Wednesday, 4 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
National Broadband Plan
I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for taking the debate. As I have discussed these issues with him before, I ask him to be sympathetic and to focus on solutions to the matter I am about to raise. We are all aware of how critical high-speed quality broadband is to our daily lives. That has been exacerbated during the pandemic and the recent lockdowns, which have now run for the best part of the year. Following Government advice - it is absolutely the right thing to do - people are working from home en masse. Certainly, through level 5 and the hard lockdowns, people are encouraged, advised and mandated to work from their homes. They are doing so.
People are attending courses of study online. Almost all third level courses are being conducted remotely and for a large period of the year second level was also being delivered as an online service. With social contacts, household visits etc. banned, people are interacting with family members at the weekends or at other times through Zoom meetings and other online interactions, keeping in touch with the family and extended family.
Various cultural, heritage and information events have all gone online. Any kind of conference, seminar or activity has gone online as well as essential Government services, including Revenue, healthcare, social welfare advice, online planning etc. Pretty much everything a citizen wants to do or has to do for their daily life is now online.
In many ways this is a good thing. It provides an opportunity to move to a different way of living and perhaps post-pandemic we will embrace that, cut out commuting etc. and begin to move to this. That is a medium-term consideration for which this is even more essential. Right now, there is an immediate need to address these matters. To do all those things we need high-speed quality connection.
I represent north Kildare and I have no doubt this issue is replicated across the country. I make no apologies for representing my constituency and the people I serve. I am speaking today on behalf of the people in rural east Kildare - places like Rathmore, Kilteel, Eadestown, down to Tipperkevin, right along that west Wicklow-east Kildare belt, nestling in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains, 17 miles from Leinster House, straddling the County Dublin border. A place called the Four Roads is one step from Dublin and yet signal speeds are less than 1 to 2 Mbps download and virtually non-existent for upload.
This community is a very resourceful one. It had 320 residents when it was last surveyed by the residents themselves. They are used to solving their own problems in the way that rural communities do. They are a highly capable educated professional community, including many engineers and IT people who have done their own analysis and investigation and tried to solve this problem. They have been very proactive and have managed to an extent in the past.
However, with copper cables getting speeds of 1 to 2 Mbps, they are struggling as they try to run businesses from home, log in from home or do professional services from home where they need to upload and download files of significant sizes. Students are trying to study. I mentioned other services a moment ago. It also is a black spot to get a 4G signal and in parts they cannot get a mobile signal. This is not in the back of beyond; it is 17 miles from Leinster House straddling the Dublin border with a very high density of professional persons, people trying to solve these problems for themselves. At this stage they cannot solve it for themselves. They need urgent Government intervention.
I believe the solution is tantalisingly close. The Blessington exchange runs up one side and the Naas exchange runs up the other side. It would not be so difficult to connect them to one or the other. I prevail upon the Minister to attempt to move this forward as a matter of urgency.
I share the Deputy's interest in the importance of this area. The national broadband plan, NBP, contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in November last to roll out a high-speed and future-proofed broadband network within the intervention area which covers 1.1 million people living and working in over 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms along with 695 schools.
The national broadband plan will ensure that citizens throughout the entire country have access to high-speed broadband services and nobody is left without this vital service. The NBP network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset, which represents an increase from the 150 Mbps committed to under the contract.
The current deployment plan forecasts premises passed in all counties within the first two years and over 90% of premises in the State having access to high-speed broadband within the next four years. The high-speed broadband map, which is available at shows the areas which will be included in the national broadband plan State-led intervention as well as areas targeted by commercial operators.
There are 95,188 premises in Kildare, 15% of which, 13,859 premises, will be provided with high-speed broadband through the State-led intervention. The remaining 81,329 premises are in areas where commercial providers are either delivering or have plans to deliver broadband services. Investment in County Kildare under the national broadband plan will amount to €53 million.
I am advised by NBI that, as of 4 November 2020, almost 122,000 premises across 25 counties have been surveyed. Of these, 2,818 premises have been surveyed in County Kildare, with approximately 1,500 in east Kildare. For this purpose, east Kildare has been interpreted as from Kilcock to Naas to the border with Wicklow.
Surveys have been completed in Killashee, Oughterard, Naas rural, Rathmore, Kill, Kilteel, Carnalway, Gilltown, Ballymore Eustace, Bodenstown, Naas urban, Newtown and Donaghcumper. NBI is now developing network designs to deliver the new fibre-to-the-home network to these premises. Surveys are due to start in Leixlip, Maynooth and Celbridge in the first quarter of 2021. NBI crews have started initial works for the network build in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Cavan, with the first fibre-to-the-home connection expected around December 2020 in Carrigaline.
Further details on specific areas within rural east Kildare are available through the NBI website which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register their interest in being provided with deployment updates.
Broadband connection points, BCPs, are a key element of the national broadband plan, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre-to-the-home network.
As of 4 November, 187 sites have been installed by NBI and the high-speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites and by the Department of Education for schools. Sixty BCPs around Ireland have now been connected with high-speed broadband. Although no current locations are in east Kildare, new locations are being sourced and can be progressed through the broadband officer in Kildare County Council and the Department of Rural and Community Development.
Rathmore National School and St David's National School will be connected for educational access as part of this initiative by the end of the year. My Department continues to work with the Department of Education and Skills to prioritise other schools with no high-speed broadband for connection over the term of the NBP.
While substantial progress has been made to date, the Covid 19 pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network. The extent of this impact is currently being assessed and NBI has committed to putting in place measures to mitigate the impact in as far as possible.
The Covid 19 pandemic has also highlighted the importance of good reliable broadband to ensure that citizens throughout Ireland can avail of remote working, education and other essential online facilities. This is reflected in the commitments in the programme for Government where delivery of the national broadband plan will be a key enabler to many of the policies envisaged, particularly around increased levels of remote working.
I know the Minister is a person of integrity and he will get his head down on the matter, but his response is somewhat generic, albeit with some references to Kildare at the end. I do not expect him to know every townland in Kildare but to include places such as Kilcock and Donaghcumper in the provision for east Kildare will be news to anyone in the county, and a bit of a shock. It highlights the issue we face here.
The NBI has tried to engage with the Department and the team. This is not a group of people trying to figure out plan A or B, but a highly competent organised and well-resourced community including many engineers and IT professionals. I have worked with them as a public representative for more than a decade, trying to advance various initiatives and bringing private sector providers, looking to expand the exchanges. They know what they are doing. They wrote to the Department, possibly before the Minister took office, and got no response. They also contacted the utility companies, including Eir, and got no response. That is very disappointing.
I am not looking for preferential treatment or a favour. These people just want an objective analysis of their needs. It alarmed them that when they engaged, worked on the detail and did the due diligence that they are well capable of, they found that the demographics, housing density, area profile and network topography were all out of date. The NBI appears to be making assumptions and roll-out projections based on figures which are outdated and on an old map of the area. That is not good enough. The need is urgent. They cannot wait four years for a roll-out. They need it now. They are working and studying from home now. This must be tackled. I have faith that the Minister will engage on this. I ask that he engage with the residents and instruct his team to do so, most of all, that those figures be re-examined, and that the Minister take on board the residents' submissions regarding the actual composition of their area, rather than the obsolete figures that are currently being used which may lead to further delays which are unacceptable and which cannot be tolerated.
I accept the urgency of this, especially during the Covid pandemic. I accept that the use of broadband is critical, particularly among those working from home or those who cannot contact relatives in person but who can online. Covid has also affected the national broadband plan. The contractors who were due to arrive from the UK have been unable to come. We ourselves and National Broadband Ireland are looking to see how it can catch up and whether the programme can be accelerated, which would be to the advantage of the company and the State. That will not be easy, especially with the ongoing Covid restrictions and the ability to get people to work. People are also out of work because of Covid. This is creating constraints. I am confident that we will be able to catch up from that and accelerate the programme.
On contact with individuals, it would be good if they could go onto the national broadband plan website which I mentioned. They can register there. Only about 16,000 people have done so to date. The more people who do so, the better. They will be able to get updates on timelines. It does take time. The reason I listed all the areas which are being surveyed is because that work of assessing how to get to each house is critical. That will help the national broadband plan be very specific and up to date on mapping the particular houses, areas and so on. The key project is to take that survey and turn it into a works delivery plan. I cannot give false promise that all that will be completed this year or next. More than 100,000 houses will be done next year. In the subsequent four years, I hope that at least 90% of houses should be complete, and we will accelerate that further if we can.
On communications, perhaps it would be best for the Department to examine its links with county councils by way of updating and briefing local communities rather than the Department or national broadband team engaging with every community. Working through the councils might prove the best way of providing updates and receiving feedback on the project. I commit to the Deputy that the Department will approach Kildare County Council on that.