Thursday, 14 April 2005
I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Gallagher, for coming to the House for this debate.
I was very disappointed to learn that Tuam was not included for high-grade broadband and the town was certainly on the list as far back as March 2002, three years ago, when Senator O'Rourke was Minister for Public Enterprise. Tuam, after all, is a hub town under the national spatial strategy. It is one of three towns in County Galway with a town council, along with Ballinasloe and Loughrea. I would have expected it to be top of the list for broadband because of its hub status under the national spatial strategy.
As a developing town, I was amazed that smaller towns in Galway and in other counties were ahead of Tuam as regards high-grade broadband. I understand there was a pilot scheme involving the ESB, but this did not work out and we are now back to basics again. Hopefully, the Minister of State can confirm that Tuam will be included from today, or at least shortly, for high-grade broadband. This is vitally important for a town such as this which has suffered so much from job losses over the years. Town which are smaller than Tuam have obtained this facility and are making great progress as a result. Tuam is making progress in terms of small industry, but if the goal is to locate major industry in the town, the high grade broadband which other towns have, is necessary.
If the national spatial strategy means anything, it should follow that Tuam will get high-grade broadband. Three years after it was announced that it would be one of the first to get broadband, it is disappointing that so far Tuam has not been included. I hope the Minister of State can reassure me that this will happen in the very near future.
I should like to thank Senator Kitt for raising the issue of a metropolitan area network, MAN, for Tuam and for giving me the opportunity to outline the present situation. In March 2002, the Government set out its aim of placing Ireland within the top 10% of OECD countries for broadband connectivity within three years. Although the provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, is a matter for the private sector, it was clear to the Government at the time that the lack of investment by the sector in the necessary infrastructure would deny us that goal of placing Ireland in the top 10% by 2002. An indicative €200 million was set aside under the national development plan for infrastructural developments that would enable the provision of services by the private sector. It was hoped that the private sector would do it. It was found, however, that this did not appear to be happening and the Government decided to invest.
This decision included a number of private sector projects such as the 1,300 km. fibre trunk network built by the ESB along its power transmission lines, and the development of DSL broadband by both Eircom and Esat BT in a number of telephone exchanges. The investments being made by the sector were clearly insufficient to meet the demand for broadband, and in the absence of real progress the Department set out the regional broadband programme.
People such as Senator Kitt living in the west, and myself in the north west, always took the view that many programmes and developments took place nearer Dublin. This programme ensured, however, that every effort was being made to bring broadband to every part of the country. By the end of this year or shortly afterwards we hope that broadband will have been introduced into every school in the country.
The cornerstone of the programme is the metropolitan area networks, MANs. These high capacity fibre-based networks are being built in the major towns and cities in association with local and regional authorities. Some 19 of the MANs have been completed and commercial traffic is already being carried. A further six will be completed and operational within this year.
The completed MANs are being managed independently for the State and offer open access to all service providers. The MANs can deliver bandwidths and speeds that are many hundred times greater than those available over the telephone networks. They have been designed with the future in mind and will go on delivering high-speed broadband for generations to come.
In planning the next phase of the MANs programme, a review of the availability of DSL broadband in the regions showed over 90 towns with a population of 1,500 and more that were not being offered a broadband option by the private sector. These towns have now been targeted for the provision of MANs. A number of regional towns, including Tuam, while not having MANs, already had DSL on offer from the service providers, so priority had been given to the provision of essential broadband infrastructure in the towns where none existed.
In December last, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, announced the first 35 towns that had been approved for funding and a further 47 were announced at the end of February. Five towns in County Galway are to have MANs under the current phase. These are Athenry, Ballinasloe, Furbo, Gort and Loughrea. Galway County Council has submitted a strong case for a MAN to be build in Tuam, and this is being evaluated in the expectation of available funding under the next phase, and in the context of the longer-term broadband strategy to have a minimum of 5 megabits available ubiquitously in Ireland.
Demand for broadband is growing. The number of broadband users is increasing by over 30% per quarter. In July 2002 there were fewer than 1,000 broadband users in Ireland — the latest figure is over 140,000, a clear indication of the demand. The Minister has set the industry a target of 500,000 by the end of this year and it is felt that this target is within reach. Of course it is not all about large towns. There is major demand for the community broadband scheme which brings broadband into many towns and villages, irrespective of location. In the BMW region, grant aid of up to 55% is available from the Department.
I am taking this opportunity, while debating Tuam, to remind all small towns that up to the end of this month they can apply for the group broadband scheme which is for towns of fewer than 1,500 in population. I can assure Senator Kitt that a very strong case for MANs has been made to the Department. It has been evaluated and hopefully progress can be made when the Minister makes his decision before the next announcement.