Dáil debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Other Questions

Telecommunications Services

3:00 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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Question 112: To ask the Minister for Communications; Energy and Natural Resources the steps he is taking to implement the recommendations of the broadband taskforce report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30305/12]

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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There is a commitment in the programme for Government to co-invest with the private sector and commercial semi-State sector to provide next generation broadband customer access and associated fast speeds to every home and business in the State.

The Next Generation Broadband Taskforce report, which I launched on 2 May last, and which I chaired with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, will have an important role to play in this regard. The taskforce comprised the CEOs of ten broadband services providers. The industry participants included the major telecommunications companies operating in the Irish market, as well as CEOs of some other companies that provide broadband services.

The specific purpose of the taskforce was to create a forum at which key industry stakeholders could highlight the legislative, policy and regulatory levers to facilitate greater commercial investment in high speed broadband networks across the country. It was also designed to identify where regional gaps in public access to next generation broadband infrastructure and services are likely to occur between now and 2020.

The report notes that by 2015, 50% of the population will have access to high speed broadband services, with speeds at or exceeding 70 megabits per second. The report also highlights areas where Government and industry can work together to facilitate the roll out of high speed services across the country, and particularly in areas where the case for commercial investment is marginal. The report proposes 50 or so recommendations or requirements which could enable broadband infrastructure providers to accelerate and maximise commercial investment in new next generation broadband infrastructure.

In launching the report I also commenced a public consultation to allow all other interested parties to comment on the document and to offer any additional or alternative proposals. The public consultation closed in early June and more than 50 responses were received. My Department is currently considering the responses received and related issues.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Building on the work of the taskforce and the responses received, it is my intention to bring proposals for a national broadband plan to Government shortly with a view to agreeing a comprehensive set of policy actions to underpin the provision of high speed services on a national basis which will take due account of the NGBT report and the additional responses received.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his response. I accept that the plan is to cover 70% of the population but that is about 13% of this country's land mass and that leaves a huge number of people, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, without a decent broadband service. Currently, only about 66% of people in the Border region have access to the Internet whereas the national figure is more than 80%. There is already a significant differential in that regard. Would the Minister not agree that compounding that problem is the backhaul speeds from the regions in terms of Internet access?

Why was a recommendation not made on the five State owned fibre cable networks that should be brought together under the control of one semi-State body to wholesale fibre capacity for the country as a whole? Why did this group bottle that particular recommendation and refer to establishing a one stop shop? Why is EirGrid now planning to roll out electricity network high tension cable across the country but not include broadband fibre as part of that to ensure the peripheral regions have access? Will the Minister not agree that without the broadband fibre infrastructure being put in place those communities will never have the high speed access enjoyed by their relatives in urban centres?

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I acknowledge that Deputy Naughten has a long-standing concern and a great deal of knowledge about the issues he raises. I do not think it is reasonable for him to ask why the next generation broadband task force bottled it, as he put it. It is, after all, comprised of the chief executives of the leading telecommunications companies who themselves are competing to provide a service where it is profitable for them to do so and, therefore, I am not sure that they would look kindly on the creation of a major State conglomerate that would roll together the five fibre suppliers to be created in the fashion he proposes.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I hope the Minister does not pull it down.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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The report concluded that 50% of the population will, by 2015, have access to as high a speed of broadband as anywhere in Europe, amounting to 70 megabits or more. The report suggests a second tier which could be anywhere between 20% and 35%. The exact size of the second tier is an issue which is much disputed and debated. However, that second tier will have access to speeds of 30 megabits by 2018. The third tier depends for its size on the size of the second tier. It could be that between 15% and 30% of the population will only have basic broadband and this is the issue that must be addressed.

I advise Deputy Naughten not to confuse the report of the next generation broadband task force, comprising senior officials from my Department and the chief executives of the telecommunications companies, with the broadband plan which I will bring to Government before the summer recess as a national broadband plan endorsed by Government. I am not saying it will be identical in all respects and I made this plain at the outset of what was a very valuable partnership process with the industry to identify the bottlenecks and the regulatory, legal and other impediments in the way of better commercial investment in the broadband sector.

There is significant ongoing investment of the order of €500 million per annum and competition is fierce in the more populous areas of the country. The problem, as Deputy Naughten identifies, is that in less populous areas of the country, the prospect is of having to live with basic broadband and this is a market failure. It is accepted, I think, that in areas of market failure, the Government has to intervene and therefore, I can inform Deputy Naughten that it is my intention to have Government intervention. I do not rule out some of the Deputy's suggestions. Interesting, innovative solutions are arising all the time which improve the connectivity. I refer to the considerable success of e-net and its management of the metropolitan area networks. Virtually all the MANs are now lit, which was not the case even a year ago when almost 50% of them remained unlit.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I call Deputy Naughten to ask a brief supplementary question.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Independent)
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I accept the chief executive officers of the main telecommunications companies do not wish another semi-State company. I suggest the establishment of a semi-State company which would wholesale fibre capacity. There are five State-owned fibre networks and if these were amalgamated, this would provide a key back bone structure. I ask the Minister to consider this suggestion. This would allow fibre to be brought to more peripheral parts of the country. Without the basic fibre infrastructure, these communities will never be able to have high speed broadband access.

I ask the Minister to intervene with EirGrid to ensure that when it is rolling out the high-tension cables across the country, it would include unlit fibre which could be accessed by this new semi-State holding company so that these communities benefit from access to high speed broadband rather than just having to look at these pylons as they go across their communities.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I do not have any difficulty in talking to EirGrid but it is my intention to enhance the quality of connectivity long before the transmission between north Mayo and the midlands and between Cork and Kildare is rolled out. It is interesting that 53 organisations have responded with their criticisms and recommendations and suggestions for improvement, some of which are very interesting. I am studying these submissions. I have no objection to the particular recommendation which Deputy Naughten presses on me in respect of fibre roll-out and the capacity of the State sector to make a contribution. However, it is not me he should be worried about but rather it is competition in the European Union and the undoubted probability that it would invite complaint from some of the leading telecommunications companies if one were to be less than subtle in how one would manage to create a State capacity along the lines suggested by the Deputy. It is undoubtedly the case that the chief executives of the telecommunications companies operating in this jurisdiction have invested a great deal in the broadband task force and the quality of the interaction was immensely valuable as a result of which we are in a much better position to agree a road map for further provision of high speed connectivity. A number of innovative initiatives are being contemplated which will greatly improve the level of connectivity in the State.