Thursday, 4 February 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State for taking the opportunity and the time to listen to us. Cobh is an area in east Cork I represent and I have worked with many lobby groups and activists down there over the years. There seems to be a problem. From the emails I have, one specific question resonates most in terms of what people are feeling throughout Cork East, particularly Cobh:
Please ask the Minister and the Government Department if it is the Government's policy to allow private enterprise decide whether families should have or not have superfast broadband based on their commercial criteria rather than on a Government strategy.
I put this to the Minister of State because of the potential in Cobh for businesses and broadband. In the current climate we are asking people to stay at home and work from home. From the old NET factory in Cobh along the front coast to White Point, which overlooks Roche's Point on the far side of the county, they have, I think, between five and 30 Mbps, which is below the European norm. In the other parts of the town, enterprises are cherry-picking the estates, which seems to be replicated in Cobh, Carrigtohill, Mitchelstown, Fermoy, the Mallow hinterland and anywhere else in the county. It is frustrating people and pitting neighbours against neighbours because some estates have very good broadband. When one goes in to try to promote businesses, tourism or whatever, people are extremely frustrated because they are not getting their fair share. People have contacted some of these companies and have been told it will be another four to five years before they get broadband and that aggrieves them. I will come back to the Minister of State on the intervention areas or the amber areas because there is a great that of frustration about those as well.
We are going to try to make it that. We could talk about every village and community in my constituency but we are in negotiations on digital hubs and we know the way the world has changed over the past year or so. For rural communities, I believe this is for the better but the great enabler is broadband. The difficulty we have in Kiskeam is that Eir broadband is coming almost to the edge of the village on both sides, but not through the village. It is hugely important that it is brought through the village as a matter of urgency. I have been in negotiations with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on an exciting project we hope to bring to fruition within the community. That is why I used the precious time available to me in Dáil Éireann to bring people together to see if there is any hope we could get broadband connectivity in the village.
I could talk about every other community as well and I am not forgetting them. It is a great enabler but there is a significant lack of broadband connectivity throughout my constituency. I ask specifically this evening about the village of Kiskeam. We are told that people should live in villages and so forth. Will the Minister of State outline what the Department can do to help to ensure we have connectivity in the village and enable it to prosper and grow through other exciting projects?
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 plan will ensure that citizens throughout the entire country will have access to high-speed broadband services and that 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. The high-speed broadband map, which is available at broadband.gov.ie, shows the areas that will be included in the national broadband plan's State-led intervention, as well as areas targeted by commercial operators. There are 273,548 premises in County Cork, of which 79,424 will be provided with high-speed broadband through the State-led intervention. Government investment in the county under the national broadband plan will amount to €314 million.
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 26 January 2021, more than 166,000 premises in 26 counties had been surveyed, which is ahead of schedule. The next step for NBI is to develop network designs to deliver the new fibre-to-the-home network to these premises and substantial design work is under way. More than 13,000 premises have been surveyed to date in Carrigaline and Midleton and network designs completed. NBI crews have started initial works for the build in the more than 4,500 premises in the Carrigaline area, including Cullen, Templebreedy, Carrigaline, Ballyfoyle, Douglas, Ballyphehane, Glasheen, Mahon and Kilpatrick, while surveys have started in Ballydesmond, Kiskeam, Umeraboy, Knocknagree, Rineen, Cullen, Coolinarna, Millstreet, Hollymount and Caherbarnagh. Cobh is in the Midleton deployment area and NBI has confirmed that surveys have been completed there. Kiskeam is in the Rathmore area and NBI has confirmed that surveys in this area too are complete.
The first fibre-to-the-home connections have been made and, in a test-and-trial phase, in Carrigaline, County Cork and Cavan. Network build works continue and these areas will be subject to technical testing and validation prior to a wider release. Since 26 January, retailers have been able to resell the service, and householders in these areas will be able to order high-speed broadband provided via the NBI network. Further details are available on specific areas within Cork through the NBI website, which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register its interest in being provided with deployment updates.
Broadband connection points, BCPs, are a key element of the NBP, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to the home network. As of 30 January 2021, 260 BCP sites had been installed by NBI and the high-speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations through similar service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites and by the Department of Education for schools. The following BCPs in County Cork are now connected and the public can avail of public Wi-Fi at them: Ballindangan, Lissvard community centre, Aghabullogue community centre, Castletownkenneigh community centre, Whitechurch community centre and T.O Park Labbamollaga.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply. She was spot on with her figures, and while many of the names of those little towns and villages are a challenge, she was spot on with them as well.
On a serious note, I welcome the news of the Cobh-Midleton deployment area and the service being completed. I reiterate that Cobh is an island. It has only the one little bridge to enter it, in Belvelly. The residents always feel they are cut off in many ways. The Naval Service is based there and high-speed broadband is essential, especially given that Cobh has potentially the second deepest natural harbour in the world and it has a thriving tourist industry which we need to preserve. The businesses and the community that are along the waterfront, in particular, need high-speed broadband so they can grow their enterprise, grow Cobh, as part of Cork and part of the country, and put it on the map, as they have been doing.
I welcome the Minister of State's comments and, as I said, I will probably contact her about the amber intervention areas because there is much frustration about that. I do not have time to speak further but I appreciate her reply.
The frustration in the community of Kiskeam is that broadband was initially supposed to be provided by Eir but, for some unknown reason, the village was taken out of the plan. We were told at the time that villages would be on the Eir priority scheme. The Minister of State mentioned that the surveys had started in Ballydesmond, Kiskeam, Umeraboy, Knocknagree, Rineen, Cullen, Coolinarna, Millstreet, Hollymount and Caherbarnagh. Have those surveys been completed and, if not, when will they be? What is the envisaged timeframe after the completion of the initial surveys by which high-speed broadband will be connected, up and running and available to be offered to the communities? That is the question we want answered. When will it happen and what is the timescale from the completion of the survey to fibre reaching the homes, businesses and communities I represent?
I understand the frustration over the roll-out of the broadband connection points throughout the country, not least now with many people working from home. My understanding is those initial works have started and I can ask the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to follow up with the Deputy with completion dates on that.
In general, the Government is very much committed to the roll-out of the broadband plan. Within the Department, we continue to engage with National Broadband Ireland to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the roll-out of broadband and to establish the possibility of bringing forward to an earlier date premises that are currently scheduled for years six and seven. Furthermore, National Broadband Ireland has established a dedicated team to investigate an acceleration of the roll-out from its current contracted schedule of seven years. All possible alternative network providers are being considered and substantial work has been completed by the team to date, with further actions scheduled over the coming months to explore the potential to accelerate the network roll-out and ensure we can mitigate any delays arising, in particular as a result of Covid-19.
On the specific points that both Deputies raised, I will follow up with the Minister to provide a timeline.