Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

5:00 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann condemns the failure of the Government to ensure that broadband is available to every business and household in Ireland and calls on it to take immediate measures to remove us from the bottom of the European broadband league.

Do I have 12 minutes?

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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Yes. I am sure the Senator will find 12 minutes adequate.

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Senator will be concise as normal.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I move this motion on broadband in the full knowledge and with certain surprise that the number of column inches and the number of minutes devoted to broadband in this and the other House is painfully small. In his reply I would like the Minister of State to outline why broadband has had so little prominence in Irish political life in recent years. It seems to be one of the crying problems of the economy and desperately needs attention, particularly political attention. We only need to consider the statistics issued by various bodies to understand how badly Ireland is doing in the broadband stakes. In this debate I do not wish to engage in a pointless pass-the-buck blame game. However, it is very important that the results of this debate show that the Government is determined that our place in the European and other leagues is improved dramatically.

How on earth have we such a booming economy when we are so far behind in this vital infrastructure? We only need to review the statistics to underline that question. The figures issued, I believe, by the European Commission as recently as this year show we are ranked 19th out of 25 in the European league for broadband. If the accession countries are excluded, we are only ranked, I believe, 14th out of 15. That is a lamentable performance by Ireland, on which we will need to improve very quickly if we are to maintain our position as the economic heroes of Europe. There are two other pillars of this economic boom in which we have excelled. Obviously the rate of corporate tax has benefited this country enormously and our young population has been of great benefit to the country. However, that our infrastructure and particularly our telecommunications infrastructure is so poor indicates that it is vital that if we are not to fall down and lose our position at the top of the economic growth league, we must immediately take emergency measures to improve our position on broadband.

Sometimes we pride ourselves on being a much more modern, progressive and economically vibrant state than Northern Ireland, where broadband is accessible to every household. However, in the Republic of Ireland our figures are considerably below 50%. How is it that broadband is available to every household in Northern Ireland, but is not available to businesses and people down here who are crying out for it? The actions in Northern Ireland should be commended and considered by the Government. The authorities in Northern Ireland took the sensible, sober and modern attitude that broadband should be regarded as a vital utility and should rank along with water, electricity, telephones, gas and other utilities available to every home and business.

We do not take that attitude here. We take a strangely laissez-faire attitude to broadband, whereas we take an extraordinary attitude to State interference in other matters of far less importance. There is an unanswerable case for taking a route similar to that taken in Northern Ireland. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong. In Northern Ireland I believe that O2, as the kind of incumbent operator, was subsidised by local government in those areas where it was uneconomic for broadband to penetrate. It then became available to everybody. Let us not pretend that those of us who are free-marketeers always say there should be no subsidies, no state support and no state interference. There are cases and this is one of them. If broadband is not provided, the community, the nation and its infrastructure will suffer. The Republic of Ireland is coming close to that state. We need efficiency. We have plenty of money. We got €200 million out of Aer Lingus today and the Minister will not know what to do with it. What better way to spend that capital than to put it into infrastructure of this sort to improve the economy of the country in a permanent and measurable way.

Let me applaud the efforts of those promoting broadband. Let me single out, in particular, the Irish Internet Association, which has run a gutsy campaign without enough Government support highlighting that three prongs are necessary in broadband promotion. Those three prongs are what is known as the three As, namely, awareness, availability and adoption.

The first problem we have to address is that the awareness of broadband among the people of this country is lamentably low. Last week, the Minister announced he would provide €350,000 for an awareness campaign but that amount, which represents about 20 cent per PC owner, is far too small. We need a campaign which would make people in schools, communities and other groups aware not only that broadband is available but that it is necessary for small businesses and the people of this country.

If awareness is increased so that people know broadband is necessary for competitiveness, the second stage is to make it available. However, it cannot be made available without a tremendous push from the Government. Entire areas complain they are unable to get broadband. I see no reason the Government should not increase broadband availability by offering tax breaks to entrepreneurs. Small broadband companies are being established in a rather disorganised manner, without Government assistance, in order to offer broadband to various communities. That makes one realise broadband is being made available on a random basis in this country. It is usually based on the local exchange and it is often a matter of luck whether a service is available. A plan is needed through which the Government would give tax breaks to entrepreneurs who are prepared to take risks in this area so that the promotion of broadband in certain areas is incentivised.

A thorny issue has arisen with regard to the incumbent, Eircom. Governments have tended to blame the incumbent for dragging its heels and, while that may be the case, the fact of the matter is that an incumbent will not naturally assist its competitors. However, one competitor, Smart Telecom, has gotten into big trouble. That company has managed to enrol a paltry 16,000 customers on its broadband services. Whether through tax breaks or a shareholding taken by the Government, companies which are established to promote broadband need massive encouragement.

With regard to the third A, adoption, once people know that broadband is available, they must be persuaded to take it up. Again, we must incentivise large and small businesses. What better way to offer incentives than through a scrappage scheme, which would offer tax breaks or grants to people to discard narrowband and upgrade to broadband. Strong efforts are needed to lift Irish businesses to the level at which they can compete with their peers overseas.

What message is being sent to multinationals based in Ireland when they see how lamentably bad we are with regard to broadband? They see a wonderfully attractive country but are beginning to look to eastern Europe and we do not know what losses will result. Surveys I have seen suggest that by being so far behind, we risk losing as much as 1% of GNP over the longer term. If the Government is to launch a campaign to increase broadband take-up, it should not only use tax breaks but also a major educational programme in schools. Reputable consultants and economists warn that the cost to the economy will be highly damaging if we do not improve this vital part of our infrastructure.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I second this crucial motion and thank my colleague, Senator Ross, for tabling it. The Cathaoirleach probably did not read the Government amendment very closely because he would have ruled it out of order if he had. It is an astonishing amendment. At the very least, I ask the Minister of State to remove the third section, which states: "after a late start Ireland's rate of broadband take-up is continuing to accelerate". That is factually incorrect. We were second last in Europe last year and in the same position this year. It is not a matter of take-up but of availability. The Minister of State should not blame the public because there is no problem with take-up when broadband is available. I live 15 miles from here, yet I cannot get broadband. I have a satellite one-way dial-up system which barely works. When I travel around the country, I find that services are hit and miss. Sometimes a 3G data card will work at 3G level but more commonly it is at GPRS or dial-up level. The situation is absolutely appalling but this amendment suggests that the Government is not committed to addressing the issue.

During the debate on the sale of Eircom, I made a similar point about the information super highway, as it was known in those days. I said that I did not see Dr. O'Reilly bringing broadband to Belmullet or Dingle because it would not be worth his while to do so. That is exactly what is happening.

Senator Ross correctly pointed out that economic growth is being inhibited. Some people cannot participate in economic growth because of their location. Women who could work from home if broadband was available are being prevented from returning to the economy. Figures show that we are constantly dropping behind.

The amendment makes reference to ComReg. It should be noted that, in addition to the second worst broadband availability, Ireland also has the largest mobile telephone bills and highest line rental charges in Europe. These issues are related because when I cannot connect to the internet with my 3G card, I have to use my mobile telephone at very significant cost. Similarly, people use dial-up connections when they should have an always-on connection with broadband. The Government is exacerbating the situation in terms of telephone bills.

It would be easy to make an always-on up and down broadband service available to every house in Ireland through satellite. I am not impressed by the municipal local area networks because they address the problem only in small towns while using a lot of unnecessary wires. We could provide broadband by satellite if we had the will to do so.

We should give close consideration to the points made by Senator Ross. Economic growth is being inhibited and the country is being made less attractive for investors and industry. Crucially, research and development is being hindered. It is also inhibiting postgraduate, particularly postdoctoral, research that is crucial to economic growth in this country. It makes the delivery of public services more expensive and inhibits the development of e-commerce. The European position is that the use of broadband in the delivery of public services and the development of e-commerce to allow business outsourcing, has a positive impact on regional development, traffic congestion and economic development in the regions. Ireland has signed up to this but nothing is happening because of the lack of broadband. Teleworking, growing at an extraordinary rate in Europe, is inhibited in Ireland because of the lack of broadband. It is preventing women from returning to the workforce.

We must allow access to broadband if we are to develop modern industry. This morning I spoke to someone who lives in the constituency of the Minister of State. He undertook postdoctoral research in California. He wishes to set up a company in Ireland and broadband is crucial to him. It will be a success story but he cannot develop his company in that constituency. It is not a problem in the ether, it affects every constituency. Access to broadband stimulates economic growth, boosting productivity, creating employment and assisting the economic growth of regional areas. Broadband is of crucial importance to the Government's programme of expansion and gateway towns. The problem is that we fell behind in this area.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator has one minute remaining, in which it would be advisable to second the motion.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for his assistance. It would be a terrible breach of procedure if one spoke without seconding the motion.

Some three years ago a commitment was given that every school would be connected to broadband. It cannot happen. I agree that this can only happen through public delivery and private investment. Smart Telecom is an example of how the private sector is unable to deliver because the support structures are not available. Only 16,000 people signed up for its scheme. Smart Telecom was the only company not dependent on Eircom, which is why it needs support.

Some companies have received the franchise to provide broadband to a certain county. Along county borders, neighbours 100 yards away from each other cannot receive broadband from the same company. I have seen examples of this along the Dublin-Meath border.

In seconding the motion, I hope the Government will withdraw the amendment, which is totally irrelevant, and support the motion, which is in line with European demands.

Photo of Brendan KenneallyBrendan Kenneally (Fianna Fail)
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I will disappoint Senator O'Toole because I will not withdraw the amendment. I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Eireann" and substitute the following:

—Recognising that—

—telecommunications services, including broadband, in Ireland are provided by the electronic communications sector operating in a fully liberalised market;

—the market is regulated where necessary by the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg), the statutory body responsible for the regulation of the sector;

—after a late start Ireland's rate of broadband take-up is continuing to accelerate;

commends—

—the Government for its proactive interventions such as supporting the construction of metropolitan area networks in many areas and providing capital grants under the county and group broadband scheme, which is helping to bring broadband subscriber numbers to more than 400,000 by the end of 2006;

—broadband providers for responding to the challenging target for broadband connectivity set by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources two years ago; and

—the recent announcement by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources that he is initiating a process to deliver broadband services to those areas in Ireland where it is currently uneconomic for the sector to provide broadband connectivity.

I agree with Senators Ross and O'Toole on the importance of broadband but the current situation is not due to a lack of effort by the Government. Many of the contributions referred to the lack of availability of broadband. I disagree with Senator O'Toole's statement that broadband is not being taken up due to its unavailability. The Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has examined this issue. In areas where broadband is available from more than one company, it is not being taken up. I do not know the reason for this, it may have been the initial price. As the market is relatively small it may be difficult to initiate competition. I could not lay my hands on a report I had seen from a few years ago. It dealt with the number of computers in houses in different EU countries. Ireland was at the lower end of the scale. Despite being proportionately the largest exporter of software, we do not have computers in houses. If there are no computers in houses, people will not seek broadband.

Our low position on various broadband take-up surveys is mainly a reflection of the delay in the launch of competitive broadband services in Ireland in comparison with other countries. Representatives and observers of the Irish telecommunications industry agree that Ireland has a relatively low number of broadband subscribers because the full-scale launch took place 18-24 months after the launch in other countries. The take-up time lag of two years was a result of this, as well as the late launch of competitively priced digital subscriber lines by the incumbent telecommunications operator.

Senator Ross does not know if such problems exist but investigations undertaken show that there are problems with the incumbent. Due to financial difficulties, cable television networks did not emerge as significant infrastructure competitors vis-À-vis the DSL telephone platform in Ireland. The deterioration in the share values of telecommunications companies curtailed the scope for the additional investment required to launch broadband services in Ireland. Coupled with the lack of competition between broadband service providers, such as telephone and cable television companies, the reduction in investment in the aftermath of the dotcom crash weakened the initial introduction of broadband in Ireland.

However, we have moved on and there are now more than 400,000 subscribers in this country. This figure is growing by approximately 17,000 per month. It is similar to pushing a car — it is difficult at the start but once it gets moving, it will accelerate. This is why I disagree with Senator O'Toole's request to remove a reference to acceleration in the Government amendment. Why is demand accelerating now? The schools project is one of the Government initiatives in this area. Broadband is not available in every school in the country. Schools were a target and, by and large, most schools have access to broadband. That has generated demand in the home because the children want it at home as well.

One of the most important developments, given that there is a problem in rural areas, is the group broadband scheme. This scheme, which part-funds communities who wish to develop their own broadband services, is the Government's most significant initiative to ensure broadband coverage in more dispersed rural areas. The scheme is now in its second phase. Under that phase, a total of 119 projects have been approved to date. So far, this represents an investment of €12.4 million in 445 communities covering a population of 355,000 people.

Today the most fortunate Irish consumers have the choice of receiving broadband by means of DSL from a telecommunications operator, wireless from an FWA provider or over cable from their cable television company. It is reasonable to expect that within the next 12 months half of Irish households may be able to choose between at least two of these three options. In the cases of DSL and FWA it is reasonable to assume there will continue to be competition, with multiple players offering both technologies. In the cable sector it is difficult to predict the pace of broadband roll-out beyond the plans announced by the then two main operators to enable at least 200,000 customers by 2006.

This level of inter-platform competition which is finally emerging in Ireland, somewhat later than in many other OECD countries, should have the effect of ensuring strong price competition for broadband services on an ongoing basis. It is hard to imagine carriers charging higher prices for their products in different regions of the country simply because they believe there is less competition.

I had hoped to speak about the small and medium sized enterprises sector, which needs broadband to develop business but I do not have time to do so. I commend the Government's motion. Progress is being made and the Government will continue to take every step to roll out broadband as extensively as possible throughout the country.

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the work of the Independent Senators in bringing this worthy motion before the House. The previous speaker referred to the amendment. The amendment does not say anything tangible about the future or about whatever success has been achieved.

The Government has failed in the provision of broadband to ensure Ireland keeps up with the immense technological growth that has seen such huge advances in the competitiveness of our European neighbours. Some years ago Ireland was being applauded for our IT and technological advances and was an attractive location for foreign industries. However, we have reversed the engines with our failure in the provision of broadband. I listened to the Senator's defence of the Government's record. I am not seeking to say everything is bad and that nothing is improving but Fine Gael believes that the Government woke up too late to the problem and failed to recognise the scale of the task it faced. As a result, Ireland is now desperately trying to catch up with our neighbours, with limited success.

It is undeniable that there are increasing numbers of broadband lines and broadband subscribers and that there will be more of each in the future. The total number of broadband subscribers in Ireland, according to the latest report from the communications regulator, was up to 372,000. Recently, the Minister claimed a higher figure of 410,000. I read the Forfás report produced in 2004. That report predicted that by the end of November 2004, there would be 450,000 subscribers and that there would be 700,000 by the end of 2007. From November 2004 to October 2006, there are fewer subscribers than was predicted by Forfás in 2004. That demonstrates our lack of success in advancing the provision of broadband.

Some private operators, despite Government indifference and statutory paralysis, have made great efforts to get Ireland on-line. Recently, O2 announced it is investing €250 million in a network upgrade that will pave the way for the introduction of mobile broadband. The development will allow O2 to offer third generation mobile services and broadband to its customers. I am pleased with reports that the company is beginning with the Republic's main urban centres and then extending the work into rural areas. I urge it to ensure that the extension of the network to rural areas becomes a reality. It believes that its new services will cover 60% of the population by the end of this year, 80% by the end of next year and then proceed to cover 99.6% of the State.

The Minister has spoken of his plans to expand the regional broadband scheme to give coverage to the remaining 15% of the Republic's population that does not have access to high speed telecommunications services. The Department has spent more than €80 million over the last three years developing broadband infrastructure throughout the State. This includes the metropolitan area networks, commonly called MANs, for large towns and urban areas, group broadband schemes for smaller population centres, and school projects.

It is worth bearing in mind that the network for metropolitan area networks is being managed by e-net. It states it has 19 customers who are telecommunications operators. Incredibly, however, it cannot give us an idea of the number of residential customers who use the network to get broadband. One would imagine that e-net would be able to link with its 19 customers and establish with each of them the number of its residential customers. That would give the overall number of people who are availing of the MANs system, a system that was installed at considerable expense by the State.

I understood the logic of the State getting involved at the time. The telecommunications companies were finding things difficult financially and, therefore, would not put in the type of investment required to stimulate broadband provision. The State had to intervene. Of the 27 MANs built throughout the country, 22 can deliver broadband to customers. What has happened to the other five? They are not linked to the fibre rings in those areas, which is the essential technology required to supply the broadband resource to communities.

We originally assumed that Eircom would plug its fibre into these MANs to provide the broadband but that has not happened. We are aware of what has happened to Eircom and the changes that have taken place in the company over some time. When Babcock and Brown took over Eircom, I hoped the Minister would intervene to try to ensure that there would be local loop unbundling. We have had dismal success in that regard. Only approximately 2.5% of the DSL lines in the country are subject to local loop unbundling. Eircom has approximately 75% of those carrier lines. There has been dismal failure in this area.

I wish to quote a letter I received recently from Limerick County Council. It sums up the frustrations that exist with regard to broadband and the Government's decision, or indecision, in that regard. It states:

Dear Senator Finucane,

I am writing to you in my capacity as a Director on the Board of Shannon Broadband Limited regarding the current uncertainty surrounding the extension of broadband in the county. The position briefly is as follows:

There is approval for eight additional fibre rings to be installed in the region; [this encompasses the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen's, constituency of Clare] two of these are in County Limerick — Abbeyfeale and Newcastle West.

All of the route selection and design work has been completed in respect of these projects and advance works are actually in progress in Abbeyfeale.

We have been waiting for this for years. I recall being on the county council many years ago when this was first mooted by Shannon Development in conjunction with the partners in the different local authorities. What has happened? The letter continues:

Shannon Broadband are ready to go to tender for the civils and have been so since early August but have been instructed to hold off by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources who are currently considering amending the planned fibre networks (MANS) to wireless solutions which it is anticipated might facilitate the extension of broadband to a greater number of locations.

This may appear a laudable objective but we have been waiting for years for MANs to be established to give proper broadband links to communities. The letter continues:

Shannon Broadband have serious concerns regarding this potential course of action for a number of reasons: Primarily, it is considered that moving to a wireless solution would essentially be seen as a downgrade in the standard of broadband which would be available in the selected locations and so would weaken the potential for attracting economic investment into these areas. In many ways it could be seen to reflect the decision on the Red Cow roundabout many years ago in that it may save money now but ultimately would involve upgrades or alternative solutions at a later stage to stay in line with the rapid advances in technology.

The letter concludes: "I would greatly appreciate if you could pursue this matter with the appropriate decision makers as a matter of extreme urgency and convey the concerns of Shannon Broadband Limited in this regard." I presume the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources will have received a copy of this letter and will be aware of the frustrations of Shannon Broadband.

This letter, written by the director of service, community and enterprise, HR and corporate services in Limerick County Council, was probably circulated to all Oireachtas Members in the mid-western region. It outlines her frustrations, as a director of the board of Shannon Broadband, regarding the absence of activity in this area. The advances made by Shannon Broadband in recent years have been thwarted and sidelined as a result of a change of policy in the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in what has been an excellent example of joined-up thinking.

I ask the Minister of State to give an appropriate response and inform the House of what the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is up to in this regard in order that I can relay this information to others. I have much more to say but my time has elapsed.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State. Broadband is important and, as Senators all agree, must be available to every business, household and school. I support the amendment because the Government has acknowledged it must accelerate growth in broadband availability. The perception is that broadband availability is focused in cities and towns with rural and remote communities required to wait longer for it.

Having read the Minister's report, it is clear the Government is pressing ahead in this area. In 2004, Ireland had only 63,000 broadband subscribers, a figure which had increased to more than 400,000 in 2006. The position has improved in the past two years but where do we go from here? The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has been involved in the regulation of the sector. The notes I received today indicate the Government has established a framework that is in line with the European Union regulatory framework. ComReg, the regulatory body, is facilitating discussions at all levels in an effort to ensure the last mile, as it is described, is opened up to all operators. In addition, the Minister has urged all parties involved to co-operate in this discussion.

On broadband infrastructure, the notes indicate that the regional broadband programme covers three areas, the first of which is the metropolitan area network aimed at business, which is targeted at towns and cities with a population of more than 1,500. This network is being established by the e-net managers network and progress is being made. Although there appears to be broad satisfaction, progress must be accelerated in order that everyone can become knowledgeable about how broadband works.

The second aspect of the programme, the group broadband scheme, facilitates local people living in centres with a population of less than 1,500 to come together with service providers. Perhaps we need to push harder but I welcome Government measures to create infrastructure aimed at making progress in this area.

I understand broadband is available in practically every school. A joint industry programme brings business people and schools together to work closely on improving the network. Having asked several schools about this programme, particularly in urban areas, I am aware that it is working well. Nevertheless, we need to ensure every school has access to broadband.

The Minister is examining options to bring broadband to 100% of the population and he expects to bring proposals to the Government for discussion. A major effort is under way to advance broadband roll-out, even if this may not be proceeding as quickly as we would like.

Senator Ross noted a lack of awareness about broadband availability. He may be correct and perhaps an awareness campaign is required. I note, however, that the Government established a new information website to help consumers and business obtain the best deal in securing broadband access. A cross-Border television advertising campaign is highlighting the benefits of broadband for households and businesses and a further cross-Border campaign scheduled to run in 2007 and 2008 will focus on the safe use of the Internet.

Some commentators have expressed concern that the number of personal household computers in Ireland is too low. Ownership of personal computers has increased from 46% of households in 2004 to 60% of households in 2006. In addition, three out of ten households have purchased a broadband package. I accept, however, that this figure must increase. I note Senator Ross's arguments but we must acknowledge that the Government is making considerable efforts in this area. It has recognised the areas in which defects have arisen and introduced programmes and an awareness campaign. Perhaps the major push must focus on local communities which do not yet have broadband access. I commend the amendment to the House.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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There is a degree of mystery about the extraordinary ineptitude of the present regime, in its two manifestations from 1997 to today, in dealing with broadband. As I just told Senator Ross, this is one issue for which it cannot blame anybody else. No preliminary work was required. In 1997, at a time when nobody here knew much about broadband, it was being discussed in some of the chattier corners of the Internet. I have figures on the growth in speed since the dial-up era which show how recent this development has been. The Government, therefore, has no excuse because nothing was lacking.

For reasons which are still difficult to penetrate, the Government took off on the glorious tangent of privatising the country's most important infrastructure, its telecommunications network. This decision left us with an incompetent telecommunications quasi-monopoly which has done what it liked and has boasted to international bankers that there was no reason to worry about the telecommunications industry being caught by the regulator. Major international banks have indicated that one of the qualities of Eircom is that it is well able to outmanoeuvre the regulator. Nobody wants to do anything about it and that is a crux of the issue.

The Government plays games with statistics and, I suppose, politicians always do so. It talks about the growth in broadband penetration. The point is that it is growing faster elsewhere. Growth in broadband penetration in the last quarter was 19% while it was 28% in the previous quarter. We are going backwards. The fundamental fact is that the level of broadband penetration here is down compared to countries such as Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Cyprus, which has problems because of its geographical isolation. We have some consolation in that Greece is behind us so at least we are not visible at the end of the queue. That is the fundamental fact.

The Government can make all the excuses it likes but as it does so not only are we not catching up, we are falling further behind because the rate of broadband penetration is so slow. Does anybody have an idea of the level of frustration among people living in cities who have been told by Eircom they cannot have broadband because there is a copper wire connection which was put in sometime between the flood and the arrival of the Lord, which has been there ever since and which is entirely unsuitable or because it has complicated, cheapskate connections made by Telecom Éireann or by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs 25 years ago which Eircom refuses to upgrade since it is not focused on its primary job, namely, to provide a good telecommunications service?

We hear about the growth in broadband access and, thankfully, it is getting a little better. We hear about broadband penetration which is not even moderate; it is abysmal. Real countries which are really progressing, such as the Netherlands, have three times the level of broadband penetration we have. France has twice the level of broadband penetration we have while Sweden has, effectively, three times the level. People in this Government, perhaps not in the majority party but in the minority one, will point to countries such as that and describe its failed economic model and state that ours is the thrusting model of the new liberalised market economy even though we have not done the most fundamental thing properly, that is, to provide the telecommunications infrastructure the country needs to have a future.

That is bad enough, but what the Government wants to do is inept. The reason is that in the majority of what now masquerades for broadband, we are talking about a maximum band width of approximately two to three megabytes per second. A domestic user will get one megabyte per second for a price which is among the highest in Europe. This year in France and the Netherlands, they are talking about speeds which are ten times faster than what we aspire to over the coming years. That is the difference. We are trying to build a single carriageway when they are building motorways because this Government cannot use its imagination and see what is needed.

What Senator Finucane said is a classic example of the ineptitude. Having told people to go in one direction, the Government is suddenly saying to hold on, there is something wrong and that it is going to go in a different direction. There are profound technological and technical arguments about the limitations of wireless broadband. It lacks the capacity for multiple use. There are inherent restrictions which mean it will always be a worse solution. It may be an acceptable solution in some isolated rural areas but to suggest it as a solution for any urban area is another matter.

Growth is going backwards and broadband penetration is nearly at the bottom of the league table. There is also the question of the quality of the service. People will tell one it breaks down. Although I do not have that problem with the Eircom service, many people do. The alleged speed is three megabytes per second in my case. I test it because there are many software packages on the Internet. It never reaches anywhere near three megabytes per second. It usually just about reaches 1.2 megabytes on a good day. If one hits it on a bad day, it will drop down to approximately 0.5 megabytes per second. Nobody is even talking about this. The Government is just wheeling it out because it is suddenly embarrassed.

I will move on to another contention, which is the number of people who can use the same broadband connection at the same time. One should try it out on a Saturday night where I live in Cork and see how slow it is. Not only will we have traffic jams, we will have broadband jams because we will not build the quality of infrastructure which will give people the speed they need at the time they need it.

I am sick of the phrase "rocket science". Rocket science is actually quite easy. It is not hard to figure this out. Anybody should be able to understand the analogies between broadband availability on a crude level and road traffic or water flowing through a pipe. If one tries to squeeze too much through a pipe, nothing will not go through it.

We are trying to introduce broadband on the cheap, with the case cited by Senator Finucane being a classic example. This happened in Ireland ten or 15 years ago when somebody — I believe it was the Department of Finance, which is the most negative influence on Irish public policy — refused to allow proper roads to be built so we ended up with roundabouts where we should have had flyovers, with the result that there was chaos. Now we are back to the same issue again.

I know one of the best guest houses in the west Kerry Gaeltacht and, as a result of sheer frustration, the owner has now installed satellite broadband at great expense to herself because so many of her customers wanted access to broadband but nobody could give it to her. There is a long list of such examples.

I will quote a far better known former resident of Cork than myself. Roy Keane famously said that if one fails to prepare, one can prepare to fail. In terms of the telecommunications revolution and what the Government has not done, we should be beginning to prepare to fail because we are so far behind and the world is moving so far ahead of us that the gap will become unbridgeable and we will be left behind with the result that major future investment will go elsewhere where there are governments with public policy capable of delivering the quality which is unimaginable to those making public policy here at present.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I always enjoy listening to Senator Ryan who comes out with little gems, one of which was his reference to real countries. I thought this was a real country. I would like to know where these real countries are.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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It was a figure of speech. The Senator should not play games.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I am very happy to be living in this real country.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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This is a serious debate.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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That is what I was going to say but I did not want to upset the Senator too much. Using throwaway phrases such as "real countries" is lowering the tone of the debate but we will not joust on that.

According to the latest information, there were 372,000 broadband subscribers in Ireland by the end of June. By mid-September that figure had gone up to 410,000. This is equivalent to 9.27% of the population or 26.57% of households in Ireland. It was only 3% of the population at the start of 2005. That is progress. Even Roy Keane would be more than happy to suggest that is real progress. I have another statistic which goes back to Senator Ryan's barb about real countries. Perhaps he was talking about the Netherlands.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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All the statistics are little because everything about this is little.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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Senator Mooney without interruption.

6:00 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I do not mind Senator Ryan interrupting me. We are good friends and he enjoys this type of debate.

At the end of 2005, EU 15 broadband take up was 14% of the population or 34% of households which compares reasonably favourably considering the low base from which we started. I must accept that one of the reasons we started off at such a low level in the take-up league tables reflects the relatively late launch of competitive broadband service in Ireland by telecoms and cable television companies.

I share the Government's aim to increase competition so that consumers and businesses can benefit from cheaper broadband and more choice. Incidentally, broadband is widely available in the €20 to €30 per month price band. I agree the combination of competition and regulation is driving down prices. DSL prices fell by approximately 25% during 2005. There is a key element of this on which the Government should move as rapidly as it can because I believe it has been going on for years. I remember when the Leader of the House was Minister with responsibility for this area and she referred to local loop unbundling. I had an idea it was something to do with making hay but it was the technical term for allowing more competition into the market.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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The Government still thinks it has something to do with making hay.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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It knows more about making hay than it does about broadband.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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It was made clear that it is a key requirement to stimulate more competition in Ireland's broadband market and to increase broadband uptake. It is interesting that 95% of schools now have broadband access and the rest will be added in the autumn.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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They cannot use it in many cases.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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That suggests we live in a real country.

The bad news, however, is that I agree with much of the criticism of Eircom. I have had the unfortunate and unhappy experience of dealing with Eircom since I first tried to get broadband in Drumshanbo in County Leitrim, so I could be more like those esteemed Senators from more cosmopolitan areas where broadband had already been rolled out. I decided I would take the issue in hand myself. The local exchange is 200 yards from my house and I was told by local engineers that the equipment to enable the exchange to upgrade to broadband was installed in December. One of the engineers told me that he was finished and that the only thing that was needed was another section of Eircom to test the line, which would take a month. The man said it should be in place by the end of March. The end of March passed without any broadband so I was told it would be in place at the end of April. The exchange was enabled in the middle of June, six months after the equipment had been installed.

A real problem exists in Eircom. I have checked with other people who have the same problem and until the Government accelerates its local loop unbundling policy and creates more competition, we will be driven demented by people screaming for broadband who cannot get it because of Eircom's monopoly.

This company has gone through several manifestations, none of which has benefited us.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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Shareholders benefitted, infrastructure did not.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The opposite is true, we have lost — I am one of the unfortunate shareholders who lost. I am probably telling the Government what it already knows but until it accelerates it policy of unbundling, there will continue to be problems with a company that, to put it bluntly, is one of the most inefficient and incompetent outfits I have ever come across. If it was in the public sector, we would be screaming the house down.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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Re-nationalise it, buy it back.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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That is why we cannot do anything specifically about it but, in terms of policy, I fully support the view that something should be done.

Consumers themselves must play their role in comparing providers to ensure they get the best deal. The best way to get a company to sit up and take notice is to vote with our feet.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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We just want someone to provide the service, it is not a question of comparing.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The Department is operating a website, www.broadband.gov.ie, to help consumers and business to find the best deal. There is also a broadband awareness television campaign running in conjunction with Northern Ireland that highlights the benefits of broadband for households and businesses.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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A motorway that turns into a dirt track.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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In Northern Ireland, the British Government subsidised BT to ensure 100% roll out in the Six Counties. I said to the Minister that the Government should bite the bullet and, if necessary, subsidise the extended availability of broadband. That would bring us further up the league. Our present lack of progress will not help us to arrive at the level we should be reaching. The Government is not necessarily to blame because a private company has the monopoly.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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Who gave it that monopoly?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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The framework is contained in Government policy and the statistics show that the Minister and the Department have been so focused on this area that there has been a significant increase in broadband facilities. I welcome that and encourage them to do more. We have a lot done but more to do.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I was fascinated by a phrase I saw recently, "connectivity is productivity", in the book The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas L. Friedman. For a country that boasts that it is to the forefront of information technology, we have been remarkably slow in rolling out broadband. We had considerable difficulty getting it in Dublin 4 on the Burlington Road and it was very costly. I go to Haute-Savoie in France and my son tells me that broadband is so cheap and accessible, the sheep and goats are on-line. I cannot understand what has happened here. Broadband saves time, promotes efficiency and is an economic necessity.

I am particularly saddened by the delay in roll out in rural areas because home working can be suitable for many people, particularly women, and Internet access is now so slow in many places that these people are at a significant competitive disadvantage. There should be more action in this area.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This debate was sought by Senator Ross, who has strong views on this issue, and I support him in those views.

I first came across this issue in Singapore, a place that has always impressed me. Singapore singled out the opportunity in Asia to become the centre for knowledge creation using the Internet. I came home excited about that and stood in the Seanad eight years ago, telling the Minister at the time about Singapore, saying we could be the same but we must put broadband in place. If we had focused on it, we could have achieved it but we have not.

I did not realise how bad things were until my son, who is very interested in technology, told me about going to Clare and being unable to get over the lack of provision. He said it was like sightseeing on a penny farthing after driving a Jaguar. He asked how people could live with the frustration involved.

I did not realise it was so important until I met a neighbour of mine in Howth. He cannot get broadband, which demonstrates a failure on the part of the Government. The Government's attention was drawn to the problems and the opportunities but it did nothing about them.

Senator Mooney is correct in saying there was a dramatic increase last year but it was from a tiny base. It is so easy to have such an increase in such circumstances, so it is understandable. However, I do not want to spend my time criticising what went wrong back in 1997 when Telecom Éireann was privatised. The real reason we failed in broadband goes back to what happened in that year when we did not take steps to do something about it. We can do something about it now, however, although I am not sure what.

I liked Senator Mooney's explanation of what we may have to do. It may be possible to do something by using the State to influence a commercial company, be it Eircom or not. This can be done by tax incentives or other financial incentives in some form or another. We have to do something like this. Let us examine what happened in Northern Ireland where only a few months ago they decided that everybody was going to have a broadband address. A previous speaker said that practically every home in Northern Ireland had broadband.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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One hundred per cent.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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Not every business in the Republic has broadband but we can do something about it. The onus of responsibility is on the Government, just as over a century ago the Government of the day declared it was important for every village to have running water. Water was not provided directly to people's homes originally but fresh water was provided through a village pump. The fresh water of the future economy will be the availability and accessibility of broadband on a worldwide network. It should not be provided in a pennyfarthing manner, as my son put it, but like a speeding car. We can do that here but it will take action.

We must do something about the situation, but what? In my view, the time has come for drastic measures. The Government should force Eircom to provide basic broadband access to every household in the country at no cost to individual householders. The Government should be prepared to pick up the tab for whatever that costs, although safeguards would have to be put in place to ensure the rapacious Eircom did not profit unduly from such an initiative. We have plenty of examples where that was done in the past. By adopting such a policy, the Government could ensure that within a short period, say two years, Ireland could go practically from the bottom of the broadband league to the top couple of percent. Only from the latter position can we realistically hope to pursue a leadership stance in the knowledge society.

This situation needs bold and courageous leadership. I wonder if we will get it from this Government or the next one. I know we will get it eventually because we cannot possibly stay as far behind as we are. The analogy of providing water supplies in the past is not dissimilar. If someone two centuries ago had said that water was nice to have rather than being essential, it would not have been understood now. That is what we are in danger of saying if we do not take action and do something about broadband.

I am delighted that Senator Ross tabled this motion for debate because I hope it will bring forth some understanding of the degree of urgency that is required. I do not know if that food for thought will provide action. Let us make sure the Government is not just listening but will do something about it.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I join with previous speakers in thanking the Independent Members for tabling this motion. As one who represents a rural constituency, I come up against the broadband issue daily. I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber. He represents a constituency with a large rural area and I am sure he comes up against the same problem. I am disappointed by the nature of the Government amendment which seeks to commend the Government's action in this regard. However, there has been a startling inaction by Government in providing broadband coverage throughout the country. The amendment also commends the role of private operators but I do not think there is much to commend in that respect.

I am disappointed by some of the comments made earlier. Broadband is a major issue in my constituency. Senator Mooney spoke about Leitrim and said the rest of us come from more technologically advanced areas, but I do not accept that. I come from County Kilkenny, large parts of which are not covered by broadband in any shape or form, either wireless or landline. Senator Kenneally will be familiar with most of south County Kilkenny.

I have received many representations from business people in south County Kilkenny who cannot get a broadband connection. Not a week goes by that I do not get a few more people contacting me about such difficulties. The problem we have with broadband coverage goes directly back to the privatisation of Telecom Éireann and the catastrophic error that was made to privatise the network in advance of unbundling the local loop. It does not have anything to do with making hay and even if it did I do not think the Government would be able to manage that much at this stage. That cataclysmic error, which effectively placed the public network in the hands of a private monopoly, has landed us in the current situation.

Senators Mooney and Quinn mentioned the possibility of the Government becoming directly involved in markets generally. Traditionally, I have not been in favour of such action but there is a compelling case for the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to ensure that Eircom provides broadband connections in every part of the country, not just cities and towns. By and large, most of our urban areas are covered, although there are specific difficulties in such areas also. Rural areas are not covered, however. There is no question of private operators becoming involved in providing broadband coverage to rural Stoneyford in south County Kilkenny. It will not happen. If the Government's policy objective is for private business to ensure broadband coverage for Inistioge in County Kilkenny, we are living in cloud cuckoo land because it will not be provided. Last week, I received a call from a businessman there who does not have a broadband connection. The error was made back when Telecom Éireann was privatised. Clearly, the network should not have been sold off with the rest of the company. In the current situation, we must examine every possible solution to the problem. I concur with Senator Quinn who said we must look at drastic things such as the State funding large parts of the country that do not have a broadband service.

It is more than a little patronising to hear the usual Government line from Senator Mooney that people should shop around. Try telling that to people in areas not served by broadband. I know of one man who employed ten people in a horticultural business in Stoneyford, south Kilkenny, but he cannot obtain a broadband connection despite having tried for five years in that particular area. I wish that man was here to listen to Senator Mooney telling people to shop around. Such a man does not want to shop around. He wants one company — any company at more or less any price — to provide him with that service, yet nobody will do it.

We get reams of answers from Eircom telling us that such an area is not on its list of exchanges to be upgraded. There does not seem to be any exchange in Kilkenny that is scheduled for upgrading in the next 12 months, although the situation in Carlow is somewhat better. As previous speakers have said, that will be catastrophic, particularly for small businesses.

I found some of the earlier remarks from the Government side very patronising. It was stated that the reason we have such low broadband connectivity in this country is that people do not have PCs in their homes but that is sidestepping the substantive issue. Many people do not have PCs in their homes because they know there is no possibility of getting a broadband connection. It is a chicken and egg situation but we need to ensure the service is provided for consumers across the land. There should not be a division between the eastern half of the country and the western half. I live in the south east and most of the area I represent has no coverage whatsoever, despite what we have heard from Government spokespersons in this debate.

Government speakers have mentioned the increase that has taken place in the level of broadband penetration. Given that we have started from a low base, of course there has been an increase but it is minimal. We had a broadband penetration of approximately 9% in June while the European average is 14%. In Finland, where two thirds of the country is virtually uninhabited and a large area is inhospitable due to climate, there is 24% coverage. There is 27% coverage in the Netherlands and 29% in Denmark. How is it that in Ireland where we have made huge technological advances, have been at the cutting edge of the IT sector for ten to 15 years, and have been recognised as world leaders, our broadband penetration is 8%? It is an incredible indictment of the efforts of this and the previous Government that the figure is not much higher. If we do not act quickly this will have a dramatic effect on the Irish economy.

During the past 12 to 18 months there has been a dramatic fall in Ireland's position in terms of global competitiveness. We have gone from being in a position where we were competitive to a position where we are not quite so competitive. One of the reasons is that companies cannot be assured of 365 days per year coverage for broadband. If the Government does not tackle the issue in the immediate future the economic situation could take a downturn for many small businesses that operate throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Being a Galway man he will be familiar with the challenges of providing open access broadband to urban and rural areas. I should mention the good work taking place at grassroots level and refer to the European regional network of application communications technology, the Eirnet group in Donegal, which has been proactive in looking at possible solutions and alternatives for providing open access broadband to urban and rural areas. This group which was set up in 1990 is a great ambassador for setting the agenda for broadband in the north west.

The Minister of State will be familiar with the group and its unique cross-Border base because it involves Derry City Council and Donegal County Council. Since 1990 this unique group has been a strong advocate of promoting the broadband agenda. It has a reputation in Europe given that it is a member of a plethora of European regional groups with a high degree of credibility and recognition for the work it has done. It has led the campaign for satellite broadband, wireless broadband and ADSL broadband and the traditional fibre optic ESB avenues for broadband. This group has worked hard at local level.

Curiously when one is in Donegal and hears some of the Government parties speak about broadband, it is as if the solutions have been found for all of Donegal. However, that is not the case and we still do not have open access broadband. I accept we have a good MANs network in Letterkenny and there has been a further announcement of the MANs network into areas such as Carndonagh in the Inishowen Peninsula. We also have the MANs network in Gweedore. Nevertheless, there are still many gaps in the Inishowen Peninsula and in Donegal, and we have to keep a firm focus on what is needed.

Community groups have been proactive in looking at radio broadband. I accept that the group broadband scheme rolled out by the Government has been a welcome addition to the broadband infrastructure in rural areas. One, in particular, is a unique group in north-west Donegal called the Hills of Donegal where there has been an extensive roll-out of radio broadband by North West Electronics. That is an example of finding a solution when there is nothing else.

There are arguments as to whether radio broadband is a reliable 100% solution for attracting businesses into an area but I can only give feedback on the positives where small to medium enterprises thrive in their environments with this particular solution. Many of those who provide feedback to me say it is more reliable than the satellite solution. However, there are still gaps and problems with the Eircom exchanges and there are problems for those who are outside the MANs network and for households outside the so-called 4.5 km. radius from the Eircom exchanges.

Why is it that across the Border in Derry where there is 100% broadband access there is a radius of 5 km from the exchanges? Why are we not unbundling the network in terms of increasing that radius to 5 km? Eircom has said it is extending the network 4.5 km. but the man in the street knows it is only to a radius of, perhaps, 4 km. It would make a big difference if the radius was increased from 4 km. to 5 km. in terms of making broadband accessible to many households on the perimeter.

The Minister of State is probably fed up hearing the promises of 2002 at this stage. One of the commitments in the Government's election manifesto was that everyone in Ireland would have access to broadband communications to ensure open access broadband on a national basis. The current position is dismal with Ireland having approximately one fifth of the number of broadband connections per head as Denmark or the Netherlands and just 72% of the population have access to technology. All of this will change in the next 12 months. That was in 2002.

Too many promises and commitments were made with solutions that were not realisable or did not have the commitment from the particular Department to work in partnership with the local groups that have been very successful. The local group, Eirnet, in west Donegal has been an ambassador and the kingpin in leading the agenda for broadband access.

Naturally we tend to be parochial when we talk politics but in regard to solutions for County Donegal we are at a comparative disadvantage over Derry city. We are not able to compete in terms of attracting inward investment if we cannot have 100% reliable broadband access. Last week there was an announcement of more than 450 jobs for Derry. A place such as Derry and Derry city will always have a comparative advantage over Donegal in respect of inward investment and job creation. Some 40% of our job infrastructure is reliant on the construction and service industry, with 40% of people employed in those categories. This is unreliable in both the short and the long term and we must look at solutions such as small to medium-sized enterprise and indigenous industry. We have creative personnel in Donegal who would like to set up their own businesses, but they are restricted in terms of broadband access. Many of our Donegal diaspora who have had success in the United Kingdom, Europe and throughout the world want to come back and set up businesses, but they are not in a position to do so because the proper infrastructure is not available.

Many solutions for providing broadband are available, such as satellite and radio broadband. However, we should look at the experts in the field and listen more attentively to the people leading in the area. The challenge facing us in the short term is to unbundle more exchanges and work in partnership with local authorities to roll out proper broadband access.

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, to the House. We have failed as a country to stay competitive in European terms. We may talk about the Celtic tiger, the good times and the ifs and buts, but we have failed to provide a proper, adequate broadband infrastructure, thereby leaving ourselves at a comparative disadvantage with EU countries and accession states. Even Bulgaria and Romania can boast a better broadband infrastructure and countries such as Slovenia and Slovakia are ahead of us. It is unfortunate that Donegal people living close to the Border with Derry must envy people from Malin Head to Derry city who have 100% broadband access. This is not good enough, is unacceptable and something must be done about it immediately.

Photo of Michael AhernMichael Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all those who have participated in the debate. The issue of broadband is important because Internet connectivity allows us to participate in the knowledge economy and society. Connectivity is important for the continued development of our economy and will allow us advance our economy and take on economies with lower cost bases such as those in Asia and central and eastern Europe. Without connectivity we will not maintain the growth we have developed over the past ten to 15 years.

As Internet content and services improve, higher connectivity speeds are needed so we may benefit from activities available on-line, whether e-commerce, shopping, gaming or e-mailing family photos across the world in real time. Higher speeds need higher bandwidth, which means the ubiquitous availability of broadband connectivity. As an economy we need to ensure that we take full advantage of technological developments and as a society we need to ensure that we do not allow the creation of a digital divide either socially or regionally.

The broadband market in Ireland is fully liberalised and regulated, where appropriate, by ComReg the independent Commission for Communications Regulation. The role of the Government is to implement regulatory and infrastructure policies to support the private sector developing a competitive, affordable and rapidly growing broadband market that offers choice of products and providers to Irish consumers and businesses. I am pleased to say that broadband is now available in almost all parts of Ireland through a combination of DSL, fixed-wireless, cable television and satellite technologies. The combination of telecommunications regulation and competition is driving prices down for the benefit of Irish consumers and businesses. For example, DSL pricing fell by 25% in 2005 according to ComReg data.

The Irish broadband market is currently ranked lower than more developed markets in terms of broadband take-up. This reflects the relatively late launch of affordable and competitive broadband services in Ireland by telecommunications and cable television companies in the early 2000s. However, Ireland is one of the fastest growing broadband markets in the European Union and broadband take-up has more than tripled since the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources set a target of 400,000 subscribers in late 2004. We had 372,000 broadband subscribers by end-June 2006, which is equivalent to 9.27% of the population or 26.57% of households. Only 3% of the population were broadband subscribers at the beginning of 2005. At the end of 2005, EU-15 broadband take-up was 14% of the population or 34% of households.

Broadband subscriber numbers have increased significantly in the past two years. Almost 140,000 new broadband subscribers were added in 2005 and a further 100,000 in the first half of 2006. The latest ComReg quarterly report states there are 372,000 broadband subscribers as of June 2006. This is equivalent to 26.57% of all households. A snapshot of the market conducted by ComReg in the middle of September put the total number of broadband subscribers at over 410,000, or almost 30% of households. The official Government target was to have 400,000 subscribers by end-2006. This has been comfortably exceeded. The challenge now to industry is to get 500,000 broadband subscribers by mid-2007.

The website run by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, www.broadband.gov.ie gives full details of broadband pricing and availability around the country, including DSL, cable, fibre, satellite and fixed wireless technologies. The website also lists the different products on offer and the contact details for each service provider. Currently there is a choice of broadband services that can technically deliver broadband to any customer in Ireland. Today, almost 70 service providers in Ireland offer nearly 300 different types of broadband products across a mixture of DSL, fixed wireless, satellite and cable options.

Wireless broadband technology is improving rapidly. The lowering of equipment prices has made this technology much more attractive of late, especially in rural areas that cannot obtain ADSL connectivity. The developments of Wi-Max and HSDPA, high-speed downlink packet access, offer considerable potential for the future.

However, it is not enough to just make broadband available. The industry needs to continue to demonstrate what broadband can do for those who may not have considered getting broadband before. The Department's broadband awareness television advertising campaign is aimed at supporting the efforts of the sector. This campaign, supported by INTERREG funding and by ComReg, has been running constantly since early July and was originally scheduled to run until Hallowe'en. However, additional funding to extend the campaign right up to the new year has now been secured. In addition, a further €1.35 million has been secured from INTERREG to help roll out the 2007 and 2008 "Make It Secure" campaigns on a cross-Border basis. These campaigns will continue to promote the use of broadband technologies but will focus on how to have a safe and enjoyable Internet experience.

The Government has long recognised that a lack of investment by the private sector in the necessary infrastructure has acted as an impediment to the speedy roll out of competitive, affordable broadband services in Ireland, principally in the regions.

The Government has been addressing the infrastructure deficit in the regions on a number of fronts. Direct funding has already been provided under the national development plan for the provision of backbone infrastructure and to upgrade local access infrastructure. In partnership with local and regional authorities, the Government is continuing to fund the construction of high-speed, open-access metropolitan area networks in towns and cities nationwide. Phase 1 of this programme has delivered fibre optic networks to 27 towns and cities throughout the country. This programme has been extended to over 90 towns in various locations nationwide. These networks are enabling private sector operators to offer world class broadband services at competitive costs.

The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources also offers funding assistance for smaller towns and rural communities through the group broadband scheme. The scheme, which is technology-neutral, subsidises the roll out of the most suitable broadband infrastructure for a particular area. Over 160 projects have been approved for funding under the scheme covering almost 580 communities with a combined population of over 420,000. A total of 37 service providers have participated in this scheme. This range of small to medium-sized service providers has supported competition using a range of different technologies. In addition, these service providers have made use of the private and State owned regional backhaul links.

Despite Ireland's rapidly expanding broadband market I accept there are some areas of the country where the sector will be unable to justify the provision of broadband connectivity on a commercial basis. The time has come to address this issue. The Minister is currently examining options in this regard and he hopes to be in a position to bring proposals to Government shortly.

The Minister believes we need to continue to support competition in the broadband market. Thriving markets in other countries with multiple operators are driving up connectivity and broadband speeds while prices continue to reduce. Our infrastructure interventions through the MANs programme and the GBS scheme have helped grow competition in the regions by facilitating the introduction of new service providers to areas where none existed a couple of years ago. This growth in the sector happened in spite of the obstacles to competition put in place by those intent on thwarting the introduction of real local loop unbundling or LLU. The local loop needs to be unbundled once and for all to the satisfaction of the regulator.

Senator Ross is an advocate of the free market. He has many friends in that free market. The Minister would be delighted if the Senator would use his influence to encourage greater co-operation and commitment from them to finalise the roll out of broadband.

7:00 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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The Minister of State will agree the sting is always in the tail.

I am disappointed by the Government's response to this motion. I am disappointed in the Minister of State's reply but I am also disappointed in the amendment to the motion. I cannot understand why the Government has taken this somewhat hands-off attitude in its amendment, as though this was somebody else's responsibility. In the Minister of State's speech, apart from placing responsibility on me, he has also put responsibility on virtually every other possible entity involved in communications regulation. This is ultimately not a responsibility of anyone except the Government. In other countries it is the government which has taken the initiative and has pushed broadband and it is the government which has forced broadband down the throats of the nation for the good of the economy. The extraordinary laissez-faire attitude by this Government to this issue is completely out of synch with the Minister's attitude in other industries and other areas and I do not understand it.

The Government's amendment to the motion recognises that the market is regulated where necessary by the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, the statutory body responsible for the regulation of the sector. It was set up by the Government. The amendment recognises that telecommunications services including broadband are provided in Ireland by the electronic communications sector operated in a fully liberalised market. This means that we do not like interfering in this market. This is nonsense. The Government is happy to interfere in any market it likes if it thinks it will be of some electoral benefit. Just because it has not felt electorally yet the broadband bite on its shoulder, it is being very laissez-faire about this attitude. I do not think the Government is right. This matter is far too important in the long term to ignore.

The Government's current obsession with short-term benefits and short-term issues, means that broadband is to a large extent regarded as the responsibility of someone else. If it goes wrong, it will be Eircom's fault; otherwise it is up to the regulator. The Government is hands-off and detached from this problem. This problem can be resolved very quickly by Government initiative. As Senator Ryan pointed out so articulately, the figures are absolutely damning. Whatever statistics the Minister of State produced — and they are very few — the gap is widening. The Minister of State is correct that we are improving a bit but the other sophisticated nations of the world in terms of technology are going ahead even faster than we are. The gap is widening and as a result we are falling further behind. We are in terrible danger in the area of high-tech PCs and the Internet of being so smug about our economic success that we are ignoring this Achilles heel in our economic success and in our economic future.

The Minister of State must have spoken to many chief executives, marketeers and observers of the multinationals coming here. They must regularly say that the twin pillars of a young population and the tax regime are working and that they love it, but they question the availability of broadband. We will never know how many multinationals and how much foreign investment is lost because other countries, including some of the accession countries, are improving faster than we are. The real danger is that the infrastructure for the future is something we cannot repair too quickly. We are all right on the other two issues but on this one we are in danger of falling behind very quickly.

The Minister of State referred to a knowledge economy. I have never been quite sure what that means, but I know it is a pretty good phrase. It is something we like throwing around so we can say we are quite good at services, educating people and distributing information. However, there is no point in having a knowledge economy if the knowledge is not distributed properly or we do not compete in distributing the knowledge properly.

We are falling behind. We may have a knowledge economy, but we cannot market it properly because we do not have sufficient broadband resources. I am staggered by the smugness and blindness of the Government side to this particular problem, which is staring us in the face and will come back and bite us in the near future.

I know the economy is prospering, that the Government has done wonderful things in the tax area and that we have a wonderful young population. However, I also know that this is an area where other countries are catching up on us, pointing out our future problems, and indicating that we are falling behind in the European league. I hope we will no longer depend on the communities, as we have done so much. We should no longer depend on the regulator or blame the incumbent. We should have the three As that I spoke about in my opening speech.

We should firstly have awareness, an education programme in every school and a PC and broadband in every sixth form. We should have a system similar to that which worked in Northern Ireland, involving Government investment, if necessary, and subsidies to ensure that every household has broadband availability.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator had five minutes to speak.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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Do I have five minutes left?

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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No, the Senator had five minutes but six minutes have passed.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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I am just finished. I was encouraged by one statement made by the Minister of State, when he said he was looking at the possibilities of introducing broadband in outlying areas. That is encouraging. We should take it much further and make it an imperative rather than just a matter of discussion. Every household and small business should have broadband available to it. We must look upon it as a utility just as we look upon water, electricity and telephones. We will catch up when broadband becomes a vital and essential part of our infrastructure.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 22 (Cyprian Brady, Michael Brennan, Brendan Daly, John Dardis, Geraldine Feeney, Liam Fitzgerald, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Brendan Kenneally, Terry Leyden, Don Lydon, John Minihan, Pat Moylan, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Mary O'Rourke, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Eamon Scanlon, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 16 (James Bannon, Paul Bradford, Paul Coghlan, Noel Coonan, Maurice Cummins, Frank Feighan, Michael Finucane, Brian Hayes, Mary Henry, Derek McDowell, Joe McHugh, Kathleen O'Meara, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Minihan and Moylan; Níl, Senators O'Toole and Ross.

Amendment declared carried.

Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.