Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

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


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

8:00 pm

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Crowe was in possession and has 13 minutes remaining.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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May I substitute for the Deputy?

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Communications frequently arise in my constituency office, as I am sure they do in that of every Deputy. A necessary concern for modern communications, business and enterprise is broadband, which shows a substantial deficit across the State. Forfás has stated that broadband services are critical to attracting direct investment, developing indigenous industry and promoting our so-called knowledge-based economy. Ireland's poor broadband record does not bode well for the future.

Emergency services telephone calls being put out to tender concerns me. Leaving such services to the private sector is unwise, judging by the sometimes poor levels of service that frustrate telephone-users throughout the State. Access to emergency call services can be a matter of life and death and should be run with optimal efficiency and accountability rather than simply being put out to tender for anyone to operate.

Regarding the recording of telephone calls from private operators, what protections are there? For instance, telephone calls are reportedly recorded for training purposes, a widespread practice that I find excessively obtrusive. What protections, if any, exist against such practices? Perhaps the Minister might enlighten us in his reply.

A stark illustration of the lack of regulation in communications is provided by premium-rate mobile telephone text messages. Those currently come under the auspices of the so-called independent regulator, RegTel. However, that is a complete misrepresentation of the position. RegTel is a creature of the very companies that it is supposed to regulate. Despite the presence on its board of eminently respectable people, including one of our esteemed colleagues in the Seanad, it is neither independent or regulatory.

As my colleague, Deputy Ferris, revealed some months ago, and as illustrated in a recent "Prime Time" documentary, the premium-rate mobile text market is rife with abuse. Tens of thousands of people have been ripped off to the tune of millions of euros by scams involving unsolicited text messages subject to reverse charges at premium rates. Often the "mark", as I believe confidence tricksters term their victims, is unaware that he or she has been taken advantage of, unless the person happens to keep a constant check on what credit remains over an extended period. People told Deputy Ferris of having been on the receiving end of such practices over a period of a year, with one person estimating that as much as €300 had been deducted.

It is an absolute disgrace that it should be allowed to happen, and even worse that there seems to be no redress. People who contact RegTel in the belief that it is an honest broker rarely receive any satisfaction, and many are afterwards astounded to be contacted directly by such companies as Realm Communications that operate such so-called services. Nor does the Data Protection Commissioner seem to have had much success, although I am aware that similar scams operated in Britain led to companies that rent lines such as Opera Telecom being fined large amounts. I wish that happened in Ireland.

All that points to the urgent necessity for ComReg to assume responsibility for the area and end the farcical situation whereby the chancers who operate such capers are allowed to regulate themselves, which is akin to appointing muggers as judges in cases of street robbery. There must also be regulation of price-charging regarding such companies as ntl Ireland, which is pushing ahead with charging customers who do not pay through direct debit, something that has caused much anger among the public.

Photo of Paul Connaughton  SnrPaul Connaughton Snr (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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This Bill will pass relatively easily, since in recent years many Deputies have sought more power for the regulator. I hope that when it passes, some of the wrongs that we see will be righted.

There is no doubt that communications are at the heart of the economy, for a variety of reasons that I will shortly detail. The current emphasis worldwide is on instant communication, and that is certainly true here. There has been a sea change in the way we do business in this country, particularly since 1996 or 1997.

Many Deputies have said that one need only think of the numbers of mobile telephones relative to the Irish population. I recently heard that we had broken all records. Not only has every living person now got a mobile telephone; some have two or three, since we now have more such telephones than residents recorded at the census. Nothing brought things home to me more starkly than a young mother whom I saw a few evenings ago. She had three children under ten, and they had four mobile telephones between them.

Good or bad, that is the communications system that we will have in coming years. However, as with everything else, when there is such a great expansion in modern technology, there must be an independent watchdog. I have been in this House long enough to remember the time when one had to apply for a land-line telephone that one would receive in two years' time.

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Now it is in the back of the car.

Photo of Paul Connaughton  SnrPaul Connaughton Snr (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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A colleague of the Minister of State got around that too.

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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God be with us.

Photo of Paul Connaughton  SnrPaul Connaughton Snr (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I mention that to show how dramatic the change has been. It was with a great sense of relief and rejoicing, particularly in rural areas, that one was connected with a land-line telephone 15 or 20 years ago. We had great difficulty at that stage.

Strangely enough, some of the problems now beginning to emanate from the system go back that far. When the Department of Posts and Telegraphs was in control, before the advent of Eircom, there were checks and balances, since it was State-operated. Good or bad, at least someone was answerable for it. There was hue and cry at the time of privatisation, a policy that I supported on the basis it would lead to more investment and better infrastructure. I am just referring to landlines. There is no doubt that there was major investment over the years but greedy shareholders are now beginning to appear over the fence and in large areas of the country line work is being run down. If I interpret the Bill correctly, I hope the regulator will be able to put manners on some sectors of the telecommunications sector. We will see how he will manage the situation. Some companies have become so strong that they are able to put two fingers up to anybody. I hope I am wrong, however, and that great changes will come about as a result of this legislation.

In the commercial world one would think that the consumer should be king but it is not always so. Simple mistakes can occur, such as overcharging on phone bills. Three weeks ago, I attempted to contact the people concerned about such an error. I made 24 calls but did not get an answer. I got through to several answering machines and was told to go from A to B, all over the country. I thought I was ringing Galway city but I would get through to somebody in Cork or Dundalk. I was directed all over the place but that is not good enough for ordinary consumers who might have problems with their telephone bills.

Certain people, although few in number, do not have landline phones and may wish to apply for them. In recent years, one could get a landline almost instantly but that is not the case now. I have heard of surcharges being imposed for customers in rural areas, which is a dangerous precedent. If the ESB had done that over the years it would mean that someone living in Bangor Erris or Caherciveen would have had to pay higher installation costs that people in Galway city or Dublin. That would be neither fair nor reasonable. People should not be penalised for where they live. Now that we are granting the regulator greater powers, he will have plenty of opportunity to show what can be done.

Line maintenance is another aspect of this sector. It is a bit like having possession in football. If one has the ball, one has a great chance of winning the match. With the ESB, as with Eircom, the company that owns the lines and various installations has a great chance of deciding the course of action to be taken. Much has been said about open competition but I have always had a sneaking suspicion that Eircom still calls the tune, although I may not be able to prove it. We have competition and companies are springing up all over the place but how independent are they? How competitive, sure and safe are they? Smart Telecom was not very safe. In that context, a root and branch investigation needs to be undertaken into how the system works.

Small things can be a huge irritant, especially down the country. When local authorities decide to widen a road or ease a bend to make it less dangerous there might be a telephone pole standing on the side of the road. It may take five years to decide who is responsible for removing it. They all want to ensure that the person whose house was built on that site will carry the can. That is not good enough, however, because the person who built a house recently will have had nothing to do with erecting the pole originally. In national politics that may not amount to a big issue, but it is certainly an irritant. Many such matters will have to be dealt with by the parent company that inherited the lines, poles and wires. Who owns the company now and is there any correlation between the two? In this particular case, it is said that if the county council widened the road it should be responsible for moving the pole. The council states, however, that it is concerned with road widening and road safety so it has nothing to do with the delivery of a telephone service. Before one knows it, they will turn around and say "If you want that pole shifted, you do it". I saw a tender for a simple job to relocate a telephone pole that would have cost almost €10,000. That is the kind of money we are talking about. ComReg will have a fair bit of business to do in finding out who should pay for it.

The roll-out of broadband has been referred to many times in the debate. There is no magic in broadband. We all know it is a super-highway and we understand the necessity for the speed it provides. For many years, we have also understood that if businesses are to be competitive they must have high-grade broadband. There is never any trouble finding providers in Dublin or Galway city because there is a concentration of business in those centres. In other words, there is money and profit in it, which means there will be activity. The problem starts when one decides to go out into the rural areas.

Over the years, I have always made a strong case for cottage industries. It makes no difference whether one is in Blarney, Connemara or Ardee in County Louth. If a person's business can be done from home and if it relies on broadband, there is no reason it cannot be carried out. Businesses run from home mean that there is less traffic on the road because the people concerned do not have to commute. In certain parts of the country, however, people will not be able to get broadband because there is a row over who will pay the piper. At business breakfasts, I have been told by various companies that technically it is possible to install broadband anywhere. The expertise and enthusiasm are there but until someone pays the extra cost nothing will happen. A few months ago, the Government withdrew funding for broadband in remote areas. It will take two and a half years before there is another attempt to introduce a similar scheme. I cannot understand why this should take so long, although I certainly understand that many towns and villages in remote areas will never reach their full potential until this broadband issue is solved. I hope this legislation will make a significant difference.

I do not have a great personal knowledge of the growth of unsolicited calls but from what people tell me, it appears that many are being cleaned out financially as a result. There is a certain element of innocence and I am a firm believer that anybody can be caught once but it is one's own fault to be caught a second time. For some strange reason, people incur huge bills that they cannot afford to pay and something will have to be done in response to this issue.

Regarding texting, some controls must be set in this area so people can feel safe. The issue raised may not apply directly to this Bill but it is something ComReg will have to take note of in time. I do not understand the technical provisions necessary to make the changes but there is a darker side to society and use is made of texts and mobile phones for anti-social purposes. It is important families know that somebody is in control of these matters and that the people in control have the full power to address them.

One of the main aims of this Bill is to create the so-called competition that I spoke of earlier. I hope the powers ComReg will get as a result of this legislation will be on a par with those of the Competition Authority. I have reason to believe that some of the efforts it has made mean that similar powers would be important to ComReg.

It is important that the enforcement powers ComReg receives as a result of this Bill are clear, transparent and sharp. Consumers must be able to understand them and there must be remedies that ensure people found guilty of anti-competitive behaviour are punished. Fairly hefty fines are proposed in this Bill and anything less would be of no use because of the huge amounts of money involved.

Another provision is a civil enforcement procedure to enable ComReg to enforce obligations relating to the sharing of physical infrastructure against non-undertakings. I do not have much time at my disposal but I would like to think that someone will put the boot into the warring factions involved in the mobile phone industry when they get around to deciding where to place their masts in the country. I hope that the existing masts reach optimum use and are multifunctional so that we do not see a scattering of unnecessary masts around the country. There is evidence, to this day, of local authorities deciding not to grant planning permission only to see the decision overturned by An Bord Pleanála and I would like to see transparency in this regard.

9:00 pm

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I will respond on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dempsey, and I thank Members for their contributions. I welcome the opportunity to comment on the various observations made on the provisions of this important Bill.

The Bill is necessary, as Deputies have said, to ensure that the independent regulator, ComReg, has the tools required to ensure that the electronic communications sector is open and competitive and that the individual and business consumer benefits from increased choice and lower prices for the services they need. As the Minister outlined in his opening statement, the Bill contains a number of provisions designed to achieve this objective. In this regard, the provisions for creating indictable offences with proportionate and dissuasive financial penalties and for competition law powers for ComReg are particularly important. I note the general support of the House for these provisions. Effective investigatory and enforcement powers are essential if ComReg is to carry out its function of ensuring compliance by all operators with their obligations under the regulatory framework.

Deputy Durkan said that the Bill's provisions are too little, too late, but it gives ComReg significantly enhanced enforcement and investigative powers. It provides for severe penalties for serious offences and no other regulator has the power that ComReg will have under this Bill.

The Minister agrees that investment in infrastructure is important, but investment decisions are primarily commercial ones made by the operators. Strong regulation of the market will provide operators with the certainty they require to underpin investment decisions and the Minister is satisfied that the Bill will provide this certainty.

Deputy Broughan generally welcomed the provisions of the Bill, such as those for higher penalties and competition law powers. The Deputy suggested a single regulator for the communications industry but given the complexity of communications and broadcasting issues, this could prove very difficult to achieve.

The Smart Telecom issue related to contract debt between private sector companies and while it was most regrettable, ComReg had no power to intervene in the matter. However, ComReg made great efforts to bring about a satisfactory outcome for the subscribers involved. The Minister has requested ComReg to examine how such a situation can be avoided in the future. ComReg now has a protocol in place to help protect consumers should a similar situation arise in the future.

Deputy Broughan also mentioned low broadband penetration and the inclusion of competition law powers, together with serious financial penalties, should lead to an improvement in this area. The rate of growth in broadband has accelerated in recent months compared to earlier growth rates. There was an increase of over 60,000 in the third quarter of 2006, compared to an average increase of about 20,000 per quarter in 2005.

Deputies made reference to delays by Eircom in the provision of telephone lines. There can be a variety of reasons for delays in meeting requests for applications and individual cases must be considered on their merits. ComReg has stated that it has concerns over the small number of applications that are not met in a reasonable timeframe and it has signalled its intention to set binding performance targets, as distinct from guidelines, for aspects of the universal service obligation, including installations. The legislation requires ComReg to hold a public consultation before setting such targets and also provides for an enforcement mechanism should there be persistent failure to meet performance targets. In the event of non-observation of a direction to comply with performance targets, ComReg may apply to the High Court for an order requiring compliance.

Deputy Durkan referred to coverage in the Black Valley in County Kerry. I am pleased to note his concern about one of the most beautiful areas in the country. Telecommunications coverage and provision of services have been a problem in the valley due to its remote location.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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It is not as remote as the moon.

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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A recent report confirmed that service to the area, which is supplied by Eircom, is not adequate. ComReg has encouraged Eircom to provide a solution which will satisfy the needs of the local population. Eircom has an obligation to provide basic telephony services and functional Internet access to all consumers. ComReg is in the process of formally assessing whether the current telephony service meets the requirements of Eircom's universal service obligations. Depending on the outcome of the assessment and whether Eircom has provided a solution in the meantime, ComReg may consider an enforcement action. I will ask officials to convey to Eircom the Deputy's concern about the matter.

Deputies Catherine Murphy and Broughan raised the issue of a regulator of premium rate telephone services. RegTel is a self-regulatory industry body which authorises and supervises content and promotion of the premium rate telecom services. Neither the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources nor ComReg has a role with regard to content and RegTel does not report to the Minister. In addition, the Data Protection Commissioner has strong investigative and protection powers with regard to unsolicited electronic communications. The European Commission, in its consultation on safer mobile telephone use, recently stated that, where efficiently implemented, self-regulation by the industry is preferable to statutory intervention. However, if there is a strong case for strengthening regulation in this area, it can be examined.

The Minister is aware of recent coverage of customer dissatisfaction with NTL, particularly the company's introduction of new charging methods. Neither the Minister nor ComReg has a role in this matter. I understand the new National Consumer Agency and NTL have been in discussions to review the company's decision to charge a late payment fee.

On the level of interest in providing the national emergency call answering service, the legislation proposes tendering for the provision of this service. It is too early to know how many undertakings will be interested in providing the service. The provisions relating to the establishment of an emergency call handling service and the regulation of the ie. domain name are important measures and I welcome Deputies' support for them.

Deputy Connaughton is correct that Eircom provides poor customer service and I have asked officials to raise the matter with the company. This is a source of serious frustration to customers nationwide. I have also asked officials to raise the issue of telegraph poles being left in the middle of roads in counties in the west where planning permission has been granted for new houses but Eircom and the relevant local authority cannot agree on who should remove the poles. I will ask officials to respond to Deputy Connaughton on the matter.

I thank Deputies for their contributions and the interest they have shown in the Bill. I welcome the support of the House for its provisions and look forward to its consideration on Committee and Report Stages, when the overall objective will be to place it on the Statute Book as soon as possible.

Question put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 46 (Michael Ahern, Noel Ahern, Barry Andrews, Niall Blaney, Johnny Brady, Martin Brady, Joe Callanan, John Carty, Paudge Connolly, Mary Coughlan, John Cregan, Martin Cullen, John Curran, Síle de Valera, John Dennehy, Jimmy Devins, Frank Fahey, Michael Finneran, Pat Gallagher, Noel Grealish, Seán Haughey, Máire Hoctor, Joe Jacob, Billy Kelleher, Peter Kelly, Séamus Kirk, Tom Kitt, Conor Lenihan, John McGuinness, Paddy McHugh, John Moloney, Michael Moynihan, Éamon Ó Cuív, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Charlie O'Connor, Liz O'Donnell, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Tom Parlon, Peter Power, Mae Sexton, Brendan Smith, Michael Smith, Mary Wallace, Joe Walsh, Ollie Wilkinson)

Against the motion: 20 (Pat Breen, Tommy Broughan, Paul Connaughton, Seymour Crawford, Seán Crowe, Jimmy Deenihan, Bernard Durkan, Martin Ferris, Séamus Healy, Michael D Higgins, Paul McGrath, Olivia Mitchell, Jim O'Keeffe, Brian O'Shea, Jan O'Sullivan, Seán Ryan, Joe Sherlock, David Stanton, Billy Timmins, Liam Twomey)

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Kelleher; Níl, Deputies Stanton and Broughan.

Question declared carried.