Written answers

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment

Covid-19 Pandemic

Darren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
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944. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the engagements he has had with utility companies in an effort to reduce consumer utility bills during the Covid-19 crisis; if he has considered or proposed the introduction of off-peak rates on a permanent basis for telephone, broadband, electricity and gas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6762/20]

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin Bay North, Fine Gael)
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I recognise how vital telecommunications services are to citizens for so many aspects of their dailylives, including remote working and staying in touch with family members during the Covid-19 crisis. I and my officials are also very focussed on the need to ensure that telecommunications customers are sympathetically treated at this very challenging time. In that regard, officials from my Department have been engaging intensively with ComReg and with telecommunications industry.

As the Deputy may be aware, I recently signed regulations enabling ComReg to release additional rights of use for radio spectrum on a temporary basis. This will provide flexibility for mobile network operators to create additional capacity for mobile phone and broadband services and accommodate the increased demand at this time.

In addition, on 15th of April 2020, I announced that all major telecommunications providers have committed to a number of measures to help people stay in touch and work from home during Covid 19 including:

1. Any fixed broadband customers who do not have unlimited usage already as standard will be given the opportunity, if they require, to upgrade their package (which may be on a temporary basis), with their current service provider.

2. Any customer who does not have fixed broadband and who relies solely on mobile access to the Internet will have the opportunity to avail of affordable unlimited mobile data access/package from their service provider.

3. Fair usage policies will not be automatically applied to unlimited fixed and mobile data packages.

4. Service providers may implement appropriate permitted traffic management measures to avoid network congestion.

5. Access to healthcare and educational resource websites identified by the Government will be zero-rated for all customers where technically feasible.

6. So that customers can remain connected during the crisis, service providers will engage with any customer that contacts them who is in financial difficulty as a result of Covid-19 and has difficulty paying their bills to agree the best way of keeping them connected to voice and data.

7. Service Providers will work with ComReg in the event of complaints raised to ComReg by consumers, who consider they are not being treated in accordance with these commitments.

In addition to these measures, operators have also independently implemented further supports for consumers, with one operator recently announcing a range of packages providing unlimited data while another operator has removed all limits on calls, text and data.

In relation to energy utilities, the supply of electricity and gas are also vital services for citizens for so many aspects of their daily lives.  Responsibility for the regulation of electricity and gas markets is a matter for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) which is an independent regulator under domestic and EU regulatory legislation accountable to a Committee of the Oireachtas.  Among the CRU’s responsibilities is that of consumer protection and, given that statutory function, the CRU has pro actively taken several measures to protect domestic consumers in light of the Covid-19 pandemic:

1. One very significant measure is the temporary moratorium on all domestic electricity and gas disconnections until 16 June 2020, prior to which the CRU will further assess the situation.

2. Another measure CRU has taken is to increase emergency credit levels for all gas domestic prepayment customers from €10 to €100, as such customers do not have the options that electricity prepayment customers have, to purchase credit online or over the phone.

3. In general where domestic customers have difficulty paying their electricity or gas bill CRU advises that customers should contact their supplier and seek to come to agreement on a payment plan. The CRU requires suppliers to arrange practical payment plans to assist these customers who have built up arrears and such arrangements must take into account the customer’s circumstances and must be reasonable and affordable.

4. As regards non-domestic customers, CRU has recently implemented a temporary supply suspension scheme for those impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. The scheme is available to Small and Medium Enterprises (SME’s) that have been closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Any customer who opts to enter the scheme will have no energy or network charges billed for their business premises supply point for the duration that the measure is in place.

To further assist customers who are concerned about paying their electricity or gas bill during this time, CRU has provided a suite of useful information on their website which can be accessed at www.cru.ie/home/about-cru/energy/difficulty-paying-your-bill-covid-19/ and which is updated on an ongoing basis. The CRU has indicated that it is continuing to monitor the market and will take action where appropriate to protect customers. 

The Deputy may wish to note that CRU provide a dedicated email address for Oireachtas members, which enables them raise questions directly to CRU at oireachtas@cru.iefor timely direct reply.

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