Seanad debates

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Adjournment Matters

Telecommunications Services Provision

6:55 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for taking the time to deal with this matter which relates to an area at Courtbrack, which is less than 15 miles from Cork city and approximately four miles from Blarney. There are over 250 houses there but it has inadequate telephone lines and broadband, as well as insufficient access to mobile phone reception. There is a letter from Eircom, dated 15 April, which indicates the company will not do anything about this.

There are three old telephone exchanges servicing Courtbrack, with one at Dunoughmore to the west, one at Grenagh to the north and one at Blarney to the east. This area is at the end of the line for each of these exchanges. The problem is that over the past ten years there has been a number of new houses built, and there are over 250 families in the area. One housing estate includes more than 50 houses built over the past four to five years. Nobody has access to any service. The road runs along the River Shournagh and there were a number of serious accidents on a morning when roads were icy but nobody could access emergency services. It took quite a while before somebody could get access to communications, as mobile phones did not work in the area either. I ask that the issue be reviewed. Matehy is not far away and it has been included in the outline broadband roll-out launched in the past few weeks by the Minister but Courtbrack has been excluded.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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Having listened to Senator Burke I wonder if there is something particular about Courtbrack which I should consider. To be honest, the matter has not been brought to my attention before today but as a result of Senator Burke's remarks, I will examine it. The Senator is already aware that Ireland's telecommunication's market has been liberalised since 1999 and has developed into a well-regulated market, supporting a multiplicity of commercial operators providing services over a diverse range of technology platforms. The State is not a service provider in the market and can only intervene in cases of demonstrable market failure.

Thanks largely to significant commercial investment, we have witnessed considerable progress in recent years in terms of both coverage levels and improved speeds. However, much of this has been confined to the main urban centres. The Government's national broadband plan, which I published last year, aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring high-speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses, and this will be achieved by providing a policy and regulatory framework that assists in accelerating and incentivising commercial investment and a State-led intervention for areas where it is not commercial for the market to invest.

Since publication of the plan, fixed-line and wireless telecommunications providers in Ireland have accelerated the roll-out of high-speed services and are now investing €2 billion in services and broadband coverage across Ireland. The extent of coverage and quality of service significantly exceeds the targets to which industry committed at the time the plan was published. On 25 April I signalled the Government's commitment to a major telecoms network build-out to rural Ireland with fibre as the foundation for future-proof broadband services as part of the State intervention under the national plan. This commitment is a clear expression of the Government's determination to address the connectivity challenge in rural Ireland in a meaningful and sustainable way. The fibre build-out will be part of an end-to-end strategy that will address all parts of Ireland which cannot access commercial high-speed broadband services. Central to the strategy will be a fibre build-out to locations in every county in the State identified as having no existing or planned enabling fibre network.

As Senator Burke knows, I published a preliminary county-by-county list of towns which takes in more than 1,000 locations. I should point out that this list is only indicative and is based on information currently available. It is subject to revision upon completion of the comprehensive mapping process currently under way. Further locations, such as Courtbrack, may be identified as the process continues. Similarly, it may be determined that some of the locations will be addressed by the commercial sector and will therefore not require State intervention. From Senator Burke's comments, that does not seem likely in this case.

A comprehensive implementation strategy containing details of all the proposed elements of the State intervention, along with the outcome of the mapping process, will be published for public consultation later this year. It is my intention to ensure that by delivering an end-to-end market intervention with fibre as a core component, all parts of rural Ireland, including Courtbrack, will enjoy opportunities similar to those in urban areas. In committing to a fibre build-out at the heart of this strategy, the Government is acknowledging that broadband is the key infrastructure of the 21st century.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. I wrote to the Department some time ago and I awaited a response on the roll-out of broadband. I fully accept that the Department and Minister have done much work in the area, which is welcome.

This area has seen a number of new estates being built and normally we think about water or sewerage services, although we insert no stipulation regarding the provision of telecommunications services. This is an unusual case, as there is an inadequate phone line and the area cannot access mobile phone coverage. It is a major issue for approximately 250 families, many of which have young people in college. One person working for the ambulance service bought a new house and sometimes he cannot be contacted when he is on-call.

He is at a huge disadvantage and he is very concerned about it. I have left a copy of the Eircom letter with the Minister. I ask him to ensure that it would be looked at and if at all possible that something would be done to try to bring it in under the remit of the broadband roll-out but also to get Eircom involved. I know it is not physically possible to force Eircom to do it but representations will be made. I thank the Minister for his contribution.

7:05 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Minister, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Dublin South West, Labour)
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I entirely agree with Senator Burke that in the 21st century high-quality connectivity is as important a part of the infrastructure as are energy, roads or water. It is puzzling that a new community should be left bereft of the services Senator Burke has outlined. All I can say is that we have two very radical initiatives under way which I think will be revolutionary in their impact in the provision of high-quality connectivity to rural Ireland. The first is the legislation that I took through this House some six weeks ago in the matter of enabling the ESB, in conjunction with the leading telecommunications company, to roll out fibre to parts of rural Ireland using its own supply infrastructure. That is a very important initiative and we will make an announcement in a couple of weeks on that.

The second initiative is the announcement of last week where the Government has committed €500 million to the direct State intervention to provide such quality connectivity. Unfortunately, we have to go through state aid rules. We have to do a detailed mapping exercise in order to satisfy the Commission that we can make a State intervention of this order. I have the letter from Senator Burke in respect of Courtbrack and I will be glad to examine it and see what I can do.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister very much.