Thursday, 9 March 2006
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Kitt: I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter and the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy John Browne, for attending.
Broadband is very much in the news following the recent publication of a report on its provision by the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. Tuam, County Galway, was unfortunate that some time ago an attempt was made to provide broadband to the town through the ESB’s power lines. When that did not work out, Tuam went to the back of the broadband queue.
Tuam has a growing population with five second level schools and good employment. The Government and the local authority have invested in developing the town’s water and sewerage schemes to attract more industry. Galway County Council is supportive of efforts to secure broadband provision for the town. What disappoints the people of Tuam is when smaller towns in County Galway get a metropolitan area network, MAN. Will the Minister of State give an indication as to when a similar network will be rolled out in Tuam?
Broadband is a vital infrastructure for securing industry. On Tuesday, the Seanad debated the fast-tracking of major strategic infrastructural projects. Broadband is one type of infrastructure that must be fast-tracked. During the week, the difference between speeds for broadband and telephone line Internet use was described on radio as the difference between an electric kettle boiling water against an old-fashioned kettle on a range. I hope the Minister will give Tuam its electric kettle and get broadband to the town as quickly as possible.
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. J. Browne): Broadband is available in Tuam, County Galway. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources sponsors a website, www.broadband.gov.ie, which facilitates consumers locating broadband service providers in their areas. For Tuam, it lists 12 Internet service providers offering broadband on digital subscriber line, DSL, one company offering it via wireless and 11 satellite broadband providers.
The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, is a matter for the private sector. Several years ago, however, it was clear to the Government that the lack of investment by the sector in the necessary infrastructure would inhibit Ireland’s economic competitiveness. An indicative €200 million was set aside under the national development plan for infrastructure developments to enable the provision of services by the private sector. These included projects such as the 1,300 km fibre trunk network built by the ESB along its power transmission lines and the development of DSL broadband by Eircom and Esat BT in several telephone exchanges.
The investments made by the sector, however, were insufficient to meet the demand for broadband. In the absence of real progress the Government decided to expand investment in broadband infrastructure with the launch of the broadband action plan in December 2003 with the objective of making high-speed connectivity available. It encompasses several programme areas, including phase II of the MANs programme, the group broadband scheme and broadband for schools initiatives.
The cornerstones of the programme are the MANs. These high capacity fibre-based networks are being built in major towns and cities, in association with the local and regional authorities. Some 27 MANs were completed on time and under budget under phase I of the programme. The completed networks are managed independently for the State by e-net, the management services entity, and offer wholesale open access to all service providers.
In planning the next phase of the MANs programme, a review of the availability of DSL broadband in the regions showed over 90 towns with a population of 1,500 and over were not being offered a broadband option by the private sector. These towns have been targeted for the provision of MANs under phase II. Several regional towns, including Tuam, already have DSL broadband on offer from the service providers. Priority, therefore, was given to the provision of essential broadband infrastructure in those towns where none existed.
Five towns in County Galway will have MANs constructed under phase II: Athenry, Ballinasloe, Furbo, Gort and Loughrea. The detailed design stage is under way and construction is expected to start over the coming months. The networks should be completed within 12 to 18 months thereafter. Tuam is not part of the current roll-out but may be included in further phases subject to the necessary approvals and Exchequer funding being made available. Galway County Council has submitted a strong case for a MAN to be built in Tuam which is kept under review.
The MANs can deliver bandwidths and speeds many hundred times greater than those available over the telephone networks. They have been designed with the future in mind and will go on delivering high speed broadband for generations to come.
The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources also offers funding assistance for smaller towns and rural communities through the county and group broadband scheme. The scheme is technology-neutral, allowing the community to select the most suitable broadband delivery platform for its area. To date, a total capital investment of €2.19 million has been made in the scheme’s projects in Galway involving a total of €533,000 in grant aid to implement these projects.
A joint industry and Government fund of €18 million has been established for the broadband for schools programme, which will provide schools with broadband during 2006. This is a crucial strand in the strategy of integrating information and communications technology, ICT, into teaching and learning and the Department’s wider vision of promoting the use of broadband technologies in local communities around the country. The construction and installation phase is now under way, and the project is on target for completion within the set timeframe.
The rate of broadband uptake is dependent on a combination of factors including access by the providers to suitable infrastructure, competition between providers and demand conditions in the economy. Demand for broadband is steadily growing every quarter. Since 2004, broadband subscriber numbers have more than doubled and the current take-up is approximately 10,000 users per month. ComReg figures to end-December 2005 are estimated at 250,000.
I extend the apologies of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, as he is out of the country on business. I will bring Senator Kitt’s views on having the MANs project extended to Tuam to the Minister’s attention.
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