Thursday, 6 July 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I am delighted this matter is being taken, and I want to thank the Acting Chair and the Minister of State, Deputy Smyth for coming in. I want to thank the Minister of State for the work he is doing on the national broadband plan. It is a very ambitious plan, and I know he is very enthusiastic about it. I want to acknowledge that, while I have a difficult situation here, there are broadband connections going on in Roscommon at the moment to several thousand homes and businesses. Several thousand have been connected. I want to be clear on that. This is not a criticism or a suggestion that there is nothing happening. There is stuff happening.
I want to talk about a specific firm, the Hanly Quarries group in Elphin, County Roscommon. I know it very well. It is a producer and supplier of all grades of stone, readymixed concrete, concrete blocks and tarmacadam. At present, it supplies eight county councils with materials, as well as many large construction firms. It has a strong presence in the rural construction market within the midlands and west. With more than 50 years of trading experience, and an annual turnover of €20 million, Hanly Quarries is one of the largest independent employers in the midlands and west. It currently employs 120 full-time employees, and it has a very good track record when it comes to supporting local projects and the community in general.
In recent years, the company has had ongoing issues, particularly with its phone lines going down. This has been due to lightning - our weather has disimproved in that regard, as there is a lot more lightning nowadays than there used to be - but also wear and tear. This year, the company tells me, has been by far the worst in terms of downtime. Since the beginning of the year, its phones have been down for more than 22 business days, and we are just halfway through the year. As a medium for communication and, most importantly, sales, the company's phone lines are its number one source. It is utterly reliant on them, and so far this year the company estimates it has lost €500,000 in turnover due to the issues with landlines, and customers not being able to make contact.
At the moment, the company still has lines down. It has informed me that it has a primary rate interface, PRI system coming into the internal photovoltaic, PV box on site for the exchange. However, maintenance and repair staff from Open Eir have told us that the infrastructure used to service this is antiquated, and parts are no longer being replaced. In fact, they tell the company that they cannot find the parts to replace the existing hardware, new or second-hand. The company has been also told that if the lines go down again, Open Eir will most likely not be able to replace the parts.
As the Minister of State knows, the phone companies are moving to Voice over Internet Protocol, VoIP, which will make PRIs and analog lines redundant. The phone companies are urging us to go this route, but our issue is with broadband speed. The broadband speeds are met, at present, through a radio frequency with Viatel. The best speed that it or any other service provider can provide is 10 MB download and 2 MB upload, which is barely enough to service this business. At present, Hanly Quarries has constant issues with Internet banking when trying to do weekly wages. This is a shocking scenario, where firms are in the middle doing the weekly wages on the system, and then all of a sudden it stops, or is not good enough to deliver.I do not know what we can do for the firm but it is a huge problem for it. It is a significant employer in our area. It is one of the biggest and it needs the best phone line and best broadband service available. I await the Minister of State's reply. I acknowledge the work he is doing on the broadband situation.
The national broadband plan is the largest capital project in the State. I have the honour of being responsible for delivering it. We are connecting or passing approximately 8,000 homes per month at the moment. Half of all homes, businesses and farms in rural Ireland will have gigabit internet available by next year. The project is moving at speed. I will bring the House up to date about what is happening in County Roscommon and so on.
The State intervention element of the national broadband plan is being delivered by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, under a contract that came into effect in 2020. The contract provides for the roll-out of a high-speed and future-proof broadband network, primarily to rural areas. The intervention area will reach 1.1 million people who live and work in more than 560,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms and 679 schools. The minimum speed offered by the national broadband plan is 500 megabits. The Senator stated that the firm in County Roscommon is only able to get 10 megabits. This is 50 times faster. At the moment infrastructure works have been commenced on more than 321,900 premises and main build works have been completed on 175,600. Strategic connection points are a key element of the national broadband plan. They mean broadband is available at various hubs, such as community centres, GAA clubs or schools. At the moment there are 938 strategic connection points and of those 655 are schools. High-speed broadband services have been installed in them. The project is managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development under my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. NBI has advised that as of 23 June 2023, broadband had been installed in 655 schools by NBI and of those 441 had already been connected to retail service providers by the Department of Education and are now live.
There are 39,700 premises in County Roscommon, almost exactly half of which, or 19,300, are in the amber area of the broadband map. That means they cannot receive good quality broadband through a commercial service and the State will provide for them. The other half have broadband available through commercial providers. The Government investment in County Roscommon to improve broadband is €76 million. As of 30 June, 7,706 premises in the intervention area have been passed and are available for immediate connection. "Passed" means that fibre runs past the curb of the home. If the occupiers want to connect, it is guaranteed to take a maximum of ten days. That means 40% of homes in rural County Roscommon have high-speed broadband available to them. There are 2,218 live connections on the new fibre network in County Roscommon which means that 29% of people to whom it was offered have taken it up so far. I expect it will go up to approximately 80%. In County Roscommon all nine broadband connection points have been installed and 32 schools in Roscommon have had connections installed to date for educational access.
That outlines the State intervention. There is also commercial intervention. Three companies, namely Eir, SIRO and Virgin Media are bringing gigabit internet across the country and SIRO is providing gigabit internet services to more than 4,000 premises in County Roscommon. SIRO is a joint venture of Vodafone and ESB Networks. Virgin media is providing gigabit internet access to more than 1,000 premises and Eir is providing it to 16,000 premises. Part of the law I brought forward earlier this year, the
Communications Regulation and Digital Hub Development Agency (Amendment) Act 2023, requires universal broadband services be provided to everyone. In the same way there was a universal service obligation for land line phones, we are legislating for adequate and affordable internet for everyone. I will decide what the minimum speed is and I will require providers to ensure there are no black spots. At the rate we are going, delivery of access will be complete for rural areas before urban areas.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. I acknowledge that good work is happening in County Roscommon. The provision of €76 million for broadband is a significant development and we are all delighted about the schools. However, the owner of this business and his family have been told by NBI that it will take up to three years for the roll-out to come to their area. It has been rolled out to the national school down the road which is 350m away. It is not feasible for the business to continue unless it gets a broadband service as quickly as possible. It has made a strong case and made it clear that it is prepareed to help if need be. The business has been told that the poles have been marked out and are ready to go, which is good news. The business has made it clear - it does a lot of infrastructural work - that it is more than willing on the infrastructural side to put its shoulder to the wheel and help in that regard. I hope we will be able to do something to get this business out of this situation. I know the Minister of State will speak to me about it. We need to look after businesses like this one.
High-speed broadband has become a basic utility, like having water or electricity. I am told by estate agents that it is the number one feature for selling a house in rural Ireland. It is critical to any business. I understand that. This is a seven year roll-out plan. It started in 2020 and will be complete at the end of 2026. I can imagine the disappointment of people whose premises is scheduled to be connected in 2026 but that is the rate at which it is being delivered. It will be delivered on time and within budget. The options for anyone who needs to do something in the meantime are fixed wireless access or low-earth orbit satellite connection. They are the two stop-gap solutions for people waiting to get a connection. If the Senator gives me the contact details of the company, I would be happy to liaise with it directly or have my office work with it to see if something can be done in the meantime.