Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Communications Regulation (Amendment) Bill 2007 [Seanad]: Second Stage


5:00 pm

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to present the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Bill 2007 for the consideration of the House. This Bill is important. Not only will it provide a framework for critical services such as an emergency call answering service, but when enacted, it will greatly strengthen the powers of ComReg, the communications regulator, to enable greater competition in the electronic communications market.

The Commission for Communications Regulation, or ComReg, as it is more commonly known, was established in 1996 as the then Office of the Director of Telecoms Regulation. We have come a long way since then. The market was fully liberalised in 1999 and the communications landscape has been completely overhauled and transformed in the past decade. We now have more than 300 private operators in the communications arena and a mobile phone penetration rate of 100%. Consumers now have choices in terms of products and services that would have been undreamt of previously. Communications are an integral part of our daily lives. They drive businesses forward, open new and strengthen existing networks, and negate many of the disadvantages of being an island nation. They are a strategically important part of our economy.

Creating an open and competitive market is a key challenge. The current regulatory framework is based on competition law principles and aims to ensure fair competition between service providers, some of whom dominate for historical structural reasons. However, the evidence to date does not show the market to be moving towards a fully competitive state. ComReg's market analyses have found significant market power in both the fixed and mobile markets.

Regulatory remedies are key to realising the benefits of a competitive market and the Bill aims to enhance ComReg's powers in this regard. The Bill confers on ComReg competition law powers similar to that of the Competition Authority, so that it can investigate and prosecute restrictive agreements and practices, but only in regard to the communications sector. These powers are similar to the powers of the UK regulatory authority in regard to the telecoms sector and which have proven very effective in opening up the broadband market in the UK. Strong powers to prosecute specific anti-competitive behaviour are needed to encourage compliance among market players, especially the larger players.

The communications sector is a fast paced and exciting one. Terms such as broadband, texting, convergence, and Internet hotspots are now ubiquitous. Whether we like it or not, texting has even introduced its own form of language. One term, however, with which we are all too familiar is that of local loop unbundling, LLU. Local loop unbundling is a key requirement to stimulate more competition in Ireland's broadband market and to increase broadband take-up. It has been legally mandated since 2000 but has been difficult to implement in practice, despite the regulatory steps taken by ComReg. Latest figures for LLU in Ireland remain low. Approximately 20,000 lines were unbundled by the end of 2006. This is not good enough.

Delays in unbundling create serious economic and operational problems for other operators, and militate against customers being able to benefit from the innovation, choice and prices available in other markets such as the UK, France, etc. LLU has worked in other countries. One can ask what is so different here. There have been calls from many quarters, even from the Opposition, to give ComReg enhanced powers, so as "to give the regulator teeth" and "to unleash the watchdog". Competitiveness in the communications sector is a significant factor in determining national competitiveness and it is essential that we get the regulatory balance right. The proposals in the Bill were drafted in consultation with ComReg and there has been full consultation with the key players in the market. The Bill is a measured and proportionate step towards this goal.

While the primary purpose of the Bill is to strengthen ComReg's enforcement powers so that it can better achieve its function of promoting competition, and confers on ComReg competition law powers similar to the Competition Authority, the Bill also provides for information gathering powers, the establishment of an emergency call handling service and the regulation by ComReg of the ".ie" Internet domain name.

I will highlight the main provisions of the Bill for the House. The legislation is divided into four parts. Part 1 contains standard preliminary provisions. Part 2 contains the main provisions giving additional functions and enforcement powers to ComReg. Part 3 amends the Electronic Commerce Act to provide for the regulation by ComReg of the ".ie" domain name. Part 4 of the Bill amends the Competition Act to give ComReg powers under that Act to investigate and prosecute offences such as abuse of dominance.

Part 2 of the Bill amends the Communications Regulation Act, hereafter referred to as the principal Act, to confer some additional functions on ComReg. It will monitor the operation of the emergency call answering service that is to be established in lieu of the service currently provided and paid for by Eircom. It is proposed that the provision of the new service will be tendered for and funded by a per call fee to be determined by ComReg and paid by public access telecommunications providers who forward emergency calls to the centre. It is also proposed that ComReg will monitor the quality of the service and report annually to me, as the Minister with responsibility for communications, on its operation.

ComReg may collect and disseminate information from undertakings for the purpose of contributing to an open and competitive market and for statistical purposes. Information is key to effective regulation. ComReg's current information gathering powers were not expressly designed for general statistical purposes. The Bill now expressly gives ComReg powers in this regard. Deficiencies or delays associated with the provision of information to ComReg have a direct effect on its ability to share information with other organisations, such as the European Commission or the OECD. ComReg is mindful of the burden that data collection imposes on operators and has sought to assist operators by specifying particular data requirements that do not apply to them. ComReg's function to carry out investigations as a result of complaints from undertakings and consumers is being broadened to include the ability to carry out investigations on its own initiative. This will increase ComReg's effectiveness as the regulator of the industry.

Section 6 of the Bill provides that I, as Minister, can obtain information from ComReg and undertakings that will assist me in formulating policies and plans to deal with any network security issues that may arise. This is important because of the growing reliance we place on the telecommunications networks as individuals and as a society. It is vital that, in order to formulate policies regarding the security of the networks, I have the most relevant information possible at my disposal. ComReg is also granted certain information gathering powers to be exercised in the pursuance of its functions.

Section 7 provides protection for whistleblowers who disclose appropriate information to ComReg. This is line with Government policy to provide such protection in new legislation and should encourage employees of undertakings to expose and report wrongdoing they reasonably believe to be occurring. Protection for operators is also provided for by creating an offence of knowingly providing incorrect information.

In the interests of transparency, section 9 of the Bill requires ComReg to publish annual plans and associated budgets relating to the principal work items it proposes to undertake in the following year. These will complement the existing financial information in its annual report and the strategies outlined in its strategy statement and will be of interest not just to the industry who funds these strategies, but also to a wider audience. It is reasonable that companies in the communications and postal sector that fund ComReg's activities should have more information as to how the levies paid to ComReg are spent.

The Bill inserts a new part in the principal Act that will allow ComReg to require persons to appear before it to give evidence or produce a document that relates to a matter concerning the performance or exercise of any of its functions or objectives. This is based on a similar provision in the Competition Act that empowers the Competition Authority to require witnesses to attend before it and is in addition to ComReg's authorised officers powers, thereby substantially increasing the effectiveness of ComReg's investigatory powers, which is important in the context of proper enforcement. This provision allows ComReg to put the onus on an operator to give evidence or produce documents, rather than ComReg having to search for them, and like the Competition Act, protections and privileges are built into this section for anyone required to attend before ComReg.

Section 13 of the Bill creates a new offence for overcharging consumers. I do not suggest there is widespread overcharging in the market but it is appropriate, given ComReg's overarching regulatory remit in the communications sector, to remedy any absence of power in this area. This provision is essentially about consumer protection.

Section 14 of the Bill is the cornerstone of enhancing ComReg's enforcement powers. In addition to the principal Act, the current regulatory regime derives from the directives transposed in 2003 under the European Communities Act 1972. Summary proceedings are provided for, with a maximum fine of €3,000 and the option of civil proceedings for non-compliance with obligations under that regime. There are no indictable offences as these are prohibited under the 1972 Act. However, enforcement is a key part of effective regulation and appropriate remedies and sanctions are vital to secure regulatory compliance. Penalties for summary offences may be of little consequence to operators in such a high value industry and have little deterrent effect. Section 14 of the Bill provides an enabling mechanism whereby the Minister with responsibility for communications can, by regulation, provide for offences under those regulations to be tried on indictment, with penalties of up to €4 million or 10% of turnover, whichever is greater. Penalties of this magnitude are necessary in an industry where total revenues for the fixed, mobile and broadcasting markets stand at an estimated €4 billion per annum.

In a fast changing, dynamic industry such as the electronic communications sector, it is important to be able to legislate in a timely and effective manner. For example, the current EU framework, which comprised five directives and was only transposed in 2003, is already under review and the EU Commission will propose changes to it later this year. Any proposed changes will need to be implemented speedily if competition in the market is to be strengthened and maintained.

I am confident that this provision for making regulations with the possibility of indictable proceedings, limited to the communications sector, is a progressive step and will help improve the regulatory framework in Ireland. Any regulations made under the principal Act, as amended by this Bill, will be laid before each House of the Oireachtas and be subject to scrutiny and annulment within 21 days.

Section 14 also provides for some enhancements for prosecution procedures under this Act. These provisions relate to the admissibility of expert evidence, the provision of documents to juries, presumption as to the authenticity of certain documents, and statements within documents. They are based on similar provisions in competition law and will prove useful because legal proceedings in this sector can be technical and specialised.

Section 15 of the Bill will allow ComReg to ensure access for operators to physical infrastructure by extending ComReg's remit here to cover situations where the physical infrastructure owner, such as a property developer, is not bound by general authorisation conditions. Ensuring access to physical infrastructure is an important element of the communications framework because much of the infrastructure in this sector is not easily replicable for reasons of scale, investment, and natural monopoly. ComReg will now be able to enforce access against owners of physical infrastructure, such as property developers, by seeking a court order. This will help ensure more choice for consumers, particularly in new property developments, where exclusive contracts restrict consumers' choice.

Section 16 of the Bill inserts a new Part 6 into the principal Act that provides for me as the Minister to enter into a contract with an undertaking for the provision of an emergency call answering service. This section also provides for ComReg to regulate the price the undertaking shall charge for the handling of emergency calls. It also provides for a payment regime where the undertaking shall charge the operator who forwards emergency calls on a per call basis.

Part 3 of the Bill amends the Electronic Commerce Act 2000 to provide for the regulation of the .ie domain by ComReg. It provides for the powers given to me as Minister, pursuant to the Electronic Commerce Act, to be transferred to ComReg. This part also provides ComReg with powers to designate an interim authority and to have access to the registry files to ensure that the functioning of the .ie Internet domain name is secure at all times.

The European regulatory framework for communications is based on competition law principles. Following discussion with my colleague, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I am introducing in this Bill provisions to give ComReg powers similar to those of the Competition Authority so that it can investigate and prosecute restrictive agreements and practices, but only in respect of the communications sector.

The Competition Authority is charged with enforcing competition law in the whole of the economy, not just the telecommunications area. Giving ComReg similar powers enables it to prioritise competition investigations in the communications industry, which is where its expertise lies. Provision is made for a co-operation agreement between both bodies so that there is no duplication of resources, and so that expertise and experience can be shared.

The communications sector is of major importance to the economy and therefore, it is important that abuse of dominance issues are adequately addressed. The promotion of competition in the sector will enhance the attractiveness of the sector for investors, and provide more choice for consumers.

The Bill provides for increased penalties for obligations that already exist under the EU regulatory framework of 2003 and provisions to facilitate more effective prosecutions by ComReg. Compliant operators have nothing to fear. Aside from compliance with the new information gathering powers for both the Minister and ComReg, emergency call handling fees and the obligation not to overcharge, there are no new obligations for operators in the Bill.

The Government's communications regulation policy is to create a legislative framework, in line with the EU regulatory framework, that provides for the development of strategic and competitive communications networks and services. This Bill is a timely enhancement of the regulator's powers. It will give ComReg the necessary tools to ensure the development of competition in the market and will provide the regulatory certainty that will encourage new investment by existing operators and entice new entrants into the market.

Over the coming period, we will look to the regulator to deliver on its commitments and to the operators to deliver on their obligations. I will propose several amendments on Committee Stage, but these should not substantially alter the nature of the Bill. I look forward to hearing the views of the Members of this House on the Bill and their assistance in facilitating its early passage into law. I commend the Bill to the House.

6:00 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I would like to be able to welcome the Bill because for the past four or five years there has been much debate about the need for regulation that benefits the consumer in the telecommunications area. The Bill, however, is ineffective because it is too little too late, and the proposals it contains are unlikely to reverse the slide that has taken place in this area over the past six or seven years. I do not blame the Minister for that but it is opportune for us now to examine the extent to which this country has fallen so far from its leading position ten years ago. It is now trailing among the back markers. There was no reason for that to happen.

It happened because the regulatory system of EU law transposed into Irish law does not protect the consumer. Instead it creates situations in which the consumer suffers considerably. Last year, for example, at the time of the Smart Telecom problem, we on this side of the House approached the regulator to find out what went wrong, and why the Minister had not been aware of this beforehand and issued a warning to the 80,000 or 100,000 customers left without service overnight. While I mean no disrespect to the regulator and recognise the difficult position it was in, the response we received was that the regulator was aware of the problem and had tried to bring it along as best it could. That is not good enough.

In parts of the country the local overground cabling for broadband and other services is tied up by a piece of rope to a tree. I can bring photographic confirmation of that into the House if necessary. That in itself is not the issue but indicates a more deep-rooted problem, going back to 1969, 1970 and 1979 when the telecommunications industry here was falling apart and needed major investment. That has been forgotten. The regulatory system over the past eight or nine years has allowed the infrastructure to drift to such an extent that many customers around the country are screaming for assistance to get broadband. I am informed that in some parts of the country ducting for cabling has been put down but nothing else has happened. Provision has been made in theory but the connections have not been made.

A former Member of this House was asked many years ago to provide a telephone kiosk in a particular constituency, which he duly did. When people complained that the telephone in the kiosk did not work he asked why and they said there were no cables. His response was that nobody said anything about cables. They were not part of the deal. The situation today is similar. I do not blame the Minister for that but he is in the driving seat and somebody must accept responsibility for whatever happens. If Deputy Broughan or I were sitting in the Minister's place and he was in ours he would be one of the first to point the finger and ask what we had been doing and why we had not delivered the goods. He would ask the cause of the late conversion and activity to deal with issues that should have been dealt with before now.

Business people and industries around the country are moving from one location to another because they cannot get access to modern broadband facilities and a proper telecommunications service where they are. That is an appalling indictment of the country in the 21st century, when it should be one of the leading lights in Europe. Where has it all gone wrong? Why was action not taken sooner? The regulator, sadly, is the meat in the sandwich, not being a Minister, a regulator or a service provider. He or she is, sadly, in all camps and in none. After all, the regulator cannot offend the Government. Who could offend the Government and expect to live after it? That would be an appalling thought. Nor can it be seen to offend the service providers too much. There are a number of potential service providers and offending one could enhance the position of the other and vice versa. That is a difficult situation. Who suffers at the end of the day? The unfortunate consumer pays the price.

There was outlandish carry-on in the communications committee recently. A major investigation took place into how to provide telecommunications services in some parts of the country, such as the Black Valley in Kerry, parts of the midlands and other areas where there are no communications whatsoever. If they had a mobile telephone service, they might get some other services. An internal investigation took place as to how best to deal with the situation. In God's name, what are we at? Surely we should know these things. It should be possible to make a telephone call and inquire from somebody how the service will be provided and when it will be provided. We should not have the current stupid situation where there is a stream of reports, Ministers running around the constituencies and even the poor chairman of the communications committee being dragged down on a wet afternoon to walk around the countryside in an effort to find out why proper communications cannot be provided in, for example, the Black Valley. There are other parts of the country where battery systems are still being used for communications.

It is appalling that in the century after humans put a man on the moon we are unable to provide communications on land in a relatively small country. I accept there are deep ravines in Kerry and along the western and eastern seaboards, but I am sure there are equally deep ravines on the moon. However, we succeeded in putting communications on the moon and receiving a signal back from there. What, therefore, is going on here?

A number of issues are not dealt with in the Bill, even though they could have been dealt with. The Bill should be broader and should encompass far more than it does. The same problem applies to the broadcasting Bill. We have been discussing that Bill for the past four or five years. When it appeared, however, it was merely a truncated version of what we had hoped for and intended in the first instance.

Let us consider how competition has and has not worked in this sector. Look at Smart Telecom, for example. A large number of customers were discommoded and instantly left without services. They did not know that there had been an ongoing row between two service providers for some time. It should not have been allowed to go on for that time. The customers should have been alerted to what was happening. The Minister should also have been alerted. I do not know if he was but if he was, he remained silent. He should indicate why he remained silent. What happened afterwards? My information is that 80% of those whose service was discontinued at that time returned to one service provider. Is that competition and regulation? Is that how they should work? I think not. It is a serious indictment of how this system is working.

It is generally agreed that to provide a proper communications system there is an ongoing requirement for annual investment in line with the value of the company and in keeping with the requirements of the modern consumer. It is necessary to bring the company's infrastructure up to date on an annual basis by ensuring there is an annual investment that will keep that company sharp, at the leading edge and in a position to deliver high quality service to the consumer. There is nothing about that or even remotely associated with it in the Bill.

It seems to be possible to do it in other countries. I am sick of listening to people tell me that we cannot have things here because of regulations, European legislation or some other reason. Eastern European countries came late to this industry but they are now ahead of us. It affects a plethora of disciplines. In medicine, for example, a modern, efficient and effective telecommunications system is vital. It is important that video case conferences can take place. Operations can be performed on one side of the world while advice is simultaneously received from the other side, provided communications are readily available. The financial services sector is also dependent on communications.

So many areas need attention in terms of modernisation it is embarrassing. In the past 12 months I was talking to a group of people who, ten or 15 years ago, hosted people from the business and banking sector abroad who came to this country to see what was happening and to get inspiration and advice. Now, however, they are being told by their hosts that this country is not as up to speed as it was formerly. Sadly, that is the situation.

I put down numerous questions, which were disallowed, regarding the relevance of the communications sector to, and asking the Minister to take action on, the use of the Internet for pornographic purposes and for the abuse of children either through bullying or being pursued by paedophiles and so forth. The Minister indicated to the Taoiseach today that legislation is already in place. It is not. The technical know-how is available to track these activities, which are the subject of much discussion at present.

Policing is a separate matter; it occurs after the event. To be able to spot a risk before it happens or before it becomes an epidemic is when the technology is called into play. The EU Commission has already indicated its preference that the industry adopts the most modern technology to ensure that sexual predators on the Internet are spotted at an early stage and put out of business. It is that simple. It is not rocket science. We talk about these problems and say something should be done, yet nothing is done. Children and women become victims as a result. A great deal more could have been included in this Bill to cover a huge range of areas. Instead, it barely touches the surface of those issues when it could be far more effective.

I already referred to ComReg as the meat or jam in the sandwich. I do not wish to be offensive to ComReg. However, the unfolding situation requires something different to address the issues I have mentioned. We have options. We can do nothing, avoid the issue, say everything is fine and claim that in five or seven years we will be better off. I have bad news for people of that view. The communications area is part of the backbone of our economy and if we do not take action at an early date we will give the wrong signal — no pun intended — to those involved in this and other industries, which are huge investment areas in this country at present. Many large international business concerns see our telecommunications system as a weakness. While it is fine to recognise the weakness, the means and wherewithal to address it are more important. Our telecommunications system is from an old-fashioned era, while across the world, the telecommunications industry is rising to the challenge, meeting the requirements and attending to the needs of its customers.

Applying for a telephone line to one's house is a similar process to what it was in 1979. Then one had to be gifted to get service. What has gone wrong?

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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It is like "Dog Day Afternoon".

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Why can this not be attended to? Why do we have to write to the regulator?

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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It was faster when the Cruiser was Minister.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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That is because investment was made in the industry that took several years to mature. Why, every day, do Opposition Members receive so many letters from people who cannot get broadband or even a telephone? Technologically, Ireland was supposed to have gone ahead in leaps and bounds to be world leader in this area. Why, instead of ducking and diving, is the problem not tackled head on?

What went wrong with local loop unbundling? Great claims were made of EU legislation in this area and how it would be of benefit to the consumer. Local loop unbundling is a joke and does not work the way it was intended to. I appreciate the main service providers will try to hold on to what they can. There is no sense in pretending we have a new system that will deliver to the consumer. Why is the telecommunications sector still stick in a rut while every other EU country is progressing? Ten years ago our telecommunications system was ahead of that in the UK but now it is ahead of us. People will argue it has a different system. The Minister will argue that we cannot do what we would like to in enforcement. There are those who will claim enforcement is too harsh yet ineffective at the same time. That is a deliberate contradiction.

Over the past few years, I have pointed out the degree to which Ministers will devolve responsibility to others who will not be required to seek the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is a dangerous situation and part of the Bill's proposals will do this. The Minister will claim we cannot have it both ways but neither can the other parties in the telecommunications sector. Best parliamentary practice should be followed as to how such matters are dealt with. In the telecommunications area, best practice should be that if draconian measures are to be taken and someone is put out of or into business, it should be specifically provided for by way of approval by the Houses of the Oireachtas. Recommendations for regulation should not necessarily be laid in the Oireachtas Library for 21 days, hoping that no one notices and they slip through.

Recent EU legislation highlighted the dangers involved in the transposition of EU regulations into Irish law. During a debate on EU regulations, I pointed out that the poor Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government could have been imprisoned as a result of not doing his job. That would be terrible. No Member would want to see the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government imprisoned for the manner in which EU law was transposed. This is another weakness in the Bill.

The Minister claims that even the Opposition was calling for legislation in this area. I do not know what he means by "even the Opposition". It brings to mind the lines, "Even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer". In this situation, they will not be cheering at all.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The Minister reads the Opposition parties' websites.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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From there he could get inspiration because it is certainly lacking in most other proposals from the Department.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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He criticised Deputy Perry last week for his policies.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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They are all nice men and women on the other side of the House. It is not personal because I really am fond of them but can someone impress upon them the seriousness of the telecommunications situation? Ireland, one of the wealthiest states in the world — some even claim it is the wealthiest — cannot get its telecommunications systems up and running. Other Members will illustrate how daft is the situation and the ends to which people must go to get telephone lines installed.

The Bill does not provide for a director of enforcement, specifically responsible for the enforcement of communications regulations. The Minister will claim this is provided for in existing competition legislation. I do not believe this will work because I fear it may take some time for several bodies — the Minister, the service providers, the Competition Authority, for example — to reach a conclusion and take any action.

The Minister claims the Bill will enhance enforcement and investigating powers for ComReg. What investigation took place over the Smart Telecom events several months ago? What powers were exercised by ComReg and what action was taken to protect the consumers' cause? What action was taken to protect business customers who were affected, not just domestically but internationally? What provision was made to protect the customer who wished to transmit information just ten miles down the road? None. The Minister claims that while the Bill proposes to create indictable offences for breaches of enforcement measures imposed by ComReg, enforcement is a key part of effective regulation and appropriate remedies and sanctions are vital to secure regulatory compliance. That sounds very good, and it is true, but it does not happen. The Bill also provides ComReg with competition powers similar to those of the Competition Authority in the telecommunications sector that would allow ComReg to investigate and take action on issues such as the abuse of dominance. I thought some alarm bells would have rung in recent years to indicate something wrong. Perhaps we did not address the situation in this country to the extent we should have done.

What worries me most is this. Some believe we have reached a crisis in the delivery of such services as broadband as part of a modern communications service. If there is a crisis, serious action must be taken. If, as the Minister has admitted many times, for some reason it has not been possible to deliver services to the widest possible community nationwide without restriction or qualification, we must identify the precise issues or obstacles. That is not rocket science; it is simple. I mean identifying and then addressing the reasons we have been unable to provide the service. Sadly, it looks like that will not happen, and there is nothing in the Bill to suggest any intention to take serious action in the area.

I wonder whether the Minister and the regulator recognise the implications of continued complacency in the sector. Communications are the backbone of a modern, developing economy. The degree to which services of cutting-edge, state-of-the-art quality can be provided when necessary is a hallmark by which the country's economy may well be judged. We must look very carefully at what we have done and left undone. It reminds me of the poster on which were the words "A lot done, more to do". In this case, one might say "An awful lot undone, an awful lot more still left to do, and very little time left in which to do it".

I remember a few years ago, when the Minister had notions of establishing an independent telecommunications structure. We were told, for example, that there would be a separation of Eircom's retail and wholesale business. Although that was trotted out some time ago, it has never happened, and it now looks like it never will. One could say at this stage that we are no further in dealing with such issues than four or five years ago. It is obvious that until such time as the Minister recognises that and directs the separation of some of this country's service infrastructure, we will not have the degree of independence and competition necessary to benefit the consumer.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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In general, I welcome the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Bill 2007. We have waited an exceptionally long time for it; I believe it was first mooted as long ago as 2002, not long after the original 2002 Act. It is uncanny, if not eerie, that the Act it amends was also passed in the dying days of an outgoing Government. That Government was of course returned, but the Bill was passed very late in the parliamentary session.

In the interim, the Irish telecommunications sector has often been marked by chaotic and obstructive behaviour on the part of operators and serious allegations of collusion, with the result that there have been astonishingly low levels of customer service from many. That has played a major role in the disastrous broadband deficit that continues to afflict Ireland and leaves us languishing at the bottom of every international broadband league table.

Lethargy regarding regulatory reform during most of the Government's time in office has meant the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, his predecessor, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government generally have stifled the growth and innovation necessary to maintain a world-beating communications sector. The Government's ennui on this matter continues to threaten our national competitiveness and long-term economic prosperity. For example, a few weeks ago, Magnet Networks reported it was moving its emphasis from consumer-based broadband services provided through local loop unbundling, LLU, to other products, in other words, from households to commercial firms, because of its basic inability to operate effectively and profitably in a sector where LLU was still so underdeveloped.

Also last week, BT once again criticised the difficult regulatory market for the Irish telecommunications industry. There was media speculation that the losses of €1 billion recently posted by the company could lead to job losses, since broadband roll-out and services development have been hampered so much by the flawed regulatory environment. We could name many other examples of companies floundering in this market owing to Government failures.

For those reasons, almost two years ago, the Labour Party and I published a document entitled Enabling Ireland's Future. In it I laid out the policies I felt should form the basis of the telecommunications market. Since several of those policies are in the Bill before us, we generally welcome what the Minister has presented. Regarding comments made by Deputy Durkan's colleague last week, we know the Minister and his civil servants are avid readers of Opposition policies. I particularly welcome the fact the Minister has agreed to implement the policies we advocated two years ago on co-competition powers for ComReg, fines up to 10% of turnover, an emergency call-answering service, and greater regulation of the .ie domain registry.

I am only sorry that it has taken the Minister so long to produce this critical legislation. There are 12 or 14 matters we would like to address in amendments. I thank the civil servants from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources for the excellent briefing they gave me and the other spokespersons.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Like many others on these benches, I am continually astonished at the sheer volume of serious complaints received from all over the country regarding unacceptable behaviour on the part of telecommunications operators, including the failure to provide an agreed level of service and numerous unjustified impositions and service contracts that very often disproportionately affect senior citizens and low-income families.

The key problem with the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Bill 2007 as it stands is its total failure to address convergence in the communications market. Deputy Durkan will remember we spent the entire first part of a two-day debate on the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006 in committee discussing the phenomenon whereby the same operator can now offer a land line, perhaps a mobile telephone, broadband, and video on demand. One must therefore ask if the Bill before us should not have gone much further. I suggested we consider a single regulator covering most of the non-content communications landscape, given the speed with which the market has developed.

Another difficulty the Opposition has with the Bill is the new Part 7 and Schedule 1, the miscellaneous provisions section, which detail a wide range of enactments and statutory instruments for which no detailed background information is to hand. It is therefore quite difficult to invigilate those elements.

One of the most serious examples of massive regulatory failure to have occurred in Ireland was the recent Smart Telecom debacle. On Tuesday, 3 October 2006, more than 45,000 Smart Telecom business and domestic customers awoke to find their telephone and Internet services suspended. They included families across the country and businesses such as medical centres with no telephone or Internet access for patients to contact them. It was incredible that tens of thousands of customers could be summarily cut off and left with absolutely no telecommunications service. That happened under the Minister's regime. Where were the Minister and the regulator during the affair? How was it allowed to happen? Has the Minister received any report on this matter and, if so, will he present it to the House?

During the later hearings by the Joint Committee on Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources on this mess, ComReg signally failed to adequately address its role in the fiasco or explain why no advance warning was provided for Smart Telecom customers. ComReg did indicate, however, that it would like to see the development of a statutory basis for notice of withdrawal of service by any telecoms operator. At the time I indicated that the Labour Party would support and encourage such a measure as a key element of an effective telecommunications policy. The Bill provides for investigation and information powers but why is such a direct measure not included in the legislation? In the middle of the Smart Telecom fiasco, the Minister told us during Question Time that he would rush through emergency legislation but I cannot see anything to address that type of debacle in the Bill before us.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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It is like a mail-order company.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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A further issue that is causing great distress to many citizens, especially those living in newer housing estates around the country, is that they are being told they may have to wait for over a year to get a home landline installed. When my great constituency predecessor, Conor Cruise O'Brien, was Minister, one could get a phone line faster than under the current Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey.

My colleague, Deputy Stagg, has told me of local residents in Griffinrath, Maynooth; Easton Gardens, Leixlip; the Beeches in Straffan; and Ryebridge in Kilcock who have been left hanging on for months for essential phone lines. Those areas are not exactly on top of a mountain; in fact, they are on the edge of the greater Dublin area. A few weeks ago on the Joe Duffy show, we heard irate customers of NTL and Perlico making serious complaints about services. The Minister may say that the Bill will change that situation and hopefully it will, but the problems remain. In recent days, Mr. Gerry Ryan's excellent radio show on 2FM has allowed consumers to ventilate major grievances over delays in installing phone lines.

Last week, ComReg released a report on the provision of the universal service by Eircom — the company's key responsibility for landlines — which detailed that 99% of residential public service telephone network provision requests are granted within 115 working days and in an astonishing 171 working days during the previous quarter.

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

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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If we add weekends to this figure, it is clear that this leaves many households hanging on for months at a time for a landline. The outgoing Minister has presided over this track record, but it is not one of which he can be proud. The Minister should have inserted provisions in the Bill to address these unacceptably long waiting times.

The communications regulator, Mr. Mike Byrne, said it takes ten days for a line to migrate from Eircom to a landline competitor. He asked why it should take so long and why it should not be instantaneous. We could have inserted in the Bill a general requirement for companies in this regard.

Parallel to the service contract failures that I have already mentioned is one of the most critical failures arising from the regulator's weak powers — that is the absolutely disastrous roll out of broadband. I understand that we are now reaching approximately 500,000 lines but that only amounts to 12% of the total and leaves us way down at the bottom of the table.

A recent ComReg survey showed that 33% of narrowband users have attempted to get a broadband connection at home and have been told that it is not available to them. This broadband blackout rate soars to 42% in the Connacht-Ulster region and 39% in Munster. These statistics reveal an astonishing failure rate. The figure is lower in Dublin but it is still remarkable that approximately 15% of Dublin narrowband users surveyed had been told that broadband is simply not available to them.

In OECD broadband scorecards, we are consistently at the bottom of the pile. Only states such as Turkey, Greece, Mexico, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Hungary usually perform worse than Ireland across the 30 OECD member states.

The Minister will recall that I represented some of his constituents in east Meath who were waiting patiently for broadband. Eventually, they had to resort to a wireless system in the Stamullen area. There are various problems underlying broadband roll-out but three critical issues are line failure, distance from the exchange, and the lack of local loop unbundling or LLU. The lack of LLU has in effect given Eircom a stranglehold on DSL broadband services and other operators are reduced to selling on Eircom's original product.

ln November, BT's chief executive office, Mr. Danny McLaughlin, described the ongoing LLU situation as "torturous". In my own broadband policy document, entitled Enabling Ireland's Future, I quoted John McManus of The Irish Times who compared the process of freeing the vice-like grip of Eircom over the last mile to the retreat of the German army from the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Mr. McManus wrote: "Defeat is inevitable but every foot of ground will be fought over and paid for in blood." Sadly, the outgoing Government has presided over these circumstances.

In the United Kingdom, the regulator, Ofcom, threatened extreme action against the incumbent BT if it did not act positively in the national interest. A settlement was eventually made between Ofcom and the UK Government to ensure proper access to the network. Ofcom was established many years ago with the kind of powers we are only now granting. As a result, the British broadband market has now soared ahead to become one of the best performing broadband environments across the European Union.

In contrast ComReg's actions in the broadband arena have been more like those of a poodle than a rottweiler. The institutional culture of ComReg currently displays too much deference to the wishes of the incumbent, Eircom. Eircom's position in the market involves endless spin about consultations on market failures that lead nowhere.

The Minister should have considered legislating for a universal service obligation for broadband. Why does every Irish household and business not have a legal right to a broadband connection? There is no excuse for procrastination or messing by the incumbent or any other operators. I will seek to amend the Bill in that regard on Committee Stage.

One of the main lacunae in the Bill is that it does not deal with the issue of convergence. Operators, including NTL and Eircom, are increasingly offering mobile, fixed-line, broadband, video-on-demand and other services. Today, we heard of a development whereby mobile handsets might be used to read bar codes. In Japan, people can apparently check the price of items with their mobile phones.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Some chance here.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Who will invigilate companies like NTL, particularly now that it is joined to the whole cable market in Ireland while being part of a large international operator? Recently, we have received bitter complaints from senior citizens and other vulnerable people about the proposed €2 extra charge per bill for consumers who will not sign up to a direct debit system. NTL has backtracked somewhat on that plan but it is also imposing a new charge of €7.68 on customers who are late in paying their bills. This morning, on my constituency rounds, a postman raised this issue with me. Nonetheless, I was not permitted to raised NTL's treatment of its customers in this Chamber last week.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The Ceann Comhairle turned down my priority question on the basis that the invigilation of NTL was a matter for ComReg but it is not. The matter is not dealt with in the Bill, which totally ignores convergence. It should be addressed in the Bill but its absence means the legislation has failed in this regard. When I met NTL's representatives, they informed me that they planned to invest approximately €85 million in their network this year and a similar figure next year. They should be encouraged to behave in a more competitive way, however.

Due to the major problems afflicting the telecoms sector, I have outlined a series of regulatory reforms in my document Enabling Ireland's Future, which should be undertaken urgently. The first measure I proposed was to reform the level of financial penalties that could be imposed, and to allow ComReg to fine any operator for breaches by up to 10% of company turnover without first seeking a court order. I therefore welcome the provision in section 15, which amends section 46 of the principal Act, to enhance the financial penalties ComReg can impose.

Section 15, the old section 46A (6), allows for fines of 10% of turnover or €4 million. Why did the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dempsey, choose the figure of €4 million? It seems a rather arbitrary and inequitable figure, given the €800 million to €1.5 billion in turnover posted by the largest mobile phone operator and largest land line operator in this country.

A key weakness of the Bill is the apparent inability of ComReg to directly levy significant fines without recourse to court action and I would like the Minister to address this. Will we have the prospect of more tortuous cat and mouse games between ComReg and various operators? I meant to ask the civil servants from the Department what will happen to the electronic communications appeals panel, ECAP. Obviously due process and the right to appeal must be taken into account but the current system is very cumbersome and favours the rights of telecoms operators to the detriment of the whole telecoms sector. I wonder if ComReg will still be quite hamstrung by the modus operandi presented in the Bill.

Would the Minister agree to ask the Government to establish a statutory division of court that would deal solely with regulatory matters and would be mandated to deal swiftly with any appeals to decisions made by regulators such as ComReg? This is a broader question than can be addressed today but it is something that could be investigated.

The other major plank of the Labour Party's regulatory reform policy was the implementation of concurrent powers between ComReg and the Competition Authority. In 2002 ComReg and the Competition Authority entered a co-operation agreement that formalised the existing informal relationship between the two organisations. However, the British regulator, Ofcom, has concurrent powers with the Office of Fair Trading to exercise competition Act powers for the communications sector. We developed this policy because we believe that co-competition powers for ComReg are essential and I welcome the section of the Bill before us, especially Part 4, which amends the Competition Act 2002 and gives ComReg co-competition powers in the telecoms sector. I caution the Minister to ensure ComReg and the Competition Authority are properly invigilated, given the farce we saw regarding Topaz and Statoil when the Competition Authority missed a key deadline that is also within this portfolio.

The principle within the new Part 4A is extremely praiseworthy but when one looks at the new sections 47G, 47E, 47F and 47G there may be concerns that the exercise of concurrent powers may be very cumbersome. For example, section 47G requires that the Competition Authority and ComReg avoid duplication and ensure consistency between their approaches but a co-operation agreement will still be required along with the involvement of the Ministers in the Departments concerned.

One of the key definitions of this Bill is the definition of the end user, the consumer, but the history of telecommunications, particularly over recent years, has been one of continual reports of the abuse of end-users and consumers. I believe that ComReg needs to be reformed to make sure that it addresses the negative and sometimes illegal behaviour that is carried out by some operators and experienced by individual householders and businesses.

Unlike the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, ComReg has a consumer panel, yet many consumers are exasperated by the brick wall they face when trying to deal with problems in the telecoms area. I received a typical e-mail in this regard from a constituent yesterday. She said that ComReg was entirely useless in dealing with her complaint about the failure of one of the operators. How closely does ComReg work with the Office of Consumer Affairs and is this relationship something that should be included in this Bill? There is the callcost.ie website, run by ComReg, but in the UK Ofcom has developed a more comprehensive and efficient model for dealing with individual complaints against operators. The response to recent complaints is that there is nothing ComReg can do with its present powers.

I warmly welcome section 7 which inserts section 24A to section 24C and facilitates the protection of whistleblowers. I believe that these new sections will offer protection to any well-intentioned citizen to make ComReg aware of uncompetitive or potentially illegal behaviour by telecoms operators. My party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, introduced the whistleblowers' Bill and wanted to apply a whistleblowers' charter to all public sector agencies. The Taoiseach said he would introduce the measure on a sectoral basis but at least we have it in the telecommunications sector.

I welcome the action plan in section 10 which amends section 31 of the Communications Regulation Act 2002. However I believe that the Houses of the Oireachtas should also have input into this action plan as representatives of citizens across the country so I hope it will be laid before the Oireachtas and that we and our successors will have the right to invigilate it.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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Section 6, which amends section 13 of the principal Act, sees provisions made giving power to the Minister to obtain information from ComReg and allowing ComReg to obtain information to carry out a ministerial undertaking. This could prevent the kind of debacle seen in the case of Smart Telecom.

It is important, in the light of recent allegations of widespread collusion among mobile operators, to keep mobile roaming and termination data hidden and that information-obtaining powers are effectively used by this Minister. I hope all of the information on termination charges will be open to invigilation by the Department and ComReg because last week, at a committee hearing on this matter, it was clear the Department was not aware of roaming charges and termination rates.

The European consumers' organisation, Beuc, and the French consumer group, Union Fédérale des Consommateurs, UFC, — Que Choisir released a damning report on the roaming charges that are levied by mobile operators. They spoke of organised collusion on a massive scale throughout Europe and this is a matter that this Bill might begin to address.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Surprise, surprise.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin North East, Labour)
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The Beuc study reports that Vodafone Ireland and O2 have been able to steer traffic from the Vodafone group and the O2 group — 88% and 77% respectively — towards their networks. Although roaming Vodafone and O2 clients make use of the same group network and tariffs as would apply in the home market, Beuc reports that Vodafone Ireland charges the same tariffs as O2 and Meteor for incoming calls. O2 charges the same rates for incoming and outgoing calls as Vodafone and Meteor. These are matters that this new legislation should address and I am hopeful that information on termination rates will at last be available.

I welcome Part 6 of this Bill which deals with the establishment of a new emergency call answering service, ECAS. Last February I received a number of complaints about the prospective transfer of the 999 service from Dublin to Ballyshannon as Eircom was apparently no longer willing to continue running it due to the cost of its operation and ongoing losses in that sector of the company. Section 58B empowers the Minister to enter into the contract for the operation of the emergency call answering service. Have many operators shown an interest in running the 999 service? Is there not an argument for maintaining it as part of the universal service obligation?

One of the provisions that I greatly welcome is the measure relating to the .ie domain outlined in Part 4 of the Bill. Since the emergence of .ie Domain Registry Limited, IEDR, on the University College Dublin, UCD, campus in 2000 to administer the .ie domain system, there have been many problems and general industry dissatisfaction with the company's handling of billing issues, domain administration and the overall high costs of registering an Irish domain name.

Take-up on the .ie domain name was stagnating for a long time due to high prices and at the end of 2005 registering an .ie domain ran from between €60 and €120. This cost is around €70 for my own website while the .eu domain costs around €10 and .com €8 or less, depending on the company hosting the website.

Reports at the beginning of last year indicated that there are 138,000 limited companies and 254,000 registered business names but only 50,000 registered .ie domains. This makes it clear that many Irish businesses do not have a .ie domain and this legislation is, therefore, timely. Will the Minister consider whether it would be appropriate to address the cost of the ie. domain? I intend to table an amendment to this effect on Committee Stage.

Section 33 includes a provision to allow ComReg to impose a levy for overseeing the .ie domain. This cost may be passed on to customers and thereby push up the price of the ie. domain. The measures to empower ComReg to oversee the .ie domain are necessary to maintain price competitiveness.

On the invigilation of premium rate calls, I echo comments made by Deputy Durkan. While ComReg has responsibility for issuing the telephone number ranges — generally 1520 or 1580 numbers — for premium rate calls, it does not have a role in regulating the content, promotion or pricing information of these services. This is the function of another regulator, RegTel, a self-regulatory body financed by the premium rate services industry. In recent years, we have heard many stories of premium rate service operators engaging in questionable practices. For example, last year an investigation on the "Today with Pat Kenny" radio show illustrated the extent of the problem when the programme's reporter quickly ran up charges of €228 after calling some premium rate lines. My office regularly receives reports from people who believe they have been overcharged and ripped off as a result of the claims made about these services. Will the Minister place RegTel on a statutory footing, either as an independent body or as part of ComReg? I intend to table an amendment to this effect on Committee Stage.

While RegTel, within its limited remit, has instigated some excellent initiatives, the nature of the industry provides considerable scope for unscrupulous operators to exploit young and vulnerable people. Slightly more than a year ago the Director of Consumer Affairs, Carmel Foley, urged the Government to crack down on certain promotional activities in which the premium rate telephone line companies engage and examine the possibility of introducing legislation to curb the exorbitant rates they charge and the exploitative practices many of them use. I ask the Minister to address these matters.

The Bill is vital for the communications industry and for consumers. The Labour Party would have commended the Minister if he had introduced it much earlier. It is regrettable he has waited until the final 80 or 90 days of the Government's term to do so. I ask him to address the ten or 12 matters I have raised, on which I intend to introduce amendments on Committee Stage. It is not clear whether the enactment of the Bill will result in greater protection for consumers or fundamentally change the turgid regulatory structure and market failure that have characterised much of the telecoms sector over the past of five to seven years. Nevertheless, it is welcome.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Independent)
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While I welcome many aspects of the Bill, I will focus on several areas in which it could be strengthened. I examined the legislation from the point of view of whether its application in practice will resolve certain serious problems. For example, I examined the provision to amend the Competition Act 2002 to enable the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, to investigate breaches of competition law in the telecommunications sector. It is difficult to ascertain how this would make a difference to the cable television sector, which lacks competition because parts of it are carved up between companies. Until a few years ago, cable television companies were licensed for approximately seven years and in the event that a company failed to fully comply with the licence, the redress open to the authorities was to revoke the licence or place conditions on its renewal. The introduction of EU legislation tilted the balance in favour of the pursuit of competition. Consumers were overlooked as the regulation of competition between companies was given priority.

I did not expect to have to deal with problems with cable television services. A number of my constituents were left without cable television services for days on end and several of them were concerned they would be left without a service over Christmas. It is a serious problem when people are so dependent on a service. We monitored the response of a cable television company to customer queries and found that customers could spend 20 minutes or half an hour listening to piped music as they tried to get through to customer services. When they finally spoke to someone, the company had no record of receiving previous complaints. This is a highly unsatisfactory position from a consumer point of view. Where in the Bill are consumer issues addressed?

Even when people have an option to switch cable services between Sky, NTL, Chorus and so forth, the services available are not comparable. For example, one service may not provide Teletext or may be more expensive. I have contacted ComReg on several occasions and while it was helpful, it was also toothless because it has little control over consumer issues.

A new section will be required to address the rip-off of consumers through costly unsolicited text messages. Last week, a "Prime Time" programme included an excellent feature on the problem. When I investigated several complaints I received on the issue, I discovered that numerous complaints have been made about unsolicited text messages. Is it possible to amend the Bill to place an obligation on service providers to address this problem?

The case of Smart Telecom, which provides a service to my constituency office, highlighted a most unsatisfactory circumstance in which the owner of the telecommunications network competes with other service providers. We have not learned lessons from this development, although it is possible it is still under investigation. I ask the Minister to comment on how it is proposed to address the problem. Many people will not risk switching to a competing service provider because they fear losing their service. This was essentially the message to emerge from the Smart Telecom debacle.

I assume Government Deputies are also contacted by constituents who are unable to obtain a telephone line. Some of my constituents have been waiting for more than 12 months for a line. They do not live on mountainsides but in housing estates where the residents face protracted delays in obtaining a telephone line. It is all very well to talk about legislation, regulation and control or providing ComReg with more teeth to deal with competition issues but the inability of people to secure a basic service such as a telephone demonstrates the urgency of taking action.

When seeking European Union funding the Government used to argue that it was essential to have in place proper infrastructure, such as roads, public transport, water, and waste water facilities, to secure jobs and make areas attractive. Our communications networks are key, but we are in serious trouble in several areas. Other Members spoke about the inadequacy in some locations of the provision and even speed of broadband services. My concern is that we will have good regulation but will forget about the consumer. The focus will be on the major players in the market without looking at those who will have the service delivered, or not delivered as is often the case.

Paddy McHugh (Galway East, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is welcome because it will strengthen the power of the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, to enable greater competition in the electronic communications market. There should be no opposition to its passage though the House because it is the result of consultation between the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, ComReg, the main market players and others in the industry.

We must get to the stage where there is an open and competitive market. That is a matter for ComReg. The privatisation of Eircom in its entirety is almost universally seen as a mistake. That mistake is most glaring when one considers the absence of the roll-out of broadband throughout the State. We are now consistently told that the provision of broadband is primarily a matter for Eircom. However, the latter is not taking action with any degree of urgency or uniformity. Huge chunks of the country are without broadband and there are areas where, because it is not possible to enable other exchanges, broadband cannot be provided.

The demand for broadband is not being met. Business people who want to work from home cannot do so because of the absence of broadband. Students in rural areas who would benefit greatly from having a broadband service are greatly disadvantaged because that service is absent. The Government must come forward with a solution to this problem of providing broadband to rural areas. It is possible to do it and people in rural areas are entitled to the same service as their urban counterparts.

I will now address the scandal of the absence of fibre optic broadband in Tuam in my constituency. Under the national spatial strategy, Tuam was designated as a hub town. All Departments and State agencies were expected to take this strategy into account in framing their policies. It is an indication of the standing of the national spatial strategy, however, that although Tuam is the only town in County Galway designated as a hub town, it was omitted when several towns in Galway were being provided with a metropolitan area network, MAN, infrastructure.

This raises serious questions about the Government's commitment either to the national spatial strategy or to east Galway. We are told the reason Tuam was omitted was that a pilot experimental scheme was being tried by the ESB in Tuam at the time. However, the Minister and his Department know this ESB pilot scheme proved to be a failure long ago. The reality is that the only town in County Galway designated a hub town under the national spatial strategy is left without a MAN that would facilitate the provision of fibre optic broadband.

Is there a political reason Tuam does not have a MAN? Is an announcement of the decision to provide a MAN being delayed to fit into the schedule for a ministerial visit to east Galway and Tuam at election time? Whatever the reason for the refusal to provide a MAN for Tuam, the reality is that business in Tuam is suffering. Progress that could be made is not being made. It is no longer a question of whether a MAN should be provided to Tuam but a matter of when the announcement will be made.

I urge the Minister to make that announcement now. I ask him to show his and his Government's commitment to the west and to the national spatial strategy. He must prove that the words spoken at the launch of that strategy and subsequently mean something. Will he show that Government policies can complement each other after all and that there is a synergy and some degree of cohesion between those policies?

7:00 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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One of the main objectives of this Bill is to give more power to ComReg to regulate the communications sector, particularly Eircom as the major player. The need for such regulation is an acceptance of the fact that the private sector obviously cannot be trusted to act in the interests of citizens at large through the provision of optimum communications technology on a universal scale. Eircom, as a private monopoly, was essentially given a free rein, and the promised advantages of privatisation in increased competitiveness, improved product quality and service and cheaper costs have failed to materialise.

Instead, we have some of the highest mobile and fixed line telephone charges, most expensive Internet and broadband prices and slowest speeds in Europe, not to mention Ireland's poor broadband take-up. That prices still in no way compare to those in the rest of Europe is the key area of concern for the public. Other speakers spoke about how we have fallen behind in the telecommunications race. Most people, however, are mainly concerned that they are being ripped off with these charges. It seems there is no attempt by anyone to rein in these companies.

This is the legacy left by the Government's disastrous decision to privatise Telecom Éireann in 1999. It has failed miserably in attempting to rectify this disaster. Deregulation only benefited Eircom venture capitalists, who have chased huge profits with near impunity. The market has totally failed to ensure universal access to high-quality and high-speed broadband. Many areas in the State that have poor or non-existent roll-out of broadband find it almost impossible to attract new industries and businesses to their locality because they lack such basic telecommunications facilities. The Government tends to be timid and quiet about the fact there are entire sweeps of the country that cannot attract business because of this failure of the system. I agree with Deputy Broughan in calling for a universal service obligation in regard to broadband and so on. The Government is failing even to maintain never mind increase Ireland's competitiveness.

Eircom has been a law unto itself these past several years in ignoring Government pleadings to invest in telecommunications infrastructure. When Telecom Éireann was in existence it at least provided some infrastructure. The Government has created its own technological communications Frankenstein by privatising Telecom Éireann. It is only now, at this belated stage, that the Government is attempting to control it in some form. The national interest of investing in technological communications infrastructure has taken a back-seat to the insatiable lust for profit from Eircom's major shareholders, while we languish at the bottom of Europe's broadband table.

The Minister said this Bill will extend ComReg's consumer protection role by assigning it powers to investigate specific instances of overcharging. Does the Minister believe this new legislation will safeguard customers from mobile telephone companies and their notorious record of overcharging people through roaming charges, for example? Mobile telephone roaming charges and overcharging are scandalous. Charges remain mysteriously high even though progress was allegedly made on roaming costs. People are being ripped off with hidden costs, especially when travelling to the North. Will ComReg challenge this or does it have the power to put a halt to this rip-off?

Will the Minister assure us that provisions in this new legislation will prevent another disaster such as when Smart Telecom's 45,000 customers found themselves without telephone access while thousands could not even make emergency calls? Can the Minister explain in detail how another such fiasco will be prevented?

Debate adjourned.