pursued with MANS, the group and school broadband schemes and the drive that I personally put into this to try to roll out broadband and encourage companies to roll it out to a significant extent.
The Deputy asked what technology will be used to provide broadband services to the last 10% or 15% of the country, that is, at the uneconomic exchanges. The solution will have to be technology neutral. The industry will have to participate in the process of arriving at a solution and the State will have to provide assistance. There are areas where there is no exchange close enough to provide broadband services and there are other areas where, for a variety of reasons, one may have to use satellite or wireless technologies. The solution will be a combination of all the technologies available.
I warmly welcome today's announcement by Eircom that it is enabling 100 more exchanges. However, that still leaves over 600 exchanges in rural Ireland with no chance of getting broadband. The Minister has referred to the wireless option, which we all know is very expensive.
Is the Department talking directly to the new owners of Eircom, the Babcock and Brown team of Mr. Rex Comb and Mr. Pierre Dannon, about how we might enable the whole country? Mr. Rex Comb said in an interview on 6 October in The Irish Times that he could not see how the company could commercially enable those outstanding rural and other exchanges that are in difficulty.
I commend the Minister on the fact that 9.6% of lines are now broadband enabled and that we now have 410,000 subscribers. However, Denmark has 29.3% of lines enabled, the Netherlands has 28.8%, Iceland has 27.3%, South Korea has 26.4% and so on. In a recent report on the OECD nations, we were passed out by the Czechs. It is only countries like Slovakia, Mexico and so on that are behind Ireland.
Deputy Morgan asked a question about costs and, according to the figures I have in front of me, among EU and European countries only Luxembourg, Denmark and Iceland are more expensive for broadband than Ireland. Broadband is very expensive, less than 10% of the population has access to it and it is still a bit of a disaster ——
Does the Minister agree that while the numbers are growing significantly, Eircom still holds a massive advantage here in that it holds the last mile connection? Most broadband is going through DSL and copper wire connections and the main companies have said to members of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources that the alternative methods, wireless and so forth, are not proving commercially attractive. In those circumstances and in the absence of proper local loop unbundling, we do not have a competitive market. We still have a very significant monopoly. If one considers not only providing DSL broadband but also the next level in terms of voice over Internet broadband and telecommunications, merged services and a range of other new technologies that other countries are starting to roll out, we will still be playing catch-up because of that monopoly.
The Minister said that the solution for the last 10% to 15% of the country must be technology neutral and that the Government and the industry must be involved in finding that solution. That can only mean that he is considering a State subsidy scheme for suppliers to provide broadband for isolated, rural, one-off houses or communities that are not currently acceptable to a network. Is that what the Minister is discussing with the industry?
Deputy Broughan asked if I was talking directly to Eircom, Babcock & Brown or the industry. I am talking directly to everybody I can in the industry. I addressed the TIF conference today and took the opportunity to speak to a number of other providers. Every opportunity I get I speak to people on the issue.
I have had a number of meetings with Mr. Rex Comb and Mr. Pierre Danone, including a courtesy meeting and a more business-oriented meeting. I have not been talking to them directly with regard to the scheme. The Department is currently finalising a proposal and will probably consult with TIF as a representative body. It will then go to market in that regard.
No, we will look for proposals to ensure that the last 10% to 15% of the country will be able to avail of broadband and there will be broadband coverage. The Department will see what is the industry's response.
In reply to Deputy Eamon Ryan, despite my best efforts over the past two or three years in this area, we are not going to get the private commercial sector to fork out money to provide broadband on a nationwide basis out of any sense of national pride or interest.
The companies all agree with the concept that it is in the national interest to have as much broadband coverage as possible, but they have indicated they will not pay for it. If it is economical they will provide it, but they indicate that if the Government thinks it is in the national interest that broadband coverage is everywhere, the Government should contribute. They will be looking for some support, State subsidy or backup.
In response to Deputy Eamon Ryan's point, we are moving on the issue of voice-over IP etc. That brings me back to the earlier point I made about the necessity to have as much fibre-optic cable as we can. We must think now about next generation networks, which will be based on fibre-optics rather than copper. This is particularly true if we want to get the reach and services we need.
I have a point on figures and comparing like to like. The worst possible set of statistics to use in comparing Ireland to other countries in Europe on broadband is household figures. Population would be better from an Irish point of view.