Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Question 73: To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the evidence he has that the preferred tender for the national broadband scheme will provide high quality broadband; the way he will ensure that his Department's map is an accurate reflection of the areas that currently do not have broadband; the cost of the national broadband scheme; the timeframe for its completion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43856/08]
Question 76: To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the timeframe for delivery of broadband through the national broadband scheme now that the contract has been awarded to a company (details supplied); the bandwidth and download speeds that will be provided through the new contract; the cost to the State of the national broadband scheme in 2009 and 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44089/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 73 and 76 together.
The preferred tenderer for the national broadband scheme, NBS, was appointed following an open tender process using the competitive dialogue procurement process.
Significant time, expertise, human and financial resources have been invested to ensure the optimum outcome and best possible broadband service, from the procurement process. The process has been overseen by a steering committee comprising officials from my Department, representatives from the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, a representative from the Border, Midlands and Western Regional Assembly as well as an independent electronic communications consultant. A working group, comprising officials from my Department and representatives from ComReg developed the procurement and scheme specifications with the assistance of legal advisers and technical, commercial and financial consultants. The working group was provided with all necessary administrative and clerical support.
The initial stages of the procurement process resulted in strong interest from service providers. Four service providers pre-qualified and two of them responded to the final invitation to tender, ITT. The responses to the ITT were evaluated by a team comprising five different evaluation sub-groups. The evaluation team's final ITT report was considered and unanimously approved by the steering committee. Accordingly, "3", a Hutchison Whampoa company, was appointed preferred tenderer on 25 November 2008. The contract will be finalised for signature in the coming weeks.
I am satisfied that the comprehensive procurement process has resulted in the appointment of a preferred tenderer that will make available high quality broadband to all premises in the NBS area at the most economically advantageous cost. As regards the accuracy of the mapping undertaken for the scheme, a comprehensive mapping process has been undertaken. The process involved contacting service providers for details of their broadband coverage; inserting service provider data on a broadband coverage map using specialist expertise and software; consulting with regional authorities to request that they confirm, as far as was possible, the broadband coverage information provided in the maps; requesting from the regional authorities information on any other service providers excluded from the mapping process; and contacting additional service providers identified by the regional authorities and including their coverage on the map.
The resulting broadband coverage led to the creation of the indicative map, which was updated during the procurement process as appropriate, in consultation with the service providers. My officials have taken all reasonable steps to maximise the accuracy of the map. As regards the timeframe for completion, the ITT requires that all houses and business premises must be provided with a broadband service within 22 months of the signing of the contract. 3's response to the ITT meets that requirement. The finer details are being worked out at present and will be finalised at contract signing which is expected to take place on 11 December 2008. As regards the bandwidth and download speeds, 3 will extend its network to provide mobile broadband services into the NBS area.
In recognition of the fact that some areas will be very difficult to reach using standard infrastructure, 3 will make available a satellite product. The specific details are being discussed with 3 at present and will be finalised at contract signing. In order to protect the integrity of the procurement process, I do not propose to release details of the value of the NBS contract at this time.
I thank the Minister for what was not a very informative answer. After such a long delay, he might have expected to get some kudos for finally announcing the contract, but in fact he put out a very short statement to be met by very widespread disappointment, dismay and at times downright hostility as regards the choice of 3. The Minister has already posted his message on www.boards.ie, running to something like 370 pages on this particular issue and the vast bulk of the responses are negative. There is considerable experience now in terms of customer service, erratic provision, difficulties in speeds and a whole range of issues that have been raised by current customers. I should have thought the Minister could spell out to the House what safeguards are in place to ensure that he simply has not added to the list of complaints by this announcement.
The map is a matter of some concern. Areas in my constituency are indicated, but it is an indicative map, solely dependent on service providers to give the relevant information. Does the Minister accept that, in fact, there are people who are not in the broadband scheme and are unable to access it even though their area might be described as having such access within the indicative map? We are going to end up with the anomalous position where people cannot access, for example, the 3 service, but because they are described as having access, they will not be able to avail of opportunities under the broadband scheme. Could he, perhaps, give us details of the technology platform, the guarantees in terms of speed, the penalties if the target of 1 megabyte is not met, as well as the coverage targets? Cost seems to me to be the only reason 3 got the contract, but how do I know, since I am not getting the information. The Minister is not willing to give us the cost, but he should at least give us the information about safeguards.
I am reluctant to give this information until the contracts are signed, which will be within the week. It is better and proper to have that hurdle overcome, and then we may provide the more detailed information. To a certain extent, we must learn from processes in the past, where, for whatever reasons we may have tried to push through a process in terms of procurement, particularly in the telecommunications area, that just ended up getting us into further difficulties. I was particularly pleased in terms of this whole process that even if it took time we were able to work on real detail with the bidding companies, winner and losers, in the process I have set out, to try to ensure that what we contract here is right and meets the public's expectations. It would have been very easy to try to do something quickly, to put it through for political short-term expediency, in order to be seen to be doing something. I believe in the process we have undertaken. Even if it has taken longer than we originally thought, that was in order to get it right.
The service that will be provided will meet with widespread public support. There have been concerns with regard to the start of the roll-out of certain mobile broadband services over the past year. We should recognise those services have just started and there are naturally teething difficulties. That said, we now have approximately 250,000 people who have signed up for such mobile broadband services. We must also recognise that because 40% of our houses are one-off houses in the countryside, we will always be a country where mobile broadband services are in higher demand than in other countries. We may develop a benefit from this, particularly where we can get new evolving mobile, wireless and other connections onto fibre quickly and provide good high quality services.
I want to tease out some of the things the Minister said because I am more confused now than when the questions on this issue started. My first concern relates to the map. The objective of the national broadband scheme is to cover the approximately 10% of the footprint of the country that is not coloured in red, because it does not have current broadband provision, via a wireless, fibre or copper service.
The company 3 is the preferred bidder for the contract and I have no problem with that. I do not care who provides the solutions as long as the contract is right and the company can deliver. However, the Minister seems to suggest that part of the solution will be provided via a mobile product, but one can get a mobile broadband service in a number of these grey areas already, whether on top of a mountain or wherever. The issue with regard to broadband connectivity is not about mobile services. Is the Minister suggesting that 3G or 3 will put up mobile masts in these areas to provide for broadband via a mobile phone? If he is talking about wireless services, that is different, but he needs to clarify what he is talking about.
It is not acceptable to provide for broadband services via mobile phones in rural areas. That may be a useful service for people who want to access the Internet on their mobile phones, but it is not a consistent enough solution for people opening businesses in parts of rural Ireland that cannot get broadband currently.
I am not restricting people in terms of how they access the Internet. However, we need broadband access. In this case, we will have speeds of over 1 megabit download and over 200 kilobits on the upload. There is also provision for those speeds in the services to be improved in the five-year period the contract will cover.
The crucial issue is to provide customer satisfaction. The nature of the contract and the work that has gone into it provide that if customers do not get the level of services we are setting, there are implications for the service providers. We have checks and balances to ensure the sort of speeds and the service quality we want are provided. This is a significant improvement for those parts of the country that cannot currently get any broadband services. This is a strategic and significant investment by the State to provide coverage so the whole country will have broadband availability.
With regard to the map, provision will be made in terms of electoral districts and will set out the areas that can be covered. This covers a significant area of the country, particularly in the west, north west, south west and rural parts of the country that currently do not have any service. Therefore, this is a significant and crucial action in terms of the next generation broadband strategy set out earlier this autumn. We recognise that universal accessibility is a key development and that is what our national broadband scheme will deliver.
It is a matter of concern that there is now a body of opinion about the provision so far. I do not hold a brief for any company, but I want to see the service provided, particularly in Wicklow where it is an issue. The Minister has stated there will be a five-year contract. I understood that originally the scheme was to take 22 months, plus, presumably, the period before that for normal consultation and getting planning permission for masts. Why then is there to be a five-year contract?
How much will this cost people in rural areas and how will the cost be determined? Will it compare with costs for people in urban areas who can currently get broadband? Under this scheme, when will broadband finally be available to those people who cannot get it currently? How much does the Government plan to spend on the national broadband scheme in 2009 and how will it determine whether people will be offered a satellite or mobile solution in terms of broadband delivery? In terms of future planning, will the Minister clarify whether capacity to upgrade speeds is being built into the contract or whether we will need a national broadband scheme 2 for next generation broadband in five years' time?
It has the ability to cater for increased speeds over time. The 22-month period mentioned is the time it will take for the infrastructure to be put in place to cover all the districts to be covered. The cost to people will be similar to costs for what is available in the rest of the country and a cap will be set above which costs cannot go during the five year period. I cannot give the cost details of the contract until contracts have been signed, in the next week or so.
One of the key benefits of the contract is that it does not restrict other operators from developing services such as opening exchanges, providing cable, mobile or fixed wireless solutions. This is a further step towards a competitive, universal, ubiquitous service throughout the country. This is significant.
Last week I returned from the European Council meeting where I heard Ministers wonder how they could devise a way to cover those areas of the country that currently do not have broadband services. I was able to say at the meeting that we have such a solution. We now have a contract that will allow us to have universal coverage throughout the country. This is of major significance in the development of broadband and is something I am proud to have delivered.
Question 74: To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the number of the 66 metropolitan area networks, constructed under MANs phase 2 which are in use, generating income and providing a broadband infrastructure for service providers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [44087/08]
Under phase 1 of the metropolitan area networks, MANs, 27 MANs are available to customers from eNet which is operating, managing and maintaining the networks on behalf of the State under a 15-year concession agreement.
Under phase 2 of the MANs programme, 58 of a total of 60 MANs covering 64 towns have been completed during 2007 and 2008. Construction of the remaining two networks will be completed during 2009.
All completed phase 2 networks are being managed on an interim basis by technical services firm Magnum Opus on behalf of my Department, pending the engagement of a management services entity for the phase 2 MANs, MSE 2. The engagement of an MSE 2 is currently the subject of a procurement process, which is expected to conclude in the first quarter of 2009.
The phase 2 MANs contain duct, sub duct, dark fibre and co-location facilities. Under the interim MSE maintenance arrangement currently in place, dark fibre is made available to service providers, who in turn use their own equipment to light the fibre for their customer.
Currently, there are three phase 2 MANs being used by service providers, Killarney, Tralee and Carrigaline. Longford will be in use within the next two weeks. A number of other requests have also been received from service providers. The phase 2 MANs continue to be available to service providers on the basis referred to, pending the outcome of the MSE procurement process.
People will now see the irony in the Minister's final statement on the previous question, that he is proud to be delivering broadband for Ireland. This is, perhaps, the greatest example of the Minister's lack of priority for delivering an IT infrastructure in the country. We have spent €80 million putting 64 MANs into the ground, but only three of them are giving a return to the State currently and providing a positive contribution to improving our backbone infrastructure.
The other 61, however, although many of them have been built for up to two years, sit there unlit while the Minister prevaricates on who he will allow to manage phase two of the MANS project. My understanding is that a preferred bidder was chosen in July. As five months have elapsed, why has the preferred bidder not been given a contract to manage the second phase of MANS? When one considers the success, in respect of return on investment, of the first phase of MANS, why is an investment of €80 million in public moneys allowed to lie in the ground unlit, while delays from the Minister continue?
While the Deputy opposite might have me signing contracts left, right and centre, I must be cognisant of the public interest and the taxpayers' interests in how we manage the development of our infrastructure. I believe I was absolutely correct to commission the value for money report examining our overall MANS project, to publish it in the Dáil and to act on the recommendations emerging from it, as well as being involved in the consultation process pertaining to the development of next generation broadband. I believe that rather than rushing in and signing a contract immediately, as the Deputy opposite may advocate, the correct approach was to get it right and to work through a process in the appropriate framework.
I am confident my Department will be able to do so in the first quarter of next year and one should recognise that while the metropolitan area networks constituted a proper investment, they were a long-term investment. While in the long term, investment in fibre will provide a crucial solution, it is not a short-term or immediate measure. As the value for money report indicated, even were one to switch on every MANS nationwide, one would not necessarily get an immediate and instant uptake, particularly in the smaller towns. It is a long-term investment.
The Minister probably would get more than three of them up and running.
When the Minister was on this side of the House, he showed the kind of impatience I now show on the need for progress in respect of our broadband and IT infrastructure generally. However, while such urgency remains, Deputy Ryan now is the Minister and nothing has happened. I was not talking about the value for money audit on the MANS project, which pertains to whether we will continue to build further MANS in the future in a third phase. I refer to what already has been built, on which money already has been spent and to which taxpayers' money already has been committed. I refer to getting some value for money from this asset, on which approximately €80 million already has been spent. We must sweat this asset and——
No, those assets are available. They are available through the Magnum Opus contract arrangements that are in place, which allows any operator access to them.
——restriction of access to those metropolitan area networks and, pending the completion of the contract arrangements for the management service entity, this was the correct process to keep it open.
One clear issue that emerged in the value for money report is that there was easier and more immediate take-up in larger towns. Most of the first phase MANS were constructed in large cities, such as Cork, Waterford, Limerick and elsewhere, where it was much easier to get immediate demand. The investment in phase two of MANS was a longer-term investment, often in much smaller towns, in which generating such demand will be difficult.
However, the various other measures in train that my Department is enacting and on which it is working in respect of next generation broadband policy will use them effectively on a proper planned basis, rather than rushing into something and throwing away taxpayers' money in an ineffective manner. I prefer to spend it wisely.