Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
5. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the establishment of a network of broadband connection points in counties Offaly and Laois; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43602/20]
The question speaks for itself. I would like the Minister to respond to the question about the roll-out of broadband in my constituency and other rural constituencies like it. It is incumbent on me and other public representatives in my constituency to work tirelessly in an effort to ensure that the transition away from peat power generation meets with the approval of those we represent. We want to ensure that every effort has been made by the Government on its contracted roll-out of broadband and that it is meeting its commitment to make broadband available to those who wish to avail of it and take on board the opportunities that arise as a result of Government investment in the area during the transitional period.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5, 16, 25 and 26 together. I thank the Deputy for raising the question.
Broadband connection points, BCPs, are among the first deliverables of the national broadband plan, NBP, and will provide high-speed broadband connectivity to publicly accessible sites in rural and isolated areas of the country, including a number of our offshore islands. These sites will be provided with a temporary wireless connection by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, the company contracted to deliver the NBP. This connection will remain in situuntil the sites have been given a permanent connection under the NBP.
As of last Thursday, 10 December 2020, 162 sites had the initial connection established by NBI. Of these, 133 had been passed to Vodafone to install its equipment to provide broadband services to the site. Vodafone had installed its equipment at 113 of these sites up to last Thursday and is continuing with its installations. In the Deputy's constituency of Laois-Offaly, there are eight connected broadband points, which are, Vicarstown, Oisín House, Emo community centre in Laois and Ballycommon, Primo Coachworks, Coolderry community hall, Kilclonfert and Croghan community hall in Offaly. They have been connected and another five sites are waiting to be connected. It is my plan that all of these connections will be done by the end of the first quarter of 2021.
In addition to the substantial investment already made in the BCPs, my Department is planning to develop the facilities and services available at these sites. Included in this programme is the use of ehealth technology at BCPs. If successful, this could reduce the need to travel from remote areas to towns and cities for many medical appointments, which is to be welcomed. My officials are also exploring the use of BCPs as educational settings, remote working hubs and as locations for the creative arts.
Under budget 2021, I secured an additional €5 million to enhance remote working capability and remote access for students at BCPs and digital hubs across rural Ireland next year. The location of all BCPs which have been installed or which are planned across the country is available on the National Broadband Ireland website, www.nbi.ie.
The national broadband plan is the biggest investment in rural Ireland since electrification and nobody questions whether it was the right decision or anything else. All we want to do now is establish how soon we can get that broadband. It is a request that arrives frequently to my constituency office and I hear about people who need to go online for different reasons, including remote working, and they want to know how soon they can get access to broadband. Rolling out the plan is akin to rural electrification and we cannot get it to every house straightaway. In the interim, we are going to use these broadband connection points. I have a fund of €5 million and I want to help communities to create spaces where co-working can happen or where students can do their college work, or whatever, in hubs. For a small investment, we can make a real difference in communities.
A teacher called me the other day. He was marking an exam and needed to be able to upload the results.
They have poor broadband where he lives and I told him the good news was there was a broadband connection point, BCP, close to him and, with a bit of adaptation, there was no reason that could not be fitted out for him to go in and do his work. We are continuing to roll out these BCPs across the country in black spots. We will have 300 of them up and running by next spring, including a number in all the counties I mentioned. There is a number of them here.
There is scope to include additional BCP locations next year. If Deputies have locations they feel are suitable, they should alert the broadband officer in their local authority, who can make the case to my Department and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.
Under town and village renewal, we have been able to fund the kitting out of some of the sites with desks, computers and other equipment. It is important that we do that. I have a co-working facilities mapping exercise because I believe co-working is important. Not everybody wants to work from home permanently. There needs to be a blend and blended working may be the way of the future: three or four days working remotely and one or two days in the office with colleagues is probably the best. The Western Development Commission, WDC, is doing a mapping project of all the hubs along the Atlantic economic corridor from Kerry to Donegal. Some people may not know it but we already have about 350 hubs across the country. Some of them are more suited to community use than full-time remote working. My plan is that we do the mapping exercise across the country and develop an app in order that any worker can log on, find the hub closest to them and meet their needs.
The Deputy talked about job creation in the midlands, particularly in view of what is happening with peatlands. There will be a big boost to the IDA as it tries to attract some of the big tech companies when we show that we have a top-class network of these hubs across the country.
I thank the Minister for her response and the details contained therein and acknowledge the progress made to date, the commitment for quarter 1 and, in the case of my own constituency, to the five outstanding BCPs due for connection in quarter 1, mainly in south Offaly. I welcome that. I note what has been said on blended working and the connectivity required in relation to hubs. I note that the Minister mentioned black spots in my constituency or any other that may need verification and contact with broadband officers in respect of a commitment to work on those in relation to the mapping exercise in quarters 1 and 2.
What steps is the Minister taking to advertise and promote these hubs in various areas so people know about them and know how to use them? Will she be getting a report on the usage of these hubs in time? Has she asked for that and is it happening? Will students, who have had a tough time this year, be able to use the hubs for college work, in particular?
The Minister asked about places where there is very poor broadband. I draw her attention to the town of Cobh in my constituency, where broadband speeds are extremely poor. I get many calls from people in that large town. Is it her plan to put hubs in towns like that? They are not remote rural areas but many people will have to wait for a long time to get proper broadband connectivity and hubs like that in towns like Cobh could be of huge benefit in the short term.
I thank the Minister. There has been investment in broadband in County Carlow, particularly in the south east, which is good. My point is about BCPs and the new locations. The Minister referred to Deputies' belief that there are needs in certain areas. In my home town, Carlow, I believe we have further needs there in different areas. I ask the Minister to look at these.
I believe that because of Covid, broadband has played a huge part for people working from home and students. It is important that we do not have certain parts of the county that have really good broadband and other areas, such as areas in my county, that do not get the same level of service. It is important we get this good broadband across the board. The hubs are welcome, as is the mapping exercise, which is important. We need timelines in order that we can let the people know because, with Covid, broadband has played a vital part for people working from home.
I thank the Deputies. Every one of us is aware of the importance of broadband in rural areas. I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. In response to Deputy Stanton, the fact we are talking about it this morning creates awareness around what is happening. The local authorities have been doing a good deal of work on this. There are local broadband officers in every local authority. They identified the hubs and have been working with communities. In many community centres, people are voluntarily giving up their time to make sure the centre is open and people can go in and use the high-speed broadband.
On reports on usage, we will get them in due course but we want to roll out the first 300 connection points and I hope to have them all rolled out by the end of quarter 1. There were some delays because of the effect of Covid on the supply chain. They were not able to get the equipment they needed to make the connection.
This issue is important for students. Many of them are working at home because they have been told they cannot go to their colleges. It is difficult for them and they need access to high-speed broadband. They will be able to do that from these hubs and that is why the few bob to help them kit out the hall, put in the desks and a few dividers and have a wee private area is there. There is €5 million there for that. I intend to spend that early next year. We will be looking for calls on that.
Again, I ask the Minister to comment on the need for such hubs in towns and villages. We have them in remote areas, which is excellent, but, as I said, many towns like Cobh have weak broadband and many people are discommoded because of it.
The Minister referred to new locations. If we feel there is an area in, for example, my own area of Carlow, do we contact the Minister or go to the local authority? What is the process if we have people contacting us?
I will speak up on behalf of the hundreds of constituents who have contacted my office since February who have had serious issues with broadband connections. Of course, this has been highlighted, exacerbated and underlined by the fact that during this pandemic people in their droves are being asked or are choosing to work from home. They are being put under serious pressure to achieve results. I recently read a report saying that working from home is increasing productivity within businesses. This really is the route we need to take so we need to get in those communities. It is an issue throughout my constituency, from Kinsale in the east to Castletownbere in the west. Can the Minister imagine what it would mean to towns across the constituency if people could work from home? If people could work from home and go for their coffee in the morning in Skibbereen, go for lunch in Clonakilty or have their dinner in Bandon, what would it mean to those businesses? People would be able to stay in rural Ireland and stay in west Cork, not commuting to the bigger cities but spending money in their local communities. It is vital. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for entertaining me.
I tried to have more questions grouped, but I was told the most I could take with the first question was five, or perhaps it was four. I am not sure which.
I agree with Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan and I know what it is like. I live in an amber area and my daughter is working from home. She has my head turned about the broadband speed. I told her there was not much we could do about it and that we would have to wait. I also told her that there would be a broadband connection point in the local community hall and she would be able to go down there. Mine is just one of many families across the country that cannot get high-speed broadband. This is why we have rolled out the connection points. The Deputy is right, in that remote working will be a game changer in rural Ireland. That is why I am committed to ensuring that we do everything we can to facilitate it.
Deputy Stanton mentioned Cobh. We could raise the matter with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who has responsibility for the roll-out of the national broadband plan, but I would be happy to raise it with my officials as well to determine whether a broadband connection point could be supplied.
Turning to Deputy Murnane O'Connor, if people believe that an area should have a broadband connection point, they should first approach the broadband officer of their local authority, who will make the case to my Department. We want to try to facilitate as many cases as we can. It is important that we provide this service the length and breadth of the country, as it will allow people to go to these hubs and get the vital broadband they need.
It is important that we expand the number of digital hubs. We have submitted a detailed proposal on a digital hub adjacent to the post office in Kiskeam, County Cork. The Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and Eamon Ryan, have been helpful with our proposal and I thank them for that. It would supply a high-speed broadband connection to the community as well as a digital hub, which would boost footfall and engage the post office. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has been engaging with An Post and officials in other Departments, for which I thank her. This pilot scheme is an innovative idea and we have done a great deal of work on it on the ground. We have put together a large number of figures and facts in our proposal. This scheme could be a template for the future and we should embrace it and consider how to roll it out across the country.
The Deputy has submitted another question on remote working, digital hubs and so on. He is right about the project in Kiskeam. He brought it to my attention and is passionate about it. I have spoken to An Post about it, as the proposal is for a digital hub being provided as an added service at a post office. It is an innovative idea and I am happy to work with the Deputy on the project. This is about helping communities and expanding the services provided.