Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
National Broadband Plan
I must say, I am glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, taking this Topical Issue matter. It falls into his constituency as well so it is actually quite good. I am sure he will be aware of the situation.
In counties Carlow and Kilkenny, several businesses are having significant issues in operating online. I want to specifically discuss one business called Sunshine Juice in Tinryland in rural Carlow, which employs 50 people and has had huge issues with trying to run the business. After experiencing difficulties with Vodafone and Eir over recent years, the company was hopeful that the roll-out of high-speed broadband by NBI in the area would offer a solution. It is listed on the NBI map as being outside the intervention area as a provider, however. Vodafone has recorded it as receiving speeds of 30 Mbps.
They owners are in a situation where cables are going to be literally running past the front gate of the premises connecting homes and businesses around every side of their premises yet, unfortunately, they remain unserviced. A very practical example from this company, which I believe brings this issue home, is that the owners, who are in the business of juicing, had to send an email to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine about releasing oranges from Dublin Port. The email did not send because of the poor broadband. As a result, an employee had to drive from Carlow to Dublin. They can see that their competitors are obviously having much more success in terms of online services. It is, therefore, vital for that area.
I will take the opportunity to highlight an issue that was originally raised with me at a meeting with County Carlow Chamber of Commerce. It has also come up a lot in Kilkenny, particularly in the last number of months with many more people working from home and trying to do homeschooling.
The Minister of State may be aware of the Kilkenny LEADER Partnership proposal to allow the village of Piltown in Kilkenny to access broadband and run the service itself, which the village would finance in conjunction with grants. The village would not only have access to the appropriate broadband but would have the benefits of running that service, almost like the old system of a co-operative. When I heard this after the Carlow Chamber meeting, I thought it was an excellent idea and not just for Carlow and Kilkenny. I am sure loads of towns and villages throughout the country would benefit from something like this. It is a really excellent idea. I hope the Minister of State will meet with the stakeholders if he is not aware of this. It could be a solution for many places.
I thank Deputy Funchion for this question. The national broadband plan contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland 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 high-speed broadband map, which is available at www.broadband.gov.ie, shows the areas that will be included in the national broadband plan State-led intervention, as well as areas targeted by commercial operators. The map is colour-coded and searchable by address and Eircode postcode.
The amber areas on the high-speed broadband map will be served by the new high-speed network being delivered by NBI. To comply with the state aid decision that enabled the contract to be awarded, NBI can only serve those premises which have been identified as amber on the high-speed broadband map.
Commercial areas defined in blue on the NBP high-speed broadband map are not included in the State-led intervention area covered by the NBP as commercial operators are already providing high-speed broadband or have indicated future plans to do so.
In line with state aid guidelines, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications defines high-speed broadband as connection with minimum speeds of 30 Mbps download and 6 Mbps upload. The activities of commercial operators delivering high-speed broadband within blue areas are not planned or funded by the State. The Department has no statutory authority to intervene in that regard as they operate in a fully liberalised market regulated by ComReg as an independent regulator. I am taking on board the points made by Deputy Funchion, however.
Complaints about the service provision are a matter between the consumer and the service provider, in the first instance. If this avenue has been exhausted without a satisfactory resolution, the Commission for Communications Regulation may be able to assist further. ComReg is the independent body that issues licences to broadband service providers and investigates complaints to make sure that companies are delivering services in line with licence obligations.
The Department is aware of a number of blue premises that are having difficulty connecting to commercial high-speed networks and may continue to do so in the future. Officials in the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications are currently examining these premises and will ensure that access to high-speed broadband is made available either through commercial means or through the national broadband plan intervention.
Where appropriate, and if compliant with state aid rules, premises may be reclassified as amber on the high-speed map. Before reclassification of a premises can be confirmed, it must go through a formal review process. This is to ensure that the State is compliant with state aid rules and state aid approval, which enabled the contract to be awarded under the national broadband plan. As part of this process, when specific concerns are raised, the Department, in conjunction with the relevant network operators in the blue area, reviews the locations and ascertains definitively whether these premises will receive high-speed broadband through commercial means. If it is confirmed that a premises has no prospect of being served from a commercial operator this then enables a change to the contract with NBI to add additional premises into the intervention area.
The EU guidelines on the application of state aid rules with regard to the rapid deployment of broadband networks seek to ensure that by 2020, all Europeans have access to above 30 Mbps, in line with the digital agenda for Europe initiative. I understand the European Commission is currently reviewing the cut-off speed as part of its review of the state aid guidelines for broadband.
I thank the Minister of State. In Topical Issue debates, as with parliamentary questions for written answer, there is often a standard type of answer given. Regarding the review to which the Minister of State referred, is that a genuine process? Have there been successful outcomes to it or is it a case of saying there is a review happening in the hope it will kick the whole issue down the road? I mentioned the initiative by Kilkenny LEADER Partnership because it offers a possible solution not just in that particular situation but in many locations. We need to look at real solutions like this that can work for rural towns and villages.
The situation with the lack of broadband provision is only going to get worse because there are more people working from home. That is welcome because it can be helpful for many workers, but it is not an option for a huge number of people because they do not have proper broadband. The company I referred to, Sunshine Juice, was advised in one instance to purchase a dongle, which would not even do for standard home use. It is not an adequate solution for Vodafone, Eir or any other provider to be offering a company, particularly when we are trying to keep people and jobs in rural communities. This particular company has had to put the possibility of expansion on hold until it sees what is going to happen with broadband provision.
I would like more information from the Minister of State, not necessarily today but perhaps in writing, regarding the review process, how it is being done and whether there have been successful outcomes from it. A percentage breakdown would be useful, showing, say, that people have a 50% success rate and how the process is run. I will send the Minister of State the information, which he may already have, on the initiative by Kilkenny LEADER Partnership. That model could provide a good solution for the Department.
I am familiar with the Blue Towns community-led initiative to which the Deputy referred. I was a director of Kilkenny LEADER Partnership at the time it was being developed. It is a very viable prospect. I will have to double-check the programme for Government to see whether we secured inclusion of an objective of developing a similar initiative for areas not covered by the national broadband plan, NBP. There is real potential in that. I understand Kilkenny LEADER Partnership had piloted, or was intending to pilot, a scheme in Piltown. That would cover some of the areas not already covered either by commercial operators or under the NBP. It has a huge benefit because it is community-owned, community-led and follows a co-operative type of approach. It is something to which we should give serious consideration and I am happy to take it back to the Department.
Like Deputy Funchion, I have met with County Carlow Chamber to discuss broadband provision. There is undoubtedly a significant impact on small businesses if they are being bypassed either by commercial providers or the NBP. That is a significant challenge to the operation of a business. As we have seen, businesses are moving everything online and many retailers need to have both an online and on-street presence. It is hugely important that we try to resolve this issue. I will take the Deputy's question on the review process to the Department. I reiterate that there is an opportunity around the Blue Towns initiative and that community-owned broadband initiatives should be given real consideration.