Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
65. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the steps he is taking to provide high speed broadband services in urban areas; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18650/09]
Deputy Eamon Ryan: The provision of broadband is generally a matter for the service providers. The Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, is responsible for regulating the telecommunications sector. ComReg is charged with promoting competition, encouraging efficient investment in infrastructure and promoting innovation.
Urban areas, because of the density of population, residential homes and commercial businesses, tend to be well served by competing service providers. While no specific data is available on broadband services in urban areas, the combination of policy, investment and regulatory interventions has helped to facilitate the development of the market to the point where over 62% of Irish households and 83% of Irish SMEs now have a broadband connection.
It can be assumed that these penetration levels are higher in urban areas. According to ComReg’s fourth quarter key data report, 68% of business subscriptions in Ireland are in the 2–10 mbps range while 25% are in the 1–2 mbps range. Some 60% of residential subscriptions in Ireland are in the 2–10 mbps range while 35% are in the 1–2 mbps range. Higher speeds, in some cases up to 50 mbps, are also available to residential and SME customers in urban areas. For example, speeds of up to 24 mbps are available from DSL providers, 50 mbps products are available from fibre operators and 20 mbps products are available from cable operators.
The competition that currently exists in urban areas has been facilitated by a series of policy, investment and regulatory interventions. In addition, the Department has undertaken a variety of initiatives to improve broadband coverage nationwide, with particular focus on the provision of high speed broadband in urban areas by way of the metropolitan area networks, MANs, programme. Phase 1 of the MANs programme has delivered fibre optic networks to 27 towns and cities throughout the country. All 27 networks are operational and open for business.
Under phase II of the MANs programme, 59 of 60 MANs which provide open access networks to 65 towns across the country are now completed. It is hoped that the final network of the phase II programme will be completed in early 2010. The phase II MANs, which are now complete, are available to service operators under an interim management arrangement. A contract for a full management services agreement for the phase II MANs towns is expected to be signed shortly. This will further enhance the potential for high-speed broadband in urban areas.
Deputy Simon Coveney: I thank the Minister for his response. I concede that the number of people accessing broadband in Ireland has continued to increase. However, we face a huge challenge in terms of providing the next generation speeds required by companies, first and foremost in urban centres, if we are to be competitive with other countries.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. Is the management contract in place yet for MANs phase II? If not, why not? We have been waiting for almost a year now, since the preferred tender was chosen, E-Net. The Minister made a number of commitments last year following his consultation paper on next generation networks and their delivery. He said there would be open access fibre connections in place for all new buildings in Ireland. Is that happening? It was to happen by the end of last year. The Minister said there would be open access to all State-owned ducting infrastructure to lay fibre and that this would be available at an affordable price for companies. Is that happening? I am not aware it is. He said the target for schools was 100 mbps. What progress has been made on that since and how much State money is being spent on it? These questions relate to announcements the Minister has made, but on which he has not followed through. Perhaps he will give us an update on the situation now.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I appreciate the Deputy’s earlier comments and agree with him on the need for high-speed broadband, which will be crucial infrastructure for the development of our economy. It is important to remember that 70% of houses have a computer and this is one of our difficulties. We need to expand not just our broadband but the whole digitalisation of our economy and society and to continue to ramp up speeds.
I expect the management service contract to which the Deputy referred to be signed and concluded within a short number of weeks. The reason for the delay is simple, namely to ensure we get value for money for the taxpayer. It is an extensive, detailed and lengthy 15-year contract and——
In terms of next generation networks, the Department is working at full stretch in terms of how to deliver open access fibre in our planning regulations. It is working with the National Roads Authority, the rail companies and other State bodies to map out our State ducting and is working with the telecommunications industry to see how best we can provide these networks on a local access basis. We are committed to that and working towards it.
The situation is similar with regard to schools’ broadband. I see this as one of the most crucial developments. We are renegotiating and re-entering into contracts catering for the 4,000 schools that have broadband. We will return with improved broadband and are looking at specific schools where we intend to ramp up immediately — this year — to 100 mbps. I hope to announce details of that shortly.
Currently, backhaul speeds are appallingly slow and getting slower daily. This is a major challenge for small businesses throughout the country. The State owns a web of broadband fibre throughout the country. In my parish there are three separate broadband cables owned by the State within 500 yards of each other, but none of them are connected up. We still do not have a map of where these networks are — unless the Minister has such a map — or information on the connectivity or lack of it between the State agencies that own this fibre. I cannot get my hands on such a map. The Minister has spoken about going a step further with regard to State-owned ducting, but we do not have a national map available of the State-owned fibre. If we had, we could at least see what the challenge was in that regard. When will we see open access and connectivity to the fibre network that is already in State control and when will we see an improvement in the backhaul speeds?
Deputy Eamon Ryan: In terms of backhaul, there is State-owned infrastructure in use that is effective and offers very fast backhaul speed, for example, the like of the ESB or CIE networks being used to provide backhaul.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: Existing State infrastructure is being used in that fashion. In terms of developments since we published the paper last year, I should have mentioned earlier some of the real developments on the ground. We have a ship steaming towards Ireland currently to lay a cable connecting Ireland to North America, Project Kevlin, which will run from the north west around to the east coast and provide further high speed international connectivity and backhaul connectivity in this country. Therefore, real investments are being made. Multi-million significant investment will continue to provide high speed backhaul services, but we need to go further. The volume of traffic and the needs and demands as we go on YouTube, mobile phones and use ever more data at home and view television and other materials on-line mean we will see significant increased ramping up. That will bring into use our metropolitan area networks. It will require us to use the National Roads Authority network, the An Bord Gáis and RPA networks and other State ducting, be it in sewers, waste pipelines or whatever infrastructure.
Deputy Liz McManus: When the Minister was in opposition, he was very critical of the MANs project. I presume he is now very familiar with how it has worked out in different parts of the country. With regard to the MANs project in Wexford, will the Minister indicate the extent of the take-up among customers? Is the Minister aware there has been a very low level of customer take-up and that the charges on these customers is very high? Taking Wexford as an example, will the Minister tell us what the experience has been with regard to take-up and costs for individual customers?
Deputy Eamon Ryan: I expressed concern for technical reasons. There was real difficulty about how to provide the last mile access and the backhaul. I always acknowledged that these were long-term investments and that the fibre on open access would be widely used and that is starting to happen. I do not want to refer to any particular commercial contract because there are a series of new customers going onto the MANs but one of our largest mobile telephone companies is making a statement for the future by entering into a detailed contract with a management service company on those first phase MANs to start providing that last mile access and link into the MANs. These are long-term investments and such is the speed and increase in data traffic volumes ahead of what anyone expected that the fibre network will be a major long-term asset. That is starting to happen.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: We should acknowledge that it is still difficult to get the volume of business to provide access and backhaul in the smaller MANs where the population is small but I believe they are the right valuable long-term investment.
Deputy Simon Coveney: A series of questions on broadband have been tabled but not grouped. Is the Department considering State intervention to purchase Eircom or Eircom infrastructure to try to improve State involvement in wholesale broadband provision? A “Yes” or “No” answer will do.
Deputy Eamon Ryan: People underestimate the strength of our companies. I am much more confident now, despite its difficult economic situation and the challenging environment, that Eircom is a robust, sound company that will be able to make the investments.
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