Seanad debates

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

5:00 pm

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move:

That Seanad Éireann deplores the failure of the Government to ensure broadband access in every home and business in Ireland.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Tony Killeen, for being here. This is very serious issue and I raise it for the second time in 13 months, which most unusual. Broadband is one of the ignored issues of the Oireachtas. I am absolutely staggered by the lack of interest, alarm and drive of Members of the Oireachtas when confronting this problem. There is no sense of urgency about it among them and it is no coincidence that this House is not particularly full. Broadband may not be a sexy subject but it is a vital one. The attitude of successive parliamentarians is that broadband is, for some extraordinary reason, an optional extra. They regard it as something we may or may not need. This is far from the case.

Broadband is an absolutely essential part of the infrastructure of a modern state. I contend — I do not believe the Minister will disagree — broadband is something we simply cannot do without. We should be able to take it for granted by now rather than see it as an area in which we regard ourselves as perhaps a little bit behind as a nation.

An unlimited number of broadband tables are issued by the EU, the OECD and various bodies to prove one thing or another. The only common trend in them is that Ireland's performance in broadband is lamentable. In every European league table I have seen, we are very low which is extraordinary for a country which is debatably the most prosperous in Europe, or is certainly the second most prosperous one per capita. In the latest figures I received only today from the US Chamber of Commerce, Ireland is 15th out of 15 countries in the domestic broadband league table, which is appalling.

Apologists for various Governments and telecom companies say it does not really matter about the domestic sector and that they are doing a little better in the corporate sector and are looking after business. That is a very short-sighted and wrong way to present things because business broadband and domestic broadband cannot be separated. Let me explain why.

Many employees, particularly in the United States, but also in other countries, now work at home. It is a trend. They work on their own computers at home and if they do not have broadband at home, they cannot do so. Working from home is a growing trend here and overseas, particularly for employees of multinational companies. This is a nation which claims it is the champion of the knowledge economy. It is now becoming the nation with the knowledge economy but which cannot transmit the knowledge. That may work in the short term but it will not work in the long term. If people cannot get the knowledge in time, they will not be able to do the job and will not be able to work at home. What will happen is that foreign direct investment will start to dry up. That has not happened yet but there are straws in the wind that multinationals are looking at Ireland and asking about broadband.

I was at a dinner in London the other night with some ordinary Irish people who live there. They are not hi-tech, young or the modern generation but the first question I was asked after the dinner was why was broadband so bad in Ireland. The message is going out to people that we are way behind in broadband. That message will then go out to multinationals which will realise they cannot get people to work in various places because there is no broadband penetration. The result will be that we are damaged, although not ruined, as a nation for foreign direct investment. There is no doubt about that. People will look elsewhere, as they are now doing for other reasons.

Lest the Minister thinks I am being alarmist, I will quote Mr. John McElligott. I do not know if the Minister of State, Deputy Tony Killeen, is aware of this but he is meeting the senior Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in the next few days. Mr. McElligott is the head of eBay in this country. It is a very important company in terms of hi-tech, broadband and multinationals and Mr. McElligott has done something which chief executives of most multinationals in this area will not do. He has put his head a bit above the parapet and has said some pretty alarming things in recent weeks. He wrote to Deputy John Cregan, the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources stating:

I am writing to let you know that eBay is highly concerned about the current state of our broadband connectivity in this country. Ireland is nowhere in terms of online application usage and innovation. This is a major missed opportunity. With our wealth, US links and English language, we should rightly be an online hotbed. Instead, our connectivity is holding the country back in four important areas:

Growth of domestic internet applications and entrepreneurship

Inwards investment — Ireland should be attracting FDI for online applications as an ideal "EU test market". Currently we primarily attract 'offshore' service centres

Regional development — connectivity provides people with a real option to work from home, and to be based outside the cities

Take up of great new services that area enjoyed across the EU, such as eGovernment and VOIP

As someone working in the online space, I see firsthand the results of this disappointing situation. I am embarrassed [This is the head of a multinational.] to tell my peers in other countries about Ireland's connectivity problems. Simply put, we require a major leap in connectivity capabilities in terms of coverage, quality and speed.

He goes on to say that our broadband situation is affecting inward foreign direct investment and will continue to do so. The rest of the letter is along the same lines. We ignore that sort of warning from someone at the coalface at our peril. If we ignore that, we will see that foreign direct investment will be reduced and companies might take fright at coming to Ireland.

I also spoke to the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, which does not regard it as something that has an immediate impact on decisions for those who are already here. In other words, I do not think it will mean that any of those with headquarters here will actually exit Ireland. However, it will act as some sort of deterrent in the future as the message goes out. The American Chamber of Commerce Ireland was worried about the message going out in a broader sense, which, in many ways, is more dangerous. This message was that Ireland is not, in the term said to me, "e-savvy". In other words, we are wonderful in terms of language and educated young people, are not great on infrastructure but are so far behind in respect of e-generation, broadband and high technology issues. It is in respect of being e-savvy that people from abroad should look at Ireland in a different light.

The Minister should listen to bodies like the Irish Internet Association and I do not understand why Ministers do not do so. I recently attended one of its meetings in the Mansion House which was attended by 400 people. They represented billions of euro in investment in Internet companies and other high-technology companies here. However, they told me that they could not even get a proper audience with Ministers who just did not listen to them. While these people are listening to representatives of IBEC and ICTU, who presumably have some role in this, although I am doubtful about it, they will not even listen to the people with the fire in their bellies who have led and are leading the economic boom. That is what worries me so much.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Senator has one minute left.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

There is a mindset in this House and among the Government and Civil Service that broadband somehow can be put on the back burner. I wish the Minister of State would give us a commitment tonight that within a very short period of time, he will not blame Eircom for not unbundling the loop, because that is disgraceful, but make it unbundle it. He should not blame someone else. The buck stops with the Minister. If Eircom is dragging its feet, let us get it to stop. It is in the Minister of State's power to do exactly that. This is a case for Government interference and subsidy, if necessary, and for the Government to insist that every house and business in Ireland automatically has access to broadband. If it costs money, use it. The Government spends enough money on roads, railways and air services. This is just as vital. Let the Minister of State give us a commitment that, within a very short period of time, every house and business in Ireland will clearly have the access to broadband which is essential if we are to be a modern and vibrant economy.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am pleased to be able to second the motion and congratulate Senator Ross for again raising this issue. He has pushed the matter time and again, as have I, but we have made very little progress.

Where does one start with this? I will start by saying that the Government amendment is quite appalling. The fact that, with a straight face, the Government side is asking the Seanad to commend the Government on its work in this area and for its determination to deliver broadband to those areas of Ireland where it is currently uneconomic is appalling. I do not know how any serious punter on that side of the House could have allowed this amendment to go through.

That is the problem, because what Senator Ross says is right. This issue is not being taken seriously. We spend hours here talking about competitiveness and spent two hours discussing it here today. Twenty minutes ago, I listened to a Minister of State who was sitting where the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, is now sitting. He said that every home in this country must have broadband. I wonder if somebody should tell him that since we sold off Eircom, we will never get it. The day it was sold off, I said here that I could never see us getting the information superhighway, as it was then called, down to Belmullet. That is the reality.

We talk about competitiveness and productivity. Not having access to broadband is like asking workers to work with one hand manacled to the other. I remember a night maybe 15 years ago when I met a delegation from the capital town of the Minister of State's constituency. The delegation was full of enthusiasm and energy and represented the leading technology town in Ireland. Ennis was showing the way. It has been left on the back burner ever since. After the effort the people put in to get it there, it got them nowhere.

I live maybe 16 or 17 miles from here, which is the centre of power. I cannot get broadband at home. I tried it again this evening just to check it out and make sure nothing had happened in the meantime. I contacted the provider who told me that no products were available in my area because it was not within its line of site. I could nearly see the place from here if I went up high enough. It is 20 minutes up the road in County Dublin. It is not the Black Valley in my native county of Kerry. I asked it to try the card coverage to see whether it had improved and discovered that there was no card coverage. I tried the DSL, checked the line because I have Eircom land lines at home and was told that the lines did not meet the required standard for broadband. So it is not just about unbundling.

As the Minister of State is aware, I am a person who has used technology every day for about 16 or 17 years. I use it all the time. The Minister of State will be aware that I do a podcast in his local area every week. I have a house in a small town in rural France. It is easier for me to send a podcast to Counties Clare and Wexford or elsewhere from a holiday home in a rural area of France than it is from my main residence in County Dublin. There is something daft about that.

The amendment congratulates the private sector. There is nothing there. We have had this debate before. Senator Ross will correct me if I am wrong but I believe it is our third time debating this issue. On a previous occasion, another motion was tabled by Senator Ross, while before that, there was a general debate on the area. It is shameful that nobody seems to care about it.

I saw the letter from John McElligott from eBay because it received wide coverage in business newspapers some while back. This is as important as what is happening in Dublin Castle. The Opposition should be hopping on the Government every week about the shameful way this issue is being handled.

Most of the people here represent or live in rural parts of the country. This is killing regional Ireland. It is hitting education in regional Ireland. Every year for the past four years, the Government has talked about rolling out broadband to every primary and post-primary school in the country. Most people think it has been done. It is same problem, namely, connectivity. Schools are not connected so our children are being held back.

Do people in Government recognise that our productivity in the future will be in intellectual add-on? We will not be making bits and pieces in factories anymore. They can do that more cheaply in any part of the world. It is all about intellectual add-on and the knowledge economy, as referred to by Senator Ross. We are at the bottom of the league when it comes to the knowledge that is coming down those pipes on what we used to call the information superhighway but which we now call the World Wide Web or Internet. We used to be proud of our position on these matters but this is no longer the case.

When the Minister of State wore his previous hat, he had to deal with issues like the retraining of workforces and finding new employment for the people in Shannon or elsewhere. A major part of that involves people doing courses via broadband in order that they can retrain, build on their knowledge and get better qualifications. The involvement of outsourcing must be also considered. I visited a Gaeltacht area in Mayo where people wanted to set up an interpretation facility for Gaeilge in Brussels. They had to move the facility in order to get reception.

Although it is no reflection on the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, who I hold in high regard, the fact this issue is not important enough for the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to remember to be present is appalling. I wish to refer to studying and working in areas outside the main metro-polises and outsourcing.

The day I heard about metropolitan area networks I knew it was the most stupid decision ever made. What were we doing? We do not want metropolitan area networks. Every home in the country needs broadband. The Government should lease satellite space and soak the country in broadband. It should be available to everyone for a reasonable price. That could be effected with one decision. The idea of shooting down lines, fibre optics, cutting up roads and setting up masts is not necessary anymore because technology has moved on. We should recognise this.

There will be a row about unbundling and the quality of lines. Eircom will not bring the quality of its lines up to DSL level because someone else will lease the line to sell the service at a cheaper rate. There is no incentive for Eircom to do this. The only way to improve the situation is by satellite provision immediately to every part of the country. The Government should lease the space, give us an option and a future and bring us into the new century.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Seanad Éireann" 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 appropriate by the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg), the statutory body responsible for the regulation of the sector;

the role of the Government is to formulate regulatory and infrastructure policies to facilitate the provision of high quality telecommunications services by competing private-sector service providers;

after a late start Ireland's rate of broadband take-up continues to improve;

commends

the Government on its positive interventions such as supporting the construction of Metropolitan Area Networks in regional cities and towns and providing capital grants under the County and Group Broadband Scheme;

broadband service providers for providing customers with a wide range of affordable broadband products; and

the Government for its determination, under the National Broadband Scheme, to ensure the delivery of broadband services to those areas in Ireland where it is currently uneconomic for the telecommunications sector to provide broadband connectivity.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Senator Walsh is embarrassed by the amendment. He should tell the truth.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Clare, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I were under the impression the debate was starting at 5.30 p.m. I apologise for the mix up. The reason he cannot be here is that we were both attending the meeting of the Cabinet committee on housing and infrastructure, during which this issue and others were discussed. He will be in the Chamber as soon as he can.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

What was decided at the meeting? The Minister of State should give us some good news.

6:00 pm

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Clare, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I would prefer to engage with the points made by Senators Ross and O'Toole but it would be more informative if I deliver the script that sets out the current position.

A world-class electronic communications sector is critical to our continued economic and social prosperity. As an economy we need to ensure we take full advantage of these technological developments to remain competitive. As a society we need to ensure we do not allow the creation of a digital divide, either socially or regionally.

The provision of broadband services is a major priority for the Government. In this context, the primary role of the Government is to formulate regulatory and infrastructure policies to facilitate the provision of high quality telecommunications services by competing private sector service providers. The broadband market in Ireland is fully liberalised and regulated, where appropriate, by ComReg, the independent Commission for Communications Regulation.

Ireland's growth in broadband penetration has continued to improve during 2007. Today, there are almost 20 service providers in Ireland offering products to more than 85% of the population through a combination of DSL, fixed wireless, cable, fibre optic, and mobile technologies. As a result the average cost of broadband continues to fall. According to the latest figures from ComReg at the end of the second quarter of 2007, there were 698,000 broadband subscribers in Ireland. I am hopeful this exceptional growth has been maintained into the next quarter and I would anticipate that the number of subscribers at the end of the third quarter will be closer to the 800,000 mark, equivalent to approximately 18% of the population.

To put this in context, at the start of 2005 only 3% of population were broadband subscribers and the figure stood at 7% at the start of 2006. To achieve 18% by end 2007 is significant progress by any measure. Recent statistics from the OECD, from October 2007, show that we have the strongest per capita subscriber growth in the OECD. This means Ireland is catching up with other regions despite the relatively late launch of affordable and competitive broadband services in Ireland in the early 2000s. Moreover, Ireland has narrowed the gap behind the EU average. At the end of the second quarter of 2006 the EU 25 average was 14 subscribers per 100 of population and our rate was eight subscribers per 100. At the end of the second quarter of 2007, the EU 25 average was 18.2 subscribers per 100 of population and our rate was 15.4.

This growth in broadband has been facilitated by the regulatory regime the Government has put in place. The powers of ComReg have been substantially strengthened by the enactment in April of the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act, 2007. The Act provides for the creation of new summary, indictable and continuing offences for breaches by operators of obligations imposed by ComReg. The Act also confers competition law powers on ComReg, similar to those of the Competition Authority, that allow it to investigate and prosecute anti-competitive behaviour or abuse of dominance in the electronic communications sector.

Local loop unbundling is a key requirement to stimulate more competition in Ireland's broadband market and to increase broadband take-up. Experience in other countries suggests that unbundling is a key stimulant of broadband innovation and take up. To date the benefits of local loop unbundling have not been felt in Ireland to the desired extent because of delays in the implementation of a variety of product requirements. Following interventions by ComReg with Eircom, and discussions between industry, ComReg and Eircom beginning in May 2007, Eircom committed to resolving all of the identified issues. Accordingly, a new iteration of unbundling was launched in September. There are now no material issues remaining that impair the use of this product and it is up to the industry to avail of unbundling.

The State has undertaken initiatives to address the gaps in broadband coverage where the market has clearly failed. Direct funding has been already provided under the national development plan for the provision of backbone infrastructure and to upgrade local access infrastructure. Also, 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. These wholesale networks enable private sector operators to offer world class broadband services at competitive costs.

The Department also offers funding assistance for smaller towns and rural communities through the group broadband scheme. The scheme, which is technology-neutral, subsidised the implementation of 127 projects in rural areas. 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. These infrastructure interventions 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.

There are still, however, some parts of the country where the private sector will be unable to justify the commercial provision of broadband services. The failure of the market to bridge the digital divide in specific rural areas will be addressed through the Department's national broadband scheme, which will provide broadband services to areas that are not currently served and ensure all reasonable requests for broadband in such areas are met. The first phase of the procurement process for the scheme, the pre-qualification questionnaire phase, is now complete and four candidates have qualified. As the Department indicated on 2 September 2007, the four candidates are, in alphabetical order, BT Communications Ireland Limited Consortium, Eircom Limited, Hutchinson 3G Ireland Limited and IFA/Motorola Consortium.

The next phase of the procurement process involves inviting candidates to participate in a competitive dialogue process. The Department is anticipating that the national broadband scheme contract will be awarded in the second quarter of 2008, with roll-out of services as soon as possible thereafter. The broadband product to be provided under the national broadband scheme will be broadly equivalent to the tariffs and products typically available on the Irish market. The most appropriate mechanism to achieve this aim will be decided during the competitive dialogue process.

The issue of broadband availability is now close to resolution. We must now turn our attention to the new challenges facing the market, such as improving quality and speed and further reducing costs of broadband access. We must ensure that Ireland's consumers have available the most up to date and innovative products and services that are available online. For example, as Internet content and services improve, higher connectivity speeds are needed to benefit from the activities available on-line, such as, voice over Internet, video on demand, shopping and e-mailing family photo albums across the world in real time. The increasing volume of digital data being carried on existing networks means higher bandwidth will be required in the future.

A major challenge facing the sector is the evolution of next generation broadband. Supply must be just ahead of demand and the Department's policies will encourage and facilitate this. This is not an exact science and making predictions in the technology space is difficult. Other countries are facing the same challenges and questions as we are and, while we can look to some for lessons such as the use of ducting in facilitating broadband roll-out, we must be innovative and creative and avail of the opportunities provided by the move to next generation networks.

The Department is preparing a draft policy paper on next generation broadband, which will review current communications infrastructure policy and analyse future policy options in light of industry developments. This will give guidance in respect of the optimum future role for Government in the planning and roll-out of broadband. The Minister intends to establish a national advisory forum of experts to evaluate critically the policy options contained in the draft paper. Following that, he plans to publish the paper early next year and we would welcome views in respect of it. He expects it will be a guide on Government thinking on next generation broadband and where we see ourselves in this space.

We need to position Ireland so that it can remain at the forefront as an alternative destination for inward investment. Next generation broadband will be a critical element in our continuing efforts to do that. We must anticipate consumer needs, especially those of the enterprise sector, by providing the products and services integral to a knowledge economy. Broadband has the potential to bring about profound changes in our society and to help tackle the challenge of moving to a more sustainable world. We are well positioned to make this transition work for us. The move to next generation broadband provides us with a great opportunity to innovate. Perhaps the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen. I congratulate my colleagues in the Independent group on tabling this important motion. Broadband represents the future and the Independent Senators have done a worthwhile job in bringing forward the motion which merits serious consideration.

There are a number of compelling reasons the availability and use of broadband are important. Foreign direct investment into this country is critically affected by broadband availability. Representatives of IDA Ireland and other agencies seeking such investment indicate that one of the first questions asked by potential investors relates to the availability of broadband.

The availability of broadband is as critical today as was the availability of electricity when the rural electrification scheme was initiated. Any efforts at regional development and trying to achieve equality of growth throughout the country are contingent on the availability of broadband. If people wish to work at home and if we want to encourage small industries to develop, it is clearly necessary. It is vital that broadband be available if we are to encourage larger industrial interests to transfer their operations from major population centres to the regions.

We live in an information age and people want to access and disperse information quickly. It is important for students and others to be able to gain immediate access to information. The availability of broadband also has implications for people's quality of life, which is an important aspect in addition to any considerations relating to industry and enterprise.

The Central Statistics Office's household survey indicates that in the first quarter of 2007, 31% of households — three out of every ten — had a broadband connection. That figure is appalling in one sense. It is somewhat heartening in another sense, however, because it represents a doubling of the figure for the previous year. Overall it gives rise to concern because we must ask why two thirds of households do not have a broadband connection. According to the survey to which I refer, 65% of households have personal computers, PCs. This is important and encouraging because it represents a first step on the road towards the use of broadband.

The Minister of State said that we do not want the creation of a digital divide, either socially or regionally. I am afraid that such a divide already exists. Recent figures indicate that the uptake in respect of the use of broadband in counties Leitrim, Cavan, Roscommon, Longford and Wexford stands at approximately 10%. This compares with rates of 32% in Dublin and 23.7% in Kildare. I was disturbed to discover that the figure relating to uptake in County Cavan is 9.1%. Ireland is at the lower end among OECD countries regarding uptake or use of broadband in the home, which is terrible.

The uptake and use of broadband are affected by a number of issues. The first issue that affects the degree to which people will take up and use broadband relates to availability. Large numbers of our population live in dispersed rural communities, particularly in the counties to which I refer. In many areas, broadband is not available. People cannot avail of a service if it is not being provided.

The second issue of critical importance in the context of uptake relates to cost. While Ireland has the lowest figure for uptake among OECD countries, it is a sad fact and an indictment of our approach to broadband that the price relating to connection and the maintenance thereof is the fourth highest in the OECD. In Bailieborough, County Cavan, it costs €35 per month to maintain a broadband connection. That is a high price for many people to pay and for others it is prohibitive. Price is, therefore, a significant disincentive in the context of broadband use. This is a matter to which the Government must give serious consideration.

The third issue to which I wish to refer relates to the fact that the speed at which information can be transferred via broadband in this country is relatively low. Anecdotal evidence and that provided by surveys indicates that another issue — it is difficult to quantify but it is critical — that requires examination is the lack of training or competence among large numbers of the population in respect of the use of broadband. This is obviously a disincentive in respect of obtaining and using a broadband connection.

Just as it is incumbent on the Government to address issues relating to availability and usage, it is equally incumbent upon it to address the matter of training. There is no evidence that the Fianna Fáil-Green Party-Progressive Democrats Government is serious about broadband. A sum of €10 million was recently diverted from information and communications technology, ICT, projects, mainly those relating to broadband, to renewable energy grants. The Minister of State excused this on the grounds that the broadband scheme was not yet ready for such expenditure.

There is need for a more aggressive marketing strategy to encourage the take-up of broadband. There is no investment in the budget in respect of new generation broadband. The Minister of State referred to new generation technology but all he said was that it is being studied and examined and that position papers are being adopted. We should be investing hard cash because action, not examination, is required. It is salutary to bear in mind that there is 100% connectivity in Northern Ireland while the level here remains very low. High-speed broadband is essential to the entire country. It is almost a right at this stage.

Like the Independent Senators, I appeal to the Government to withdraw the amendment. Those in Government should raise their hands and admit that not enough is being done and that serious action is required. If they do so, this Administration might begin to gain credibility and we could then support its efforts to take action and deal with this matter. However, while the Government maintains this position and persists with pushing this type of amendment that suggests all is well, it should not merit support.

I appeal to the Senators opposite to withdraw the amendment to the motion. I commend the motion to the House. I congratulate my colleagues on tabling it and on the manner in which they proposed and seconded it.

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

Before I call Senator Walsh, I wish to welcome to the House Councillor Peter McVitty and his wife, Susan, who are in the Gallery.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chuir roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach anocht. Ba mhaith liom na Seanadóirí a chuir an rún seo ar an gclár a mholadh. Baineann an rún seo le ábhar an-tábhachtach, gan amhras. Tá mé sásta go bhfuil seans againn an ábhar seo a phlé sa Seanad.

There is much talk of infrastructure and Senator Ross, when moving the motion, referred to our road networks and investments in that area. Senator O'Toole used the phraseology "information superhighway", which is now not in vogue. It is clear to us, regardless of what terminology we use, that the Internet and computer networks will be an important component of business into the future. Commercial life, public administration and everything that goes with running an economy will become increasingly dependent on the quality of the network we have.

Many of us welcomed the belated investment in the improvements in our road network, the standard of which lagged behind continental Europe and the neighbouring island for many decades. We are beginning to get on a competitive equality level with them. That is essential. It is also essential in this area that we have the best possible service and connectivity to ensure efficiency in business and that companies can function competitively in what is now a global economy.

The motion tabled is perhaps a year or two too late in its overall criticism——

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We tabled an identical one a year ago and nothing has happened.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

There has been a significant——

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Deputy did not vote for that either.

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

Allow Senator Walsh to continue without interruption.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

On a matter of interest, we moved an identical motion a year ago. What the Deputy said is extraordinary.

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

Allow Senator Walsh to continue without interruption.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Deputy said this motion has been introduced a year too late but we tabled one a year ago. Was the Deputy not here?

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

Allow Senator Walsh to continue without interruption.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

There is no convincing those who do not want to be convinced.

We do not have anything like the level of service required but any fair-minded person would acknowledge significant progress has been made, particularly in the past 12 to 18 months. The Minister of State outlined that 85% of the country has broadband coverage. That is insufficient. The aim should be 100% coverage. In Britain coverage is at 99.9%. Full coverage should be our objective.

I note that the 653,000 broadband subscribers — mobile broadband subscribers can be excluded from the figures for comparative purposes — represents 15.4% of the population. While the gap in that regard with Europe has narrowed, we are comparing ourselves with the EU-27 member states, although I note the Minister of State referred to the EU-25, perhaps Romania and Bulgaria are excluded. With that percentage of subscribers at the end of the second quarter of 2007, we still stand 4% behind the EU average. I suspect that if we compared ourselves with the EU-15, we probably would be even further behind that EU average. That signals the challenge we face, which we should recognise.

The OECD has shown that Ireland is in first place with regard to the strongest per capita subscriber growth, namely, the catch-up to which the Minister of State referred. Broadband subscriptions now account for 63% of all Internet subscriptions. However, I signal a note of caution in regard to these comparisons. Only two of the 30 countries, Ireland and Australia, that are members of the OECD, match fully national data sources. The figures from the OECD appear to count significant number of connections that are below the broadband level we have here, which is the 256Kbps.

It is also necessary to examine how the comparisons are made. If every household in Ireland and elsewhere in the EU had broadband connection, we would be ranked 18th place in terms of broadband penetration because of vagaries within the system. They would include our unique demographics. We have a smaller number of households than other member states, we tend to have larger families, we have a significant rural population and lower density housing. When all these demographics are factored in, they tend to skew the comparisons. That must be also recognised.

I note what Senator O'Reilly said about the cost of broadband connection in Cavan. I would have thought we tend to pay more for the service here, as we do for many services. There tends to be an add-on cost for various service subscribers across a range of services. However, I was surprised to learn that broadband is widely available in this country at competitive rates of €20 to €30 per month, according to the Department's figures and I have no reason not to than accept that is the case.

Senator O'Toole referred to the reason we are lagging behind in broadband connectivity and playing catch up. I believe the privatisation of Eircom when it happened stood in the way of making progress in this area. It is easy to be wise in hindsight. If we could have foreseen those difficulties, we should have rolled out broadband before privatising that company.

The Minister of State referred to the local loop unbundling and reference was made to satellite connections. In this regard, I welcome the initiative by the Minister and the Department in the procurement process for the national broadband scheme. I understand a group will be set up to ensure it is rolled out.

We should acknowledge the scheme that was put in place in 2005 to provide broadband services to all our schools. The roll out of that scheme has had a 98% success rate. That is significant. The coming generation will need the use of this modern technology to make an impact on the development of Ireland incorporated into future decades.

While broadband roll-out has been slow, in recent times there has been added emphasis and that must be maintained to improve and increase the roll out. In preparing the draft policy paper, the Department, as a matter of urgency, should bring it to a conclusion as quickly as possible in order that the national advisory forum of experts can be put in place. That could be a significant driver in terms of the shortcomings in the system.

Speaking specifically on the motion, two years ago we had 208,000 broadband subscribers, we now have 698,000. The figure has increased by a factor of 3.5. That represents a significant growth within a two-year period, but we need to continue the emphasis that has been placed on broadband access.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber and I compliment the independent Senators on putting down this motion. The Internet has made a fundamental change to the way we live our lives. I was an early adopter of the Internet when I started using it in 1993. I could tell in a few short months that my world had changed forever. When I had broadband installed in my house four years ago, I knew that this was a further step-change in the development of the Internet. I could see the vast improvements that this new speed made to the way we live our lives and how we interact with people. Many of us find it difficult to keep up with all the changes, which can be daunting. As a country, we are failing to keep up with the challenges of changing technology.

I would like to talk about how far we have come in the provision of broadband access, how we compare to other countries, and the work that remains to be done. The communications regulator made the point last May that access to broadband was unequal throughout the country. It referred especially to the fact that access was not great in rural areas. Half of all businesses in rural areas do not have access to broadband, not because it is not wanted, but because it is just not available. It is very frustrating for small businesses that want to use the Internet to grow but find that, because of geographical location, they cannot avail of broadband services. Many people and businesses have moved into areas on the expectation that they can access broadband, only to find that it is impossible to get access to broadband. It is not fair that we should discriminate against people or businesses in rural areas. They need access to the Internet to compete and to live their daily lives.

Some of the Minister's response beggars belief. He states that 15% of the population does not have access to broadband, which means that, due to density, about 35% of the country is not covered. He later states that the average number of subscribers per hundred in the EU is 18.2 and that we are at 15.4. He is admitting that we are below average yet he is asking us to commend him on it. It is a sure sign we have a dial-up Minister in a broadband age.

I am one of the Members of this Chamber who happens to own a business. It would be impossible for me to run a business today using dial-up services. We move megabytes of data around, and we just could not survive without access to broadband. Many companies in those sectors where we want to see growth, such as new technologies, are totally dependent on broadband, yet they just do not have it in rural areas. While we are lagging behind, other countries are steaming ahead both in availability of broadband and the technology being offered as well. Technology continues to advance rapidly across the world. While we are moving slowly to provide DSL access to people and businesses in Ireland, in other countries the talk is about ADSL2 or fibre optic broadband. In Japan, 36% of subscribers are using fibre optics to get on to the broadband network. As a result, Japan has the best and most advanced high-speed access to the Internet in the world. The transfer rate in Japan is 100 megabytes per second, which compares to the best in Ireland of 5 megabytes per second. That is a twentyfold increase in the speed available for businesses in Japan. It is shockingly low in Ireland.

Senator Walsh stated earlier that things were great, but we are now 28th in the European league table for speed. While the number of DSL connections in Japan continues to decrease as people take up fibre optics, here we are struggling to make sure people have access to DSL. No doubt some day in the distant future, a Minister will come into this House and state we have now got 100% access to DSL technology, but that is not good enough. Otherwise, a smart Alec will say we have a DSL Minister in a fibre optic age. I would not want to see that happening.

Broadband must reach people in many rural areas, but also in areas that are close to Dublin. Broadband was turned on only six weeks ago in Stamullen, which is a village only 20 miles up the road. We have set aside money for the metropolitan area network projects, and it was asked earlier whether this has been value for money. I agree with the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, which stated that the money would be better spent in ensuring a roll out of broadband across the country, rather than focusing on a narrow geographical area. Last year, I led a successful campaign to introduce broadband in Stamullen, County Meath. We were told initially by Eircom it would not have made economic sense for the company to introduce broadband. With the help of the villagers, I managed to show Eircom that there were sufficient numbers to put in place a service. True to his word, the chairman of Eircom, Mr. Pierre Danon, admitted that we proved the business case and promised to install a service. It was turned on only six weeks ago. I got an email yesterday from a lady called Barbara, who is from the village. She stated:

I now finally have it up and running and it is great that I can now work from home two days a week, which is two days off the M1 and two days off the M50. In my mind, anything that gets me off the M50 has to be a good thing.

Broadband is not just an economic equation about whether it is justifiable for Eircom. It brings other social benefits. It means less congestion, lower emissions, more time at home and stronger family lives. That is how we need to look at broadband. It is not just about whether people can get on to an Internet connection quicker than the dial-up system; it is also about providing an essential service to people in their homes. It is like water and electricity. Until we treat it like that, we will not realise the benefits of broadband to the nation.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I would like to let Senator Quinn speak before me.

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

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank Senator Cannon for allowing me to do this, because I have another appointment to keep.

I welcome the Minister to the House, but I am very disappointed with the amendment, particularly its wording. It states that it commends the Government on its positive interventions and that it continues to improve. It seems our aim is to come in 17th. Can anybody picture us sending a team to the Olympics with an ambition to finish 17th? I am stunned that the Government did not submit something more positive than this. I do not believe the Minister even looked at the amendment, because we are a disgrace.

The recent opposition party in Australia — which is now in power — was in no doubt that the tardy and incomplete roll out of broadband was a severe obstacle to that country's progress. The outgoing Government suffered for it and it was one of many definite reasons it lost the election. There is no adequate broadband coverage of any kind outside the main population areas in Australia, which is rather similar to ourselves. However, this amendment seeks to commend the Government on its positive interventions such as supporting the construction of metropolitan area networks. We have so far to go, yet we are not getting anywhere near the finish.

I welcome the motion and I commend Senator Ross on bringing it forward. As a long-time champion of broadband, I must admit that I did not expect the motion to produce anything more than another blast of hot air from the direction of the Government benches. For those who still do not see the light of day about broadband, I suggest they consider the Australian experience. Just like in this country, a know-it-all government enjoyed more than 11 years of unprecedented power, yet during those 11 years it failed to grasp the reality that its country would need an effective broadband network to equip itself adequately for the future. At the end of the day, the Australian Government paid the price for its refusal to face up to the future and its demands. It was swept ignominiously out of power, with even the Prime Minister himself losing his parliamentary seat. I suggest the Taoiseach be reminded of this and that it was one of three reasons the outgoing Australian Government agreed it lost power. Is that an omen for what is in store for this country if the Government continues to compound its failure on broadband? I suggest it bears thinking about. The Government has failed us miserably. Ten years ago we talked here about the opportunity and ambition to become the technology hub of Europe as Singapore was the hub of the Far East. Now we are rated 17th out of 27 for our broadband and we are asked to commend the Government on it. This is a great motion to have before us and I hope it will be a wake-up call for the Government. I have every confidence that Deputy Ryan will shake us up and do something about it. He is the right person in the right position but we must see some action.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank Senator Quinn for sharing his time with me and I welcome the Minister.

The Government amendment to the motion is a joke. I will not repeat the points made by my colleagues. The amendment was not thought out, but just thrown out there. I speak on this with some knowledge as before my election to the Seanad I looked after e-business for Fáilte Ireland. I am aware of the broadband issue, especially as it affects the tourism industry where people are trying to develop enterprises because the online sphere is so important to tourism. As we all know, broadband penetration in Ireland is a joke and a disgrace. Hopefully with the Minister at the wheel we will change this. However, if we are to achieve this we must scrap the plan and the investment projections in place. We must prioritise broadband, give it more emphasis, change what we are doing and invest more resources in it. Although we will invest approximately €435 million in a broadband programme up until 2013, what we are putting in place will be well out of date by then. Mr. Kevin Thompson, chief executive of Shannon Development, says we must put in place next generation networks and I agree wholeheartedly with him. We must invest in that and prioritise it. According to Mr. Thompson:

Ireland should not be playing catch-up with other countries when it comes to advances in telecommunications. We need to be leading future development and investing in infrastructure ahead of demand. Next generation networks are the future. They will help Ireland be at the leading edge of the telecommunications industry and will mean faster, more efficient and cheaper access to a growing range of broadband applications.

This is the forward thinking we need. If the Minister proposed a plan which made sense and showed the level of investment and type of networks required, he would get all-party support. This is one of the most important infrastructure priorities facing the country. It is as important as roads.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Hear, hear.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

This is the highway for Ireland. It is the future for investment and the indigenous SMEs and IT companies. A group of entrepreneurs is going to Silicon Valley looking for investment in this country. They have been nicknamed the "silicon Paddies". We have the education levels to attract investment in IT and industries based on it, but we do not have the infrastructure or the investment incentives through tax breaks or otherwise. The Government has a blind spot on technology. I listened to Senator Walsh's speech and it was not even a good script, whoever wrote it. I do not know what he was saying. It was waffle. With manufacturing declining this is the future, and we need to prioritise it accordingly. When people consider investing in Ireland the first question they ask is about suitable employees. The second question is on infrastructure and broadband is the priority. The Government claims that 698,000 people is a success. It is successful only by the Government's awful standards. We have the third worst upload and download rate in Europe. We are ranked 17th for penetration. People are investing in broadband for schools and that is excellent. My nephew has a new laptop for which his mother paid €1,800. However 60% of the children who leave school have no hope of using such a laptop because there is no broadband. That is an indictment.

This Government should subsidise broadband for the country in a meaningful way.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Hear, hear.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The way to get broadband into rural Ireland is obviously through a wireless network. There are various methods of doing this, which I will not detail. If that were prioritised and the investment made, it would be an achievement for the Minister and he would be rewarded for it. He would get all-party support for this. To get investment into rural Ireland and allow people the network access they deserve we must get broadband to the rural areas of this country and not focus just on Metropolitan Area Networks, MANs, in urban areas. That would show this Government has some interest in balanced regional development. Based on what has happened, it does not. This is a serious indictment and I hope the Government will change it.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I second the amendment to the motion. The motion is stark and simple and is difficult to argue against in its own terms. I suggest the motion should not be taken in terms of the historical situation, because that is as it is. We are below average and behind where we need to be, and we need to improve our game by putting in place the communication infrastructure that will allow us to have the most competitive economy and advanced educational society possible. The motion should not be taken in terms of how we got here and whether the right decisions have been taken. Policy decisions have been made that can and should be argued with. The question is whether the commitment and competence exist to make up that difference and bring us to our goal. I am glad the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is in the Chamber because that is the question we must address. Is there a commitment at ministerial level, led by the Department, to ensuring the Government puts in place the necessary resources and proper policy initiatives to bring us to our target in broadband and a well-developed communications infrastructure? I argue there is.

Many wrong decisions have been made. Many points were made in this debate about the piecemeal approach and the introduction of the MAN system, whether that was the right decision and has been effective. Most people who are informed on this will answer that it was the wrong approach and mistakes were made. We are also dealing with the reality of decisions that were made on the main telecommunications company, once a State institution, being privatised and the fact that it was done without providing the telecommunications infrastructure we needed for the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. We can either revisit that debate or see how present policy initiatives can change the playing field.

It could be argued that mobile telephone communication was reliant on a competition approach and the establishment of an infrastructure in which the State had little involvement. However that has led to unnecessary duplication and while there is coverage for mobile telephone use in this country and we have a higher level of mobile telephone use than other countries, we must ask why open competition has not worked in the provision of a broadband infrastructure. There must be structural problems that prevent the private sector alone from delivering such an infrastructure. We can examine countries of similar size and population, or smaller, that have dealt with these problems in a more advanced way than we have. Particularly good examples are Finland, Estonia and the Scandinavian and Baltic region in general. If they can deal with similar scale and population problems there is no reason we cannot. Perhaps in Finland the response was inspired by the fact that a large scale mobile telecommunications company was important for their GNP. We lack similar companies in Ireland and we fail to push that agenda. However, Estonia has 1.5 million people and seems to be dedicated to an e-economy. From the ground up, through its primary education system right through to third level and among the general population there is a coverage and use of broadband and computer technology that puts Ireland to shame. The nature of tonight's debate should not be about where we are — engaging in the classic Irish arguments of begrudgery — but rather about where we need to be and how we are going to get there. It should be concerned about whether there is a consensus on how we should get there and if there is collective confidence about this.

I believe the approach being taken is the correct one and that the people steering it are the right people to do so. Either we have that faith or we do not. Ultimately we shall divide on the issue as to whether we agree on those questions. I suspect, as is usual on Private Members' time, there will be a division as there tends to be every week. That said, it is important that the debate is being held. I am glad the issue has been raised and put in such stark terms. The nature of the dynamic between Government and Opposition is that the former must be constantly challenged as to whether its programme is effective and if it is going in the right direction in terms of achieving what needs to be done. I welcome this motion because we are debating an important piece of infrastructure in terms of how the country develops into the future. I would welcome the tabling of similar motions on a regular basis in Private Members' time to ensure Government is kept up to speed in terms of its very real responsibility in delivering on this important piece of infrastructure.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I also congratulate Senator Ross and the other Independent Members on tabling this motion. I agree with Senator Boyle that somehow the tone of the motion tends to dwell on the failures of the past rather than looking to the successes of the future. For that reason I shall support the amendment to the motion.

I have been very disappointed at the lack of a proper rolling out of broadband to all of Ireland in recent years. We are very fortunate to have as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Deputy Eamon Ryan, a man who can effect the sweeping changes we need to roll out broadband in a systematic way across the country. The Minister has been always a vocal advocate of the rolling out of broadband and we are fortunate he holds this position. He will be a successful Minister in providing, not just EU class, but worldclass broadband infrastructure across Ireland. The argument that we are somehow failing globally was crystallised for me by an article in The Sunday Tribune of 2 December regarding Mr. John McElligot, the chief executive of eBay, which is one of the three top Internet companies in the world, along with Amazon and Google, perhaps. When a senior member of its management highlights the failure of Ireland to keep up globally and says he is embarrassed to speak to his peers about what has been and remains to be achieved here, that crystallises the argument completely for me. A particularly worrying aspect of what he said was that companies with which he is familiar in the US continue to look across the Atlantic to establish bases in the EU, and until recently would have considered Ireland as one of their options. They are now saying, however, that given its poor broadband infrastructure, Ireland is becoming less and less of an option, and they are looking elsewhere within the EU and globally.

Senator Ross highlighted the issue of people working from home. Rolling out broadband to all rural areas provides the opportunity to take people off the M50 and the M6, and they can work from home in a productive manner. A very high class research facility located in Galway city was opened by the then Minister about a year and a half ago. The chief executive of that company said at the launch that while he was delighted his company's research and development facility had been located in Galway, he had serious concerns about the lack of proper broadband infrastructure nationally. One of the deciding factors as to where the company would locate globally was whether workers could have the choice of working from home or from the company base. While the concerns he had over broadband infrastructure ultimately did not lose Galway the commitment from this company, it went very close to doing so.

Senator O'Toole raised the issue of education and broadband. We have been successful in rolling out broadband to all the national schools around the country, but I would question the quality, and how effective it has been. We are fortunate in our local national school in that the principal is very innovative in the use of technology and has installed a data projector and white screen in every classroom. It means he can use the Internet and its facilities for the education of the children. However, he constantly complains to me about the quality of the broadband available to him. It is a satellite link-up, consistently breaks down and the download speeds are appalling. Imagine the potential that exists to excite children and educate them in a whole new way, and we are not availing of it. For example, if a teacher is discussing the Colosseum in Rome with, say, fourth class, he or she can bring up Google Earth and zoom in on a satellite photograph of the Colosseum in situ, in the context in which it is being discussed. If the Niagara Falls is being discussed the teacher can bring up a live webcam and show the pupils a live picture of the falls, just as they are, that minute. That potential is really unfathomable and needs to be examined. The connections exist, but the quality is appalling.

The Minister's response is to consistently compare our broadband coverage and speeds with those of other EU countries. Again, Mr. McElligot of eBay says this is not the direction in which we should be heading. We should not be comparing Ireland with other EU countries, but with what is being achieved globally. Senator Kelly said earlier that by the time broadband coverage is achieved nationally, the standard may well be below what is being experienced in other countries, with which we are competing for foreign direct investment.

Senator O'Reilly spoke about the effects of broadband access on rural Ireland. He quite rightly pointed out that the electrification of rural Ireland and the roll out of broadband are similar as regards the potential for enormous change that exists in rural society if broadband were available everywhere. If it can be achieved across the Border in Northern Ireland within a very short space of time, I fail to understand why it cannot happen here.

I conclude by wishing the Minister the very best in his new role. I am extremely confident that we are about to see sweeping changes in the provision of broadband in the country. I am very much heartened by the national broadband scheme and the fact we now are down to four candidates pre-qualified for that process, who are about to engage in competitive dialogue. I am hoping we will see sweeping changes in the near future.

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

I should like to share time with Senator Pearse Doherty and I shall take only a couple of minutes. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to the House and wish him the very best in his portfolio. I have no doubt he is very interested in the present debate. I compliment Senator Ross and the Independent Senators on tabling the motion. Senator Ross made the point that a very similar motion had been tabled about 12 months ago, and this shows how little has been done since. I am very disappointed at the Government's response to the motion. It should withdraw the amendment because it is an insult to the motion tabled by the Independents since very little has been done in the past year as regards broadband.

As a latecomer to the Internet, I see it as the new superhighway, the place where everyone has to be. Parts of this country are at a major disadvantage from an industrial viewpoint, in terms of setting up enterprises. They urgently need access to broadband. Senator Walsh said that 85% of the people had broadband. Yet the Minister of State, Deputy Terry Killeen, in his contribution claimed that only 18% were paid-up broadband customers. Large gaps exists between what the Government states and what Government Senators state. We are all aware of the reality of the poor take up of broadband. The reasons for the poor take up are that it is not available and it is expensive. I agree with Senator Kelly that the Government should subsidise broadband. Many people on low incomes could do with such a subsidy. It is the new information superhighway and it is badly needed.

Many places avail of conference calling to all parts of the world. However, without broadband a large area of the country is at a major disadvantage. People fly to hotels in Ireland to take up conference calls and one should be able to do this in every corner of the country.

Will the Minister ask the Government Senators to withdraw the amendment? I support my colleague, Senator Joe O'Reilly, who stated that the only way forward is to go forward together and for the Government to withdraw its amendment.

Northern Ireland has had major success in providing broadband throughout the length and breadth of the Six Counties. This was done through its old post office structure. The Minister should examine our post office system and use it or the old exchanges to bring broadband to the most rural parts of the country. I have no doubt it can be done here in the same way as it was done in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Paddy Burke as ucht a chuid ama a roinnt liom. I commend the Independent Senators on bringing this motion before the House. It is timely and apt to discuss this motion after having had a discussion on the supports necessary for small and medium enterprises to flourish in a modern Ireland. A key element for any business to flourish and develop is the provision of broadband. A number of years ago we would have considered the provision of broadband as a luxury. Today, it is as necessary as running water or electricity to businesses and individuals.

The Government has not taken this issue seriously. An OECD report shows we are listed 22nd in terms of broadband penetration. Other reports show broadband here is more expensive than in other countries and that the type of broadband we have available is of an inferior quality to that in neighbouring countries. While we all seek our own slice of the pie in an expanding Europe, it is important that we are able to compete at an international level.

Not only have we failed with regard to delivering broadband to the island of Ireland, we also have an east-west divide in terms of broadband penetration. A report issued from AMAS shows the digital divide. According to the 2006 census statistics, the counties of Donegal, Leitrim, Roscommon, Longford and Cavan all have less than 10% broadband penetration. This is not acceptable in the 21st century. If we examine the statistics on poverty and unemployment, these counties also have the highest percentage of unemployment. A direct connection exists between the provision of basic infrastructure such as broadband and the fact that businesses are not able to survive or flourish in today's environment.

Over a series of months, I was approached by three individuals in Donegal who wish to establish in their own homes businesses which would rely on communications through the broadband network. They are hampered in doing so because the service does not exist. It is available in some places but not in the areas in which people require it. Working mothers who wish to work from home and come off the live register cannot do so because broadband is not available.

An individual wishes to establish a company and employ people but he cannot access broadband in the location at which he wishes to establish his business. A woman in west Donegal works with an American industry on the American clock. She can provide the service from her home but because broadband is not available she must travel ten miles in the middle of the night and rent out accommodation in a town which costs her money. We have not done enough.

I encourage the Government parties to withdraw the amendment and to recognise that not enough has been done. This boils down to the privatisation of Eircom. We had it within our grasp to roll out broadband on a national basis but we decided to allow venture capitalists to make money on the back of Eircom instead of considering the national interest in providing a broadband backbone throughout the Twenty-six Counties.

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

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill has one minute.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

One minute. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach but I have much to say on this issue.

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

We did not start until 5.30 p.m. so the Senator has the full amount of speaking time.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. This is a great relief to me. I was going to blame Senator Wilson for it but I had better not do so.

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the Chamber. I am delighted to see him here because, from a personal point of view, I have admired the new, fresh approach he has taken since his appointment when considering the issues of communications and energy. He is like a breath of fresh air for the Department and I wish him luck. He certainly has the support of this side of the House.

I wish to put a number of points in context. Four years ago, approximately 30,000 people in the country subscribed to broadband. By the end of December, this figure will be 700,000. In anybody's outlook, this is a major progressive leap and it must be welcomed. It was stated that little was done during the past year but the facts do not reflect this. The facts outline that during the first quarter of 2006, approximately 320,000 people subscribed to broadband nationally and in the final quarter of 2006, this figure was approximately 500,000. The increase to 700,000 by the end of this year represents a jump of 200,000 in the space of one year. This is not a lack of progress and neither does it outline that nothing has been done. It is a clear indication that broadband reaches members of the public who wish to avail of the service.

The facilitation of broadband coverage throughout the entire country is a key priority for the Government. It is reflected in the programme for Government and has been discussed repeatedly by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and his Cabinet colleagues.

I am delighted the Independent Senators tabled this motion because it gives us an opportunity to raise broadband issues in a favourable manner or to raise concerns. Broadband must be central to the Government's priorities because it is important for driving the economy and providing world-class telecommunication infrastructure to homes in all parts of Ireland, whether it is used for small businesses or primary, secondary, third level or fourth level education. It is important that we have these facilities readily available.

Initially, the Government moved on the national group broadband scheme. While this was welcome at the time, unfortunately the uptake was low. There are probably a number of reasons for this, including the complicated, awkward nature of the scheme in the sense that the onus was on individual communities to come together, organise an application and work with providers and the Department. I am pleased the Department moved quickly to address this problem by rolling out the national broadband scheme, which will deliver a broadband service to the remaining 10% to 15% of the country where broadband is not available. The new scheme will assist many rural areas and I understand four companies have either tendered to roll it out or are being considered for this purpose. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position.

It is argued that the schemes should operate in parallel. This would undermine the effectiveness of both schemes and lead to double subscriptions. It is important, therefore, to proceed with the national broadband scheme. Of the grant aid of €5.9 million available under the first scheme, the group broadband scheme, only €1.4 million has been drawn down to date. It is a matter for providers to ensure their claims are submitted to the Department.

Despite Government and private sector investment in broadband, the private sector is unable to fully justify the commercial provision of broadband in a number of areas. The new broadband scheme will aim to provide broadband services to areas without coverage. Some counties, including County Donegal, are proceeding with an innovative scheme, which works on a cross-Border basis to provide wireless broadband to many areas. Donegal County Council in association with the ERNACT network is progressing the scheme, which will cost between €1.2 million and €1.43 million and deliver broadband in the Border and maritime areas of the county, including Gweedore, Aranmore Island, Glencolmcille, Castlefinn, St. Johnston and Lifford, by the end of December. Full co-operation from the Department has been forthcoming to ensure the scheme succeeds. While teething problems have arisen, I understand the project is progressing and wireless broadband coverage will extend to 99% of the area covered by the scheme. The cost is relatively low and there will be considerable advantages in terms of attracting inward investment to some of the most geographically isolated areas of the west.

While I understand some of the concerns raised by Senators, we must work together to ensure the Minister and his Department are allowed to roll out the broadband scheme, as agreed in the programme for Government. I have full confidence that this will be the case.

The cost of broadband may concern consumers. As Senators are aware, broadband services have become very affordable with prices to the consumer now below the European Union average. Broadband is widely available at between €20 and €30 per month, as a combination of competition and regulation drives prices down. Ireland's current low ranking in the take-up league table for broadband is the result of the launch of the DSL service by Eircom being delayed by approximately 18 months and the lack of competition from cable broadband.

While I had major concerns about Eircom's ability to roll out broadband, the company appears to have woken up in the past six to months and its roll-out programme for providing broadband services in rural towns and villages is working in many areas. Many small towns and villages have access to broadband because Eircom decided to roll out the service, for which it is ultimately responsible. The Government has intervened to provide additional assistance where it is not economically feasible for a private company to deliver a service.

The Minister should ensure there is competition in the market for all consumers in all areas in order that prices for broadband remain competitive and are not increased. When the national broadband scheme is rolled out, broadband services will be available and will help people in many rural areas to avail of the scheme.

Henry McGarvey, an entrepreneur with Donegal links who was working for a large company in the United States contacted the IDA when he decided to establish a unit of his company's operations in County Donegal. As a result of his initiative, almost 600 jobs were created in the county. Several weeks ago, Mr. McGarvey spoke at a breakfast conference in the Shelbourne Hotel, a diaspora project aimed at attracting people to return to County Donegal. In his address he noted that the quality of the broadband service in areas of County Donegal, including Letterkenny and other towns, was better than that available in upstate New York. I commend the Minister and his Department.

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

I call Senator Shane Ross.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I understand the Minister would like to speak. He is welcome to use some of the time available to me to respond to the points Senators have raised.

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

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank Senator Ross. I will respond to Senators for two or three minutes.

The key point in the Government amendment is that the position in regard to broadband continues to improve. It is difficult to believe someone would question that statement given the statistics available to us. While I am aware that figures can be used in different ways, the bald statistics show that at the start of 2005, 3% of households had broadband. At the start of 2006, the figure had increased to roughly 7% and, depending on the measure used, 15.5% of households had broadband access by mid-2007. If one includes, mobile access, the figure is closer to 17%. In recognising this improvement we must not rest on our laurels because further progress is necessary.

I commend the authors of the motion on instigating this debate on crucial infrastructure for the social and economic development of the country. The question for debate is how we will hasten ongoing improvement in broadband. This is a complex area on which one cannot make snap or easy judgments. It is a fast-changing sector in which a range of different technologies can be applied, including 3G, wireless and fixed line, the last of which includes a variety of methods for delivering service to customers. One of the reasons Ireland lags behind other countries is the absence of competition in the market. Following the sale of the State telephone company, the privatised company, for a variety of reasons, did not invest in its network and the development of broadband. At the same time, the cable network was experiencing difficult times and little investment was made in the network. Our poor performance was due to this lack of competition.

One of the reasons for recent improvements is that we are entering a more competitive phase, which I welcome. I will encourage, support and develop this process, not only with regard to the cable company and incumbent telephone company — this would only create competition in urban areas where two thirds of the population live — but also with regard to wireless, 3G, satellite and other technologies to ensure the dispersed, less accessible rural population secures access to broadband services. It is not easy to run a fibre to every single farmhouse in the country. It is easier to do that in Japan as people live in apartments and one can run a fibre right up through a 20 storey building at much reduced costs. We have different circumstances but we have the potential to deliver different solutions that provide higher speed.

The issue is about percentage cover to the country but we have to move on from that. Through the use of the national broadband scheme we cannot have a situation where any house in the country is left behind. We must have ubiquitous all-round broadband approval. I hope that is one of key improvements on which we are able to deliver in 2008. We move then to the issue of bandwidth and the issue of price. We must ensure we have a much higher bandwidth and lower costs. The current position where many of us are paying a mobile phone bill, a fixed line rental bill and a broadband bill is intolerable. We should ensure, through encouraging competition between those different operators, all of whom are very profitable and have large capital resources, they battle to get our services and in those circumstances bring the price down and the bandwidth up. That is the key development. I will not rule out any suggestion any wise Senator may have as to how we encourage that, be that State investment or by means of regulation. We should recognise we are improving but we need to go much further.

I commend the Government's amendment in that regard recognising the reality locally and recognising our aspirations.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister for putting in a pretty unorthodox performance. I have never known two Ministers to address the House on any issue of Private Members' Business but he is welcome to do so.

I am not happy with the response. The overwhelming flavour of the response was one of complacency. What I find so extraordinary, not about the terms of the amendment because Governments do those sorts of things and consider they have to, is that the defence that has been put in has been one that we are improving. Of course, we are improving. One cannot do anything but improve if one has such a diabolical performance to begin with. This time last year when we tabled a similar motion the figures were staggeringly bad. I am sorry I did not research the Minister's reply of this time last year. I read some of the debate but I did not read the Minister's reply. Today the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, said:

To put this in context, at the start of 2005 only 3% of the population were broadband subscribers and the figure stood at 7% at the start of 2006. To achieve 18% by the end of 2007 is significant progress by any measure.

Of course it is progress. It is a multiple of six but it is still a diabolical performance and it should be an awful lot better but it is not. I will not quote the statistics the Minister's deputy quoted earlier but on every statistic we are lagging far behind virtually every modern economy in the world and we are congratulating ourselves on doing that because we are not lagging as far behind as we were previously. This is playing the statistics in a way that is unacceptable.

The message has gone out and we are getting it back, not just from Mr. McElligott, head of eBay, who has been quoted widely because he was quoted in the newspapers, but on a quieter basis from multinationals around the world, especially US firms, that Ireland is not e-savvy, so to speak. That is the most dangerous message that could possibly go out. It is going out because it is justified, not because it is unjustified. To say we have improved a little just clouds the issue of where we are in the stark statistics. We were so bad previously and we are still very bad. That is the reality. We have not seen the sense of urgency I wanted to see in this debate. Instead we have celebrated mediocrity.

The Minister is aware of this and, to some extent, it is difficult for him because he is defending a regime which existed before him. One cannot expect him in six months to have righted the wrongs of what went before. I was disappointed that when he replied he gave us no facts, figures or targets. The future, as he said, is what is important. I was struck by what Senator Callanan said but he is caught in a hole. He is on our side but he must vote the other way. It is pretty obvious and it often happens and he is very skilful at doing it. That is fine and let him vote the other way.

What the Minister's reply lacked were facts, figures, targets and commitments. This debate has been noteworthy, not just tonight but always, in that Government's replies have been aspirational. The tenor is that we hope we will be able to do this, we should do the other and this is what we ought to do. What I was hoping to hear from the Minister was a commitment that we will be in an all-Ireland situation, as mentioned by Senator Burke, by this time next year or at the end of 2009, that the funds and the political will will be in place to do that and that he will not come back to the House with the same story in two years' time when I table this motion again.

I am not quiet so enamoured of the commitments made about next generation broadband. The Minister is right and he recognises the importance of it. We have lost the last generation. We have just lost that battle. We are so far behind we are just playing catch-up and we will probably never catch up properly. Next generation is important but it is dangerous to say we are preparing a draft policy paper on that issue — it is too late to do that — and that we are setting up a national advisory forum of experts. We have heard all this before. I can do without the experts, the forums and the advisers. Let us have decisions. Let us simply get down to it and do it now. That is what I had hoped to see in this debate and that is why I will call for a vote. That is why I find the attitude of Government and its members is not convincing. It is apologetic. I do not think they are convinced of it themselves. At the end of the day we need commitments and we need to vote against the Government simply and solely to give it a reality check.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 24 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Peter Callanan, Ivor Callely, Ciarán Cannon, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, Cecilia Keaveney, Lisa McDonald, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 19 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Dominic Hannigan, Nicky McFadden, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Joe O'Toole and Shane Ross.

Amendment declared carried.

Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.