Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
81. Deputy Simon Coveney asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if the International Advisory Forum on next generation networks has reported; if so, if he will publish the findings; if he will publish a detailed timetable of the action he proposes to take on promotion of the roll-out of high speed infrastructure; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10901/08]
Deputy Eamon Ryan: My Department has prepared a draft policy paper on next generation broadband. The paper reviews current communications infrastructure policy and analyses policy options in the light of industry developments regarding the optimum role for the Government in the planning and roll-out of next generation broadband. Two weeks ago I convened a meeting of the expert International Advisory Forum to examine the paper. The forum critiqued draft options and recommendations on how to meet the challenges that lay ahead. The key challenge is getting higher speed broadband at lower cost to more subscribers. The forum members have provided valuable feedback. They supported the broad trust of the document. They also offered some additional recommendations and advice on the future trends of the telecommunications and ICT industries and proposed that certain suggestions be explored further. The draft paper is being updated to reflect the forum’s contribution. It will then be published for public consultation.
Deputy Simon Coveney: We are back to the issue of broadband again. Why did the Minister believe it was appropriate to appoint an independent advisory forum to advise him on his own policy paper when we could have debated it here in the House? The Opposition tabled a motion on broadband for that very purpose. The Minister said at the time that he supported a serious non-party political debate on the issue. That very week he gave his policy paper to an independent forum he had set up, yet he did not consider it sufficiently important to allow the House to debate the issue. Why did he make that decision?
My understanding is that following the forum consultation process, there will be another period of consultation with stakeholders. Will the Minister set out the timeframe for that consultation? When will we see publication of the up-to-date report and for how long does the Minister plan to provide, in terms of weeks or months, for the consultation period with stakeholders?
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I opted for an independent advisory forum because such a forum worked in the past. An international advisory forum was used in 1999 and it came up with excellent advice which led to the investment in the Global Crossing infrastructure which proved to be of enormous benefit to the country. It is a process that has proved its worth.
The Deputy will be aware that there are significant commercial interests at play. We are dealing with a complex, fast changing market. It is difficult to find people in this country who do not have a vested interest one way or the other in the commercial outcome of the policy decisions we make. In the circumstances it is right to use experts to act as a sounding board on the policy direction we are taking because they do not have a commercial interest in the outcome or the development. It was a group of experts from mobile, fixed line, regulatory, government service, European, English, American and Asian backgrounds.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: And Ireland. We must place ourselves in the international context, be ambitious and look to jump ahead. In that context, it is right for us to look at the international picture to find out what is going on and draw on that expertise which is freely given for the benefit of the country in policy formulation. I intend to adapt the draft paper for publication in mid-April. There will then be a period of further consultation here as well as with the wider public. I would welcome such a debate. While I welcome a debate at Question Time, more time should be provided in the Dáil. Subject to agreement with the Whips, I am happy to agree to wider consultation. We must be careful to recognise that this is a fast-changing market. We must look for an evolving policy in responding to the technological and market developments that are occurring. We must be careful not to attach ourselves to one policy position that does not take into account developments in the computer and telecommunications industries and the broadcasting media, all of which are converging in the new digital age.
Deputy Simon Coveney: The Minister has put his finger on the problem. This is a fast-changing market but the Government is not providing leadership. That is the issue. There are decisions the Minister could take, on which he does not need to engage in consultation. For example, to establish what is available he could conduct an audit of telecommunications infrastructure, something we have been demanding for some time. Will the Minister begin an audit instead as there is no need for a forum? Was there any representation on the forum for those businesses which require high speed broadband to be competitive? Will the Minister indicate when we can expect a Government action plan for the roll-out of next generation broadband and will it do so with the private sector?
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