Thursday, 14 January 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
National Broadband Plan
I thank the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for coming in and taking this debate. The national broadband plan is very significant. It is the rural electrification of its time. Broadband is as important in this modern age as electricity was decades ago. I refer to high-quality fibre broadband in particular because of its speed and the amount of data it can carry. I am the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. We held hearings with National Broadband Ireland and Eir. Today I wish to deal specifically with my own constituency, which includes parts of Limerick and north Tipperary. National Broadband Ireland is rolling out service to more than 21,000 homes, businesses and schools in Limerick. Furthermore, they have already done advance work on 4,000 premises in areas of Limerick such as Mungret, Patrickswell, Crecora, Castleconnell and Caherconlish. There are two areas on which I want to touch.
We are at a point where, with remote working as a result of the Covid pandemic, we need to expedite the national broadband plan. That plan is to deal with the amber areas that have not been dealt with by commercial operators. I know the Minister has spoken about bringing it back from seven years to five years. Peter Hendrick, the CEO of National Broadband Ireland has appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. I believe National Broadband Ireland is of a like mind. I ask the Minister to reaffirm that commitment. Could it be even faster?
Amber areas were not covered by commercial operators and are the areas where National Broadband Ireland is due to roll out a broadband service under the national broadband plan. Some are also adjacent to blue areas. In many areas in my constituency, such as Murroe, Newport, Lisnagry, Castleconnell, Caherconlish and Mungret, people in an amber area can look over their ditch and see their neighbour in the blue area with fibre broadband in place. They may be two or three years down the road with the way it is being rolled out.
Representatives of Eir and National Broadband Ireland have appeared before the committee. We have asked them to talk to each other. There is no reason why arrangements could not be made between National Broadband Ireland and Eir to fast-track these amber areas that are directly adjacent to blue areas so that they can be connected as a priority. Our understanding is there is nothing to prohibit that under the National Broadband Ireland contract. Would the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications support that?
Government policy should seek to fast-track the provision of fibre broadband under the National Broadband Ireland plan by a joint venture between National Broadband Ireland and Eir on the blue areas. We should also look to expedite the roll-out of the national broadband plan at least from seven years to five years. A further ambitious target of less than five years could be set. The number of people working from home has increased during the Covid pandemic and will now become mainstream. Having people working from home will enable them to live in rural areas while being able to communicate with New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and other areas without needing to leave their front room.
The national broadband plan contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in November 2019 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 more than 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms along with 695 schools.
The national broadband plan will ensure that citizens throughout the country have access to high-speed broadband services and nobody is left without this vital service. The national broadband plan network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset. This represents an increase from the 150 Mbps committed to under the contract.
The high-speed broadband map, which is available at www.broadband.gov.ie, shows the areas which will be included in the national broadband plan State-led intervention, as well as areas targeted by commercial operators. I am advised that construction in all counties will commence in the first two years and over 90% of premises in the State will have access to high-speed broadband within the next four years.
Despite the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, NBI has made steady progress on initial works. I am advised by NBI that as of 8 January 2021, over 158,000 premises across 26 counties have been surveyed, which is ahead of schedule. The next step is for NBI to develop network designs to deliver the new fibre-to-the-home network to these premises and substantial design work is under way.
Build work has started in rural parts of Cork, Limerick, Cavan and Galway. The first fibre-to-the-home connections are connected and are in a test-and-trial phase in Carrigaline, County Cork. They will be subject to technical testing and validation prior to a wider release in the area. In the coming months retailers will be able to resell the service and householders in these areas will be able to order high-speed broadband provided via the NBI network. A test-and-trial phase in Cavan and Galway will also commence shortly.
Further details on specific areas 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. Individuals who register with this facility will receive regular updates on progress by NBI on delivering the network and specific updates related to their own premises when works are due to commence.
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 21 December, 241 publicly accessible 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.
School BCPs will be provided with high-speed broadband for educational use only and some 70 schools will be connected by the end of January through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Education. An acceleration of this aspect of the project announced in December will see almost 700 primary schools connected to high-speed broadband by 2022, well ahead of the original target delivery timeframe of 2026. My Department continues to work with the Department of Education to prioritise other schools with no high-speed broadband for connection over the term of the national broadband plan. Further details are available on the NBI website at .
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 put in place measures to mitigate the impact as much as possible.
The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of good reliable broadband to ensure that citizens across 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 relating to increased levels of remote working.
I ask the Minister to deal with the specific questions. Would the Minister support Eir and NBI coming together to expedite the roll-out of fibre broadband in the amber areas that are alongside blue areas where Eir has already rolled out broadband? People are looking over the ditch to their neighbours who have broadband and they do not, and they could be waiting two or three years.
Can the roll-out of broadband be expedited from seven years to five years? The Minister spoke about people working from home during the Covid pandemic. They need state-of-the-art fibre broadband to be able to work and communicate worldwide.
National Broadband Ireland has committed to provide a facility whereby people can key in their Eircode postcode and be told when they will get their broadband connection. At the moment they know that in general terms but not the specifics.
I agree completely with Deputy O'Donnell about co-ordinating in neighbouring areas. Obviously, we would like to see the commercial operators being able to ensure that every single house in the State is covered. There may be efficiencies in dovetailing. That is a commercial matter for Eir or the other commercial operators, such as SIRO, Virgin Media and others. I confirm that I would like to see that being co-ordinated but it is a commercial decision for the companies involved.
It is in everyone's interest, including that of NBI, for the roll-out to be accelerated and we will push that to the maximum extent we can. The Covid pandemic is affecting delivery as it is affecting every business with people out of work owing to being close contacts or for other reasons. A lag of several months occurred last year when contractors were not able to come in through the UK. That is probably the biggest restriction to an immediate acceleration. On the other side, the need for broadband as an essential service will help the acceleration. I agree with the Deputy that it is akin in importance to the rural electrification programme. Because of the clear need for it now, in part because of the Covid pandemic, I believe the commercial viability of the operation is significantly enhanced. There will be much greater uptake than otherwise would have been the case. I believe that can be a key driver in development.
It is critical that my Department does whatever it can.
Local government also has a role in the next phase, which will see a move from surveying to building out and putting poles in place for the delivery of the service. That role will include being supportive of planning permission for those poles and helping with their deployment, as well as the opening of ducting, where necessary, to allow the acceleration of the process. We in government will work with local authorities to do everything we can to help in this roll-out. It is not going to move as fast as we would have liked because of Covid-19 but I am confident that once we move out of these immediate difficulties we will see rapid acceleration in this process.
The Deputy's proposal regarding the website seems eminently sensible. It would give customers a quick and easy way of assessing what the timeline is for their areas. I will pass on that suggestion, via the Department, to the company, and I think it would be a good way of using our Eircode system to give greater certainty in this regard.