Telephone Capital Bill, 1977: Second Stage (Resumed).

Thursday, 13 October 1977

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 300 No. 4

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Minister for Posts and Telegraphs (Mr. Faulkner): Information on Padraig Faulkner  Zoom on Padraig Faulkner  Deputy Corish referred also to the categories of applications for telephones which are afforded priority treatment and suggested that they be publicised more. The priority [479] categories have been outlined in this House on a number of occasions. They have remained largely unchanged for quite a considerable time. I shall quote them again. The following is the list of priority categories—I should like to point out that they are not necessarily in order of relative priority—services involving safety of life, that is hospitals, ambulances, fire brigades and life saving generally; Members of the Oireachtas and diplomats, public services, including central and local authorities; persons engaged in health services including doctors and nurses; clergymen engaged on parochial duties; industrial, commercial and other undertakings providing a significant amount of employment; businesses and professions having a particular need for telephone service; national unions and associations; existing subscribers moving to new premises. Then there are the other applications in respect of which really exceptional need can be shown, for example, on health or distress grounds. We would all agree that services involving safety of life should have top priority.

I should like to concentrate as much of the priority as possible in present circumstances on industrial undertakings capable of or likely to provide employment. At present priority is given where they employ at least four people. I take a particular interest in that aspect of it. It will be understood that, even where people could claim to be on this priority list, there can be circumstances where it is not possible to provide them with the service as quickly as we would like. There may be technical or other reasons making it impossible at a given time to make the service available. However, we will do the best we possibly can in relation to any particular priority situation.

I might point out that at present about 45 per cent of applicants are within the priority area. Were I to accede to the number of requests I receive to include others on the priority list it would negative the whole idea of priority and we would be left with a situation in which everybody was on the same level with no priority list at all.

[480] The House will appreciate that because of these priority lists, which are generally acceptable, there can be many people who are not on them and whose telephones are not installed as quickly as they might be otherwise because of people on the priority list moving in ahead of them. There may be occasions when, for technical reasons—perhaps there are not cables available, they are over-loaded or some other reason—it may not be possible to provide a service at a given time. I and other Members of this House know that this is not always understood by the public. I do not know how many people have come to me explaining how very simple it would be to instal a telephone for them because telephone wires happened to be running at the bottom of their garden; or perhaps because the neighbour next door was leaving, the telephone was being taken out, the neighbour wanted nobody more than this person to get the telephone. They expected it to be installed in spite of the fact that, perhaps they had not applied for it until they knew the neighbour was leaving when perhaps somebody down the road had been waiting three years for installation.

I want merely to explain the problems we encounter. I know every Deputy is well aware of them. We would be anxious to be in a position to provide a telephone when an application comes in. It is towards this desirable objective that we hope to move but it will take some considerable time before that goal is achieved.

Quite a number of Deputies referred to the need for kiosks in new housing estates. They pleaded that, in deciding whether a kiosk should be provided, the social need as well as economic considerations be taken into account. The settled policy for many years has been that kiosks are provided in urban areas only where they are likely to pay their way and where existing public telephones in the area are regarded as inadequate. Of course, this does not mean that the Department wait to provide a kiosk in a new housing estate until the level of the development is such that a kiosk in the area would be immediately self-supporting. [481] The policy is interpreted fairly liberally. If it is clear from the housing development plans for an area that a kiosk would be likely to pay its way within a reasonable period, and there are no other kiosks within a reasonable distance, then one is provided once a fair number of houses in the estate have been occupied. However, I would not favour a change from the basic policy of providing kiosks in urban areas only where they are likely to pay their way. It is true to say that this policy has stood the test of time and, by and large, has enabled the demand for public telephone facilities in towns and cities to be fairly met.

While dealing with kiosks, I might refer to the rural kiosk policy on which there has been a considerable amount of comment. This policy in rural areas has been followed since 1969. In general, kiosks are erected in rural areas in replacement of telephone booths in rural post offices. Eight hundred and seventy seven kiosks were provided under this programme. There are still a number of telephones in rural post offices where kiosks have not been provided. It is felt generally that they have been provided in all the areas they are most likely to be remunerative.

With regard to the provision of the telephone kiosk under guarantee it is reasonable to expect the local authority to help out. At present kiosks are available in most rural areas where there are post offices. A case was made for the provision of kiosks in out-of-the-way places. All Deputies would agree that were I to ask each and every one of them to tell me of an area in their constituency out-of-the-way and in need of kiosks, every one of them would be able to cite me 40 or 50 instances. The question is where would we stop? In circumstances where a local authority feel that they should provide this sort of social amenity it is only reasonable to expect that they would help out.

Deputy O'Donnell urged that the maximum amount of equipment and materials used in the telephone service should be manufactured at home. The present position is that approximately 50 per cent of the telephones and stores [482] used by us are manufactured in Ireland. I agreed with the Deputy that this trend should be encouraged. I have no doubt that my colleague, the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy, is aware of the potential of job creation in the development of the telecommunications manufacturing industry and he will have my support in any efforts to encourage further expansion of the industry. In addition, I hope that the Irish companies who are presently engaged in the manufacture of telecommunications products will endeavour so far as possible to develop their range of such products so that in the future we can buy a higher percentage of what they produce.

Deputy Smith asked that the priority categories be reviewed. He was particularly concerned about the need of new business for telephones at the outset in order to develop their employment potential. As I mentioned earlier, under existing procedures businesses providing full-time employment for four or more people are afforded priority in the provision of telephones. With regard to some types of business where a telephone is crucial, priority is afforded from the outset irrespective of the employment content.

As I said earlier, I should like to be in a position to give priority treatment to all business applications. The priority categories at present account for almost 45 per cent of all applications and any significant increase in these categories would lessen the value of priority treatment for all. The result would be that the more urgent applications would receive less prompt treatment than at present and this would be undesirable particularly as the service is not always provided as promptly as I would like.

Deputy Smith also referred to the delay in the proposed conversion of Roscrea exchange to automatic working. This delay is due to the need for extra trunk equipment in Portlaoise which cannot be installed until a new exchange building has been provided there. Other exchanges which are dependent on extension of Portlaoise exchange were referred to; Deputy Enright mentioned Birr and Rathdowney [483] and Deputy Murphy mentioned Baltinglass.

Portlaoise is the main trunk switching centre for a large number of exchanges in the midlands. Plans were initiated more than seven years ago to provide a new trunk exchange but there was considerable difficulty in obtaining a suitable site until a large building became available and was acquired in 1973. The Commissioners of Public Works advised that major structural alterations were necessary to render this building suitable for the trunk and other equipment it was to house. The planning of these alterations proved much more difficult than had been expected and earlier this year the commissioners decided to carry out an interim scheme. Work on this scheme is now in progress. The commissioners expect that accommodation for the equipment will be ready early next year and, on that basis, the installation of equipment is expected to be completed early in 1979. Conversion to automatic working of the telephone exchange in Roscrea and the other exchanges in the general area will follow as soon as possible after that. I have dealt with this matter in some detail to explain exactly what are the problems.

Deputy Briscoe mentioned the need for a public telephone in Rutland Grove. I shall write to the Deputy about this matter. Both he and Deputy Moore suggested that where telephones cannot be installed in new housing estates because of lack of underground cable a telephone kiosk should be provided and served by overhead lines. I have considerable sympathy with this suggestion. It may be taken that if the lack of underground cable was the only barrier to the provision of a telephone kiosk and where such a kiosk could be served by an overhead route this would be done. Very often in new housing estates it is quite difficult to obtain a site for a kiosk. There is the problem of locating the most central point for the kiosk and frequently the development of footpaths lags behind the construction of the houses. Where conditions necessary for the provision of a kiosk are met it is very rare that the erection of the [484] kiosk is held up because of lack of underground cables. It is simply because there are other difficulties and perhaps in some instances the Deputies themselves might be able to help out in relation to them.

Deputy Briscoe referred to the problem of vandalism. This matter was raised earlier by Deputy Corish and I have replied to it. A number of other Deputies also expressed concern. In my comments before Question Time in reply to the matter raised by Deputy Corish I explained the steps that had been taken by my Department to deal with this problem. The extent of the concern expressed here about this matter indicates a need for the Department to devote more time to it.

Deputy Vivion de Valera made a very thoughtful contribution to the debate. He referred, as did others, to the matter of subsidising telephones for underprivileged groups. This is a matter for the Minister for Social Welfare in the first instance and I will bring the various comments made to his attention. Deputy de Valera also referred to the problem facing the Department because they are not in a position to put aside money from profits for their capital requirements. This is so. However, I should like to underline the fact that this does not mean that the telephone system has not been profitable. For 40 years it was profitable and it was only in recent years because of the high capital borrowing and high inflation that the situation arose where losses occurred. I expect this will continue for some time but I can visualise in the future the telephone service returning to profitability.

Deputy de Valera also referred to the employment situation and I should like to make a few remarks on that. He said he feared that the extra jobs provided under the capital programme would not be needed when the development programme was completed. The five-year programme that will be made possible under this Bill represents one stage in the development of the telephone service. Further programmes necessitating more rapid development in future decades will be required and more intensive automation [485] will reduce the manpower needs, but in our development situation at this stage there is no risk for many years ahead of the problem of overstaffing arising. However, the Deputy made an important point that will need to be borne in mind in the future.

I would also like to stress that a good telecommunications service is of very considerable assistance in helping to provide further employment in other spheres. As I mentioned in my introductory speech it is expected that about 7,000 additional jobs will be created under the development programme for which the extra capital is proposed. Most of the extra jobs will arise on the engineering side, in technician, installer, labour and trainee grades. There will be more jobs for engineering graduates too and some in the clerical and administrative grades. The extra jobs will be created as quickly as possible but there are limits to the numbers that can be usefully absorbed at any given time. The aim is that there will be a build-up of recruitment over the five year period according as extra staff can be used productively.

It is perhaps rather naïve to suggest, as appears to have been suggested, that the 7,000 new jobs to be provided as a result of this Bill, could not be counted as part of the Government's job creation programme. I suggest that the initiation of a Bill is hardly sufficient in itself to create jobs. The jobs will result from the effective implementation of the development works made possible by the Bill. I hope to ensure that these works are effectively implemented. I have no doubt that should I fail to do so that I will be criticised for being unsuccessful. It should be obvious that it is the actual implementation of the programme and the manner in which it is carried out that will effectively provide these extra jobs.

Deputies Callanan, Enright and Filgate suggested that rural areas are not getting their fair share of telepone installations. They referred to the long waiting lists in many rural areas. I am afraid that, unfortunately, there are very long waiting lists in urban areas as well. I see from a list that I [486] have here that some of the oldest applications refer to the Dublin 01 area. As far as I can see approximately half of those on the waiting lists are in Dublin and Cork and the other half in the remainder of the country. I do not want to boast about the fact that there are people in Dublin waiting for telephones. I am simply underlining the fact that the problem applies equally to the city and the larger urban areas as it does to the rural areas. I would also like to point out that most of the oldest applications in the rural area are those involving abnormal construction work. Steps have been initiated to accelerate the clearance of the backlog of long line cases which have built up over the last few years. The aim is to reach the stage where such applications will be dealt with under normal clearances. I hope that with the increased recruitment which is now going ahead that that will be reached over large areas of the country by the end of next year.

Deputy Filgate referred to the inability to make calls from coin boxes to places such as America. Unfortunately this is the case because of the technical limitations of the existing box. I would like to refer to my opening speech in which I indicated that it is hoped to introduce a new type of coin box during the programme period and that it will be possible to make calls to all countries from the new box.

Deputy C. Murphy asked me about Arklow exchange. A major extension is planned but it requires a new building. In the meantime a mobile exchange will be brought into service probably about the middle of next year. The Arklow/Dublin radio link, to which Deputy Murphy referred last night, has been a problem for some time now. Breaks in transmission occur in the link due to fading of the signal in certain weather conditions. Arrangements have been made to replace this link by one of greater capacity which will be routed over a different transmission path and have improved safeguards against fading. The necessary equipment is on order and the new link is expected to be in service about the end of next year. [487] In the meantime, the existing link is being given special maintenance attention.

Deputy W. O'Brien asked about the prospects of providing an automatic telephone service at Abbeyfeale, Newcastle West and Rathkeale. Abbeyfeale exchange will be converted to automatic working before the end of this year and the other two exchanges in about two-and-a-half years. The Deputy also referred to the delay in re-erecting the kiosk at Adare. This kiosk was demolished by a motor vehicle last year. The county council and the Adare Tidy Towns Association asked to have the kiosk erected on a different site. Finally, a site suggested by the county council was generally agreed as the most suitable. Arrangements were on hand to provide the kiosk there recently but the Tidy Towns Association asked that it be re-erected on the original site. All I can say is that my Department are prepared to re-erect the kiosk either on the original site or on the site recommended by the council but we will defer to local preferences as between the two sites. We have already advised both the county council and the Tidy Towns Association of the situation. We will erect the kiosk promptly when the site question has been resolved locally.

Deputy Moore referred to the poor service on the telephone installation in Leinster House. The present private automatic branch exchange serving Leinster House is now fully loaded and cannot be extended further. It is expected that an order for a new installation will be placed in the near future but I am afraid it is likely to be 12 or 18 months before the new installation is in service. We will, however, deal with it as promptly as we can when the order is received. Deputy J. Leonard asked when the Emyvale exchange will be converted to automatic working. It is expected that Emyvale will be converted to automatic next year.

I hope I have dealt with all the main points raised. I would like to say again that I am grateful to all the Deputies [488] who have contributed to the useful and wide ranging debate on the Bill. My Department will consider in detail the many criticisms, suggestions and comments that have been made. The number and variety of these reflect the importance attached by Deputies on both sides of the House to the telephone service and a general consensus about the need for continued improvement and expansion of the service. Enactment of the Bill I believe is a necessary step towards achieving this. I commend the Second Stage of the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 19th October, 1977.

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