Committee on Finance. - Telephone Capital Bill, 1951—Second Stage.

Wednesday, 4 July 1951

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 126 No. 6

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[938]Minister for Posts and Telegraphs (Mr. Childers): Information on Erskine Hamilton Childers  Zoom on Erskine Hamilton Childers  I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. This Telephone Capital Bill is the seventh since the transfer of services in 1922. Funds for the development of the telephone service, i.e., for extension of the system as distinct from its operation and maintenance, are provided by Telephone Capital Acts which authorise the Minister for Finance to issue out of the Central Fund from time to time such sums not exceeding a stipulated amount as may be required for the development of the service. Funds provided by these Acts represent an investment by the State in the telephone service, the security for which consists of the assets of the service in plant, apparatus and property generally. Repayment of capital is made by way of terminable annuities, the money for which is voted annually in the Post Office Estimates. The annual charges in respect of interest on capital and for depreciation are charged against the earnings of the service.

The Telephone Capital Act, 1946, provided a sum of £6,000,000 which was estimated to be required for capital works in the period to 31st March, 1951. At that date an estimated £1,170,000 remained unspent, which will, however, suffice for little more than half the current financial year as this year's programme is estimated to cost £2,000,000.

At the beginning of the current year, therefore, close on £5,000,000 of the sum approved under the 1946 Act had been spent. This does not indicate, as might be assumed, that the programme visualised when the Act was passed has been largely carried through. Far from it. In 1946 it was contemplated that new main auto-manual exchanges at trunk centres, rural automatic exchanges and rural semi-automatic exchanges would be provided on a very extensive scale in the ensuing five years and that trunk cables to the north-west, to the north and to the southeast would have been laid, as well as the main southern cable. Such progress was not found possible for various [939] reasons—mainly shortage of engineers, difficulties in connection with building, and concentration of effort in connecting new subscribers' lines. Expenditure under some headings was accordingly much short of the estimate made in 1946, but the saving was largely offset by: (a) the rapid rise in wages and cost of stores; (b) extension of the Dublin automatic exchanges on a bigger scale than had been originally contemplated; and (c) building up of stocks of engineering stores, the value of stocks being £394,000 more at 31st March, 1951, than it had been five years earlier.

The greatest progress made since 1946 has been in the connection of new subscribers' lines. The growth in numbers of telephones in service has been continuous since 1923. Using round figures, the number of exchange stations grew from 18,000 in 1923 to 30,000 in 1932—an increase of 12,000 phones. By 1939 there were in service 43,000 stations, an increase of 13,000 over 1932. To the great credit of the Government of that day and to the officers of the Department the number grew during the war and by 1948 had reached 60,000—an increase of 17,000. Since then progress has been rapid and there are now 83,000 stations or roughly one to every eight dwellings or one to every 36 persons. This is a very considerable achievement by any standard of comparison and it is in no way diminished by the continued existence of a lengthy waiting list for telephones. However, the number of telephones is, in relation to the population, very small indeed, compared with other countries. The national income per head in 1939, when compared with that of other countries, placed us among the 11 most well-off nations. But whatever our place on the income list may be now, and assuming a further increase in telephone stations this year, we have from one-fourth to one-tenth of the phones per 100 of population that countries such as U.S.A., Great Britain, British Commonwealth States, Scandinavia and Switzerland have. We have about half as many as The Netherlands, Belgium and France. All these facts emphasise the urgency of [940] development because young people in the country particularly are beginning, for good or ill, to dislike isolation and communications of every kind are now regarded as essential to modern civilisation.

Trunk calls increased from 1,000,000 in 1923 to 2,000,000 in 1932, to 3,500,000 in 1939, to 7,500,000 in 1947 and to 9,400,000 in 1950. Local calls advanced from 16,000,000 in 1923 to 23,000,000 in 1932, to 32,000,000 in 1939, to 52,000,000 in 1947 and to 68,000,000 in 1950. The trunk system was not adequate for the volume of traffic handled in 1946 and, notwithstanding the addition of approximately 12,000 circuit miles of trunks since that year, the rate of provision of extra trunks has not been on a scale sufficient to cope with increased traffic and raise the standard of service to the level desired.

The main southern coaxial cable to which my predecessor, Deputy Little, referred when the 1946 Bill was under consideration, has been almost completely laid. When the necessary equipment is installed within the next year or so there will be no delay to calls over the cable route, which runs from Dublin to Cork via Limerick, with spurs from Portlaoighise to Waterford and Athlone. Two additional cables were laid in collaboration with the British Post Office on the cross-channel route in 1947 and the number of circuits on this route was increased from 16 to 48 in the five-year period.

One of the most notable and necessary developments in recent years has been the extensive use of motor transport to increase output of engineering gangs and linesmen. The transport fleet has been increased from two vans, four truck and 34 motor-cycle combinations in 1945 to 165 vans and 111 trucks at present. The use of motor cycle combinations has been discontinued.

It was not possible to secure new buildings at the rapid rate that would have been necessary to fulfil the planned programme. The process of selection and acquisition of sites is inevitably protracted and much time is taken in the detailed planning and the erection of buildings for new exchanges. Much progress has been made, however, in this direction and [941] the fruits of the work done will be increasingly evident in the next few years as building projects mature in greater numbers. In the past five-year period new automatic exchanges were provded at Bray, Malahide, Swords, Castleisland and Mitchelstown. A new automatic and trunk exchange was installed at Cork, all subscribers' lines being converted to automatic working, and a similar exchange will be opened next month for Dundalk.

Some 13 main trunk exchanges were enlarged and indeed the capacity of almost every exchange in the country, with the exception of the very smallest, had to be increased in the five-year period because of the growth in the number of subscribers' lines and traffic.

The engineering staff at all levels was greatly augmented and the telephone service is now one of the biggest industries in the country. Since the end of the war the telephone service has given employment to an additional 1,200 men and 450 women and the total number now employed amounts to 3,460. With a progressive outlook towards telephone development there is every reason to hope that these numbers, representing workers employed at good wages on service of high value to the community and without cost to the taxpayer, will continue to grow.

The aim of this new Bill is to provide the funds required to continue, during the next five years, the programme of development of the telephone service outlined in 1946 by the then Minister, Mr. Little. The amount for which authority is sought is £8,000,000, the largest sum yet sought for capital development of the telephone service. Estimated expenditure during the five-year period based on current wage and price levels is given under the following main headings:—

Exchanges, new and extended 1,705,000
Trunk circuits 3,170,000
Subscribers' circuits 3,250,000
Buildings 625,000
Kiosks and call offices 385,000

These sums total £9,135,000. Allowing for the sum of £1,170,000 which was on hand on 1st April last, the net sum [942] needed is estimated at £7,965,000, which has been rounded up to £8,000,000.

Although it is hoped in the years ahead to connect great numbers of new subscribers and ultimately to clear the waiting list, emphasis must be laid too in increasing measure on the extension of exchange and trunk facilities to cater for the increasing volume of traffic. It is not enough to provide the telephone for those who want it; the standard of service afforded is a main preoccupation of the Department and when traffic grows beyond the capacity of the system to handle it efficiently and speedily, there is bound to be well-founded public complaint.

The provision of a uniform no delay standard of service on trunk calls is the ultimate objective and it has been brought nearer by the work on the new southern coaxial cable to which I have already referred. The laying of another new coaxial cable started last week in co-operation with the British Post Office to connect Dublin and Belfast. These trunk cables constitute the backbone of a proposed trunk system which it is hoped will adequately serve the country's needs for a long time to come.

On the cross-channel service, despite the trebling in recent years of the number of circuits available, delay to calls is again increasing because of the rapid growth of traffic. Arrangements have been made in collaboration with the British Post Office for further increase in the number of cross-channel circuits by fitting special submarine “repeaters” on two of the existing cables and by installing additional equipment at each end. When this work is finished in about two years' time there will be 108 cross-channel circuits as compared with 47 now and 16 five years ago.

The cable projects which I have mentioned will eliminate delay on the routes served, namely, between Dublin and Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Athlone, Belfast and Great Britain and, in the case of internal cables, between intermediate places on the cable routes. It is proposed also to extend circuits from the cable beyond Athlone, by means of carrier equipment to serve the main western [943] centres and it is hoped also within the five-year term to lay an independent cable to the north-west.

For those places not on the cable routes a great deal has to be done in the way of providing extra physical or carrier circuits. In many places there is heavy delay to calls between towns which are relatively a short distance apart. The arrears of work to be done in the erection of short distance trunk circuits are so heavy that I am advised that it is likely to be some years before they can be fully overtaken. Everything possible will be done to speed the work.

The sum of £1,705,000 proposed to be spent on exchanges includes provision for the new trunk exchange at St. Andrew Street, Dublin, for auto-manual exchanges at ten main provincial trunk centres, for new automatic and semi - automatic exchanges at selected places throughout the country and for further extension of the Dublin automatic system. Taking account of expenditure on buildings, well over £2,000,000 is proposed to be expended on exchanges. Marked improvement in the standard of service to subscribers and widespread provision of automatic service are two of the benefits which will flow from this programme.

To enable the maximum engineering effort to be concentrated on connecting new subscribers' lines, my predecessor, Mr. Everett, temporarily suspended work in 1948 on the scheme announced in 1946 for providing a telephone in every post office. Work on this scheme was resumed in 1950. There still remain close on 700 post offices to be dealt with. The sum for which authority is sought in this Bill includes provision for completion of the scheme.

I turn now to the finances of the telephone service. The total capital expenditure on the service from its initiation (including expenditure by the former British Administration) up to 31st March, 1939, was £2,607,000. Between 1939 and 1946 a further £758,000 was expended, making the total investment at 31st March, 1946, £3,365,000. It is expected that from funds provided by the 1946 Act and [944] under this Bill a total of £14,000,000 will have been spent between 1946 and 1956. It will be evident, therefore, that the amount of cheap pre-war plant available is a very rapidly diminishing factor and that the costs of the plant as a whole approximate very closely to present costs, or those which will obtain in the next five years. The present cost of engineering stores is on average about 180 per cent., and other items are as much as 200 to 600 per cent. above the pre-war level and salaries and wages have also advanced very substantially. Charges to the subscribers, on the other hand, are only 5 per cent. above 1939. In the circumstances it is not surprising to find that the profit on the telephone service has fallen from £298,000 in 1945-46—the peak profit year—to £92,000 in 1950-51. This latter figure allows for back payment of wages, amounting to about £30,000, in accordance with the arbitration award.

The new wage rates operated for only part of last year, but this year they will apply throughout the full year. Because of this additional charge, together with the higher maintenance and depreciation charges which are expected to arise from the expansion of the system, and additional interest payments on moneys invested in the telephone service, it is estimated that the service would show a loss this year of about £40,000 and of progressively greater sums in the succeeding years if existing charges were to remain undisturbed. I have already announced that the present addition of 5 per cent. to subscribers' accounts will be raised to 25 per cent.

It is evident that the programme of heavy capital expenditure yet to be carried out in order to provide an efficient telephone service for all who wish to use it will greatly increase the burden on telephone finances, and if the charges were to remain at 5 per cent. above pre-war level, a deficit would be certain to develop, and the service would become a burden on the taxpayer. For this reason the last Government decided to increase the rates of telephone charge, and arrangements are being made to implement that decision.

[945] Deputies will have observed that the maximum period for which annuities may be struck is set out in this Bill as being 25 years instead of 20 years, as in previous Acts. This change has been suggested by the fact that an increasing volume of plant is being placed underground in cables instead of overhead on poles, and the average life of plant is longer. The estimated life of plant to be paid for out of moneys provided by this Bill will be approximately 29 years.

I would like to say to those people who have applied for and still await telephones that the Department is doing its best to bring the service to all who require it and is alive to the inconvenience to many and the hardship to some who have to wait a long time for telephones. This state of affairs is not peculiar to this country— it is common to all telephone administrations in the years since the war— and in so far as it is possible to do so, every effort will continue to be made to overhaul the arrears of work in this field. The Department is dealing systematically with the clearance of waiting applications, and, though views may differ as to the manner in which this should be done, I would ask waiting applicants to appreciate that the Department's sole concern is to make the best use it can of its resources in serving as many as possible with the least delay to all concerned.

I must, however, sound a note of warning in regard to not merely the rate of connection of new subscribers' lines but to the likely fulfilment of the telephone programme generally. In the recent debate on the Estimate for my Department I mentioned that the present staff of professional engineers in the service of the Department is too small to enable all phases of telephone development to be proceeded with as rapidly as I would like. I have since looked further into the position and have confirmed my view that this shortage is serious and that indeed unless it can be remedied there will be no possibility of making the rapid progress necessary to give, within a reasonable time, a satisfactory standard of telephone service to all who wish to be subscribers, while paying that attention to both long and short-term [946] planning which is needed to ensure orderly and economically sound development.

I believe in being frank about deficiencies in development and compromises made for the sake of trying to please everyone. Many complaints are received from time to time about delays in answering “0”, “30” and “31” calling signals in Dublin. It is not, unfortunately, possible to “queue” these signals, so the one appearing first may be unlucky enough to be the last answered. When signals are being answered immediately they appear this does not cause much trouble, but if there is some delay—as may happen with a sudden rush of calls—there may be inordinate delay to a few calls.

Since 1946 the number of switchboards in the Dublin trunk exchange to enable callers dialling “0”, “30” and “31” to be answered speedily has been increased from 90 to 140. The improvement which this increase would have effected has been offset by the rapid growth of traffic. A new building to house a post office and trunk exchange is being erected in St. Andrew Street.

This new trunk exchange is expected to be completed early in 1953, and I hope that some of the switchboards will be available for service next summer. When the new exchange is completed we expect to have the southern and northern trunk cables in operation together with many additional cross-Channel circuits. The growth in traffic and the addition of that traffic, which has been more or less suppressed by delay on trunk lines will, I feel sure, fully engage the new exchange. I am not going to promise that there will be a better service on “0”, “30” and “31” when the St. Andrew Street exchange is brought into use. All I can say is that I hope it will not be any worse than it is now.

The previous Government took the view that subscribers' lines should be joined at the expense of more fundamental planning and trunk circuit development.

The day must come when we either secure more electrical engineers or, remembering our duties to those who succeed us, slow down the joining of [947] subscribers' lines and speed up the planning of exchanges, new circuits, trunks and so forth.

I take this opportunity of advising young men who are considering a career to follow that the Post Office will for many years ahead provide excellent opportunities for all suitable electrical engineers who wish to enter its service.

I should not conclude without saying that I am conscious of the very formidable achievements of the service in the years since the war which are the fruits of hard work by those of all grades concerned in the operation of the service whether at the desk, at the switchboard or in the field. I am confident that the same spirit of enthusiasm and service to the public will ensure the successful continuance of the development programme.

I should say, too, that the fact that the present Bill was prepared by the previous Government and readily adopted by the present Government is sufficient evidence that the development of the telephone service is earnestly desired by all Parties in this House. I can assure Deputies that any suggestions they may make for the greater efficiency of the service will receive careful consideration and will be approached by me in no Party spirit.

Mr. O'Hara: Information on Thomas O'Hara  Zoom on Thomas O'Hara  May I ask the Minister who is entitled to priority in the matter of getting in the telephone, what sections of the people are entitled to priority?

Mr. Childers: Information on Erskine Hamilton Childers  Zoom on Erskine Hamilton Childers  If the Deputy wishes me to intervene at this stage, I would like to say that the priorities consist of persons who require telephones from the point of view of urgent social or administrative purposes such as doctors, chemists, veterinary surgeons, dentists, hospitals, journalists, clergymen and public utility companies such as the Electricity Supply Board. There are a number of categories which include registered hotels, firms giving a considerable amount of employment and so on. Every effort is made to provide telephones for people in these [948] categories. Delays very often occur which may not seem natural to an inquirer but which are due to engineering difficulties. I should like to call attention to this, that the fact that telephone wires and poles pass the doors of a house or an institution does not automatically mean that it is very easy to lay on a telephone in that place. During my very short experience in the Department, I have myself seen cases where there was good reason for delay, even though, to the ordinary public, it might appear entirely natural to attach a subscriber's line within 48 hours of application being made.

Mr. O'Hara: Information on Thomas O'Hara  Zoom on Thomas O'Hara  Would the Minister consider the case of an honorary secretary to an agricultural show committee?

Mr. Childers: Information on Erskine Hamilton Childers  Zoom on Erskine Hamilton Childers  I should like to inform the Deputy that if we were to start doing that we would get into all sorts of difficulties. We would run into difficulties with every kind of society. The advice which I have received from the chief engineers and other principal officers in the Department is that if they can keep going attaching subscribers' lines in a particular area it does save time in comparison with making diversions for one reason or another.

The Deputy will be aware that great pressure is brought to bear on the Minister in regard to this matter, not only in connection with priority telephones but, I am sorry to say, in connection with telephones in which there is no priority. The Minister has great difficulty in resisting such demands and always will have. The only thing the Minister can do is to use his judgment as best he may and try to prevent interruptions of general development by refusing, as far as possible, demands for telephones that are not genuine. An example would be of a person applying for a telephone for a lodging house which had been in existence for seven years, even though, during that time, the proprietor had never made an application, in comparison with a new registered guest house where the people concerned made application immediately because they wanted it for their business.

[949]Mr. O. Flanagan: Information on Oliver J. Flanagan  Zoom on Oliver J. Flanagan  Is the Minister aware of the general dissatisfaction that exists even amongst his own constituents and my constituents in the small village of Horseleap? That village is in Westmeath, but is on the borders of Offaly. I understand that very strong representations have been made for a public telephone for that village. In view of the fact that the Minister represents the constituency, I am quite sure he will endeavour, as far as possible, to see that the local demand which has been made from that area will be granted with the least possible delay.

Mr. Childers: Information on Erskine Hamilton Childers  Zoom on Erskine Hamilton Childers  It is in this year's programme.

Mr. O. Flanagan: Information on Oliver J. Flanagan  Zoom on Oliver J. Flanagan  Thanks very much. I hope the Minister will make a special effort to see that the execution of the work there is carried out with the least possible delay. I should like further to ask whether there is a regulation in his Department to the effect that any employer of more than seven persons is entitled to a telephone, no matter what type of work he may be carrying on. Take, for example, the case of an undertaker. He may have on his premises three or four carpenters who are employed making coffins; [950] he may have two hearses and two employees as drivers. He also may have one or two yardmen on the premises. I should like to know from the Minister if a person of that kind would be entitled to get special consideration.

I should like to refer to the list which the Minister read out when replying to Deputy O'Hara. He mentioned a number of professional people. I noticed that solicitors were not included in the list. In my opinion, a telephone is absolutely essential for solicitors, and I would say particularly so in the case of young solicitors who are starting a practice in a country town. They certainly would have the greatest difficulty in carrying on their profession if they had not a telephone. I mention this matter because I know quite a number of solicitors, some of them in my own constituency and others outside of it, who have made repeated applications for the installation of telephones. They have done so not only in the past few weeks, but in the past three or five years. I move the adjournment of the debate.

Debate adjourned.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Thursday, 5th July, 1951.

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