Seanad debates

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006: Second Stage (Resumed)

 

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a second time."

11:00 am

Photo of Brendan KenneallyBrendan Kenneally (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, back to the House to continue the debate. Like the previous speakers, I welcome this Bill, which makes further provision for the upgrade and extension of television and general broadcasting services. Any measure that will ease the transmission to digital broadcasting and reception and make services to the people of Ireland more flexible and accessible is positive. The proposed transition to digital-only broadcasting and the elimination over time of the present analogue system will take some people by surprise. Rather than ultimately leave them without a picture on their screens, in conjunction with the broadcasting organisations we should make it clear what is about to happen.

Perhaps the first benefit of this debate is that those people who take an interest in politics and the business of the Houses of the Oireachtas will learn early on what changes are in the offing, even if they do not yet understand the Bill's detail. For instance, we must make people aware, particularly those like me who are not electronically minded, that in the not too distant future they will find their televisions no longer suitable to receive a signal, leaving them without programming. For some, that would mean the loss of their only source of enjoyment and window on the world, and we would certainly not wish that.

To put the matter in a simpler context that the older generation will understand, it will be like the transition from the original 405-line black-and-white television sets to what were then the top-of-the-range 625s from the late 1960s, or the transition from medium wave to FM radio in the 1980s. It is evidence of the ongoing evolution of broadcasting in this country, particularly television, and we will probably see it complete in Britain before here. The debate and publicity surrounding the change will alert people in Ireland to what is going on and give them time to modernise and update their television sets. While I realise it will mean upset for people, the changes will herald a new era in broadcasting.

Unfortunately, I cannot say it will bring better programmes or a reduction in the nonsense channels that transmit material that might charitably be referred to as "mush". However, it will be a step forward technically and generally benefit the viewer. Given the number of people who depend to a great extent on television, it would be a sensible decision, and it is only five years away. There still will be a good many television sets at that stage that could serve into the future but they will have to be dumped owing to the lack of an analogue signal. However, most television sets have a relatively short life nowadays in any case, and there is a view that a built-in obsolescence in sets gives them a fairly definite lifespan.

I note that the UK plans to finish its closedown of analogue services by 2012, and it has been suggested that we should hold to the same time line. However, it is ultimately a matter for the Minister under section 12. Switzerland has been implementing the change since 2002, and hopes to finish by 2009, while Finland started only last year. I am pleased to see the Government maintain, as a core principle, the availability of free-to-air channels. The digital system, by its very nature, does not provide for that, but the Government is committed to keeping those traditional free-to-air channels available after these changes have taken place.

At present the digital system is still in its infancy, and in a similar manner to the way in which it enhanced picture quality on television and sound quality on a range of electronic equipment, it will expand beyond our present understanding of the range of services eventually available. For instance, many will be already familiar with interactive services, with five or six mini-screens showing different matches at once. Those of us of a certain age will remember how, in our youth, when we wanted Philip Greene's commentary on a soccer international, we had to tune into the second-grade Cork wavelength to hear him between the whistles and whines of the medium-wave broadcast.

We have made great progress, not only in our having live pictures and impeccable sound from any location in the world but in the quality of our performances, which has also improved. We advanced from there to black-and-white television, then a second radio channel and colour television, followed by Irish-language radio and television, as well as local and regional radio stations. Our progress has been on a par with that of anywhere else in the world, and our programmes could rival those of any other country, particularly in view of our relatively small population and limited budgets. We have now entered the computer age, and ever more older people are finding it has not passed them by, beginning instead to enjoy all the benefits and freedoms the Internet, instant communication and the availability of information at the touch of a button can bring.

The computer and broadband have many uses, something also true of digital television, as people have discovered. It can be the platform for a wide range of services and other benefits. We are all aware of the copier, printer, scanner and fax machine, which many people use in their individual forms. Nowadays all those come as a single package, "bundled together", to use the current telephone marketing phrase. Likewise, the television set can be a source of many services.

For many, a new word is about to enter the digital debate. The Bill allows for RTE to provide several multiplexes, which are not multi-screen cinemas in town centres but the technology by which the various channels will be allocated and used. In addition to their own use of the available frequencies, they must also provide for other television stations that broadcast to the nation, for example, TG4, TV3, and a possible future station from Northern Ireland. I note that RTE, as is proper for a national broadcaster, will be responsible for providing and maintaining one of the multiplexes that will serve its own and independent stations. Although I do not understand the technical details, this will avoid an unseemly row such as that regarding the use of RTE masts by independent television stations.

I compliment RTE on the strides it has made, often in difficult circumstances and under necessary constraints imposed by Government. It has done a good job but has let standards slip in recent years with frequent use of bad language and inappropriate material before the watershed. We are familiar with coarse language but it has no place on the national broadcasting channels. I was pleased to read a newspaper report last week that "The Late Late Show" was instructed to raise standards on behaviour and language that many people find upsetting when in company. Before anyone cries "censorship" I refer to good taste and basic manners. I feel sympathy for the older generation, many of whom have no choice apart from Irish channels. They are entitled to weekend entertainment without language and behaviour at which they cringe in embarrassment. Some may respond that such people can switch off the television but that should not be the only remedy. They are entitled to expect reasonable standards, especially from the national broadcaster.

Such slackness reminds me of a broadcaster from the other end of the spectrum, who passed away in the past fortnight. Mr. Seán MacRéamoinn earned the respect of his colleagues and the listening public alike. He was steeped in learning, Irish culture, our language and history. He was the epitome of professional broadcasting, revered in the broadcasting business in many countries and his passing drew tributes from people throughout Europe. He was a fine ambassador for the country, of whom we can be proud.

I am pleased this Bill will establish and maintain a television service for Irish communities outside Ireland. Many emigrants are served by internet streaming and podcasts but live programming on television is preferable in terms of sound and picture quality. This service will reach emigrants in the United Kingdom but I encourage RTE to continue its webcast service to those further afield. The Minister could consider the request that live programming be extended to radio. The BBC was successful at this through the BBC World Service, which was later developed as a television service.

I am also pleased the national stations will be numbered 1 upwards on all receivers sold in the country. The stations will maintain status in this country and make it easier to access local stations for those unfamiliar with tuning systems. The legislation also sets out the roles and functions of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Commission for Communication Regulation, ComReg, which guarantees all broadcasting parties a fair deal and an authority to which they may complain if aggrieved.

Broadcasting has made much progress in 75 years and the days of narrow influence are long gone. The days of Government control of the medium are in the past. However, it is incumbent on the Government to maintain fair play and oversee the process.

Section 6 provides for local and regional radio to be developed to a wider audience. These stations have been a success story in Ireland. Stations such as WLR FM fulfil an important function and have taken this responsibility seriously. I acknowledge the contribution to the social, educational and cultural fabric of my area. The same goes for Beat 102-103 in a more informal context, which serves the younger generation. Local stations have a good mix that can compete with national broadcasters and emerge with a considerable share of the audience.

Ireland has kept apace with technology in many areas of endeavour and must do the same with radio and television, even if these are perceived as leisure activities. We now see the beginning of the digital phase of broadcasting, with potential of which we can only dream. Developments in the future will match the first hesitant broadcasts from 2 RN in the 1930s. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I wish to share my time with Senator Henry.

I welcome this Bill and agree with my colleague on the Government side in the glowing but well-merited tribute paid to Mr. Seán Mac Réamoinn. He was an old friend of mine, an extraordinarily professional broadcaster, an accomplished scholar and a good comrade. He was also a loyal critic of the church, which is necessary in establishments. It was important to have that dissenting voice and make these views available to the Irish public through the broadcasting service.

The last time I saw him was six months ago at the publication of a festschrift for Mr. Seán Fagan, a dissenting Catholic theologian. Mr. Mac Réamoinn was in a wheelchair and was not well. When somebody said something he did not agree with he put his hand up to reply. Even when mortally ill, he continued to make a contribution. The spirit was triumphant. He was also involved in the Merriman summer school. Although I do not wish to distort the emphasis of the debate I am glad the matter was raised and wish to pay tribute.

The last speaker referred to vulgarity, about which we can do very little. The airwaves in Ireland are penetrated by broadcasting from all over the world. In Cyprus I have more than 1,000 stations and they are almost all rubbish. I have a bee in my bonnet about competition, which is becoming a god. We see the damaging aspects of unfettered competition in broadcasting because it drives down standards. Consider Channel 4, which began as an investigative, imaginative, risk-taking channel. Now, its schedule consists of "Big Brother", celebrities and gameshows. It is twaddle. We must be careful about uncritically elevating competition to the status of a god, particularly in a world where we suffer the presence of Mr. Rupert Murdoch, even if it is only temporarily, because we are all mortal.

I am pleased the Minister referred to public service with regard to broadcasting. We must maintain this. RTE provides an excellent public broadcasting service, notwithstanding my occasional criticisms. The quality of its programming is high and it provides an opportunity for citizens to discuss the important issues of the day. This Bill extends the discussion to Irish citizens outside the country, a valuable measure.

Ireland did not have a mandate to extend this service until now and was restricted from doing so because section 28(8) prevents us using taxpayers' money in this manner. I note the collapse of Tara Television and our attempts to parachute onto it, which was not appropriate. It is better that the State involves itself directly.

I am sure my colleague, Senator Henry, will make the following point in her contribution also. Why are we stopping at television with the Bill, and would it be possible to include radio? I propose to table amendments to this end. I have a certain selfish interest as I am fortunate enough to have a little house in the mountains of Cyprus where I listen to the BBC World Service on the radio. It is very good and better than television because the constraints of television time mean political issues, such as global warming, for example, are often treated in quite a nugatory way, bounced on with a soundbite. The wireless can provide a really extensive discussion in which one may participate if the facilities are available.

I would like to see Irish broadcasting services joining this area and I would like to put on the record lobbying we probably have all received from various sources. These include those who are hard of hearing from the National Association for Deaf People, the elderly, etc., and they are all pleading for Radio Éireann.

In his speech the Minister spoke about people who will be disadvantaged when the changeover comes into effect, as they will not have access to this new digital television. What about the people who as a result of disability do not have comfortable access to television because they cannot see it? We should make provisions for such people.

The National Council for the Blind of Ireland welcomes the Bill heartily but it argues that it does not go far enough and will not meet the needs of blind people. The radio is widely recognised as the most accessible form of media, and people living with diminished sight or loss of sight find that if they do not have access to radio, they will be deprived of this unique service. The Irish Senior Citizens Parliament has indicated that as a First World country we must now provide for the introduction of digital short wave radio to Europe. The provision of a service which is easy to hear and access is of the utmost importance for older people at home and abroad.

These are very important groups and there are even more, including Age Action Ireland, the Consumers Association of Ireland, the Federation of Irish Societies and those representing Irish overseas and broadcast and research. Other interested groups include the RTE Pensioners' Association, the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament and The Senior Times. Many people who left here in the 1950s and 1960s would remember Micheal O'Hehir or Din Joe and would have tremendous sentimental and nostalgic connections with Radio Éireann. They would very much appreciate an extension to radio.

One of the submissions I received suggested a particular format. I am not well-versed in technology and I am unsure of some of the technical terms. I was very happy to receive a submission from Cathal Goan, the director general of RTE. One of the best parts of the submission was a glossary at the back where he asked simple questions on behalf of the ignorant like me and explained terms. That was really helpful.

There was a plea from various groups for the use of Digital Radio Mondale, which seems to be a technically excellent format. With it a greater audience can be reached with a stronger signal and clearer sound. In other words, there is less interference from other stations, buzzing and so on. As the technology uses less energy, it is more environmentally friendly. RTE's new long wave transmitter will be compatible with this system and the format is already being used by 32 European broadcasters.

RTE also recognises the considerable importance of the Bill, particularly the important technical dimensions relating to new digital terrestrial television technology. The point is made that there are inequalities and that people will be excluded as technology moves forward. A considerable number of people in Ireland will be disadvantaged unless we pass this kind of Bill. For example, more than 250,000 families will only have free access to the Irish channels as they are outside the areas in which free multichannel television reception is available or because their houses cannot be cabled, etc.

This Bill can assure that free to air multichannel television will not just remain a viable option for those who have chosen it already but can be extended to people who do not have it. I mentioned the placing of people at a disadvantage and an example is the 88,000 families in the Leinster area who currently receive free multichannel television showing Irish and UK stations. They will be cut off immediately when the UK services in the west of England and Wales go digital. Another 115,000 in this category will lose free multichannel reception in a staged process as the other UK areas are switched off.

It is very important we continue to reach these people and those who are abroad. I mentioned the programmes — numbering more than 1,000 — I can receive in Cyprus. We must get in there with the Irish point of view, with the national interest being served in debates on world issues. I have stated I am not great with technology, but it should be the servant of the national interest. This Bill goes a long way towards ensuring this will be the case in future.

I mentioned Rupert Murdoch, who is a bête noire of mine, and his organisations and organisations like them are fully commercial, not being a bit bothered by Irish national interest. We have already seen this with sports programming. Although I am not that desperate to watch sports programmes, I know many people who are. We must pay through the nose because rights have been bought and there are copyright issues. The BBC and ITV must pay Murdoch for some of this sports programming. New technology allows limitations on the range of broadcasts so a stipulation can be laid down that one will not receive a broadcast unless it is paid for.

Some of this may be outside the scope of the Bill but I would like the Minister to give a commitment that he will examine these issues in the context of the general schemes of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006. There are great advantages to the new technology. I am not surprised this Minister, who has nearly always been forward-thinking in these matters as well as being courageous and prepared to take a leap into the future in the interests of the Irish people, has done a good job.

I question the reason the Bill is limited to television and ask if radio could be included. This would not just be for old fuddy-duddies like myself who often prefer radio to television, but also for people who may have a sight impairment and cannot access television. Many other people and I will appreciate the fact that when abroad, it is important to keep in touch with home. I am only a very partial exile as I spend some weeks here and there, but an increasing number of Irish people live abroad, in Spain or Portugal for example, for their retirement. We owe it to them to keep them in touch with their culture.

Mary Henry (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank Senator Norris for sharing his time with me. I welcome the Minister to the House and I also welcome the Bill. It must be a great change for him, a Minister charged with dangerous issues, to be getting such a welcome for a Bill on all sides.

As with Senator Norris, I hope the Minister will see a way to extend the Bill to cover radio and I will support the amendment tabled by my colleague. We must ensure there is a digital short wave service as this would go to the European Union and down to north Africa. This should not just be for the Irish diaspora as a considerable number of people would welcome another English-speaking radio service. The BBC World Service is excellent but other voices are also welcome. I suspect many people would tune into such a service.

It was unfortunate that the long wave transmitter in Meath was sold off some years ago. Teamtalk bought it at that stage but it was later bought back, so it was sold as a result of some very short-sighted economy measure. I am glad we have it back again. However, long wave reaches only as far as the UK.

The quality of what we send out will be extraordinarily important. We managed to maintain quality on radio better than we did on television, even though the quality on our television channels is maintained at a higher level than channels such as Channel 4 which, as Senator Norris stated, has descended into the depths. Like Senator Norris, I query how one gauges what is competition. I recall being in the United States approximately 30 years ago with my children. One of them, who was tuning in and out of television stations as children do, said, "40 channels and nothing on any of them". We must be careful not to end up with nothing worthwhile on any station.

Apparently advertisers have deserted television. They have put their money into the Internet, which is a serious problem for raising money to make good programmes. As RTE is a public service, which the Minister recognises at the beginning of the Bill, it is most important we examine this. TG4 manages to hold its own with programmes of incredible interest. If it can manage to do so on the budget it has, I am quite sure RTE 1 and RTE 2 should be able to do more.

I always try to get RTE to take actions, such as buying the Russian version of The Master and Margarita, which apparently the Russians do not like. However, the Russians never seem to like any adaptation of The Master and Margarita. We could have it with Irish and English subtitles. This jurisdiction has people with excellent subtitling skills and I am sure if we broadcast it to the rest of Europe many people would want to see developments from other non-English speaking countries.

Radio programmes have held up well, although I regret bitterly the removal of "Rattlebag" from the middle of the day to the middle of the night.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Hear, hear.

Mary Henry (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is a most interesting programme on the arts and I now do not get an opportunity to hear it. I once told a doctor I was worried because I went to sleep in front of the television at 10 p.m. He stated, "For heaven's sake, so do I". That was the end of that conversation. A large number of people miss programmes broadcast late at night.

I once thought Lyric FM was as good as BBC 3. Why did it get rid of "The Full Score" in the afternoon? One rarely gets to hear the full score of any piece of music. On most afternoons now, one hears the scores of films.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

What about Val Joyce?

Mary Henry (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

One could give numerous other examples. In general, our broadcasters have steered away from these nauseating reality TV shows which appear to specialise in the denigration of the person. It does not matter who the person is. A recent outcry about racism occurred with regard to a programme I do not watch, namely, "Celebrity Big Brother". I do not know whether it was racism. I think it was just downright bullying. If advertisers feel what they put on television influences people to buy their wares we must assume shows such as this also have an influence on people.

12:00 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister to the House and acknowledge the speed and efficiency with which he and his Department move to bring Ireland rapidly into the digital broadcasting age. I wholeheartedly welcome the broad thrust of the Bill. I hope its contents will be implemented as soon as possible.

I suggest we are slightly off the pace, particularly regarding our counterparts in the UK, who seem to be moving rapidly ahead and will begin the analogue shutdown as early as within the next 12 to 18 months. Like Senator Norris, I thank the director general of RTE for circulating a briefing note to all Members of the House in advance of this debate. It was extremely helpful not only in terms of the explanation of the various technical terms which we will confront in the Bill, but it also broadly presents RTE's public service broadcasting position on rolling out digital services. The Minister and his officials will be in regular dialogue with RTE as this process develops.

I strongly agree with the views expressed that in these developments radio is once again in secondary place. I fully appreciate the focus is and must be on the development of digital television. Over the next three or four years we must reach a point when the architecture will be in place for creating a new broadcasting authority and rolling out the multiplex in order that we are not left behind. The Minister is aware that when debate commenced on this issue three years ago, concerns were expressed that Ireland did not seem to have any mechanism in place to address it. That is why I compliment the Minister on moving so rapidly on the matter.

The issue raised by Senator Norris may refer to section 6 of the Bill which relates to the duty of commission for communications regulation in respect of digital terrestrial sound broadcasting multiplexes. Will the Minister address this seeming deficiency in the Bill? I appreciate the Bill makes several references to it, particularly in sections 14 and 15. However, they refer to amendments to a plethora of broadcasting Acts, and the explanatory memorandum does not provide more than the most general interpretation of what is intended. Will the Minister clarify in layman's terms exactly what will be amended?

My constituency falls within this context. This issue is not only about maintaining public service broadcasting but also about broadcasting to Irish communities abroad. Like most of my colleagues I travel to and from the UK regularly. If one issue animates the Irish diaspora in the UK it is the provision, as they see it, of RTE television services. They are like children who were halfway through an apple pie when it was taken away by an awful relative. Tara Television, a privately owned commercial cable company, operated on the Sky digital platform until 2001. It failed commercially. Irish people living in Britain do not fully understand or wish to be involved in the complexities of commercialism. As far as they are concerned they received an Irish service and then it was gone.

The reality is that while Tara Television did its best it had basic flaws. The main criticism made was that the programming schedule was extremely dated. People want current affairs and news programmes. In this age of instant communication when Irish people living in Britain can hop on an aeroplane and return home at a moment's notice, they want to feel they can also access the same sense of being Irish as those living in Ireland. I hope RTE bears this in mind and I hope it will be the provider of the new service for Irish emigrants in the UK and beyond.

I have every confidence that RTE, in consultation with the Department, will ensure that once the platform is up and running, the Irish in Britain will be provided with a valuable up-to-the-minute service which will take account of the various complexities surrounding the transmission of programmes outside of Ireland. I am sure the Minister is aware of the serious copyright issues involved. It will not be a simple matter of rebroadcasting RTE television services. The main reason is that if one takes two of the most popular soap programmes currently transmitted on RTE, "Coronation Street" and "Eastenders"——

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Senator is right. I meant programmes transmitted on Irish television. What I am trying to illustrate is that with any imported television programme currently running on RTE or TV3, the copyright relates to transmission within this country. The fee paid by television companies is based on the number of television sets in the country. We in Ireland can perhaps get many of these programmes more quickly than the British because we have good negotiators and are operating at a lower price level. This option will not be available because of the copyright problems so, therefore, it will be a challenge for all concerned to ensure the mix of programmes provided to the Irish community in Great Britain or elsewhere outside this country will be fresh and current and convey a sense of what it is to be living in Ireland as we go forward.

I wish to return briefly to the area of sound broadcasting. Specifically, I ask the Minister if this Bill is essentially a mandate to RTE to provide broadcasting services to the Irish abroad, and not just exclusively in the area of television simply because of the various references made about the amendment to the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960 and the fact that in one section of the Bill there is a reference to the obligations of the new authority. The section provides that the authority will be required, "as soon as may be after the end of each financial year, make a report to the Minister of the use it has made with regard to, respectively, the television broadcasting service and the sound broadcasting service referred to in subsection (1)".

In view of this I suggest — I would appreciate clarification from the Minister on this — that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will have an obligation to, in turn, request from the suppliers a balance sheet or account of their stewardship in terms of what they will provide in the relevant financial year. In that context, and if that is the case, it is incumbent and should be an obligation on RTE to provide sound broadcasting services into the UK.

I wish to declare an interest at this stage. I am employed on a freelance basis by RTE. I was employed on a contract basis for approximately 20 years to the late 1990s and still work intermittently on special radio projects for RTE radio. Some of these programmes which were produced in recent years were concerned with the Irish in Great Britain. Most recently, I completed a series before Christmas called "The Irish Experience". I make this declaration because in arguing for an expansion of sound radio services to the diaspora in Great Britain, I do not wish my remarks to be interpreted as making a job application.

I am totally and passionately committed to the Irish community in Great Britain and beyond. I am a former emigrant and make no apologies for highlighting emigrant issues in this House and outside. It is in this wider context and because of my personal experience of the overwhelming desire of the Irish in Great Britain to have both radio and television services that I make this case. I would be the happiest person in the world if there was a legal obligation on RTE to regularly provide sound broadcasting services for the Irish in Great Britain. Irrespective of who presents them or how they are structured, I am essentially seeking to establish the principle here. From my correspondence with the Minister, I know his thinking is similar to mine. However, we are all constrained by legal obligations in terms of legislation and it would be helpful if I was made aware of this.

Overall, this is timely legislation. It brings us rapidly to the cutting edge of technology. I acknowledge the submissions made by the Emigrant Advice Network, which has made a similar case to that which I modestly attempted to make here today in terms of using modern technology to provide an efficient, technologically modern radio service, not just for the Irish in Great Britain but for any Irish people who travel across Europe. When we travel across the continent of Europe, all of us, including the Minister and several of his colleagues, with whom we have discussed this matter, will at some time or another automatically attempt to tune in to RTE to find out what is going on. It is not always possible to get this service, although I welcome the fact that, according to the briefing, the new long wave transmitter will be Digital Radio Mondiale-capable. This is the format currently being used by 32 broadcasters across Europe and as far afield as Radio New Zealand International.

All of us will encourage DRM to be developed as a major communications tool to reach Irish audiences throughout Europe. It is not simply that the technological development is a good thing; Ireland's national interests are also a factor. It is about putting forward the image of Ireland as a modern, dynamic society. What better way of doing so than through the medium of radio, which is still a hugely popular medium and one that given the encouragement from the Minister's Department, can develop and advance in linking in to the modern technological options now available for the free and easy transmission of radio.

I pay tribute to my colleague, Senator Kenneally, for his very informative contribution to this debate. I also wish to put on record my appreciation of the work of the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel O'Flynn, who, alongside the Minister, developed the initiative called e-Consultation, which was created by the Minister some months back. I believe the Minister's Department was the first to do this. There is now general and public access to the consultative process relating to communications legislation and public hearings held by the joint committee used the most modern technology, namely, webcasting, to get the message across in January. The Minister greatly encouraged this approach and I pay compliment to the Chairman and the members of the committee for taking this initiative.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I apologise to the Minister if my remarks are slightly more disorganised than usual as I am standing in for my colleague, Senator O'Meara. I am a technophile and all these matters fascinate me. As an engineer, I have some belief that I can understand at least some of the technology. Ós rud é gur luadh a ainm, ba mhaith liom a rá, agus muid ag plé cúrsaí craolacháin, gur mhór an chailliúint é Seán Mac Réamoinn, fear iontach, den todhchaí i gcónaí, cé go raibh a chuid fréamhacha sa tseanaimsir. B'fhear é a bhí ag féachaint i dtreo na todhchaí i gcónaí, agus is mór an chailliúint dúinn é.

I share some of Senator Kenneally's concerns about coarseness. I would like the Minister to throw this around some time. One age group that is of huge interest to the radio broadcast medium is the 15-25 age group. All my children have passed beyond the age of 15 and are into their twenties. We were, and still are, a far from puritanical family. However, I have always had a significant reservation about the appropriateness of the same radio stations targeting both 15 year olds and 25 year olds. There is an enormous difference in outlook, maturity, life experience and everything else between a 15 year old and a 25 year old. Yet, every commercial radio station, including, I believe, RTE on its commercial mandate, stampede each other to get at that market.

This is an issue for the regulatory authorities. It affects simple as matters like alcohol advertising, but it is also as complex as the value system implicit in the approaches used, such as attitudes to sexuality and also appropriate models of behaviour in terms of the use of language and such like. This is nothing to do with censorship. I do not care what is broadcast as long as it is not broadcast under one guise and aimed at more than one sector. What is appropriate for a 25-year old who is out at work, living away from home, probably sexually experienced and drinking for seven or eight years can hardly be appropriate for a 15-year old barely beyond junior certificate. This is not a beat the Government session, I simply refer to the way broadcasting has evolved not just here but all over Europe. If we are in favour of giving our children the space to be children, which is something about which I feel strongly, that issue needs to be considered. Otherwise, we accept a 15-year old is a fully functioning adult in which case we give them votes, lower the age of consent to 15 and do many other things. We should not make policy in one area and do the opposite in another area.

On the topic of coarseness, the late and wonderful Seán Mac Réamoinn, whom I mentioned earlier, was one of the founders of the Merriman School dedicated to the memory of the author of Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche which until about 40 years ago was talked about in academic circles as a wonderful example of Irish from 200 years ago but the content, theme and colourful and earthy language was not regarded as a topic of conversation for decent people. We must be careful about words like "coarseness". Culture changes but even as one whose language is not something to boast about, I sometimes wince at the ease with which language that is more appropriate to a pub at 11 o'clock at night is used. All of us public servants and public officials have obligations in that regard.

Cuirim fáilte roimh pé neamhspleáchas atá á chur ar fáil do TG4. Tá ag éirí go maith leis, cé go bhfuil figiúirí don lucht féachana le sé mhí anuas beagáinín níos ísle ná a bhíodar bliain ó shin. Níl mé iomlán cinnte cad ina thaobh go bhfuil a leithéid tar éis tarlúint. Nevertheless, TG4 has a 5% or 6% audience share. I am tired of commentators talking about it. That is the rate Channel 5 and Channel 4 in Britain have always struggled to reach. TG4 is successful and its Irish language programmes are among those achieving high viewer numbers. "No Béarla", for example, was a wonderfully provocative series of programmes that had quite an impact on viewers generally. It sent reverberations through society about attitudes to our first official language. Everybody says TG4 has been a great success.

I could make a great speech about lateness. The fact is we are very late with digital terrestrial television. The world will live without digital terrestrial television. As a number of people stated, the idea that there is an endless new world because we have more television channels is not true. However, our nearest neighbour is about to switch off analogue television and that will have a direct and immediate effect on anybody in Ireland who is not using a satellite dish or who does not have a cable or MMDS service. That is a fact and therefore there is an immediacy about the issue.

There is a particular irony about a country that masquerades as being technologically advanced, where terms like e-technology and e-government are bandied about even though we are second last on the list according to the National Competitiveness Council. I have a mountain of paper around me and no screen in front of me. Half the Parliaments of the world have a built-in computer system on their desks where information is readily available. Senator Mooney referred to existing legislation being available at the push of a button in order that one can see at a glance the context. We are so far behind. We make wonderful token gestures but that is all. We have not yet converted. In this House——

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We cannot even get electronic voting working.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister was well warned about that one.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am glad the Minister said the Government cannot get it working.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Fair point.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The fact that two members of the Labour Party who happened to be computer specialists were able to identify all of the flaws identified subsequently by the commission ought to teach the Government humility at the least. It is worthwhile to listen to other people.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is a pity the Opposition did not listen to the Government.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Government turned out to be wrong. We listened extremely carefully.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The commission clearly stated the voting system was quite robust.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is a bit like last night's amendment.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Senator Ryan should be allowed to speak without interruption.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

At least I know the Minister is listening to me now. I wondered what he was doing.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I can multi-task.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I read the Minister's script twice and I listened to what other speakers said on the matter but I am none the wiser. What will be the position of the 29% of the population who currently have free-to-air access to a range of channels, including the British channels because of their geographical location? It is not clear from the Minister's script whether they will have that access from 2009. It would be great if the Minister were to at least tell us what he thinks will happen.

Is it not misleading people to pretend that if our digital multiplexes are going to retransmit British channels that they can ever be provided free? The only reason people in the Border counties and on the east coast can watch British television channels is that they happen to overspill. Will they have to buy a set-top box? As the range of a digital signal is shorter than the current system the overspill will drop dramatically. We should at least know what the Government thinks will happen. If commercial agencies are to operate four of the six multiplexes they will have to make money. That is not an attack on them; it is a fact. Who will operate them? The current cable service providers will not want to operate them because that would undermine their entire capital investment. RTE cannot operate them. I hope there will be providers.

It appears the inevitable consequence of digital terrestrial television in this country and in our neighbouring island is that people who currently have free access, particularly to the British analogue channels, will have to find an alternative. Unless the Minister has a wonderful trick up his sleeve they will end up paying for their television viewing. Governments have been threatened with losing their positions over lesser issues. A total of 29% of the population will be affected. I am glad attention is being paid to electronic programming guides. I would hate the programming guide for public service broadcasting to be determined by Senator Norris's bête noire, whose name I will avoid mentioning. I do not think one should bother with such matters. Nevertheless, I hope it happens.

ComReg is involved. In terms of consumers of services, ComReg must be the least consumer friendly of all the regulatory bodies in comparison to the Director of Corporate Enforcement who fights consistently and with considerable vigour on behalf of consumers. ComReg appears to be totally transfixed with the joys of technological changes and so on. I cannot get a straight answer to a simple question from ComReg. Why is it that NTL in Dublin, which is owned by the same company that owns Chorus in Cork, charges less for a greater number of digital channels in Dublin than for a smaller number of digital channels in Cork? I do not necessarily want it to beat NTL into agreement but I cannot get a rationale from ComReg. If the regulator does not have a rationale, I must assume none exists.

Essentially that is what consumer protection is about. It is about finding information for and informing the consumer. Handing over the regulation of this to an agency that sees itself far more significant in the area of technology than in the area of mere consumers is not the most wonderful idea, unless ComReg gets its act together and begins to see that its primary function, like that of all regulators, is to look after consumers. Related to that primary function is the need to move beyond a blind belief that as long as we can get plenty competition, the consumer will be looked after.

The terrifying views of the Competition Authority about the health service in the face of the evidence of the United States, that somehow we should have more competition in the health service, are enough to scare anybody about the stupidity of a blind belief. Blind belief in any kind of ideological position is always daft because what works is what works and sometimes things work.

The move to digital terrestrial television is overdue but I would like to hear the Minister elaborate on the position of the 29% of people who may end up discovering they have only three or four channels in two or three years' time. I am glad to see a passing reference to high definition television but I am not sure it makes an enormous difference. I have walked around television shops in my home city inspecting televisions. I am fairly technophilic but I cannot see the difference between the images on high definition television and the current system.

Technology does not end with digital terrestrial broadcasting, it is moving on and the great buzz word, as the Minister is aware, is convergence. In the rest of the world there is much talk about convergence between high speed broadband, high speed wireless Internet and current television broadcasting. That will not be a problem in Ireland given the state of our broadband system. Assuming that sooner or later we catch up with the world, there are all sorts of interesting issues about what digital terrestrial television broadcasters will be broadcasting in 25 years' time if every house has high speed wireless Internet access capable of handling images of the quality of high density television without ever having a television. There are all kinds of issues there and I would like to believe somebody is thinking about them but I have no evidence of that.

I am glad the Minister mentioned radio broadcasting but I am not concerned about it. In our new confident self, I suggest we follow the French example of TV5 and consider a worldwide, deliberately publicly funded, television service. A huge number of people around the world have a passing interest in Ireland. Instead of tokenism and attempts to get commercial platforms, let us be like the French and assert ourselves and say we believe there are enough people in the world who are moderately interested in what is taking place.

It is a great pity that in the interests of education, the regulator does not require all cable operators to carry a few channels in other European languages. In Cork, despite the presence of 65 channels on digital TV, it has dropped TV5 and there is no channel in either Spanish, French, Italian or German. That is a dreadfully isolationist and insulationist way to proceed. I refuse to believe that Animal Planet or one or other of the subordinate channels available have a broader interest base than channels such as that. I have no idea of the reason for this. TV5 does not charge a great deal, is free-to-air and is not scrambled. There are areas where effective regulation is not simply a matter of leaving it to competition but is a matter of kicking the asses of people who are a little dim about what may be of interest to the public.

The basic contents of the Bill are welcome and we will support it. However, I would like to hear about the 29% of people who may well end up discovering they have only three or four channels in two or three years' time.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is all I have in Tipperary and I am quite happy with it.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is saying a lot.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister and the Bill. I endorse Senator Ryan's last point. It is a great pity there are not packages which carry, say, Spanish, French or German options. About 20 years ago I remember calling on the late Fr. Faul. One of his few pleasures in life was that he had a satellite dish and a package which gave him access to European channels. We are a member of the European Union and we cannot live in what the French would call an Anglo-Saxon world. That is the vision of Mr. Rupert Murdoch but it is not mine and it should not be that of this country.

The national broadcasting station is a major symbol these days and has been for the past 50 years of national sovereignty and identity. If, and God forbid, in these democratic days anyone was contemplating a coup or a rising in the State, they would not descend first on Leinster House, Government Buildings or Dublin Castle but on RTE in Donnybrook. I am strongly committed to the concept of public service broadcasting. I accept that is a concept which originated across the water with Lord Reith but it is equally applicable and, by and large, works well. I am proud of our national broadcaster.

I have two criticisms, however, one of which is of a technical nature. There are too many technical breakdowns and there could be tightening up. I accept some breakdowns may be unavoidable.

The other, which is a general political one, is that some broadcasters produce what one might describe as polemical programmes with which one may or may not agree. That is not my point and I am not suggesting they should be suppressed or censored, but those type of programmes would merit some format for discussion afterwards from different points of view. I am thinking, for example, of Cathal O'Shannon's programme about wartime immigration. There are points of view other than the one expressed in the programme and there is other information. For programmes such as that there should be some forum live on air to discuss them.

The Minister is concerned that there should continue to be access to public service broadcasting of the main Irish channels free of charge. That is proper. It would be dreadful if the RTE channels, TG4 and so forth could only be transmitted courtesy of Mr. R. Murdoch or his equivalents. While travelling on the DART this morning I noticed an advertisement in the newspaper for RTE 2. It states that there is no connection fee, no subscription paid and no upgrade required, but that it is just the ticket for sport. I thoroughly approve of the advertisement.

The degree to which there is comprehensive coverage for the RTE stations in Northern Ireland has been an ongoing issue for a long number of years. One of the Minister's predecessors, the Leader of the House, Senator O'Rourke, was heavily involved in dealing with this when she was a Minister. There was an agreement in the last year or two that it was desirable, in principle, that there should be all-island coverage. Perhaps the Minister would update us on the position.

Equally, it would also be valuable for Irish communities abroad to have access to the stations. There are Irish communities in Australia and America as well as in Europe and so forth, and these people should have access to them. There is access via the Internet but that is not the same as being able to turn on the television and relax in an armchair to watch it.

A multiplicity of channels will be available. Speaking as a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, I believe we should take this opportunity to deal with the direct broadcasting of proceedings of the Oireachtas. In the United States, for example, there is direct access to the debates in Congress and in congressional committees. There are two models. One is a dedicated parliamentary channel which would be edited; the alternative is that people would have free and unimpeded access to parliamentary proceedings.

More people watch "Oireachtas Report" than one might expect. It is not just dedicated political followers who do so. I believe people would be interested in having an ability to tune into debates, sometimes at random. Advances in technology would enable them to do that. It would raise the quality of democracy and might even occasionally raise the quality of debate. I welcome the Bill.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the main objective of the Bill, which is to establish a more flexible and market responsive model for licensing DTT in Ireland and to allow for progress to be made towards analogue switch-off. The development of a DTT platform will allow broadcasters to offer more in terms of content and services to Irish viewers. The Bill will also amend the remit of RTE to allow it to utilise public funding in the provision of a broadcasting service to Irish emigrant communities abroad.

This is welcome but why are radio services not included in the Bill? Many people and organisations called for the inclusion of radio in postings to the e-consultation process, which has now terminated. The Emigrant Advice Network, Age Action Ireland, the Consumers Association of Ireland, the Federation of Irish Societies, the Irish overseas, broadcasting research, RTE Pensioners' Association, Senior Citizens Parliament and Senior Times are among those who support the inclusion of radio in the Bill. The Emigrant Advice Network stresses the importance of a radio service as a medium particularly well suited to the needs of older people and more marginalised emigrants, as well as the visually impaired. Many of those emigrants have strong and fond memories of Radio Éireann, now a rich repository of archive material from the early days.

Radio is valuable as an inexpensive way of reaching large numbers of people easily through common technology. While a service that would serve Britain and beyond would be a great service to emigrants, it would also be of benefit to Irish licence holders who might be among the 140,000 Irish people on average who are outside the State per day, travelling abroad on holiday or business, or who might be among the 200,000 Irish people who own holiday homes abroad.

There is overwhelming support for the use of digital radio mondial or DRM. This new technology would allow RTE to reach a greater audience with a stronger signal and a clearer sound at a lower cost than other radio technologies. As it requires less energy, the technology is more environmentally friendly and will have minimal impact on global warming. While it is a new technology requiring the use of special DRM receivers, the receivers, which are currently priced at approximately €200, will become cheaper and more widely available as the service becomes more widespread, which it undoubtedly will. I am pleased to note that RTE's new long wave transmitter will be DRM compatible. The format is currently being used by 32 broadcasters, including the BBC, Radio Luxemburg, Radio Canada Int., Radio France, Radio New Zealand Int., and Deutsch Welle, to mention a few.

Now is the time to legislate for radio as well as television. I pay tribute to Mr. Enda O'Kane, a former long-standing and devoted RTE worker, who has researched this subject for a lifetime, as a labour of love. The research that has been undertaken on this subject should be acted on now. I urge the Minister to give due consideration to this matter before Committee Stage.

The National Council for the Blind Ireland, NCBI, says in a statement that it is supportive of the Bill, which will provide for the provision of television broadcasting services to Irish communities outside Ireland. The council considers it a positive, progressive and welcome move. However, the NCBI believes the Bill should go further as it will not meet the needs and rights of members of Irish communities outside Ireland who are also blind or vision impaired. The council urges that radio be included in the Bill. The Irish Senior Citizens Parliament also says in its statement that a DRM radio service should be available to emigrants.

A number of speakers have proposed the inclusion of radio in the Bill. I urge the Minister to introduce amendments on Committee Stage to take account of the wishes of speakers from all sides of the House on this subject.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Senators for their contributions. I am glad the debate has demonstrated a degree of unanimity in support of the Bill and in suggesting possible amendments to it. I am willing to be flexible, without delaying its passage too long. Some of the suggestions are worthy of consideration and I hope to look favourably on some of them. As Senators have agreed, the Bill is vital to ensure that Irish citizens can continue to enjoy an access to a quality, free-to-air broadcasting service and this is very important to all of us. It is especially important to have public service broadcasting. It is of concern to Government and to Members of this House that we take care to consider the needs of Irish communities living abroad with regard to public service broadcasting and this is provided for in the Bill.

I will deal with a number of the points raised by Senators during the debate. Some Senators, including Senator Finucane and Senator Ryan, raised the question of timescales for digital terrestrial television, DTT, roll-out. As I stated in my opening contribution, the EU has put forward the date of 2012 for analogue switch off and we intend to meet that date. Last year at a regional radio conference, Ireland agreed that analogue television will not continue to be protected after 2015. It is a case of a drop dead date of 2015 after which no analogue television will be available in Ireland. The European-wide switch off date is 2012. I have indicated on more than one occasion that I intend to try to beat that date by at least a couple of years. However, I want to give the trials and tests being undertaken an opportunity to play out more before the Government decides which way to go and the timescale to be followed. One way or another, we must ensure a viable alternative to free-to-air television by 2012 at the very latest. This means that DTT must be rolled out as quickly as possible.

As I indicated to Members, this trial was commenced in August 2006 and it is due to last until 2008. During the timescale of the trial it is planned to meet a number of objectives, including the enactment of this legislation. It was originally planned to be part of the larger broadcasting Bill but because of the other issue of extending coverage and attempting to reach out to the Irish communities, we decided to bring this forward.

This new legislation will provide for RTE to be directly licensed by ComReg to provide DTT. Interested commercial operators will be given contracts by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, BCI, and there seems to be a fair amount of interest. Such operators will also be contracted to provide DTT, by which time it is hoped the DTT network roll-out will have commenced. This is what is envisaged over that two-year period and we will endeavour to accelerate the process, if possible. When the trial period ends in August 2008, it is hoped the DTT services will be offered at that stage by RTE and by commercial operators nationwide. I expect that during 2009, full consideration can be given to the planning of analogue switch-off in light of the extent of the DTT roll-out already achieved. Those timescales will be revised if progress is achieved at a faster rate.

Senator Ryan, Senator Finucane and others raised the issue of the possible loss of UK spill-over services from many households in the Leinster area once the UK analogue switch-off begins in 2008. I acknowledge there will be a loss of such services. Many Irish households have benefited in the past from free-to-air UK analogue television services. However, it should be remembered that this spill-over was just an accidental, albeit positive, benefit which occurred as a side-effect of analogue transmission and there is no right or entitlement to it. One of the consequences of the regional conference held in 2006 is that international spectrum usage will now be bound by those international agreements and DTT spill-over will be less likely as digital service is more controllable. The UK spill-over cannot be relied upon in the future as a method of providing television services to Irish households. With the advent of the national DTT roll-out, it is likely that UK television services will be offered on one of the DTT platforms. Households will continue to have a choice between satellite, cable or MMDS offerings through which they can receive UK channels.

On the questions raised by Senator Kenneally and others about the physical infrastructure, the possible need for a new infrastructure and the length of time such a roll-out would take, no new infrastructure such as the provision of masts is required. The analogue terrestrial system entails transmission on channels from key mountain tops, the names of which are familiar to us all, and they are generally removed from centres of population. The DTT system will piggy-back on top of this existing system and can use the same masts and transmission sites with the addition of some new equipment. It is expected that the usual key mountain sites, such as Kippure, Claremont Cairn, Truskmore, Mount Leinster and so on, will be used.

Some Members questioned whether a roll-out of DTT can be guaranteed once this legislation is passed. I wish to underline that the proposed legislation obliges RTE to provide a multiplex with public service broadcast channels across the country. It is guaranteed that RTE 1, RTE 2, TG4 and perhaps one or two others which are currently available will be provided on that multiplex. Senator Mansergh will still be able to get his four channels.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I might have upgraded by then.

1:00 pm

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The BCI will then offer to the market further multiplexes to be filled with content. The extent to which various commercial broadcasters come forward to avail of this service will be a matter for the market. We cannot predict how many channels will be available but those free-to-air channels will certainly be available.

Some Senators have asked about the technical aspects of the analogue switch-off. Households currently availing of free-to-air terrestrial broadcasting only require a television set and a rooftop or portable aerial but a set-top box will be required for DTT viewing. A range of set-top boxes will be available, many of which are retailing in other jurisdictions for under €50 compared with costs of €200 or €150 last year. The coming of DTT availability throughout Europe has considerably lowered the cost of the set-top boxes. This will be the main expense of the service where viewers migrate to DTT.

People will be given sufficient warning about the arrival of digital terrestrial television to enable them to shop around. The timing and implementation of the analogue switch-off must also be publicised in order that it is understood. The Government must ensure it gives adequate notice of the switch-off and will have a key role in co-ordinating with broadcasters, equipment manufacturers and others to ensure good quality information is available.

Senators welcomed the move towards broadcasting to Irish communities abroad, a key recommendation of the report of the task force on policy regarding emigrants. As Senators noted, the report contained detailed recommendations, many of which are being implemented. At the time, general agreement was reached with the appropriate organisations that the recommendations were best implemented on a phased basis.

The Government continues to prioritise the need to support the most vulnerable and marginalised Irish communities abroad, for example, older Irish people in Britain and many of the undocumented Irish people in the United States. We have increased funding in this area, particularly since 2004, on foot of the report. As a result, it has been possible to fund the highest ever number of emigrant organisations and widen the scope of the projects receiving support.

A sum of more than €15 million has been allocated for emigrant services this year. This is an increase of 26% on last year's allocation and 15 times greater than the 1997 allocation for such organisations. The ongoing implementation of the task force report's recommendations is a clear reflection of the Government's firm commitment to the emigrant community. This commitment is also a fair reflection of the strength of the belief on all sides of the political system and among the wider population that we should not forget our emigrant community. Additional funding and the establishment and operation of the Irish abroad unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs are welcome developments which have also been warmly welcomed by organisations in the voluntary sector.

Having visited the recent 2006 ITU world telecom conference in Hong Kong, I must disagree with Senator Ryan's view on high definition television. The event featured comparisons between high definition and conventional television, including a demonstration of how one could read the writing on the nib of a fountain pen on a high definition television screen. I usually need glasses or a magnifying glass to read this lettering and the demonstration brought home to me how much sharper high definition television is than ordinary television. This form of television will add to the enjoyment of viewers in future.

Senator Ryan raised a more serious point when he argued that ComReg has failed to protect the interests of consumers. His criticism is unfair because ComReg, of all the regulators, has one of the best websites for consumers, including information on and analyses of prices being charged. The Senator also faulted the regulator for not forcing a reduction in prices in retail broadcasting. Under European Union directives, ComReg does not have powers to regulate prices of companies such as NTL and Chorus which operate in this market.

Senators Norris and Ryan raised the possibility of introducing the digital radio mondiale — DRM — standard for radio broadcasters. The standard under consideration by the Department and RTE is digital audio broadcasting or DAB. While the legislation does not specify a standard for radio broadcasters, opinions differ on which of them is the best. The Department will seek to ensure the best standard is applied. RTE is running a DAB pilot project and further information will become available once the scheme is completed.

A number of Senators raised the issue of blindness and disability in old age. One of the benefits technical experts tend not to discuss in detail when describing digital terrestrial television is that its enhanced functionality will make it easier to provide services such as subtitling and audio description and will allow much greater interactive participation, all of which should be of assistance to people with disabilities.

Senators referred to the decision to exclude radio broadcasting from the provisions of the Bill. The reason it was not specifically included is that RTE radio broadcasts are available internationally via satellite and on long wave. I will consider Senators' requests that I specifically include references to radio broadcasting in the Bill and will amend the legislation accordingly on Committee Stage if it transpires that to do so would not cause technical or legal difficulties. I must also check whether such amendments would delay the legislation. I assure the House that if radio broadcasting is not included in this Bill, it will be included in the larger broadcasting Bill to be introduced at a later date.

Senator Mooney sought clarification on sections 14 and 15 which are technical and, as such, may give rise to confusion. The sections are simple if one refers back to the relevant sections of the principal Act. Section 14 amends section 28(8) of the 2001 Act to allow RTE to use public funds drawn from television licence fee income for the purpose of providing the proposed new television services to Irish communities abroad and developing the RTE Authority's proposed national digital terrestrial television. As these developments have not been possible heretofore, the Bill provides for a specific power allowing RTE to use the funds in the manner proposed. The section also amends section 28(10) to require that the RTE authority report to the Minister on the use of public funding for such a purpose. Senator Mooney's concern was to ensure this procedure takes place in a transparent manner. This is precisely what the provision requires.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Rather than merely providing a facility, the section places an obligation on RTE.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Yes. Section 15 is even more explicit in this regard in that it amends section 32 of the 2001 Act to empower the Minister to direct the RTE Authority, in the interests of transparency, to maintain a special account of its use of public funding in relation to the provision of the new television services for Irish communities abroad. In other words, RTE cannot simply indicate it is spending a certain amount on such services.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is for this reason that radio will be an important element in achieving the Minister's objectives.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Yes. We can go back to Tara and so on, but one of the difficulties that will have to be faced by RTE in all this concerns rights and how that problem will be overcome. I know RTE is exercising its mind on this issue. Everybody is aware and I have made RTE aware, although I did not need to as it was very alert to this matter, that a purely archive-based service will not be acceptable. We must go further than that.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is why Tara disappeared.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Yes. Reference was made to advertising for children with regard to age differences. There are advertising codes in place. The advertising code for children generally defines a child as a person younger than 18 years and it sets further standards for children under 15 and under six. That partly answers Senator Ryan's point, although he also referred to the differences in programming.

Senator Mansergh asked about RTE television reception in Northern Ireland. RTE 1 and RTE 2 are available in Northern Ireland, largely through spill-over, and TG4 is available there terrestrially, as agreed under the Good Friday Agreement. I launched the operation of a mast for that area some years ago.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

RTE 1 is still patchy.

Photo of Noel DempseyNoel Dempsey (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Meath, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Yes. At every available opportunity, the issue of full coverage in Northern Ireland is raised frequently by my colleagues at a technical and political level, which will be welcomed by Members. In the talks about the different multiplexes, digital terrestrial television might allow for arrangements that are not currently possible. We will try to ensure all the channels will be available in both directions, which would foster better relations. I hope something will come of that.

I thank Members once again for their interest in the Bill. I will take some of their suggestions on board and I look forward to working with Members on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 7 February 2007.

Sitting suspended at 1.05 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.