Tuesday, 9 April 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
National Broadband Plan
Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for your co-operation in having this important debate on broadband here this evening. It is not the first time I have raised it in the House. The reality is that broadband is now one of the commodities required for daily life as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.
Many commitments have been made on broadband. One of the most recent initiatives was the announcement by the Taoiseach six months ago that it would become a personal crusade of his and that he would drive it on through the difficult challenges in the Department. Five years ago, almost to the day, a previous ministerial colleague of the current Minister, Pat Rabbitte, announced that there would be broadband almost instantaneously and we have had many more commitments in regard to it. The reality of the situation on the ground in my constituency in north Cork is that many communities fail to access broadband. We have the farcical situation now whereby Eir has got a State contract to bring broadband to certain locations, but where there are two, three or four houses at the end of the line or in some instances just one house and while the line is there, the community cannot get connected to it. Ongoing issues are evident in Rockchapel, Banteer, Bweeng, Rathcoole, and Waterfall, which is just outside Cork city. It is not just a rural issue as it affects homes adjacent to the city. It would be remiss of me if I did not mention Kiskeam. I know you were waiting for me to mention it, a Cheann Comhairle. I could see it in your countenance. The reality for those communities in Duhallow and north Cork is that they are all waiting for broadband to be rolled out. If they had broadband, people could decide to work two or three days a week from home, which is far more compatible with family life than long commutes. People would like the option of working from home but the broadband is not sufficiently reliable.
What is the status of the fictitious broadband plan? There were indications earlier in the year that there would be an announcement before Easter, that it would all be hunky-dory and that the contracts would be signed. Six weeks ago the Taoiseach announced that the final cost of the broadband plan could be many multiples of the original €500 million. While all of that debate is going on, the reality is that broadband is not being rolled out to the communities in north Cork, Duhallow and other places that cannot access broadband. Will the Minister intervene at this stage with Eir and the contracts it has got from the State and find out its plans to provide for the three, four or five houses at the end of a line? In the first instance, a sensible and common-sense decision should be made to ensure that every available house is connected to broadband. In the second instance, will the Minister outline whether there is a plan to roll out broadband to those communities that are so badly in need of it?
I thank Deputy Michael Moynihan for facilitating the timing of this debate. He was seeking to have it earlier but I could not be present then in person.
I will put the situation in perspective. I am relatively recently in the post. The position on to the national broadband plan is that, as Deputy Moynihan said, it has been at the inception stage for some time. Part of that is to be delivered by commercial operators. The plan is to achieve high-speed broadband for every home in the country. Since the plan was initiated in 2012, the proportion of homes that get access to high-speed broadband has increased from 30% to 52% in 2016 to 74% currently. There is a very substantial uptake in the proportion of people with high-speed broadband and that is all being delivered commercially.
When it comes to the intervention or amber area, as it is described, where we will provide a State subsidy for delivering broadband, those are strictly confined to areas where the commercial sector says it will not deliver. Under state aid rules, if the commercial sector opts to make provision for any area, it has to be carved out once it commits to delivering it to the standard that has been specified. That is what happened in respect of Eir. Originally, it was an intervention area of 750,000 homes but Eir said it would commit to delivering to 300,000 homes directly, and it is in the course of rolling that out. At the last count, I heard broadband had been delivered to 225,000 homes. As the Deputy has said, there are a number of areas of frustration involved. Sometimes Eir has not yet fulfilled what it said it would do. We are tracking households or areas where a commitment was made to deliver broadband, and some of them may have to go back into the intervention area and the state-aided support.
There are others who did not put up their hands for Eir but who are very close to people to whom it has given a commitment to deliver a commercial service. I know that it is a source of frustration if the fibre has been laid half way up the road and not completed, but in most instances that is the way Eir bids. It bid for what it believed it could serve commercially. If the Deputy looks at the map, he will see it. It is like a spider that is set out on it and it ends abruptly on roads where the connection does not extend any further. The Deputy asked if I could intervene. I cannot intervene to instruct Eir to do X or Y. I could say that if it was not delivering, it should take them back into the intervention area. If, after a discussion with it, it became clear that it was not able to do it, it would be brought back into the intervention area.
On the broadband plan, the final tender was submitted in September. As there is only one final tenderer, the House will understand we have had to engage in much more careful due diligence which has taken more time, but the Taoiseach is right. The aim is to try to provide a recommendation for the Government in or around Easter. The Taoiseach signalled in the House that while his objective would be to consider the issue at Easter, the handling of Brexit in the weeks around this period could see that objective deferred to some degree, but it is not intended to be a significant deferral, if it occurs. I am aiming to bring forward a proposal on which the Government can make a decision. As the Deputy rightly said, the project has become more expensive because of the diminished area. We have to service 96% of the area in which only 23% of the population exist. The numbers I have show that 184,183 people in Cork have access to high-speed broadband. Another 11,000 will be served by Eir in the company's ongoing deployment of a high speed broadband network. That will leave 74,820 premises to receive broadband using the intervention model. They are in what is called the amber area.
I have two questions. First, have Government officials met Eir to discuss the issue of inflexibility in areas in which it is currently expanding the broadband network? In communities with only two, three or four houses it makes common sense to tell Eir that the fibre cable is passing them and ask why it cannot connect them to it. In the case of some of the communities it is serving, if more power was injected into initial delivery, Eir would be able to provide access further out on the line. Irrespective of the fictitious broadband plan about which the Government is talking, I need the Minister to get his officials to talk to Eir to see if there is some flexibility in getting broadband to the communities I have mentioned. I will not detail the entire area of north Cork, but every community within the Duhallow region is affected.
Second, the Minister spoke about Brexit being the reason the Government did not have enough time to make a decision before Easter which would delay it by a few weeks. If it comes out in, say, the first week of May with an announcement on broadband, the entire public will make only one comment, namely, that it is gobbledygook and that it is only being rolled out in advance of the European and local elections, as happened five years ago. People will not buy it. I refer to the Minister's figure of 74,000 houses, all of which must be on the northern side of Cork North West. I know the people who are coming to me. There are swathes of north Cork into west Cork and other parts of the county that are without a broadband connection. A broadband service is essential in the way we live today. Either the Minister or his officials should examine ways to be flexible in that regard. For God's sake, if possible, they should roll out the plan.
The Deputy has to understand this is being done under state aid rules and that Eir or any other commercial operator was entitled to state it would deliver a service to a certain number of homes. It specified a figure of 300,000 homes, of which, 11,000 remain to be connected by Eir where it has committed to do so. That will be monitored, but we cannot force the pace. There are other cases which the Deputy may be describing in which Eir has not committed to providing a service, but it is frustrating. Again, they are in the intervention area. Unless Eir decides, on its own account, that it is in its commercial interests to deliver a service, they will remain in the area in which we will have to provide a service under state aid rules.
There is a final category of cases on which Eir has made a commitment that it will deliver a service, but it appears that it will not fulfil that commitment. My Department has conducted an exercise to identify such premises which are in the blue area. If some of the premises to which the Deputy is referring are in that area, I would be happy to receive the details of them. I will ask my Department to engage further with Eir on its plans to deliver a service to them. If it is not in a position to do so, we will have to consider including them in the intervention area which would be included in the contract. I am not sure whether the Deputy wants to see it brought forward or delayed. I was confused at the end about what he wanted-----
-----but from my point of view, it is in the programme for Government that we want to deliver. I do not doubt that it is a complex project because we have detailed debates on it, with many Deputies on the Deputy's side of the House rightly raising many concerns about different aspects of it. It is those very concerns I have been at pains to investigate in order that before I make a recommendation to the Government and come to the House to explain what is being proposed they will be thoroughly and robustly examined and due diligence applied. That is what has been done.
We now move to the third item in the name of Deputy Ó Caoláin who wants to address the criteria used in the deployment of the emergency response unit of An Garda Síochána. I thank the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, for coming into the House to deal with it.