Thursday, 6 October 2022
Communications Regulation Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)
I will be sharing time with colleagues.
The Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, has been operating with one hand tied behind its back, which has allowed poor standards and customer service problems to go unaddressed. As in the energy sector, the Government established an independent regulator but left it without the teeth needed to enforce standards of quality properly. At the time, we called for the introduction of legislation to provide for much larger sanctions that would act as a deterrent to communications companies treating their customers with contempt. Here we are two years on. The Bill is better late than never, though, and I welcome its provisions and recognise the effort to ensure due diligence in terms of providing ComReg with the necessary powers to clamp down on poor standards and behaviour among communications companies.
I will mention another regulator that falls under the remit of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and is operating without enough powers, namely, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. It has a number of questions to answer, but some of the problems fall at the Minister's door. A couple of weeks ago, the CRU confirmed to the climate committee that it lacked the legislative remit to govern standing charges. This means that utility companies can hike their standing charges without having to prove to anyone that there has been a corresponding increase in their fixed costs. It is a recipe for disaster. Despite households decreasing their energy usage, they are now being stung for more money via higher standing charges. This behaviour from energy companies will not help to encourage lower energy use in normal times. The Minister needs to address this. He should introduce emergency legislation to give the regulator the power to regulate standing charges and beef up its consumer protection abilities.
We recently learned that domestic electricity customers had paid €600 million over the past decade to subsidise large energy users' costs. This was an incredible revelation in the Irish Independent. The CRU has now cancelled that charge, but it has replaced it with another one. We need an explanation for this from the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. He was the Minister with responsibility when the charge was introduced during the recession, so he cannot wash his hands of it now. I ask that he clarify what was happening. The Minister should also address the gaps in the powers that the CRU requires in order to protect consumers fully.
Returning to the Bill, ComReg was established 20 years ago, so it is well past time that it be given proper enforcement powers. ComReg has a wide and important remit over a large number of companies in the telephone, mobile, broadband and broadcasting sectors. The current legislation requires ComReg to pursue civil and criminal sanctions through the courts. In transposing the European electronic communications code, EECC, this Bill will establish a new civil enforcement regime for ComReg, which will allow ComReg to make declarations of non-compliance and impose a range of penalties instead of having to apply to the High Court. This is a positive move, as I hope it can speed up these processes and not leave them caught in the court system for years. It is proposed that the penalties can include administrative financial sanctions up to a maximum of €5 million or 10% of annual turnover, up from the current maximum of €500,000, which simply does not act as a strong enough deterrent for multimillion euro - sometimes multibillion euro - companies in these sectors. Providing ComReg with enhanced enforcement powers, particularly the power to find non-compliance and impose administrative financial sanctions, would bring the regulator further in line with equivalent regulatory bodies in the State.
The Bill would also provide for ComReg to set minimum quality of service standards in the areas of customer service, complaint handling, switching, billing and refunds. I hope that this will address the problems that many people face when trying to get simple answers from, and issues resolved by, phone, TV, mobile and broadband providers. As acknowledged by the Minister of State, it can often take an age to get answers to simple questions and resolving straightforward technical issues can be a mammoth task when dealing with certain communication companies. There is no excuse for this. It is causing particular issues for people who are now working from home and are more reliant on their phones and broadband. Some people dread ringing telecoms companies because they can spend hours on the phone and still not get their problems resolved. Introducing minimum quality of service standards in this area will help to change the bad behaviour of some companies that show contempt for their customers.
One of the most annoying issues for mobile and email users is the constant stream of scam calls, text messages and emails. These are getting more sophisticated and advanced and can result in people losing thousands of euro. People are now receiving text messages with fraudulent links attached in the midst of the thread of legitimate messages from their banks. Others are plagued with scam phone calls and spam emails. Victims of text message scams were cheated out of an average of €1,700 during the first half of 2022 according to figures from FraudSMART, the fraud awareness initiative from Banking & Payments Federation Ireland. I understand that an industry-led task force, facilitated by ComReg, has been established to identify and recommend practical interventions that might be taken by operators in the short, medium and long terms to combat nuisance communications. The Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, might provide an update on this work.
The Minister of State will be aware that the European Commission launched infringement proceedings against Ireland over the Government's failure to transpose the EECC within the required timeframe. Will he update the House on whether this has resulted in financial penalties being levied and how much has been spent on the State's legal defence since Ireland was referred to the European Court of Justice in April?
I welcome the introduction of the Bill. It is vital that our regulators have the powers needed to protect consumers and clamp down on poor standards among some providers. I look forward to dealing with the particulars of the Bill on Committee Stage. I note the number of amendments from the Minister that were late additions, particularly those relating to the Digital Hub Development Agency Act 2003. I will discuss them with my colleagues and I look forward to engaging with the Minister of State on them.
We all welcome this legislation, although it is one of those Bills that we would have liked to have seen earlier. It is a straightforward requirement that companies realise the service expected of them, particularly those that operate in the telecommunications field. We all know of the issues that existed with Eir. The pandemic brought us into a different world where we had an absolute necessity for as much connectivity as possible in our homes and the many other places where we ended up doing a great deal of business that we might not have done in those places before the pandemic. We need to ensure that all providers are providing people with the necessary level of service.
Complaints need to be dealt with quickly so that people can move on. Obviously, that has not always happened. One reason for this from ComReg's point of view - the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications has dealt with ComReg many times - is that it did not have enough teeth and has needed to use the High Court.
We all realise how backlogged the courts are. There is an absolute requirement for them to have some of the powers provided for in this legislation. We must make sure that compliance can be ensured. This will only happen where it is a matter of "show me the money", as the line in "Jerry Maguire" goes. We all agree it is necessary that we have the possibility of imposing fines of up to €5 million or 10% of turnover. This type of provision can ensure that there is sufficient leverage and that when ComReg speaks, it can speak softly because it will then have a big stick. We must ensure this happens.
It is vital that people can get services that are not only affordable and deliverable but are also up to a certain standard. If difficulties are encountered, it is crucial that complaints be dealt with. In that sense, then, we welcome this measure. It has been the case that, to a degree, we were lagging in this regard and the EU had to put us under a certain amount of pressure. In fairness to Deputy O'Rourke, he has put several questions concerning the costs in this regard and the associated engagements and interactions. I do not think it would do the Minister any harm to detail all this.
Another issue where I am in agreement in this context concerns the fact that we are dealing with regulators without the powers we would wish them to have. We are all aware of the changed circumstances we are in now concerning energy security and energy price security. I refer to the cost of everything from electricity and home heating oil to the fuel we put in our cars. We are certainly in a different place and this is due to many factors. The most serious of these is Russia's vile invasion of Ukraine, which we all stand in solidarity against. The reality is that we must do what we can to ensure people have these vital services. Nothing is more vital than electricity and heating. It must be ensured that people are getting the best deals possible. We must examine the situation where the CRU does not have responsibility for aspects such as communal heating systems and standing charges and is also limited in those areas where it does have responsibility. This present set-up must be considered from the perspective of being able to ensure decent prices for those services which are essential to how we live our lives. It is necessary, therefore, that this context is dealt with.
Moving on to talk about the energy sector in general, we all know that at an international level, and especially at EU level, we are only starting the conversation about getting to grips with addressing the energy and electricity markets. The Government was negligent in not pushing forward the required measures to decouple the price of electricity from that of natural gas. Sinn Féin put forward a proposal suggesting what we saw as an approach to capping in this regard, from the perspective of providing people with clarity concerning what their prices would be, and proposing that this be done in the context of the leverage of a windfall tax. I have no doubt that we will move in that direction at international level and, eventually, in the domestic sphere. This is what needs to be done.
I welcome what is in this legislation. We will deal with any proposed amendments on later Stages and we will be very interested to see if anything else is added to the Bill, as can happen from time to time. We support better services for our people and regulators having the necessary teeth to be able to do their jobs. This is about affordable and decent services and ensuring people's complaints are dealt with in a timely and decent manner. If someone needs to be dealt with properly, that is what will happen.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It has some very good measures, specifically those that will increase the powers of ComReg. That organisation does good work. It supports vulnerable people and can be an easier organisation to gain access to and get support from. This removes the need to go to the High Court, freeing up valuable and vital court resources.
It is disappointing that this legislation has taken so long to emerge. We are two years past the deadline we signed up to. The State was referred to the European Court of Justice in April of this year for failing to implement these changes. To be clear, the court could fine the State and we could face the prospect of ordinary people having to pay the bill for the Government failing to do its job. It has taken four years to draft this legislation, and I recognise it is complex, but there are so many Bills like this that we need to process much faster. The Minister needs to make it clear why this process has taken so long and what actions he has taken to ensure this will not happen in future.
I have serious concerns about Eir. Recently, it hiked up prices by as much as the increase in the consumer price index plus 3%. I reiterate that Eir added an extra 3%. This saw monthly bills rising by €5 in August. The Minister of State needs to clarify whether this Bill will give people any recourse in situations like this, because we know the majority of people who use fixed telephone lines are elderly or living in rural areas. These are not luxury services, but necessities. While a €5 monthly increase may not seem like a huge amount for many people, for those living on pensions, those living alone and those living in vulnerable areas who are already struggling because of the cost-of-living crisis, these increases will have a huge impact on their household costs annually and make them even more vulnerable. Eir should come out now and reverse this decision.
Margaret, a lady from Cork, contacted me about this issue. She requires a fixed telephone line because she has a personal alarm. I assume the Minister of State will know that people with personal alarms must have a fixed telephone line. This ensures that if the alarm is triggered, a relative or someone supporting that person can be contacted. If people cannot afford to have fixed telephone lines, we will be making more people who are already vulnerable even more vulnerable. Elderly people living alone are now concerned about being able to afford a personal alarm. There is enough fear among older people already, especially among those living alone or in rural areas, concerning their safety, without them also having to worry about whether they can afford the cost of a fixed telephone line for a personal alarm. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, needs to engage with Eir and call on the company to reverse this decision.
With all that is already happening, including the increasing cost of heating, people being concerned with what they are going to eat and how they are going to manage, and a cost-of-living crisis that is crippling people, this move by Eir adds insult to injury. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, must ensure the Government takes action to ensure this increase does not impact on ordinary people. Companies should not be allowed to apply increases like this. What is the justification for it? I ask the Minister to act quickly. He has been out defending the big data centres and the amount of energy they are using. Where is the defence for ordinary people who have been priced out of necessities? We need a regulator with the power to protect ordinary people and to ensure people have recourse. There are good things in this Bill, but there is more to be done. My colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, is at the forefront in trying to ensure the regulations and the regulator have the power to ensure ordinary people are protected.
I note the welcome aspects of this Bill. Despite the delay, this legislation will see the enforcement provisions in the EECC being transposed into Irish law. This is very welcome, especially the provision for ComReg to have additional powers and a wider remit. We are all conscious in our constituencies of issues around consumer protection and lack of due regard for online security. This Bill is a welcome initiative to redress some of those issues.
I am not going to take my full time because I welcome the Bill. I will, however, highlight several issues concerning consumer protection in the online sphere. It is hoped that the legislation might play a role in addressing this aspect.
I want to speak about the impact that cybersecurity breaches can have on individuals and also groups of persons, particularly those who are less adept at using new technology. We saw news in the last year, such as the awful real-world harms of the cyberattack on the HSE, that has highlighted the risks associated with new technologies and, indeed, failure to update old technologies. That is why the implementation of this Bill is so important. The huge cost implications around the breach of online security of the HSE was accompanied by horrendous impacts on the health and lives, in some cases, of individual patients. That should never be forgotten. It was absolutely horrendous to see the effects of the cyberattack on the ability of our health system to care adequately for patients undergoing necessary treatments. That is the starkest illustration of the real harm caused by breaches of online security in the recent past in Ireland. Year on year, however, we hear from individual constituents and through the media of people who have been abused or scammed through electronic communications at a more individual level. The advent of online technologies has undoubtedly made people vulnerable in many ways.
One area in which I have been campaigning is to try to address the closure of in-person services that have been offering supports to people in accessing or making contact with public services like the Revenue Commissioners, health services and the Department of Social Protection. Citizens Information Board services and the centres it runs have been really powerful mechanisms to provide people who are not technologically literate with the ability to make contact with and make applications to bodies such as Revenue, the Department of Social Protection and other Government Departments.
In my area in Rathmines in Dublin, we had a really serious issue when the citizens information centre closed during Covid-19 and all the services moved online. It has not reopened, however, and there are no plans to reopen the building. Indeed, the premises is being closed. Clearly, it could move to another premises and we are seeking to try to ensure that is done. My great colleague, Councillor Mary Freehill, is working with me on a campaign to try to do this. The issue of the Rathmines closure touched a nerve with so many people. We ran a public meeting in June. Large numbers of people from the local community came along and spoke about how the closure of a face-to-face service and contact point with Government services had really affected and adversely impacted them, and how it made it really difficult for them, for example, to access benefits to which they were entitled or find information they needed. There are, therefore, a variety of ways in which the closure of these services specifically disadvantage not just older people but the many people who have difficulty with accessing technology.
The reality is also that it makes individuals who do not have the necessary digital technology skills or who are trying to work through electronic service provision inherently more vulnerable to scammers and cyberattackers. That has a direct knock-on effect. "Liveline" also ran a series of programmes over the summer about the closure of citizens information services. This is an issue nationwide. It also reflects the more deep-rooted closures of in-person and face-to-face services and a move online for so many different services generally. It is not just public services. I am also thinking, obviously, of banking services about which we saw controversy. Large numbers of people still want to be able to deal face-to-face with bank personnel and that was really revealed this summer. The reality, which the Government must acknowledge, is that shifting all services, public or private, online to electronic access-only opens up our most vulnerable citizens to cyberattack and cybersecurity breaches.
In addition to the new enforcement mechanisms that are set out in the Bill, I ask that the Government might review digital strategies, for which the Minister of State is responsible. It is very welcome to see us moving to digital strategies. The legal profession, in which I was once a practitioner, was far too slow, for example, in moving to use technology for conveyancing. The Law Society of Ireland did eventually move to an e-conveyancing strategy. That is all very welcome. So much of the movement online has been hugely positive. I do not want to sound like I am being negative about this. However, we need to see retention of in-person supports to support those who may have difficulty accessing all services online.
We need to see steps being taken to protect vulnerable members of the public from scam telephone calls, email phishing and any attempts to gain access to a personal computer or hijack or hack bank transactions or other sensitive information. ComReg and the Government need to take a more proactive role in protecting the public from this sort of fraud. Some very useful advertising is going on at the moment, which I think is very helpful in that regard.
I will speak about the cost of communications, for example, telephone and broadband bills. As we experience a cost-of-living crisis, we currently have a really serious consumer protection issue with increased costs for consumers on telephone and broadband bills. Organisations like ComReg and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, should take up a stronger role in protecting the interests of consumers in that regard.
With the indulgence of the Chair, I will mention legislation relating to this issue that was brought forward in 2020 by my colleagues, Deputies Nash, Duncan Smith and Ó Ríordáin, namely, the Consumer Protection (Loyalty Penalty and Customer Complaints) Bill 2021. This would greatly improve consumer protection against price-gouging practices by outlawing what we call the "loyalty penalty", in other words, outlawing enhanced costs for retained or existing subscribers of services such as insurance, utilities and telecommunications while also imposing an obligation on service providers to establish a system to handle customer complaints to a regulated standard. I am conscious that other contributors have spoken about customer complaints around the service people get from Eir. The Labour Bill would outlaw loyalty penalties for services provided to consumers on subscription or roll-over contracts. We think it is fair to say that in most consumer relationships, loyalty is rewarded and not punished. The loyalty penalty has been really problematic. It has caused a great deal of angst and concern among customers, many of whom do not have the time or energy to devote to shopping around. I know the advice from consumer bodies is always about shopping around, but that can create its own difficulties. Really, the loyalty penalty has been most pernicious in punishing people who just do not have the wherewithal to engage in shopping around. I should say that we also want to tackle the problems of poor customer service in the telecommunications industry. We want to see and ensure that mobile and broadband providers are required set up a complaints handling scheme that satisfies minimum criteria. We would impose a general obligation on service providers to set up a system for handling customer complaints to a certain regulated standard. We believe the debacle we have seen with Eir must be addressed and tackled. Again, the issue has been raised extensively by Councillor Mary Freehill.
Consumer protection has not been sufficiently strengthened in Ireland in the past. This Bill is a welcome part of change in our attitude towards consumer protection. Unduly regulated markets in any sphere allow the exploitation of consumers who are unable to shop around regularly. Requirements that people do shop around tend to put the onus on the individual consumer or customer to change. We believe there should be more emphasis on placing responsibility on the company or provider of the service and not on the consumer of the service. We want to restore trust to ensure people do not feel ripped off when they access services and ensure that companies are not allowed to discriminate against existing customers by offering cheaper rates that are only available to new customers, nor should poor customer service and handling of complaints be allowed. We know the market alone cannot be trusted to deliver good customer service and fair pricing. By legislating, we can ensure there is adequate regulation of the market in the communication sector, but also beyond that in public and private services generally. I ask the Minister of State perhaps to consider adopting even some provisions on the loyalty penalty in our Bill in amending this Bill to strengthen the mandate of ComReg and further enhance the protections for consumer rights that are really at the core of this welcome Bill.
I join with other Deputies in saying this Bill is very welcome. I also join with other Deputies, however, in saying we need a much more activist consumer protection approach in this country, particularly at this time of rising costs but more importantly at a time of imbalance in the relationship between these large companies, which not only have access to market power but that also have an extraordinary imbalance in access to information. The data profiling they have of their consumers is completely different to the position of many of the users, particularly those who are not perhaps as familiar with technology or who are not digital natives.
All the time we are seeing the encroachment on those who rely on freephone or phone services to get a response and, increasingly, there is no response at the end of the line from these larger utility providers.
I urge the Minister of State to consider a cross-government audit of all consumer protection regulators to examine just how effective they are being in protecting consumers in all the key areas, which are price, switching, complaints mechanisms, service standards, access to dispute resolution services and so on. They are a fairly standard mix and they are recited in the Bill in many provisions, including in access to refunds and so on, where it gives stronger powers to ComReg and confirms some of its existing powers. We need to see a consistent and activist approach from Government in ensuring all our regulators are acting to a high standard. Let us be fair; in the switching sector we have the obligation to inform people when they are coming to the end of their contracts and people must also be informed of the best charge for their mix of service. There needs to be an audit of that by ComReg to see how effective that mix is because there is a penalty for early exit from contracts. Does defeat the purpose of it? Are we seeing this regime deliver better protection for consumers in the communications area than in other sectors that do not have those same protections? It is only if a cross-government approach is taken that we will begin to see the consistency or lack thereof in the approach the Central Bank, the CRU and all the various regulators take.
I also welcome that we are imposing obligations on companies to take security seriously and inform us of incidents and so on. To put this into perspective we recently, and rightly, put clear legal limits on how the State can access information that we, as consumers, leave behind us in locational footprints, the sites we visit and the user activity we conduct. However, it begs the question of how citizens are protected from cyberhacking and from the legitimate ownership of some of this data, which we often inadvertently give permission for. It is a powerful tool and there is no serious assessment of what the proper limits on the use of that are. GDPR is an important protection but I suspect there are many other elements, such as what is embedded in algorithms that are being used to determine choices that are made and how they impact on citizens’ rights. There are a lot of issues here that we need to explore and an audit of different sectors would be helpful.
I welcome civil enforcement because for years when I was a Minister in different Departments I was told it could not be done and there were a thousand legal reasons for same but now we are doing it. That is welcome but it maybe gives us a timely reminder of what Robert F. Kennedy said when he asked "Why not?" Perhaps we should be doing more of that. The consumer standards are welcome but ComReg should aggressively publish those standards that are being delivered by these companies. We should promote a league table and competition among these providers in delivering quality of service, quick handling of complaints and keen and quick repairs. All those issues are important but they slip down the priority list unless sunlight is shone on them. They say sunlight is the best disinfectant and that is clear in the case of these large companies competing with one another that do not want to see reputational damage. We need ComReg to audit these various new areas to see how strongly the different companies are performing as well as publish that information and be open in encouraging the notion that customer service standards are important and that these companies will be judged by them. If they are not answering their freephone numbers and if people cannot get access to them then that should emerge and we will begin to see that standard being applied. Information is power and if we can get the information on that level of performance out there that would be beneficial.
Another area where ComReg should become more active is broadband. We know the commercial sector has carved out areas from the national broadband plan which are not open to the broadband plan delivering service but the reality is there are a lot of frustrated customers within those areas where the commercial sector is supposed to deliver. We do not see transparency in the plans of those companies to live up to their commitments that they would deliver these services commercially and that we would not have to have State-supported delivery in those areas. That frustrates people and at a time broadband is so important to people, we should do that.
I tried to look up the ComReg price comparison tool and I found it difficult to do so. I do not pretend to be a whizz at this but I found it difficult to use so maybe the Minister of State should look at that.
ComReg has a formal dispute resolution where a problem has not been resolved for 40 days but a fee of €15 has to be paid for it. I do not mind paying the fee but it should be refunded if the case finds that the company was wanting. We should not putt obstacles in the way; 40 days is four times what the delivery standard for those companies should be and if ComReg has to intervene in their dispute we should recognise that at the very least we should be making it as accessible as possible.
I welcome the Bill but it needs to be the start of an activist use of this legislation and the consumer rights Bill, which is also shortly to come before the House, to strengthen the position of consumers.
I too welcome this Bill. As the previous speaker mentioned, ComReg and the different aspects to this area are something that people struggle with. It is a sad indictment on our country that we meet people in our clinics who mention problems with Eir, which is a complete disaster. People in rural and isolated areas depend for safety and security on pendant alarms and their Eir lines might be down for one, two, three or, sometimes, six months and they cannot get through or navigate the system, especially elderly people. I walked in one day and heard my daughter asking not to be passed to someone else. There was a woman sitting in front of her for an hour and a quarter while she was contacting a company and that woman had to be there to identify herself under GDPR requirements. We were passed from Billy to Jack to Ned to Tom to Mary to Billy and back around the house again and got no resolution. It is so frustrating.
I recently met a nurse in a hospital in Dublin and I had not seen her before as she had just moved back from the UK. She said she used to come over every year to visit her mother for holidays but she never realised things were so bad with utility companies until she came back with her family of four kids, bought a house, which is great, and tried to navigate with the utility companies. She said it is a nightmare compared with the UK. What is wrong with us in our supposedly modern and inclusive State when we are excluding people and discriminating against them? That is especially true of people who are not good at IT - and I am one of those myself - and it is true of older people. I chaired the adult education board and I often gave certificates to 90-year-olds who went back and did their leaving certificate and everything else and it was wonderful to see that but many people are not proficient with electronic gadgets, especially older people as they are not into them. They can barely turn on RTÉ One on the television with the remote control and it is scandalous that they are not looked after. They are neglected and abandoned by these companies and they are paying dearly for the pleasure of being neglected and abandoned. It is very serious and we seem to just pass it off.
We have ComReg and a plethora of other regulators but, honest to God, I wonder sometimes what is their function. They do not seem able to deal with these companies or they suffer from inertia in doing so. They seem unable to get the companies to behave properly.
I am in business, or part of a business, and, thank God, we celebrated 40 years in operation this year. I thank my wife and son for carrying on while I am in this job. We would not have any customers if we behaved the way these companies are behaving. Customer service does not seem to apply to them. I am not blaming the people at the other end of the telephone. That work is often farmed out to different companies, call centres and all the rest of it. It is just sad that people are so frustrated they come to us, as politicians, to the Ombudsman or to the likes of Joe Duffy and other talk show hosts. We hear all the time about the total and utter frustration of people who have been abandoned by the providers of services for which they have paid. They are already paying through their taxes to support many of those services, including the setting up of Eir and the roll-out of broadband. I know people who live 100 m or a little more from a centre that has broadband but they cannot get it and are told it will be two or three years before they do. It is shameful in this modern era.
I was at a Fianna Fáil Ard-Fheis at which the late Albert Reynolds held up one of the big phones we used to have on the hall stand in our house. We were afraid, as children, to go near the phone when we first got it. It was polished twice a week but we were not allowed to touch it. When you dialled, you got through to the local post office, which then put through your call. Albert Reynolds help up the phone and said he would have one of them in everyone's house within a month, which he succeeded in doing. That was in 1978 or 1979. Now, however, people might be waiting indefinitely for a phone line to be installed. ESB, to be fair, has very good customer service and is very good at repairs when there are outages. Their staff go out in all kinds of weathers. The same cannot be said of the other companies, some of which have come and gone. The broadband situation is not acceptable. Timescales are given for roll-out but none of them are met. The companies are supposed to pay huge fines for missing targets but I do not know who is fining them or whether they are paying such fines. Public money is funding the roll-out of broadband. Is the public contributing to the payment of fines as well, while waiting for the broadband to be rolled out? It is quite simply appalling.
It is a sad situation in our modern country that we see young people with smart phones and everything else but ordinary people cannot get services they were used to having. There were great people working in some of those services, including the gangs of men we used to see working for Telecom Éireann and then Eircom. Now, someone might come the distance from Mayo to Clonmel and Cahir to repair an outage or fix a cable. We see the poles rotting and falling into ditches and wires hanging down on top of ditches. It is dangerous. Farmers cannot cut their fences because the wires could get tangled up in their machines. It is scandalous that we have a quasi-public utility whose workers have no pride in their work and whose morale must be very low. There are no staff left. I had a visit on Tuesday from Pádraig Ó Ceallaigh, whose wife, Shirley, works for me. He was a dedicated Eircom and Eir employee all his life. It is a pity for the many like him who gave great service that we are in this situation.
I hope this legislation is not just about ticking a box and passing another Bill, rather than ensuring we have proper regulators with teeth. I do not want to be repetitive but, as I said, it is very frustrating for people to be paying for a service and to be punished by not having that service and having to wait and wait and be fobbed off in trying to resolve it. I hope the legislation will make some impact but I very much doubt it will.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this legislation and thank the Aire Stáit for dealing with it. I welcome the publication of the Bill, particularly the provision for additional powers to be given to ComReg, which is very much warranted. However, there are a few issues not dealt with in the Bill that need to be addressed.
The first is an issue I have raised on numerous occasions in the House, namely, the European Commission's definition of high-speed broadband. One of the provisions in the Bill relates to universal service obligations and implementing the relevant EU directive. I will come back to that presently. The difficulty at this time is that the legal definition of high-speed broadband at EU level is a services of 30 Mbps. No one in this country believes a speed of 30 Mbps is high-speed broadband. The Commission is setting a target of gigabit broadband speeds in eight years' time, yet it still retains the legal definition of high-speed broadband as being a speed of 30 Mbps. Why is this a problem? Under EU state aid rules, National Broadband Ireland cannot intervene to provide a householder with a fibre optic cable where that home is already getting a minimum speed of 30 Mbps. Sadly, it is not the case that those households are getting a minimum of 30 Mbps but that the provider, usually Eir, is telling them they are getting that speed. I am aware of instances right across rural Ireland, on the edges of many of the towns and villages in this country, where people are not getting 30 Mbps. However, Eir is telling the Department it can provide them with that speed and because of that, and even though the fibre optic cable is on the pole outside their door, NBI is precluded from providing them with a service.
The European Commission is threatening us with legal action on broadband provision. I ask the Minister of State, at European Council level and through his engagement with the Commission, to ensure the latter starts pulling up its own socks. It needs to revise the definition of high-speed broadband. No one on this Earth believes a download speed of 30 Mbps and an upload speed of 5 Mbps amount to high-speed broadband. Why is the Commission not prepared to change its definition when it is setting a target for 2030 of 1 Gb? Ireland is probably the only country in the EU that will be able to achieve that target universally across the State but we are being precluded from doing so because the Commission will not revise its definitions. I hope the Minister of State can make progress on that.
On a related issue, something I, as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, took up with the Commission is that there should be a legal universal service obligation in regard to the provision of high-speed broadband to homes. There is no point in the Commission talking about high-speed Internet access and giving gigabit speeds to homes if there is no legal obligation in this regard. We will be unique in Europe in having fibre going to almost every door in the country by 2030. The difficulty is we will have a handful of homes scattered in different parts of the country for which there will be an astronomical cost to the State of putting in a broadband connection. If we had a universal service obligation on the telephone providers to provide broadband to every home, that would overcome the problem. We have a legal definition at present whereby people are legally entitled to have a copper wire brought to their door in order to avail of telephone services, but they have no legal entitlement to any broadband service whatsoever. The Commission needs to move on this. It has been pussyfooting around these issues for long enough. If it is prepared to take out the big stick and wave it at Ireland, we should go back to it and say we are the ones showing Europe how this can and will be done.
We are the ones showing Europe how this can and will be done. Let them give us the opportunity to deliver on that by changing the archaic rules they have in place. They can come back closer to home. One of the provisions in this legislation relates to cybersecurity, particularly relating to 5G networks. I do not intend to get involved in that debate today; it is for another day.
However, I want to raise a related issue. We all accept that the 5G networks will need to be ubiquitous across this country if we are going to have equality of treatment for people on our island. At the moment, we are looking at it in terms of the 5G services that are provided currently. Such networks are going to be vitally important in the provision of services to farmers in rural areas, in crop and livestock management and in the provision of healthcare services. Yet, there is no obligation to provide 5G coverage on a geographic basis in this country. The disappointing aspect about this is that the Government launched its national digital strategy earlier this year on 1 February. It has set itself a bizarre target of only covering the populated areas of the country with 5G by 2030. It is going to provide fibre broadband to every rural home, 146,000 km of it to 96% of the landmass of this country, two years earlier, yet we are only setting ourselves a target of 5G coverage for populated areas by 2030. Eir is already covering 70% of the population, including 322 towns throughout the country. Three has 79% 5G population coverage at present. We are setting ourselves a very low benchmark by 2030. I accept that when we move into rural areas, the cost of it becomes prohibitive. I am asking the Minister of State to sit down with representatives of the industry and agree on the establishment of a single rural 5G network, so that all the operators can piggy-back on it and provide 5G coverage to every townland and parish in the country. It makes financial sense for the Government to do it if there is a little bit of joined-up thinking. The reason for that is the existing TETRA radio system used by An Garda Síochána and the emergency services is costing us €40 million a year. The technology is obsolete. We are going to put in a new network and spend a lot of taxpayers' money on rolling out a separate independent, geographic 5G network across the country to provide the services to our emergency services. Why not have a 5G service that people in rural communities can use, and that people in any location on this island can use to dial 112 or 999 to get access to the emergency services and the type of medical support that can now be made available on a 5G network, as well as providing it to the emergency services and An Garda Síochána? Instead of it costing €40 million a year, we could replicate what is being in done in Northern Ireland where a rural network is being rolled out. The estimated cost, according to the industry, of rolling that out in this jurisdiction would be between €30 million and €50 million in a one-off capital cost, not a recurring cost, benefiting our communities as well as benefiting the taxpayer.
I am delighted to be able to speak on the Bill, and to bring to the attention of the Minister of State some of the issues that are affecting us nationally. First I will deal with the telephone system and the billing situation at the moment. Eir has issued letters to all of its fixed line customers to say that, in future, they will have to pay €7.50 for the privilege of getting their bill sent out in the post. I think that is wrong. Most of the people affected by this issue are those who perhaps do not have access to online services or do not have the competence to use online services to pay their bills, or do not have the broadband or telephone networks required to do the same thing. It is wrong for companies, such as Eir, to introduce a €7.50 charge for the privilege of having bills posted. I spoke to a woman yesterday who said that she is thinking of giving up her landline because she has an old-fashioned mobile phone. The problem is that she is not sure whether she will need the landline to install emergency alarms in her house because she lives alone. She is paying approximately €250 a year for the benefit of having a landline. She checked her bills and she made one call on it in the past two months. There is a corporate responsibility on the likes of Eir to look at this type of situation, and to ensure that they are not just milking innocent people. Adding €7.50 on to the cost of posting a bill is wrong and should be tackled head on by the Department.
When people have broadband installed and get their package from whatever company they get it, they are told that they will enjoy broadband speeds of up to a set number of megabytes. That is a marketing tool. If people go back and check on how many days in a month that they actually reach the target speed, they will find that it is very few. Customers are told that they will enjoy speeds of up to a certain number of megabytes. That is wrong, and has to be stopped, so that customers who are buying something know that they are getting, and are getting what they pay for. That is the important message there.
With regard to the NBP, I am critical of the likes of Eir. It has an installation in place that serves a certain length of a road, for example, but will not serve the next house or whatever. According to Eir, that house is in the intervention area and is out of its service area. There might be five houses left on the road without service. I know that the installation is in a circle on a map, and this is how it ends up. Surely to God, there has to be some joined-up thinking between National Broadband Ireland and Eir to ensure that such houses, which are still low-hanging fruit, can be connected to the system so that customers can get the fibre-optic broadband. In some cases, the service is available and businesses in rural areas cannot access it because they are outside the service area. There might be a line in the road, as it were. That is an archaic way of trying to deal with things, especially in light of the fact that the roll-out of the NBP was delayed and it will continue until 2027.
There is another innovation that the Minister of State might consider. It concerns cases where NBI or Eir are connecting customers and there is a satellite dish at the property. Such dishes should be taken by the local authorities and set up, in extreme rural areas that are going to take four or five years to get to, to be reused. Perhaps the mobile phone and broadband task force could look at this, as something that there could be joined-up thinking on, to ensure that we roll out, even on a temporary basis, satellite signal to places that will not get the fibre-optic broadband for a good while. That is very important.
I was involved in the NBP, as was my colleague. It is the best thing that has happened, but we need to make sure that the roll-out is expedited and that we push it along to get more and more houses done. The frustration I have is that people ask when it is going to be done. It is going to be 2024, 2025 or 2026 before they get their broadband. These are people who could be working or doing a lot of other things from home. At the moment, they are travelling a lot and wasting a lot of carbon.
The Communications Regulation Bill is certainly a topical subject in light of the cyberattack on the HSE and news from the US today that a chief technology officer from Uber is being prosecuted for a data breach in 2016. This Bill is designed to enact a European directive on data management, network management, and security and legislative provisions. Customer care has been a significant feature for many people dealing with communication companies in this country, particularly those dealing with cable television, phone and Internet providers. In this area, as my colleagues have outlined, ComReg has significant work to do in properly managing and enforcing the standards of these regulated companies.
As well as managing data security on the Internet, I question the ability of the European directive to manage the integrity of content on the Internet, particularly news media. I was listening to a discussion on "The Pat Kenny Show" earlier about the generation of conspiracy theories and how much they are being promulgated through social media platforms. This calls into question the integrity of the news we hear and where fact-based news can be accessed. On that point, I would like to mention the independent radio broadcasters of Ireland who continue to be forced to pay a broadcast levy while, at the same time, receiving no support by way of the licence fee, unlike public broadcasters. In addition, they are required to run a news service, which is vital for regional and community news updates but which requires significant journalistic input and cost. The two radio stations in Waterford, WLRFM and Beat FM, fall squarely into this characterisation. They are finding it very difficult to recruit and retain journalistic talent, which they are required to do in order to provide the standard of news and community engagement they wish to provide. It is worth noting that independent radio received no support in this year's budget, yet the newspaper industry was moved to a zero VAT rating. In addition, the public broadcasters, RTÉ and TG4, were provided extra funding at this time.
The broadcasting levy on independent broadcasters amounts to approximately €2.5 million per annum and should be eliminated. It is an unfair levy on those broadcasters that do not receive public licence supports and have seen a collapse in their advertising revenues since the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been no recovery in that revenue stream. These broadcasters are expected to provide a public news service as part of their licence approval but get no support for doing so. Independent public radio is a fundamental piece of our democracy. If it is dismantled, how are we to push back against fake news, which, as I say, is being promulgated widely?
For years, the online social media platforms have taken advantage of the lack of regulation to out-compete and disrupt independent radio and newspapers in this country. No levy is applicable to those foreign-owned social media companies and it is high time a levy was placed on streaming and paid television services, as well as on digital advertising channels.
I welcome the new civil enforcement and other powers that will empower ComReg to impose administrative financial sanctions for non-compliance and require compensation to end users. I also look forward to the setting up of a media commission that will hopefully have adequate powers to properly regulate online and social media platforms. I hope it will also play a role in the fair and equitable treatment of independent radio and recognise the importance of this sector.
The increasing digital landscape is progressive but it must be progressively managed to ensure it is a force for greater good and not greater evil. The independent radio sector has long since proved itself. The Government must now recognise the damage the broadcast levy is doing and how badly these businesses need that funding, and allow them to retain it. The levy should be scrapped as a first port of call in this legislation. If the Bill clarifies the position in that regard, among its other objectives, I would welcome it.
I thank Deputies for their interesting contributions. Deputies O'Rourke and Ó Murchú raised the question of nuisance calls, scam texts and scam calls, and asked for an update in that regard. Last year, I convened a meeting of the mobile operators, the head of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, the head of the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau and ComReg. We set up a task force to deal with the problem, which is widespread and increased during the pandemic. The result is not just inconvenience, as it is for most of us, because some vulnerable people have had their identities compromised and their entire life savings stolen. It is a serious issue. I know a number of recommendations are coming forward from the task force and will be presented to me in the coming weeks. I am looking forward to seeing what is happening in that regard. I know the Garda has co-operated with the National Crime Agency in the UK because it seemed that gangs were perpetrating similar crimes in the two countries from another jurisdiction. We were sharing law enforcement information. There has been a reduction in the number of nuisance calls and texts but I would like to see them minimised further and cracked down upon. There are a number of recommendations coming and I look forward to strong action in that area.
Deputies Ó Murchú and O'Rourke also asked about the potential penalties from the European Commission because of the late transposition of this legislation. We received notification from the EU in April and last month we issued the regulations that are required for the transposition. The Attorney General tells us we need to have primary legislation to give full effect to these measures and that is why we are discussing the matter today. There are no penalties so far. The strongest response we can make to late transposition is to make legislative progress. We have issued the regulations already. We have published and signed them and we are working on the primary legislation today.
The Deputies also asked about the costs we have incurred to date, which is a question for the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. I will follow up and see what I can find on that issue.
Deputy Gould welcomed the Bill and praised ComReg. He also emphasised that we need to ensure the individual, the ordinary person, is being protected. That is the purpose of this legislation. People are extremely unhappy with the customer service they have received from their communications companies. That is not only the case for one company. The sector as a whole is at the bottom of a list of sectors for performance in customer service. Communication has now become a utility. It is absolutely vital for people to have access to their communications in order to work or study from home. This Bill lays down standards for communications companies and failure to comply with them will result in penalties. In practice, it means that if citizens receive poor treatment from their communications companies, they should be automatically compensated financially by that company and if that does not work, people will be able to take civil action through a dispute resolution system that will be simple and easy to use. The purpose is to move the balance of power towards the consumer and away from these companies.
Deputy Bacik welcomed the Bill and emphasised the need for citizens' information services. She expressed worry that as we move Government services online, some people who are unable to go online will find their services are closed down. I assure her that our intention and policy are to ensure that Government services are fully inclusive and we do not exclude anybody because they do not have access to a computer. Another Deputy asked about charging for bills. One of the communications companies has announced that it will charge customers who wish to receive a paper copy of a bill. We need to look into that matter.
Deputy Bacik also mentioned that the legal profession is sometimes slow to digitise. I have been looking across different sectors and trying to figure out how to bring them all online. The particular problem with the legal sector - and this is the case in all countries - is that there is a large amount of legislation governing its procedures. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is an expert in this area. Things must be done in a way that makes no sense or is inefficient. For example, everybody must show up in court on a certain day instead of sending an email to each other. That is because such a procedure is provided for in legislation. Making progress on digitising the legal profession requires that an enormous quantity of legislation be passed. That can present a barrier. The Courts Service, which has a new chief information officer, is making great progress. The courts.iewebsite is being improved and all of the points where the legal system interacts with the citizen are being focused on at the moment.
Deputy Bacik brought up the very important question of penalties for loyalty, whereby a customer is penalised at the end of the year for staying with the same provider. In fact, this Bill states that when contracts comes to an end, every communications provider will have to write to customers to tell them what the best packages are for them and advise them which tariff they should change to in order to make sure people are not penalised for loyalty.
The question on price flows from people thinking about the CRU and the regulation of price for customers and so on. What should a reasonable price be and will regulation extend to price? For the first time, this legislation will require that broadband be available to everybody. We have never had a universal broadband obligation. We have had a universal telephone service obligation, which has been good as it meant people living in a remote area could get a telephone service no matter where they lived in the country. The same will apply in future. Wherever people live in the country, they are entitled by right and by law to a broadband service that is adequate and affordable. The question of what is adequate and affordable is up to the Minister to define in regulation. It will be up to the Minister to set out in regulations what is an affordable and adequate service.
Deputy Naughten asked what the definition of high-speed broadband is. High-speed broadband might have been 30 MB some years ago but it is not now. The commission is saying that everybody should have gigabit broadband by 2030. Nationally, we have said a number of things. The draft communications strategy for the country has been out for public consultation and while a final version has not been published, it is due to be published soon. What has been put out in draft is that by 2028 everybody in Ireland will have gigabit broadband. In rural areas, in the intervention areas covered by NBI, everybody should have 500 MB broadband by 2026. That is the intention of the national broadband plan.
There is then a possibility that there will be people in black-spot urban areas who do not have broadband at a time when we will have reached 100% coverage under the national broadband plan. That plan is designed in such a way that providers must complete an area in full before they get their payment. They cannot leave anybody out, which is in marked contrast to what is happening in commercial areas, where a commercial operator could be providing fibre broadband on a street and then reach a point where the last person on that street is rather hard to provide for, and that operator just turns the truck around and connects up somebody who is a little easier. What such operators are doing as a result of this is leaving little black spots all around our urban areas, towns, villages and cities. I want to send a signal today to the fixed broadband and fibre broadband suppliers that if they do this, they will find at a later time that they will be required to go back to those places, at great expense, and connect those people who were left out. It is not a sensible long-term policy or strategy for those companies to find themselves at a point where they are legally required to go back to connect up those customers they left out because they thought it was in their short-term interest on that day to leave the last person at the end of the cul-de-sac disconnected from their network. I strongly advise anybody who is deploying fibre broadband not to leave streets and areas with little black spots that they will have to come back to complete in the same way we would not paint a wall and leave holes in it for the next day. That is my message to the broadband companies today.
Deputy Bruton asked for a cross-government audit on the effectiveness of all consumer regulators. It is an interesting suggestion and one I am happy to talk to him about outside the House.