Seanad debates

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

7:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing this Adjournment debate. I appreciate the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, who is taking this on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

This issue might not be pertinent to everybody but it is pertinent to all those who live in Ulster and it impacts on other people from time to time. For a long time, if I put my mobile telephone on the television in my kitchen, the signal was picked up by UK Cellnet and every time I received a call, I was charged €1.50 per minute in the good old days of proper roaming charges. I accept many of the operators now offer packages such as Vodafone Passport through which such charges are eliminated. If I have such a package, I can receive a call in the North, Donegal, Dundalk, on the train or in the car without incurring an additional charge. I can make a call without paying an international premium now also. However, I have a gripe, which is as serious a gripe as anyone can have. If Vodafone Ireland were to have coverage of the island of Ireland we would not have a problem. My price plan entailing 100, 200 or 750 minutes would be fine because it would cover me on the island of Ireland.

I am picking Vodafone as an entity with which I am acquainted as opposed to suggesting it is different from other providers. My difficulty is that if I am in an area either in the Republic or in the North where there is no Vodafone coverage then I need to choose another supplier, in many cases Vodafone UK, for example. I may only use 600 minutes out of my 750 minutes in a month, but I might use 100 minutes in the Vodafone UK area. I am then charged per minute for those calls. As a person who buys a package I should have the right to have a package that embraces my needs as a consumer.

Much work is ongoing in an attempt to eliminate international tariffs and to have common tariffs throughout Europe. I raise the issue to get an update on the status of the generality of the European project — the equalisation across Europe of charges. I know that pertains to people leaving here and going on holidays anywhere. The Vodafone terms and conditions stipulate:

Any bundle minutes included in the eligible Pay Monthly price plans cannot be used whilst roaming. Whilst customers on the eligible Pay Monthly plans making a call back to Ireland will receive their normal out of bundle domestic rates as split by peak/off-peak and on-net/off-net, prepay customers will receive the on-net rates as split by peak and off-peak only.

In other words if I am in the North, Vodafone does not consider it Ireland and therefore I will get charged.

While I could have got numerous people in Donegal to say this, I found the following anonymous postings on the Internet:

I notice this when I am in Dundalk, whichever way the wind blows I suppose, you could be on Orange, Vodafone or T Mobile UK . . . It is a nuisance . . . People living on borders in any country must really be fed up with this.

I live just outside Dundalk about three miles from the Border and my phone is constantly changing over to the UK networks.

I understand it is possible to turn a phone to manual and choose not to do that. It took me a few years to discover that, which cost me a fortune. If a service provider cannot provide a service where it should be providing a service, there should be a link within the company in the UK or Ireland to ensure the customer is not at a loss for that.

I know that the former Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dempsey, said that the abolition of what he described as unfair charges would help encourage an all-Ireland approach to business. We talk about the cost of electricity, gas and rents. For me communication charges are central for business. Speaking not as a businessperson but as an ordinary citizen I would like to see the service providers moving further and faster in driving the agenda of an all-Ireland and all-Europe tariff. It seems that Irish consumers are being fleeced by the organisations, but that may not be parliamentary language. We seem to be exploited to a level that is different from those in any other country.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am replying to this matter on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. This question essentially deals with the cost of mobile phones on the island of Ireland and across the EU.

The telecommunications industry in Ireland is a fully liberalised private sector industry, overseen by an independent regulator ComReg. ComReg acts in accordance with a European regulatory framework. In 2007 an EU regulation was introduced to place a ceiling on the wholesale and retail prices that could be charged for roaming calls. Measures were also introduced for the provision of transparent information on charges for those making roaming calls. Ireland strongly supported the introduction of this regulation and specifically raised the importance of roaming at the 2006 spring Council of EU leaders.

One of the key factors necessitating regulation of roaming within the EU was that exorbitant prices were being charged by some European operators. As this was essentially a cross-border service, involving the networks of the home and visited country, it was difficult for domestic regulators to do much about it, particularly if the bulk of the costs were being incurred by charges imposed by the operator in the visited country. ComReg is responsible for ensuring that Irish operators are compliant with this EU regulation.

The European Commission proposes to extend the regulation to apply to SMS text messages at the wholesale and retail level and also to regulate data other than SMS at the wholesale level. Ireland has supported this initiative by the Commission to enhance consumer protection. The Commission also proposes that mechanisms be put in place to warn people in advance of them getting large bills for using the web while roaming. Again Ireland strongly supports this initiative. The regulation is co-decision based, requiring the agreement of the member states in the European Council and the consent of the European Parliament. It is anticipated that negotiations may be complete before the upcoming European Parliament elections.

There is a cost to the visited and host operator associated with roaming. This is essentially the cost incurred in conveying the call, text or Internet data over the networks of the home operator and the visited country. It is therefore the aim at EU level to ensure that operators get a fair price and European consumers get a fair deal. We need to acknowledge that much progress has been achieved with consumers all over Europe enjoying lower roaming charges.

The price set in the roaming regulation is not fixed. The price of any roaming call is allowed to vary but cannot exceed a price ceiling. Ireland specifically ensured that this principle went into the regulation in order to protect our even lower roaming charges on this island and between Ireland and the UK, which were voluntarily introduced ahead of the EU regulation by operators on the island following pressure from Ministers North and South. Customers can still opt for individual roaming packages offered by their operator.

As I said earlier ComReg has responsibility for enforcing the roaming regulation. It also provides information on its website www.callcosts.ie that allows users to compare mobile phone costs. In addition ComReg has also published information on its website on the compliance of operators with the existing regulations. Information published by ComReg in this quarter indicates that Irish retail roaming prices for calls made and received are in compliance with the regulatory price ceiling of 46 cent and 22 cent respectively excluding VAT. I again thank the Senator for raising this matter.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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Is the Minister of State aware that the only time a person is not supposed to use a mobile phone is while airborne? However, even that is changing. Currently people who live along the Border and need to transgress the Border to get home on a daily basis are being discriminated against. I ask the Minister of State to bring to the Minister's attention the paragraph in the reply that stated: "Ireland specifically ensured that this principle went into the regulation in order to protect our even-lower roaming charges on this island and between Ireland and the UK, which were voluntarily introduced ahead of the EU regulation." I ask the Minister of State to bring one simple message back to the Minister. The issue of an all-Ireland package needs to be revisited so that for people on a monthly package it would not matter whether the calls are in the North or South, as they would all be embraced in their monthly bundle.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will do that.