Wednesday, 10 February 1993
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Sheehan: I thank you most sincerely, Sir, for allowing me an opportunity to raise this very important matter with the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications, Deputy Cowen. I would ask the Minister to reinstate South Coast Community Television to the County Cork coastal region where thousands of viewers have been denied the facility of a multi-channel TV service. Other areas of the country — for example, Galway, home of the former Minister for Communications and now home of the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht — are enjoying a privilege which has been denied to the viewers in south-west County Cork. It is of paramount importance that community groups throughout the country be granted a licence by the Minister. No  company should have a monopoly such as that enjoyed by the company using the MMDS system, who charge a rental of £140 per year. South Coast Community Television charge a rental of between £20 and £30 per year for their services. How can any Minister be so uncharitable as to give such a monopoly to any one group, thus preventing the weakest section of the community — the old, the infirm and the unemployed — from enjoying the same facility as their counterparts on the east coast. How can the Minister allow open competition all along the east coast, while the people in the west and south-west are denied this facility?
The MMDS system is not used in any other European country. It is only in use in Canada and North Africa. Furthermore, MMDS is a microwave system that will prove very unsuitable for valleys and low-lying areas, common terrain in the south-west and the entire west of Ireland. The Fianna Fáil and Labour Parties gave a commitment prior to the election to review national community television services. Why are these two parties now reneging on these promises? I call on the Minister to allow South Coast Community Television to operate, thus restoring equal rights to south-west Cork and the west of Ireland. I would ask the Minister to let common sense prevail.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I shall begin by declaring an interest. I am a subscriber to community TV and I have been a supporter of community TV for a long time. Prior to the election clear commitments were given by Fianna Fáil and Labour for the continuation of community TV in south-west Cork. These promises were quite unequivocal; in fact, there was a commitment given to introduce legislation if necessary. I want that commitment  fully honoured now so that the future of community TV can be secured.
Deputy Sheehan referred to a monopoly. I am against monopolies in principle. It appears that there is a monopoly franchise to the MMDS operation. This is totally wrong. I am not trying to knock out the MMDS operation. They are quite welcome to compete on a level playing field. What I want is open competition; and, if they have faith in their product, I cannot see why they should not agree to that also. The cost factor does arise; it costs me £30 per year. I am not speaking for myself, but there are many poor people who simply cannot afford more than that. The MMDS system involves an installation fee of more than £100 and an annual fee of £150. That is beyond the reach of the poorer people in my constituency. It is also significant that a voluntary group is involved in the provision of community TV and that a commercial operation, making money, is involved in the other system. I have no problem about people being involved in a commercial operation, but they should not be looking for a monopoly to clear everybody else off the pitch.
Essentially, what we are seeking in south west Cork is the same facility as is available in other parts of the country, by way of overspill along the east coast and by way of deflector on the west coast. There was outrage before the election where the previous Minister for Communications, Deputy Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, was instrumental in having the plug pulled on the operation in Carrigaline while 6,000 viewers continued to avail of the facility in her area, Galway West. That was considered to be outrageous discrimination. Now another Minister from the Galway West constituency, Deputy M.D. Higgins, the Minister with responsibility for broadcasting, is presumably enjoying the same facilities that I do not enjoy in my constituency.
Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications (Mr. Cowen): It is not  the case that thousands of viewers in south-west Cork are denied the privilege of multi-channel viewing by my refusal to grant a licence for the transmission of such services in the area. The truth of the matter is that Cork Communications Limited has a licence to relay a multi-channel television service to all homes in the Cork county and the west Waterford area. Due to the constraints of good frequency management, the licence is exclusive and was issued only after an open competition for the franchise. Contrary to the inference of the Deputies in their request for this debate, the situation in west Cork is no different from the situation in Galway. In Galway the MMDS franchise is held by Cablelink (Galway) Limited. No so-called deflector system has been licensed there, no more than there has been in Cork. As far as I am aware, an illegal transmitter in west Cork was closed down recently by its operators following the serving of a court order on the operators under the planning Acts. My information is that the MMDS multi-channel service is available to all those homes in the Cork south-west area which for a very brief period recently were receiving illegal services.
Mr. Cowen: Therefore, it is wrong for the Deputy to say that multi-channel services are not available. They are being provided in an orderly and legal fashion in a part of the radio frequency spectrum which will not prevent or hinder the development of our national television services in the future, be they RTE, Teilifís na Gaelige, or any future national television service independent of RTE services.
Successive Governments examined this problem a number of times in detail, including Governments of which both Deputies were members, and concluded that it would be neither practical nor in the national interest to licence illegal rebroadcasting or deflector systems such as those operated by the South Coast Community TV company to which the Deputies refer. The basic problem with  the deflector systems is that they operate in a part of the UHF frequency band which is governed by an international treaty. Under that treaty there are simply not enough frequencies available to Ireland to enable a nationwide network of deflector transmitters to be established and at the same time meet other national requirements such as RTE's frequency requirements. The fact is that if the non-cabled public want multi-channel television — and all the evidence is that the vast majority of them do — then MMDS seems the only practicable option open to us at present to provide it. The technical and internationally binding constraints on us with regard to the use of the radio frequency spectrum, and particularly that part of it used by deflector systems, are such that we believe it is not possible to legalise them. We simply do not have access to sufficient frequencies — first to allow countrywide operation of community or deflector systems or, second, to give viewers in non-cabled areas something approaching the choice of television programmes that is available in cabled areas and still conserve frequency spectrum — to meet foreseeable developments in Irish broadcasting.
The cost of the service provided by the properly licensed companies such as Cork Communications Ltd. is often compared unfavourably with the illegal deflector services. Usually such comparisons fail to compare like with like. The transmission facility per MMDS cell can cost up to £250,000. There will be up to 29 cells throughout the country. Up to £250 to £300 worth of equipment has to be installed in each subscriber's premises. Members can readily appreciate therefore that the investment required is sizeable by any standards. The annual cost to an MMDS subscriber will approximate to the subscriber charge for the more modern cable systems installed in recent years — that is around £100 to £125 rental per annum.
While the costs are dearer than deflectors, the comparisons made are invalid. The MMDS system is an 11-channel service and MMDS operators must pay licence fees, £20,000 in advance and 5 per cent of the annual rental. They must also pay VAT and copyright fees — obligations  avoided by the deflectors because of their illegal status. Many people complain about the installation charge of between £100 and £125 for MMDS but forget that every deflector subscriber had to have a UHF aerial installed, which, we believe, in many instances cost £100 or more. I appreciate that there has been some controversy about the introduction of MMDS.
Mr. Cowen: I also sympathise with those who had become accustomed to the illegal deflector services. Nevertheless — and, as a lawyer, Deputy O'Keeffe will understand this — I would advise caution against those who pretend that there are any easy solutions to this problem. The MMDS system provides the possibility of a professional high quality multi-channel service on a countrywide basis at a reasonable cost. The service is now available in counties Dublin, Kildare, Louth, Meath, Wexford, Cork, Kerry, Clare, Sligo, Galway, Roscommon and Offaly. I understand that there are in excess of 24,000 subscribers at present.
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