Thursday, 15 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
103. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the work programme of the mobile phone and broadband task force; the estimated timeframe for when the task force will be established; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38308/21]
108. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development if her Department will primarily oversee and implement the work programme of the mobile phone and broadband taskforce; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38309/21]
My question is about the mobile phone and broadband task force, which, on the basis of legacy, resides within the Minister's Department. It has been re-tasked. It is a matter of the timeline. Deputy O'Rourke and I recently met representatives of Telecommunications Industry Ireland. That would have included National Broadband Ireland, Eir and others. They really want the body up and running so as to have a clearing house to deal with issues. There are always planning permission and infrastructural issues with major infrastructural projects. We do not need hold-ups. We need a clearing house rather than an arrangement by which we deal with issues across this floor.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 103 and 108 together.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The mobile phone and broadband task force was launched in July 2016 with the objective of improving access to high-quality mobile phone coverage and broadband services in rural Ireland. Since its inception, the task force has addressed more than 70 targeted actions, worked on removing structural barriers to telecommunications deployment and addressed mobile coverage deficits, particularly in rural areas. The completion of the task force's 2019 work programme marked the end of the task force as originally constituted. Attention has now turned towards its future orientation in line with the programme for Government commitment to continue to support the work of the group. Officials in my Department and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications have prepared a report on the task force's achievements and are currently evaluating what issues should be addressed by it in the future. Significant progress has been made by the task force although I am aware that there remains a range of strategic issues whose solution will require multiple Departments and agencies working together.
Since its inception, the implementation and overseeing of the task force have involved a joint commitment of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and my Department. I will continue to work with my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, to agree a new direction for the task force that will build on the success and positive engagement across central and local government, statutory agencies and industry.
I was involved in the setting up of the task force in 2016. At the time, I set up broadband officers in every county in the country. Having spoken to the telecommunications operators, I have learned that the task force structure and broadband officers have been invaluable to them in sorting out problems they have encountered on the ground, be they associated with planning or infrastructure. The arrangement has been very successful.
I welcome what the Minister stated to the effect that there will be a timeline for the evaluation and that the body in question, with its new tasks, will be back in operation. These organisations and companies are looking for a clearing house for dealing with the issues that exist. We know the situation in respect of National Broadband Ireland. There are two parts to that. One involves delays relating to Covid-19, which we expect to be dealt with in the first six months. Then there is the wider issue of accelerating the programme, which will probably involve years 6 and 7 being done in years 4 and 5. As already stated, we need a clearing house to deal with any issues that arise.
We recognise that section 254 guidelines have streamlined the matter of planning permissions across the State and for local authorities. There are still major issues, however, and local authorities are not fully structured from the point of view of delivering major strategic infrastructural projects across the State. We need this up and running as quickly as possible. We then need to be able to offer interim solutions for those people for whom the National Broadband Ireland roll-out will take a long time and the latter will be need to be done by that task force.
We have the task force and it has worked very well. We are looking at how we can repurpose it. A great deal of work is happening. I spoke to the task force only recently. It acknowledge the great work with the local authorities and local broadband officers, who have been able to bring a wide range of solutions there. I agree with the Deputy on the wider structure.
The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is certainly dealing with those issues on a national basis and is doing everything he can where he has engaged with National Broadband Ireland with a view to accelerating the roll-out of the national broadband programme on a contractual footing. Obviously, any changes to the contract will require detailed, technical, commercial and financial analysis by both parties. I understand that National Broadband Ireland has established a dedicated team to investigate the potential for acceleration of the roll-out of the fibre network. We are all on the same page here and want to get broadband rolled out as quickly as possible.