Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
National Broadband Plan
69. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the acceleration progress of the national broadband plan, NBP; the timeframe in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29512/21]
First, regarding the point I raised on a previous question, it was probably unfair to throw it into the public domain. The Minister of State has an element of experience in the particular field being discussed and I was interested in his view on whether we need to look into capacity issues.
It is not a great shock that I am asking a question on the acceleration of the national broadband plan. We have had the roll-out of the planning permit system under section 254 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, over the past three weeks. Will the Minister of State give an update in this regard?
It is indeed no surprise that there are questions on the national broadband scheme. Every Deputy in the House wants to know about the acceleration of broadband provision and when it will come to their area. It is not just an issue for rural areas. Even in urban areas, there are black spots.
As I outlined in my reply to Deputy Canney's question, the programme for Government commits to seek to accelerate the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP. My Department is currently engaging with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the NBP roll-out, with the aim of bringing forward premises that are currently scheduled in years six and seven of the network build plan. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has recently written to NBI seeking to put the acceleration of the programme on a contractual footing. Any change to the contract will require detailed technical, commercial and financial analysis by both parties.
NBI has established a dedicated team to investigate the potential for acceleration of the fibre network roll-out from its current contracted schedule of seven years. Substantial work has been completed by the team to date, including productive engagement with current build partners. It is premature at this point to speculate as to how many premises may benefit from this potential change. I can say that the premises currently scheduled for the latter end of the roll-out will be the focus of the analysis.
While significant progress has been made by NBI over the past year, in challenging circumstances, the pandemic has caused delays to elements of the programme. A remedial plan to mitigate those delays has been agreed and it is in this context that the potential to accelerate the network roll-out is being explored. I expect to receive a detailed assessment from my officials by the autumn and will then bring an update to Government on the matter.
My Department continues to work with the Department of Education to prioritise schools with no high-speed broadband within the intervention area for connection over the term of the NBP. An acceleration of this aspect of the plan will see some 679 primary schools connected to high-speed broadband by the end of next year, well ahead of the original target delivery timeframe of 2026. Further details are available on the NBI website.
I appreciate the Minister of State's reply. It is not the first time he has given it this evening. I spoke with NBI earlier and, as such, there is an element of my carrying out a fraud, for which I apologise. It just happened that I got the telephone call earlier, before I came into the House to speak on this question. In fairness, the NBI offered me similar information to what the Minister of State has just given. Reference was made to the Department having eyes on the section 254 applications that are in place and that things are looking positive as regards dealing with local authorities and planning out the whole system. The NBI representative also mentioned that acceleration requires a complete audit of everything and looking to almost double capacity in reference to the past two years, if everything is moved from years six and seven into years four and five. The major consideration at this stage is the importance of there being a contractual footing and the interaction with Eir and the ESB with a view to ensuring everyone has capacity and can deliver on the project.
I agree with the point the Deputy is making. The State could take the approach of just negotiating these details on a friendly basis with the companies concerned without putting things on a contractual basis. However, we have taken the option to push for a contractual basis in order to have a legal agreement in place rather than relying on agreements made on the basis of good faith. As I said, there is continual pressure for broadband roll-out from every Deputy. There will be a focus from the public on getting information and a more detailed roll-out plan showing when people will get broadband in their area. I will do everything I can to make the situation as clear as possible.
The broadband connection points are an option and can be rolled out rapidly. The plan is to connect community centres and schools quickly. If the Deputy has been in a primary school classroom recently, he will have seen that blackboards have been replaced with electronic whiteboards. Every school needs a broadband connection.
I thank the Minister of State for his answer. He hit the nail on the head regarding the necessity of putting things on a contractual basis and ensuring there is follow-through. We need to make sure that happens.
I have a final question. There is a plan in place for this particular roll-out but there will be huge areas for which it will be three, four or five years before they have proper broadband provision. I hope we have the detail by the end of the year on the complete accelerated plan and timelines. Mobile telephone companies and satellite broadband providers offer some solutions but we probably need an element of a State audit and to look at anything that can be done to facilitate capacity and ensure we can offer an interim solution to those areas. If satellite is the option taken, it may require a conversation between the Department and the private providers.
It will be difficult and disappointing for anybody in year 4 or year 5 who feels an immediate need and is faced with this long gap. The Deputy suggests looking at technologies like satellite or fixed wireless and he is absolutely correct. Those technologies are developing all the time. One of the things about a project like this is that the assumptions made at the start or the environment at the start will be very different a couple of years later as technology develops. Fixed wireless access will be suitable in some situations. More mobile masts will provide some type of basic broadband connection, and for many people that will be the answer. It will not be easy. Accelerating from seven years to five years still leaves people waiting until year 5, and many of those people will not be happy. We have to investigate every other way to give them broadband connections, whether in a community setting, through a wireless setting or through a school.