Wednesday, 8 July 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the House. In the short time he has been in office, the Minister has brought considerable energy to his role, which has been greatly appreciated by Senators on all sides.
The advent of the Internet has been one of the most significant changes to have impacted on our lives in the past 20 years. Internet access is now an integral part of modern life. It simplifies activities which were once time consuming or difficult, including paying bills, purchasing clothes and food, winning new business and staying in contact with friends, family, employees or other businesses. Unfortunately, access to this essential service is still dependent on where one lives. While access is largely universal in urban areas, this is not yet the case in rural areas. As with postal and telephone services, a universal service obligation should be in place to ensure every homeowner in Ireland has access to quality broadband.
Earlier this year, the Minister announced the national broadband strategy which all of us welcomed. In summary, the strategy seeks to provide 100% coverage in rural areas to enable those living in such areas to have access to broadband by the end of 2010. While the objective of the strategy is supported by all sides, certain issues arise with regard to delivering on this aspiration. The purpose of this debate is to obtain a restatement of the Government’s commitment to reach the 2010 target and explore how we could extend the strategy to ensure that all homes in rural areas are served.
The national broadband scheme needs to go further than at present. Proposals such as those tabled by Irish Rural Link can help to make practical improvements for rural areas and improve rural life in several key areas, for instance, in retaining and generating rural employment, assisting with communication and combating the isolation experienced by many rural dwellers.
The need to extend rural broadband services is obvious to me from the work I have been doing in the north east. In the past six months, I have carried out a detailed survey about life for families living in rural parts of County Meath. I intend to launch the results of the survey in the next few weeks but in advance of doing so I can refer to some of the clear messages emerging from it. The research is based on responses from 700 families living in rural parts of County Meath, from rural cottages along the border with Ulster through to dormer bungalows at the edges of the greater Dublin conurbation.
Some very interesting facts have emerged about rural life in County Meath and, by extension, life for people living in other rural areas. Almost one quarter of respondents work in or from the home in non-farming jobs. The individuals in question are computer literate and would benefit greatly from faster Internet access. In addition, 8% of the rural population of County Meath comes from outside the State. While this figure is lower than the figure of 10% obtaining in urban areas, it is still a high proportion of the population. Many of these individuals consider fast Internet access essential to allow them to maintain contact with their loved ones in their home countries. This can be done through services such as MSN Messenger or Google Talk, or through facilities such as Skype, which allows people to have video calls on-line with friends and family.
Communications tools such as these can be used both by new arrivals and long-term residents who want to keep in touch with family and friends who have moved overseas. This would be of major benefit to rural communities. One of the findings of my survey is that social isolation is a major issue in rural areas. More than one third of respondents — 35% — see their neighbours just once per month and, in some cases, the frequency of social contact is even lower. The ability to avail of state-of-the-art communications services has the potential to help many people combat the isolation they feel in their daily lives.
I do not accept that people of a certain age or background would not use the Internet to access services. The near universal use of mobile telephones and texting shows that good technology will be adopted by one and all. This applies also to the Skype service. My father, who is aged in his 80s, uses Skype to communicate with his grandchildren and writes on the walls of his Facebook page. My point is that lack of access rather than age prevents people from using the Internet.
While the national broadband strategy goes some way towards ensuring that rural dwellers have access to broadband, it must be viewed as a first step. Ireland’s rural population is dispersed, hence providing a service to it is difficult, but some issues presented by the proposed mobile wireless broadband service will be offered by the chosen service provider 3. First, there are technological limitations. For instance, the speed will probably be limited to less than 2 mbs/sec. That is hardly reassuring for someone wanting to take on a company based in Japan where speeds of up to 100 mbs/sec are now becoming standard.
According to ComReg, mobile broadband is only suitable for people who are not heavy users and do not require a high-end broadband service. In addition, mobile broadband may be unable to support some of the tasks that many people require, such as VOIP and games. Skype will be difficult to use unless people sign up for 3’s service and they will have to pay an additional premium to do so.
There are also issues concerning timescales. This strategy is meant to be in place by 2010, but in order to meet these deadlines we will need to erect 390 telecommunications masts around the country. Currently, however, only 230 such masts are in place, so a further 160 will need to work their way through the planning process. As any politician knows, many people are concerned about these masts so it will be difficult to get the planning permission through in time. Does the Minister really expect the planning process for these new masts to be straightforward? I am worried that this will not be the case. We need to know if the Minister has a plan B. Is his commitment to deliver 100% access absolute or just an aspiration?
I note that up to 12,000 homes and businesses will not be served by the national broadband strategy. I welcome the announced revision and amendments to the proposed rural development programme in that it specifically states how those 12,000 businesses will be provided with broadband. These businesses fall outside the national broadband service area. In essence, the Department is going to incentivise the provision of satellite broadband services to these homes and businesses. It will probably be done by way of a grant to cover the installation costs up to a maximum figure, but can the Minister tell us what the maximum will be? The cost of installing a dish can be as high as €800 per dwelling so the cost of covering those 12,000 units would entail an investment by the Department of almost €10 million. Will that money be forthcoming?
I also query the issue of access to the satellite system. One of the suppliers, Avanti, is having trouble in providing sufficient capacity for the potential number of users. Does the Minister consider that there will be sufficient satellite capacity to deliver the broadband service likely to be requested by thousands of additional users before the end of 2010?
As regards the availability of funds, up to €250 million has been put towards this programme, both from the EU and the Government. Will additional funds be available to provide broadband to the aforementioned 12,000 homes and businesses? Will additional funds be available for alternatives if it is clear that we cannot reach 100% coverage by the chosen strategy?
Broadband access is essential for the maintenance of a proper quality of life in rural areas. It can help to combat isolation and promote communication. In addition, it can help to maintain and increase rural employment. The national broadband strategy goes a long way towards meeting the needs of rural Ireland, but we need a reinstatement of the Minister’s personal commitment to ensure that 100% coverage will be delivered by the end of next year.
Senator Phil Prendergast: I welcome the Minister to the House. I formally second this timely motion which calls on the Government to restate its commitment to provide a comprehensive national broadband scheme to all of Ireland by 2010 and to ensure that the 12,000 rural homes and businesses not covered will have access to broadband. Severe disadvantage exists for small and medium enterprises that do not have access to broadband. Some have already gone out of business because they could not compete on the same level as businesses with a broadband connection.
All infrastructure concerning the roll-out of next-generation access to all parts of the network needs to be subject to fast-track planning rules. All schools, colleges and other educational institutions need priority in Government planning and tenders should be invited for the provision of wholesale high bandwidth access. All new housing developments, apartments and public buildings should have ducting in place to provide for ease of access to services providing broadband. That needs to form part of new building standards regulations and should also apply to new roads. Beautifully finished schemes must often be ripped up to allow for pipe laying and ducting, with a resultant disruption to businesses. We cannot afford such disruption in these times.
The variety of prices offered by providers of broadband access is mind-boggling. When we see television advertisements for what is available in the UK, it is apparent that we are suffering a severe price disadvantage.
I have met many people in rural areas who cannot get broadband. The national broadband scheme map is seriously flawed. It was set up on the basis that everyone within 5 km of an enabled exchange would be able to access broadband or avail of wireless connections, but that is not so. Issues such as the quality of copper wire and line of sight are also problematical factors for those trying to compete on a level playing field.
Ireland does not have competitors who are in a position to invest in the best systems, which places us at a severe disadvantage in these straitened times. Digital TV is widely available and there should be a means of using current technology to advance services to those who are currently denied them. The proposals by Irish Rural Link to address deficiencies in accessing broadband in rural areas should be implemented by the Minister as a matter of priority.
I would like to put on the record some facts about where we stand with broadband compared to other countries: Ireland is eighth of 18 for the average price per additional megabyte after reaching the bit/data cap; 28th of 30 for average advertised download speeds; 29th of 30 for the fastest advertised connection offered by the incumbent operator; and 28th of 30 for the fastest advertised connection available among all surveyed operators. The data are from October 2007.
The high prices charged by Eircom, which ComReg proposed, should be reduced. The European Commission’s approval for “last mile” charges is welcome but it needs to go further. Funds should be directed to upgrading schools broadband with measurable criteria such as quality and consistency of service. The Department has acknowledged that while broadband in schools is vital, its impact is considerably blunted if children are unable to access broadband of comparable speed and quality at home.
Ireland is still the most expensive country in the world for telephone line rental charges. Long-term investment in Eircom’s networks is required if we are to stay in the market for jobs and future investment.
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Eamon Ryan): I am glad to respond to this timely motion on rural broadband. I will begin by going through some of the general details but without getting bogged down in too many statistics. We could all quote figures from 2007, but they are probably out of date now because broadband numbers have doubled since October of that year. We are now up to approximately 1.25 million subscribers, while the figure was less than half that two years ago. One must be careful in throwing statistics around, but roughly 1.25 million houses now have broadband access, which represents about 64% of households. Although 70% of houses have a computer, one might ask why we are not over 75%. If one does not have a computer, however, one does not have the mechanism for immediate access to broadband. Crucially, according to the latest statistics, 83% of companies, including small and medium employers, are now using broadband. There is an immediate economic benefit from that development, particularly in rural areas, since it provides business with the same connection as urban users.
Thomas Friedman’s famous book on this issue, entitled The World is Flat, indicated that one has common access from downtown New York to Tubbercurry. The Internet is the same for all. There is a great opportunity for us to develop services in rural Ireland as an export commodity by selling them through the Internet. Services currently account for about 45% of our exports, and the estimate from the ESRI is that this could be up to 70% by 2025. Much of the growth will be in traded services, in which we have a great advantage due to location, language and our enterprising culture. In the past few years we have developed an ability to trade internationally. We are good at it, and we should aim to do it in services, where we have a real competitive advantage.
How can we provide the next generation of networks that will be vital to provide that economic development? We published a paper on next generation broadband, having gone through the consultation process a number of weeks ago. It states that a competitive market will deliver many of the networks that we need. If we look at where other countries have been successful in getting faster broadband at cheaper prices, one of the key characteristics is a competitive market between a cable operator and a fixed-line operator. They can provide much higher speeds on their fibre or cable networks, and that is where real improvement in service quality occurs. There is not just a competitive market between the fixed line and the cable company, but also between the fixed wireless companies, satellite companies, mobile companies and there has been a major new investment recently in WiMAX technology. Competing platforms in a market will give our people the best broadband service. Such a competitive market is much better to make some of the investment decisions and technological changes.
We also stated in that paper that we think a collaborative approach will help us develop our networks quicker, that the size of our country, the nature of the market and the nature of evolving technology means that we do not just follow a competitive policy, but that we can get competing companies working in collaboration on some of the investments that need to be made. The business is often not easy. The return obtained from some of the expensive fibre deployment is not a certainty. If a collaborative approach can be taken, whereby a mobile company works with a fixed-line company and can carry some of the traffic on the other company’s network, then we start to get a better business model. Having a number of different wholesale operators on a network is the way in which we can get networks built quickly. That is the broad message I sent out to the markets and the investment community in that regard.
The regulator has an important role, and its policy document determines regulation and follows our own framework document on the broad policy approach. It will be important in providing a signal to the companies as to how that investment might best take place. The Government’s role is not just to leave things to the market. This is an area of crucial social and economic importance for the country, and we have clearly said that where we can actually value and address needs that the market would not provide quickly enough or cheaply enough, then we will do so. We are engaged in several initiatives that represent a positive contribution to that competitive collaborative market. One of our biggest initiatives has been the building of fibre optic networks around most Irish towns that otherwise would not have been built. The metropolitan area networks consist of fibre cable which we install in rings, connecting to the key business centres, residential areas, retail centres and public buildings. Today we signed the second phase of our management contract for those metropolitan area networks. The company that managed the first phase has now been commissioned on a 15-year timeline to provide the management of those fibre optic networks in 60 additional towns. This is a long-term investment and some parts of it have been difficult, such as how to develop the last mile into somebody’s house or business, or how to get backhaul from smaller Irish towns where the volume of traffic is low and the economic cost is reasonably high.
That medium to long-term investment in fibre networks in our towns is starting to work. The volume of traffic on them is continuing to rise inexorably. We have started to see major investment decisions by the likes of our mobile companies, such as Vodafone, which are committing to those networks as part of their long-term network development strategy. These companies see the volume of data increasing so exponentially that they need to get onto fibre networks quickly. Those metropolitan area networks were the right investment for our country and would pay off in the long term.
We have made a similar investment in fibre connectivity for the rest of the world. One of the first interventions by the State dealt with the global crossing fibre optic connection into the country, which provides massive expansion in bandwidth, ahead of market demand and ahead of the obvious commercial return. It brought massive amounts of foreign direct investment in data centre businesses here that have been very beneficial to our economy. We have just landed another cable on the northern side of the island, coming in near Derry. This will provide the fastest broadband connection across the Atlantic. It has massive capacity for us to connect with North America and to serve as a link between Europe and North America. That is a large State and EU subsidised project to provide high speed broadband connectivity across the North and down through Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and into Dublin. It represents a further part of our investment where the State is working with the private sector to develop the backhaul network.
We also stated in our policy paper that we would use other ducting owned by the State along our motorways, railway lines and waterways. These can provide ducting on an open access basis for any and all companies involved in the market. We have much fibre access ducting in State ownership, and it is right for us to use it with the clear belief that the volume of data is only going to increase. We need to provide the backhaul ducting that will facilitate such traffic.
We also upgraded our broadband for schools this month. All 4,000 Irish primary schools have broadband connectivity, as we have put a scheme in place for four or five years. We want to go further and faster. We want to provide the best cutting edge speeds that other schools are providing, such as 100 MB connectivity. Within each school, we can provide a wireless connection system so that every classroom has access to that high-speed network and the class does not need to go to a computer room. That is important because it will free up the education system to start using a range of access devices to teach people in a new and innovative way. Why not have a French class over Skype video transfer into a French classroom? Why not have that cultural exchange without having to travel? Why not go into California Tech University and draw down some of the on-line lectures from the best physics classes in the world? That is all possible when one starts to put up whiteboards or provide access to students via high-speed broadband, which allows them to get under the hood of the technology that will determine this century. We are doing it.
Last month we went out with a request for tender to put in high-speed connectivity for the first 78 secondary schools. When we put in that high-speed 100 MB connectivity to the school, it will be much easier to get connectivity to the neighbouring business park or houses in those areas. This is a crucial investment in education and in broadband.
I have been privileged to be a member of the European Council of telecoms Ministers over the last two years. The Commissioner has been very progressive on behalf of the consumer, and has brought down roaming charges across Europe by forcing the industry to do so. There has been very progressive legislation in the telecoms package. We have also been able to tap into the European recovery and stimulus plans. In my energy brief, we have been able to draw down €100 million in support funding for the east-west interconnector we are building. Senators have mentioned that we intend to revert to the EU, as suggested in the European economic recovery plan, to apply for further support for our rural broadband initiative. This is one of a range of initiatives needed to complete the picture in rural areas.
Senators mentioned the national broadband scheme, which is probably the most progressive of those initiatives. The new wireless system that is being used as part of that initiative is at the cutting edge. I am fascinated by the speeds currently being attained. It was suggested two years ago that such speeds were impossible. The speeds for which people are planning in two or four years’ time are a multiple of what we can achieve today. Ireland, which has had difficulties with its fixed-line and cable networks, is starting to deploy many more mobile systems ahead of other countries. More than a third of a million people are using and accessing mobile broadband in Ireland. The mobile broadband we are providing in rural areas, which would not otherwise be covered, is the latest and most advanced technology in the world. Having been tested here, it may well offer the solution being sought by the US and UK Governments as they, like us, attempt to cover rural areas.
This broadband scheme has been rolled out in 150 electoral districts, comprising 15% of the total area we are looking to cover. According to the technological results we are getting, it is providing the sort of high-speed solution people want. Under EU state aid rules, however, we are precluded from providing the scheme in question in certain areas. I refer to areas in which those who are not served by broadband represent a small percentage of the population of the area as a whole. If 5% or less of the population of a rural electoral district does not have broadband availability, we are precluded under EU state aid rules from providing a solution for the whole electoral district as that would be seen as a distortion of a functional market. As Senators have mentioned, people in approximately 12,000 homes might not be able to get broadband services because of the state aid constraints that apply to certain electoral districts. We are saying we will look after the people in question by providing a scheme of the nature that was outlined earlier. We will make a capital grant available to assist some form of development which does not have to involve satellite broadband. A range of different technological solutions might apply. We will provide grant support to facilitate the extension of broadband services to the last few houses.
It is important as a first principle in the development of a new digital knowledge society that we will have truly universal coverage across our country. We have to submit the outline of our scheme to Brussels by 15 July next. Now that we have been involved in so many interventions and support schemes, we can be said to be quite experienced. We have pursued a range of initiatives, including the metropolitan area networks, the national broadband scheme and Project Kelvin. We are getting quicker and better at it. We will seek EU approval and funding for this scheme. We intend to introduce the new network in a way that offers universal coverage to those who wish to connect to it.
We will then have to start to increase our use of these technologies. We will try to increase the proportion of houses with computers from 70% to as close as possible to 100%. We need to recognise that mobile phone devices will increasingly serve as our computers, access systems and notepads. They will soon be able to do everything mainframe PCs did three years ago. That is where we need to be as a people. It will create employment and have social and environmental benefits.
I am happy today because further progress has been announced. Real actions are taking place as we roll out our national broadband scheme, deliver cables across the north Atlantic and provide really high-speed broadband connectivity in our schools. We are not where we want to be, which is in the top three, but we are getting there. We are pulling ourselves up. We were lagging behind but we are now in the middle of the pack. We need to be ambitious if we are to excel in this area which offers an economic opportunity to this trading island.
Senator Joe O’Reilly: I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister, Deputy Ryan. I appreciate his interaction with this House. I congratulate my colleagues in the Labour Party on the quality and appropriateness of this motion and its exposition. I await with interest the outcome of Senator Hannigan’s survey for which I applaud him. I hope we will learn lessons from it when it is published.
Over the years, the Government’s engagement with broadband and new generation broadband, and its delivery of such services in rural Ireland has been marked by a certain tardiness. It took the Government a long time to become fully aware of the importance of broadband. I am not sure whether it has fully dawned on the Government to this day. Broadband and new generation broadband are significant if we are to develop small and medium-sized enterprises and encourage people to settle in rural Ireland. Many people take access to forms of modern technology, including broadband, into consideration when they are deciding where to live. Quality of life issues, such as access to distance learning, are also important in this context. Broadband access is vital if people are to be able to avail of goods and services and market their own goods and services. The Government’s tardiness in developing its awareness of the importance of broadband services was matched by its tardiness in delivering them. I will discuss that further later. There has been a difficulty in this regard.
The ability to avail of and afford broadband services is a big issue in rural Ireland, as it is everywhere else. By comparison with other EU member states, Ireland’s level of broadband take-up is below average. Investment is important if that pattern is to be reversed. I welcome the Minister’s decision to raise this matter at EU level, to which he alluded in his contribution. However, we are often slow to take such action. There is a precedent for positive investment in broadband services in rural communities. The European Commission recently authorised state funding of £3.4 million towards the delivery of broadband services in remote areas of Scotland. There has also been significant investment in the delivery of broadband in rural parts of Brittany. Rural communities in the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg have benefitted from similarly positive investment. The Commission’s study of urban-rural variations in member states found that in Denmark and Luxembourg, fixed broadband networks have 100% coverage among the population. In Germany, 88% of the rural population enjoys full broadband coverage. It is clear that the well-developed economic powerhouses of Europe, three of which I have mentioned, have high levels of broadband delivery, including in rural areas. A report published by Forfás in December 2008 stated that addressing the regional differences in respect of broadband is one of the keys to economic growth and development. It emphasised that a wider range of higher-speed broadband services is needed.
While I welcome the national broadband scheme, the Minister will accept that the proposed date by which blanket coverage of the country will be achieved keeps being pushed out. The date currently being spoken of is December 2010. That is why I have said that everything the Government does in relation to broadband is tardy, slow and reactive rather than proactive. I suggest that the final date will be significantly later than December 2010. Senator Hannigan, in his excellent proposition of this motion, mentioned Irish Rural Link’s argument that 12,000 houses are not covered by the broadband network. I accept the Minister acknowledged that point and promised to act on it. I suggest that should be done urgently. The Government is playing catch-up. Broadband services are of great importance to all aspects of this country’s economic development, including cottage industries, home industries and the entire regeneration of rural Ireland. This cannot be stated sufficiently. It is a critical piece of infrastructure that we needed to be working on much sooner. Better late than never, however, and I welcome some of the initiatives to be taken. It is, nonetheless, very serious that there are 12,000 houses and businesses that cannot be accessed, even under the national broadband scheme, and this needs to be addressed. It is important for job creation etc.
We in Fine Gael propose an economic recovery agency that will establish a new “Broadband 21” company to invest €2.5 billion in ducting and fibre optic cable, amalgamating and building on the diverse infrastructure that already exists under the ownership of Eircom, Bord Gáis, the National Roads Authority, the ESB and the MANs. It is envisaged that all this should be incorporated and worked on in a co-ordinated fashion.
Eircom, I believe, needs support, as is clear in retrospect. None of us is without some blame in this matter. What happened with the privatisation of Telecom was clearly wrong, although it was a Government decision at the time. In retrospect, the decision to sell it off must rate very high on the league table of chronic or bad decisions. The Minister has promised that everyone in the country would have the capacity to receive broadband, but this is delayed, and as always this is regrettable.
In the last phase of MANs €80 million was spent. While today’s announcement is welcome it has been a very slow process to arrive at a management system that would make MANs operational in that there is a large number of towns in the country with MANs infrastructure that is not functioning. That will be corrected, however, as a consequence of today’s announcement and I welcome that.
I congratulate my colleague, Councillor David Blake, in Kingscourt, County Cavan, who has been pioneering this whole area, speaking about it locally and raising consciousness to the effect that MANs is not operational in that area, although it is installed there. I commend Councillor Blake on that work and draw the Minister’s attention to the research he has done in this regard and for Carrickmacross.
While we welcome the positive aspect of what is happening today, we regret the tardiness of developing awareness and action and hope that a programme of action will now take place. I am very happy to support the motion. We cannot talk about this often enough. Traditionally, we have been conditioned to think of economic development just in terms of physical infrastructure. All that is important in terms of roads etc., but broadband is key infrastructure for creating and keeping jobs. Why should there be an apartheid system in this country between urban and rural around the broadband issue? That is wrong and it needs to be corrected immediately.
I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan. He is a person for whom I have great admiration because with this Minister what one sees is what one gets, and he knows his brief from A to Z. He is a genuine person.
As regards broadband, I have listened to Senator O’Reilly and although we are from the same part of the country, Breffni, we do not agree on everything. Commonsense must prevail. Broadband, as the Minister has outlined, is very important, particularly in terms of investment, as Senator Hannigan has said. The Acting Chairman, Senator Feargal Quinn, was chairman of An Post and he must be given great credit for the job he did there, because he brought it to what it is today. He brought the staff and management with him and revitalised the company, bringing it in from the dark ages to a modern era in society. I believe An Post is a success today due in large measure to Senator Quinn’s input, and that must be recognised.
Telecom Éireann was the main supplier of telecommunications in Ireland. It was built up with taxpayers’ money from the old Posts and Telegraphs, P & T, days. One must give credit to the former Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. I remember working in the old P & T, when people waited two or three years in Dublin for a telephone. Down the country one could be waiting seven years. If one was lucky to be well in with a Minister, he or she could give a ministerial directive and one could get a telephone as a result. To get a telephone at that time, 1972, it cost £160 for a connection. There was high, low and all types of risks. One might have had to pay €2,000 deposit if one was in the film business, for example, or something like that which was deemed to be high risk and two years’ rental had to be paid in advance. We spent most of our time there telling people the reasons we could not give them the telephones we were providing. Leaving that aside, I shall return to broadband.
Broadband is not the only issue in terms of telecommunications. It is very important, of course, not just for business. It is important for people with disabilities who do remote working and so on. As Senator O’Reilly has outlined, there are many parts of rural areas where one cannot get broadband for technical reasons. I know the Minister has said there is no difference as regards wireless broadband, but there is. It will cost three times the amount, as I have established.
A mistake was made in previous years, by the Government of which I am a member, in privatising Telecom. The day has come when we have to take control. In all aspects of telecommunications there is a large amount of copper cable in the ground, which cost an astronomical amount of taxpayers’ money to instal, but which is absolutely useless. Why was the proper infrastructure not put in place along the way? This is my overview as to why that did not happen.
When I was in Telecom, I had great admiration for Mr. David Begg, the then general secretary of the Communications Workers Union. We held marches on the streets, with banners saying, “Fat cats, hands off Telecom Éireann”. I was president of a small union at the time and participated in that campaign. We resolved that no way would Telecom Éireann be taken over. Not too long ago, however, the fat cats resolved to find a way around those objections by the union activists. They decided to dangle a little carrot and give the workers something. The unions opted to go along with this, deciding it was not such a bad idea. The result was the employees share ownership plan, ESOP. The union people saw this as advantageous and decided to get on the gravy train, as did everybody. One union person ended up getting €3 million a year. He resigned recently and another person who resigned from Telecom and is now in his place is getting an enormous salary plus a pension. Everybody got on the gravy train, but the customer suffered.
The present incumbent is the fifth owner of the enterprise since privatisation. They all went in, pillaged the place, put nothing back by way of infrastructure and ran away. They knew nothing about the business except how to pay themselves. With the €3 million a year, there were bonuses for non-performance.
If one wants to get a telephone in Dublin today, it takes six months. If one wants a telephone fixed, unless one knows somebody in Eircom, God knows when it will happen. To sum up, the question is how we can take control. Eircom is the main telecommunications provider, leasing its lines to competitors, as it is obliged to do. The only way to fix Eircom is to nationalise it, as we do with the banks, take it over and control it because we will never have control the way things are going. I thank Senator Quinn for his input into An Post. I worked there and he is still remembered for the good work he did.
Senator Joe O’Toole: I welcome the Minister to the House and I do not doubt his commitment on this issue. I worry about the slowness of the roll-out of broadband and I have discussed it with him many times over the years, long before he became a Minister. To confirm Senator Brady’s points, I live 17 miles from here, 2 km off the N2, but I cannot get broadband at home, except wireless. I am paying three times, it does not support Voice-over Internet Protocol and it is quite slow compared to what I should have. This is a strategic issue.
When Senator Brady and I were active in our different unions, we both opposed what was done with Eircom. My line was somewhat to different from his. I was not that concerned about the privatisation of the service but I was concerned about the privatisation of the infrastructure. I spoke in this House at the time and used the example of Belmullet. I said I could never see us bringing what was then called, in the quaint language of the day, before broadband, the “information superhighway” to Belmullet. The same is true today. I thought, and still think, we should own the infrastructure and allow people to lease it out for service.
The reason has been explained in Senator Brady’s points and in the text of the motion proposed by Senator Hannigan. The minute Eircom upgrades its telephone lines, people change their service to another provider. There seems to be some imbalance there. The business plans do not seem to support the upgrading of the service and the unbundling to come in on top of that. The business plan does not work and we must examine that. We need to move matters forward very rapidly. In terms of strategy, whether the railways, airports or broadband infrastructure, there are certain infrastructural issues we cannot allow out of the hands of the State for strategic reasons, and that includes the ones we are talking about here today.
Broadband releases an intellectual talent. Along the west coast of Ireland in particular it allows people to participate in a global society. It delivers equality. While people might be tied to their homes for cosmetic reasons, it allows them to become part of the global workforce. It copperfastens the principles in favour of regionalisation. It allows regions to be as important and accessible as cities. It allows cottage and home industries. People in the west can provide a Chinese translation service and have it delivered in a different time zone first thing tomorrow morning. Research, education of students and social cohesion, through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and whatever can be supported only by broadband.
I could go on for hours about this. I know the Minister’s views. I advise him not to get entrenched in the difficulties but to kick ass and ensure this is delivered on time. I do not understand why the Minister has amended the motion. I cannot see that the amended motion differs in any way substantially from what Senator Hannigan proposed. That is another thing that bothers me about how Government works. If the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, had read that before becoming Minister, he would ask why we are doing this.
Senator Pearse Doherty: Tá an cheist seo pléite go mion-minic againn ag an am seo gach Céadaoin ó thoghadh mé go dtí an tSeanaid. Léiríonn sin tábhacht na ceiste do Sheanadóirí agus do pháirtithe, go háirithe agus sinn ag caint faoi fhorbairt réigiúnach agus tuaithe. Tá fadhbanna ann agus, cé go n-aithním go bhfuil an tAire ag déanamh obair mhaith leis na fadhbanna sin a réiteach, ceann de na fadhbanna is mó ná nach bhfuil an réiteach sin ag tharlú luath go leor. Dúirt an tAire go bhfuil an Roinn ag foghlaim agus ag feabhsú ach do na daoine atá ina gcónaí san iarthair go háirithe, áit ina bhfuil an tseirbhís seo gann, níl an dara rogha acu ach a bheith ag fanacht go dtí go bhfoghlaimeoidh an Roinn agus go gcuirfidh sí an tseirbhís seo ar fáil faoi dheireadh.
This debate is very important and I commend the Labour Party on placing this motion before the Seanad. Since I have been elected, most of the use of Private Members’ time has been to debate broadband availability in different formats, including Eircom, speed, cost and availability. Sometimes when we debate broadband we look only at availability and that is the wrong debate. While it needs to be dealt with because there is a lack of broadband in huge parts of the country, we need to deal with the other aspects. We need to deal with the costs of providing broadband and the speeds. In some people’s minds once one provides broadband everything is OK, but it does not work like that. In the same way we would not drive around in cars made for the 1940s or 1930s. One needs to grow with the times and keep up with the market in the rest of the world because we are competing with other regions. Technology is changing all the time.
Since the Minister has taken office he has done a substantial amount of work to deal with this issue. He said the world is flat when it comes to technology. The Minister knows, because every report has shown it, that while the country may be flat, there is a huge wall, known as the digital divide, between east and west. My report, Awakening the West, has sown the digital divide that exists in this country. While the moves that have been made by the national broadband scheme and other schemes, for example the 12,000 houses and businesses the Minister talks about connecting, are to be welcomed, it is far too slow. It should not take a number of years to get the ball rolling so that the 12,000 houses that have been left out of the national broadband scheme have access to it. It will probably take another two or three years to deliver broadband to those areas. These businesses, communities and households deserve the same services as other areas. It is unfortunate the Government has allowed us to be in the position we are in today.
As a colleague from the Government benches mentioned, Eircom should be nationalised. It was a crime that Eircom was sold off and that Ministers are down on bended knee begging Eircom, a private company, to enable exchanges in rural Ireland and other parts of the country. That should not have happened. I am sure the Minister’s party would have opposed it at the time and we must examine this issue. I did not have the chance to examine it, but my report has identified the excessive cost customers in this country pay for the service. The limited service is not good enough. We need to look forward and not just be catching up.
Senator Dan Boyle: I am very happy to speak to the Labour Party Private Members’ motion on broadband this evening. I hope it might be able to reciprocate the next time the Green Party has Private Members’ time. That is a reference to last week.
Senator Dan Boyle: It is important this debate is held on a regular basis. The questions raised in moving the motion and the contributions so far will help in developing our broadband infrastructure. I was struck on hearing the opening contributions that the statistics related to October 2007. While there are many issues one can accuse the Minister of, to have him solely responsible for the state of Ireland’s broadband infrastructure three months into office is not the fairest of political charges.
The time between then and now has seen significant advances. We are obviously hampered by policy mistakes and lack of investment and lack of proper prioritisation in the past. I am satisfied that reprioritisation has occurred, which is an important part of the infrastructure that is being developed and will be developed. It has certainly featured largely in many of the strategy documents the Government has produced in the past six months alone, for example the smart economy document. The deployment of computer-based IT with broadband facilities in key areas such as through the schools programme is another important element that shows the issue is being taken seriously. It will continue to be a priority and will reap economic and social benefits for the country as a whole.
The framers of the motion are also correct to point out that the impact of proper broadband infrastructure in rural areas will have a special benefit. The Government is aware of that and the strategies exist to try to bring it about. Senator Doherty mentioned some of the wider arguments we need to consider regarding availability, speed of access and cost. The argument seems to be over the technological platform that is used to help us get to where we need to be. Ideally if the work had been done before now, a cable-based system done through a national telecoms provider should have us at the level of many other countries that have higher specifications and usage of broadband. However, we are not at that stage and the Minister’s policy of meeting the gaps in infrastructure by using satellite technology in particular is the right way to go. The way to develop that ultimately is to work towards a fully cable-based system. However, we will not get there tomorrow and we will certainly not get there in the context of the investment that is available to us to put in place such an infrastructure. The Minister is also right to use satellite technology given that technology is quickly changing. It could be that we will have greater recourse to this in the future.
Regarding delivery, it is only 30 years ago that it took two and a half years to install a telephone in this country. We are now talking about many of the systems that people and businesses need to interact in the modern world with the advancement in that technology over that 30-year period. The Minister is sufficiently minded to ensure we have this as a proper policy priority.
In order to best marry the intentions of the Government and a successful implementation of policy, we need to bring more actors into it, including the role of the individual consumer and households and the roles played by other State agencies, such as local government. Despite how Opposition Members might seek to portray it, the strategy that brings about the highest possible broadband usage and the maximum development of an infrastructure is not down to one Department or one person within that Department. It requires a level of national buy-in that, while we like to think we are more technologically advanced than others are, may not exist. I remember debates and articles in many recent election campaigns about how IT was supposed to play a particular role in whether people got elected and whether usage was being made of it. Undoubtedly, the use of IT has increased in this scenario but as a proportion of communications and contact between politicians, candidates and the voters, it is still a low percentage. There is still a journey to travel and I am confident that the right measures are being put in place.
I anticipate future such debates which should concentrate on specifics. What are the technological blockages to prevent certain geographical parts of the country getting broadband? The history of electricity in this country started in the 1920s with Ardnacrusha and the rural electrification scheme, yet it was the 1970s before the Black Valley in County Kerry received electricity. There will be that mismatch between particular geographical circumstances and the ability to deliver technology. However, I am of the belief that they can and will be overcome. The policy is going in the right direction and takes account of the technological platforms that can be mixed and matched to achieve this. The optimistic deadlines can still be met. If there is a different approach that is better, I have yet to hear it.
Senator Larry Butler: I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on the way he has mastered his brief in this regard. He is certainly moving in the right direction in terms of the different types of broadband that will come on stream in coming years. That will be evident within the next five years. We will see a major increase in the speeds and the designs of the new technology to come. There has not been much thought about the smart economy document published before Christmas. At that time people considered it as a bit of a gimmick. This document will probably prove to be one of the most important documents we have seen since Seán Lemass’s document. We have an opportunity to dovetail our new technology, new broadband and new systems into this scheme. New ideas are coming forward in the generation of electricity and in how we can store wind power. Necessity is the mother of invention. It is important not to move too quickly. We are moving in the right direction. There are gaps in the system, which we could and should address as quickly as we can. However, we need to concentrate on the new generation of broadband that will come along whether it be in wireless or satellite. The Minister is saying that we should not depend on one system, but should have a number of systems to use. A number of systems will come through the new technology. We may be wise not to be too far advanced in certain parts of that technology.
In the smart economy it is important to be able to do business from any part of the island. Broadband will play a major role in ensuring we have an efficient way of doing business, whether it be in Kerry, London or New York. That is what we need to deliver for the multinationals. Inward investment will only come to the country if we have the best available technology that meets the requirements of the investing companies. I accept that cost is important. However, if two solutions are available, one costing a penny and the other costing a pound, if the technology is required it may be worth paying the pound. That is the important thing about technology.
As the Minister said, it is also important to gear up our education systems with the new technology, which will allow us to acquire a better and more efficient education system. Students will be able to benefit from this system.
The Minister mentioned the interconnector for our electricity supply system, the provision of which has been supported by the EU. We have to examine how the EU can assist us in securing the best possible broadband system. It is important that we examine the interconnector for our electricity supply with a view to designing a more efficient system.
I do not have much more to add other than to compliment the Minister and to thank the Labour Party for tabling the motion. We have had a good debate on this subject. I thank the Minister for coming to the House for this debate. He is a regular visitor to this House. It is important he keeps us up to date on this area. I want to mention the success of the installation scheme throughout the country. It is an example of another innovation in terms of how we can use our resources to the best possible advantage. Well done to the Minister in that regard.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire arís. Aontaím leis go bhfuil sé tráthúil go bhfuil an rún seo os ár gcomhair. Molaim an Lucht Oibre as ucht an rún a chur ar fáil dúinn. Tugann sé seans dúinn ár dtuairimí a nochtadh. Níos tábhachtaí fós, tugann sé seans dúinn tuairimí an Aire a chloisint freisin. Níl aon amhras faoi ná go leanfar leis an díospóireacht seo go dtí go mbeidh seirbhís leathanbhanda iomlán againn, ní hamháin sna cathracha agus na bailte móra ach faoin tuath freisin. Cruthaíonn na staitisticí is déanaí a thug an tAire go bhfuil dul chun cinn á dhéanamh. Os rud é go bhfuil folúntais anseo is ansiúd, dar ndóigh, ní chóir go gcuireadh sé aon ionadh orainn go bhfuil díospóireacht leanúnach á lorg.
The Minister rightly said it is timely that we are debating this motion. I compliment the Labour Party on selecting this subject for debate this evening. It would make one mindful of the infrastructure development that has occurred throughout the country in recent years. In the past everybody was not playing on a level playing pitch when it came to business. We need only think of our road infrastructure, a subject on which we had a debate similar to this one. The same applies to rail services, including rail freight services. People in isolated or neglected areas would have been able to argue that there was a distortion in the markets in that people in one area were better off in terms of the tools of trade than people in another area.
We are now living in modern times, dealing with the advanced technology, and the same points are being put forward, and rightly so. I am convinced, almost to the point of sounding like a broken record, that were it not for the people, particularly those in rural Ireland, having continued to make the points they made, we would not have the wonderful roads and improved transport services, including rail services, that we have today. What I hope will emerge from this and future debates is that the provision of broadband services will be kept live on the Government agenda and that progress in that respect will be monitored.
I accept there is a huge onus on private service providers and we should remember that there are limitations to the extent that the State can intervene. The State can intervene 100% to address the existing issues. We must depend, therefore, on investment at all times. Those who have opportunities to invest have been short-sighted in not doing so in this area. Nowadays, wherever one’s computer is, to all intents and purposes, is where one’s office is. If 70% of Irish homes have computers, as was the statistic given, it is an indication of the great potential that exists in this area. We have to make a special case for people in rural Ireland because, in many ways, they always experience difficulties compared to people in the more developed areas. We all know of areas in rural Ireland where, if given half a chance, such support would not only introduce a level playing field for businesses but would foster community development.
Huge development has occurred in rural Ireland. In a rural area in County Clare in a matter of ten or 12 years I have seen new houses built and a new community developed, and without any particular focus or plan services have been provided. A hairdresser, a beautician, a person who repairs televisions and a doctor have set up business in the area. Organic development has occurred there. If broadband services are not delivered to rural areas, such development will not take place.
Senator O’Toole referred to cottage industries, which are dear to my heart. Given the current economic climate, we will have to focus more on supports for cottage-type industries, small businesses such as a man making wrought iron gates and employing five or six people and a person running a small bakery from home, selling apple tarts and scones. Such businesses are being set up, even though at times European bureaucracy has prevented such enterprise by almost deifying the idea of hygienic regulations etc.
Cottage industries have the best opportunity of surviving in the current economic climate. Big industries like Dell and others have gone to the wall and have had to let 15, 18, 100 or even 2,000 staff go, people who do not have a chance of getting another job in the current economic climate. Broadband provision can help to develop small industries. We should not take for granted that markets do not exist for the goods produced by such small industries. People are selling their own produce in markets at the weekend and such markets are popular. People even pay above the normal price for such produce because it is organic. People believe they are buying wholesome food and they do not have to check the ingredients. Such enterprises are blossoming, but those engaged in them must have access to the necessary communications infrastructure.
The Minister is worthy of high praise. I am not being patronising in saying that, but on any occasion I have heard him explain what is happening in this area, he has made some credible contributions to the ongoing debate on this subject. He has shown that we have recognised where there is a vacuum or problems in this area and that we have to respond to that. There is a question of the need to reprioritise in this regard. If we did not succeed in achieving the objective under the first tranche, it is not right to allow that process to move ahead without examining the changes that have occurred, particularly the changed economic climate, and the upgrading of technology services. Reprioritisation in this respect is necessary.
The objective of the national broadband scheme is to provide a broadband service at an affordable price, particularly to people in rural Ireland where there is no broadband service. I understand that there may be certain European restrictions on the extent to which the Government can intervene. It is useful to consider all those issues in this debate. I believe we all intend to play a proactive role in this respect in the future. The worst thing that could happen is that we might become despondent and believe that we do not have people willing to invest in this area and, therefore, such provision will not be delivered. It is not like that. There is still the possibility of private investors coming forward. We should get across to people how important it is for them to be part of this development, even in terms of getting a return on their investment. The selection of 78 schools to be part of a pilot scheme is an indication that we are getting down to basics in that regard.
My compliments to the Labour Party on putting forward this issue for debate. I hope we will have continuing debate and that we can measure the progress as we go forward because it is one of the most important issues we will debate.
Senator Fiona O’Malley: I am sure the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Finneran, will be just as interested in what I have to say. In this energy efficiency week it is important we turn down the air conditioning in the Chamber. It is very cold in here.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate. I welcome the motion tabled by the Labour Party. I agree with Senator O’Toole who expressed surprise that the Government has tabled an amendment. I do not think that is necessary. We are all on the same side in this area. We all recognise the need to move forward. It is a great tribute to the Minister that we recognise the personal commitment he has in this area. I heard praise from all sides for that commitment, which was evident in his contribution. I regret the Government chose to table an amendment because I do not think it is necessary.
Senator Hannigan indicated that what he hoped to get was a reiteration on the part of the Government of its commitment to the strategy. He got that. If that was the purpose of the motion, the Labour Party was successful in its aim. I do not know if the Government side intends to withdraw the amendment but it is not necessary to divide the House as there is no conflict between the positions of both sides.
The ideal would be 100% broadband coverage but as the Minister pointed out, not everybody has a computer anyway. That is another issue. It is one thing to have the infrastructure but it is another thing to have the hardware to access it. That is what we would aspire to.
I listened with great interest to what the Minister said about prioritisation, especially in rural areas, to maximise the benefit to the community, in particular in schools. That is a wise investment. Not alone does it pool the limited resource that is available but it does so for the greater good of the community. Not alone is one investing in schools, which are an important part of the community but also the students. It is important for them to be at the forefront of technology. The Minister alluded to the fact that the broadband speeds currently available were unimaginable two years ago. The rate of progress is very fast.
I do not have children but one can see how quickly they pick up new technologies and learn to use highly complex technical equipment. It is vital that children, especially in rural areas, have the same exposure to advanced technology as their counterparts in urban areas and other parts of the world. Given that we must order our priorities, it is good that schools are at the top of the list as it is an investment in the next generation. I welcome the work the Minister has done in that area.
Senator Hannigan referred to the 12,000 houses that remain without broadband access and the Minister responded to that point. Senator Ó Murchú referred to the constraints imposed by the EU on state aid, yet the European Union does provide us with the opportunity to access capital grants to ensure the final 12,000 houses will be provided with broadband access, in so far as that is possible. The cost of that provision cannot be ignored. Senator Hannigan indicated that the cost would be €10 million, which is no mean sum. We all know the value of a euro more now than we did six months or a year ago. We must assess what is the best way to use the limited resources we have. The Minister was given great credit for the work he has done since he became responsible for this area.
Senator Prendergast was criticised slightly for using figures from 2007, but they were the figures available to her. As more up-to-date figures become available, we must realise that it is a good news story that we need to sell it internationally. What is the point in politicians in this country doing ourselves down? We do not want the story that is picked up internationally to be that Ireland does not have a good telecommunications infrastructure. We need to sing from the same hymn sheet and provide an accurate and up-to-date message. The Minister is keen that the advances we have made are acknowledged. I accept the Opposition’s view that the improvements have not come quickly enough and that there are complications in various places. That needs to be acknowledged. It is not easy to provide a new network throughout the country. Many speakers alluded to the difficulties in previous times in getting basic telephone equipment.
I was also interested in what the Minister said about the progress of the introduction of broadband infrastructure. As I understood it, we have gone from A to C, skipping the B phase and all the mistakes that could occur at that stage. For that reason we are making great progress and moving a lot more quickly in terms of getting up the scale. Senator Prendergast referred to our position internationally. However, we are making progress and, as the Minister said, we are no longer at the back of the pack; we are in the middle. I accept that the place to be is up at the front of the pack. That is something on which we are all in agreement.
In welcoming the debate I also pay tribute to the Minister for coming to the House to discuss the matter with us. It is important we keep on top of things. He would encourage further debate in six months’ time. Progress is rapid in the area of new technology and it is important to keep abreast of the changes and to keep our information up to date.
I was also interested in what the Minister said about competition. It has delivered better results for us, but one cannot just leave matters to the market. We are a small, confined country and that does present its own challenges. That is especially the case in rural areas where the cost of providing broadband for that last mile of road is such a challenge. There is, and should be, a commitment on the part of Government to provide broadband access to everyone in the country. The Minister recommitted to that intention.
Senator Alex White: I have an admission to make. I am at something of a disadvantage every week at this time when Private Members’ business is taken because I am a member of a committee that only seems to sit at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays. I do not wish to share the burden of my problems with colleagues but it is relevant in the sense that not once but possibly three times Senator Boyle referred to the question of our participation in an important debate sponsored by the Green Party last week. I wish to put my position on the record in the same way that Senator Boyle was so anxious to put on the record his displeasure that we were not present for last week’s debate. The principal reason for my not being here last week is that I was attending a committee which, I am sure colleagues will agree, is an important one. The Ryan report was recently published in respect of which everybody had a great deal to say. I accept it is not in order to deal with this issue now and that we will have an opportunity to debate the report at a future date in this House. The Cathaoirleach need not worry, I will not stray into that debate except to say that I note that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government stated that the best legacy that could be left to the victims of child abuse would be for an amendment to be made to the Constitution to confirm the rights of children. I agree with him. Obviously, the Green Party considers that to be an extremely important objective. My response, which I want placed on the record, is that it is a pity that party did not consider it sufficiently important to at any time during the past two years send a single representative to that committee.
Senator Alex White: I wish to respond to what Senator O’Malley said in this debate. She made a useful and forthright contribution in terms of content and of the procedure of this House and the manner in which we do our business, in particular during Private Members’ time.
The Labour Party motion is a motion of substance and I thank Members for their contributions in that regard. However, it is hard to understand the basis for the amendment that has been tabled, given the considerable amount of meeting of minds on this issue. I did not, for the reasons I have outlined, hear the Minister of State’s contribution. However, I understand from my colleagues that he gave a good account of his stewardship of this area. We believe that not enough progress is being made and that matters should be progressing far more quickly, a point also made many times by the Irish Rural Link organisation, most recently in February of this year. However, it would be churlish of us not to recognise that some progress has been made.
It appears appropriate that we take the challenge set down by Senator O’Malley. The purpose of the Labour Party in bringing forward this motion is to obtain from the Minister of State an account of his stewardship in this area and to establish from him the progress that is being made. It is important that we record and note this debate. The Minister of State has been happy to give an account of what is happening. We may not like the fact that so much remains to be done but the Labour Party and I are happy to accept that progress has been made. I see little point, therefore, in the House dividing on this motion this evening in circumstances where, essentially, as Senator O’Malley stated, the content of the motion and the amendment are the same. The Labour Party does not intend, in terms of procedure, to divide the House on this issue.
As Senator Boyle pointed out — I do not intend to have another cut at him — there is from time to time much posturing in this House on motions and amendments. Often little is achieved from what is essentially an old fashioned approach to issues on which we should be seeking to contribute to and, while disagreeing on, make progress on, in particular in the Seanad where perhaps not so much is at stake — that is not to denigrate the Seanad — in terms of the issues before us, which are often not matters of life and death.
I suggest, in the spirit of Senator O’Malley’s contribution, that the Government consider not pressing its amendment in circumstances where the Labour Party is prepared reciprocally not to press its motion.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: I take this opportunity to thank the Labour Party for providing us with an opportunity to discuss the broadband issue. In my time in this House, which is more than two years, there has been numerous discussions on the provision of broadband in Ireland. Each time we have debated this matter the issue close to most of our hearts has been the roll-out of broadband to all citizens in the country, be they living in Dublin, Cork, Galway, west Mayo or west Donegal. The universal availability of broadband provides economic, educational and telecommunications benefits. Progress has been made in respect of the delivery of broadband to Ireland. For example, the group broadband scheme was rolled out by the former Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, facilitated through the regional authorities working closely with local authorities. Thereafter, the national broadband scheme was approved in December 2008, the contract for which has been awarded to Hutchinson 3, trading as 3 Mobile, with a roll-out time of 21 months. It is hoped that service will be provided to many areas of Ireland during the next couple of months.
It is important that the national broadband scheme is delivered on time. I have every confidence in the Minister’s ability to ensure this happens. I come from a rural constituency in Donegal South-West which I am sure is similar to other constituencies represented by Members of this House and the Minister of State. Often, these rural areas are left unserviced by broadband owing to the economic difficulties of providing the service, which approach is the one taken by the service provides, be it Eircom or others. It has always been my view that they fell short in their commitment to provide broadband to areas where it may not be economically viable to do so. They had a public service obligation to provide broadband to all homes and businesses in the country but they did not do so for economic reasons, meaning that the Government now has to intervene.
The national broadband scheme will provide broadband to many areas across the country. I was glad to hear from the Minister of State that the remaining 12,000 homes and businesses in rural parts of the country will be provided with broadband and that is has been recognised that those homes and businesses deserve broadband connectivity. The European Commission has also recognised the importance of broadband access in these areas. It has been driving this issue for a number of years and is anxious to ensure that there is equality of broadband access across the European Union. Funding in this regard has been made available through the European economic recovery plan. It is hoped that the Government, in conjunction with the European Commission, can access that funding to ensure rural homes, many of them in my constituency, receive broadband. Townlands in my constituency with no broadband access include Brinalack, Dunlewey, Meenacladdy, Glasha and Bun an Inbhir. The majority of homes in those townlands have no broadband access.
Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: There are. If I had time I would have contacted all the people in those homes and told them we were thinking of them in this House this evening. Those homes and many small businesses do not have broadband access. Currently, people can study in their home for a university degree, but people living in the homes in the townlands mentioned cannot do so. They could perhaps do so but the cost would be prohibitive. Many of them are utilising what Eircom refers to as “shared lines”, a service not used in many areas. I impress upon the Minister of State and the Department to take up this issue with the service providers. Shared lines should be a thing of the past. The service providers say the reason they cannot change them is economic but this must be tackled as part of the broadband debate.
The recent announcement by the Minister that there would a pilot scheme rolled out to 78 schools is welcome and I hope it will act as a catalyst for broadband roll out to all schools. That will mean that a rural school involved in the scheme will be able to communicate over broadband with a school in Russia or France and interact for language reasons or to learn about the European Union.
Broadband provides a road in the sky. It provides Ireland as a small, open economy with a way to attract foreign direct investment. That has been proven in areas where foreign companies are locating themselves. They go to areas where broadband is universally available and that is why broadband roll out in rural areas is so important. I have a vision of people in rural Ireland being able to work for multinational companies from the comfort of their own homes if broadband was available. We must all look to the new Ireland we all aspire to and by providing broadband to rural areas we will cherish all of the children equally, as in the Constitution.
Senator Jim Walsh: I welcome the Minister as we debate this issue again, which demonstrates the importance of and our interest in the topic. Within the last few weeks we had an interesting debate about the connection between ICT, green energy and the smart economy that is being rolled out by the Government to cut back on CO2 emissions. During that debate, we heard how through the smart transport system people will be able to identify the optimum route to work that will take the shortest time. The Oireachtas joint committee met in the new Eircom headquarters, where we saw the sophisticated, up to date conferencing facility that offers tremendous benefits. We interacted with the office in Belfast, showing a way to avoid people having to travel while enjoying the benefits of a face to face meeting. I see great potential for the Houses of the Oireachtas and I welcome the fact the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has established a teleconference centre here that I hope will be widely used by Members.
Many people are concerned about the delay with the roll out of broadband but if we look at the statistics, seven years ago there were only 4,000 broadband customers in the country with little investment in the area. Today there are more than 1.25 million broadband customers, with investment in all aspects of broadband including mobile and satellite systems. It is essential we continue to do that because the roll out to schools is very important to familiarise the younger generation with the operation of computers because many of them will end up working on computers.
It is also important that we recognise the role of the private sector in this regard because it is the driver of this sector. The market has been liberated to allow private service providers. We can reflect on the fact that it may have been better if Eircom had been privatised subsequent to the roll out of broadband rather than in advance, when we could have had influence on the roll out and investment in it. Eircom becoming an equity play in the meantime did not assist the process of investment in the area.
The Government has clearly stated that it will only intervene where there is a failure of the market to deliver. To do that, it is providing grant aid under the recently concluded group broadband scheme. It is recognised that there are still many areas where the private sector has not been able to justify the roll out of broadband and where the failure of the market to bridge that divide means it must be addressed by the national broadband scheme. Currently 12,000 homes and businesses do not have broadband and they cannot be addressed under the national broadband scheme so I welcome the Minister’s commitment that in view of EU recognition of the importance of broadband access, as highlighted by the report on European economic recovery, we will be able to access funds for the area. As we debate the Lisbon treaty, this is another example of the benefits of our membership of the EU.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome this opportunity to say a few words on the revitalisation of rural communities. I am interested in this area and have spoken on it at many seminars. The factors that contributed to population decline were economic trends, changes in farming patterns and infrastructural provision. I was worried that if those trends were not reversed, we would be in serious trouble. We must look at ways to revitalise our communities.
One way forward is to have the broadband vision of the future and look at how we interact that with our local community. As well as having broadband, we must look at our planning legislation and how local government and planners deal with one off housing for those who wish to live in these areas again. If we had broadband, cottage industries could start and give opportunities for young people in schools to get involved in computer training. This is an opportunity I want to see on the agenda not just today. We should come back to this again to get an update on how we are progressing on bringing broadband to all rural areas, schools, communities, small businesses and the ordinary person who wants to connect in any way he can to the outer community. We want to decentralise ourselves, not be always talking about urbanisation, and we need rural communities to be vital.
I welcome the motion by the Labour Party to recognise the importance of rural Ireland to the social fabric of the nation and to call on the Government to give a comprehensive national broadband scheme to all rural areas. I support that. It is the way forward; there is no question about it. However, we must keep asking the Minister to update us on his progress with regard to that vision for the future.
Senator Rónán Mullen: I dtosach báire, ba bhreá liom a rá go dtréaslaím le Pairtí an Lucht Oibre as ucht an rúin seo a chur faoi bhráid an tSeanaid. Tacaím go mór leis. Nuair a théann mé abhaile faoin tuath, níl mé in ann an t-idirlíon a fháil leis an leathanbhanda. Caithfidh mé a rá go mbíonn frustrachas orm i gcónaí. Is minic go ndéantar neamhaird ar riachtanais muintir na tuaithe. Ní bhíonn an aird chéanna á thabhairt ar an cheart atá acu tairbhe a bhaint as na caighdeáin céanna maireachtála agus teicneolaíochta.
I am happy to support the Labour Party motion. It is the second time today that I find myself in public agreement with Labour Party policy. It was Éamon de Valera who once said that if he got a positive editorial in the Irish Independent he would have to examine his conscience. Nonetheless, I find myself in agreement with the Labour Party today on several issues and I do not think it is anything to do with feeling a little giddy coming up to the end of the political term. Similarly to the issue of child benefit, which we discussed earlier, there is an important principle at stake in the broadband debate, namely, that of universality. It is not the mark of a society which takes democratic principles seriously to ignore either the welfare of children, in terms of child benefit, for example, or the geographically and economically marginalised, in terms of the question of rural broadband services.
I wish to focus first on the economic aspect of this issue. The Communications Workers Union, CWU, recently made a submission to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources as part of its consultation process on next-generation networks, NGNs. This submission discussed the importance of bridging the digital divide and the options for delivering high quality broadband to rural Ireland, and it did so in the context of the important role to be played by NGNs in helping to secure the economic and social future of this country. NGNs are the new generation of telecommunications networks that can provide multiple services over a single infrastructure. The submission pointed out that the development of a truly national NGN will have clear implications for efficiency and job creation and hence should be treated as a strategically important development, which will act as a guarantor of the island’s future success as a small open economy on the edge of Europe, an economy whose success depends on maintaining a competitive presence in a highly globalised marketplace.
The CWU has listed the key elements required in order to facilitate the growth and development of an NGN in Ireland. These include a clear strategic vision from Government and an explanation of how it will realise its vision of a truly national NGN that leaves no one behind; a realisation and acceptance by the Government that leaving the provision of NGNs solely to the private sector will not be enough to deliver on this vision, given the specific challenges of our dispersed rural population; the corresponding realisation of the need for State intervention, the nature and extent of which, when clarified, will help to provide important clarity to the marketplace and information on where investment needs to be directed; and a revised regulatory approach to NGNs that recognises that this phase of the evolution of the market is based on a new business model and that the regulatory approach required must facilitate sustainable competition and investment.
The digital divide must be acknowledged to be the critical obstacle to the fair and balanced development of the economy and society in significant parts of our island. It is a serious impediment to job creation, to the development of small and medium enterprises and to the development of a balanced society in which people have equal access to services. I make this point based on studies which have found a significant correlation between a nation’s broadband quality and its advancement as a knowledge economy. Any failure of Government policy to deal with the challenge of the digital divide would send a critical message to those citizens affected that they cannot participate in the knowledge economy. It would represent a betrayal of the principle that nobody should be left behind.
Unfortunately, the aspirations of the CWU are not met by the current provisions of the national broadband scheme. I commend the work of Irish Rural Link, which pointed out that up to 12,000 houses and business premises are not covered by the scheme. This figure excludes those whose only broadband options are prohibitively expensive or of poor quality. As a person from rural Ireland, I can say that the ability of such areas to contribute to the Government’s smart economy vision is severely constrained by the lack of broadband, high latency and contention ratios and relatively slow speeds. The NBS will not allow rural small and medium enterprises to fully realise their potential; hence the need to see beyond the strict letter of the NBS and adhere to the spirit behind its implementation. The Labour Party motion points this out forcibly, as does the CWU’s call for a national NGN.
Other countries, which are also our competitors, are investing in high speed, high quality broadband. However, despite the Government’s smart economy document, which was published in December, no coherent vision for a national broadband service has been tabled.
I will touch briefly upon another oft-neglected aspect of this debate, that is, the trend in Irish culture towards increasing technocracy and utilitarianism. To politically justify something, one is expected to answer the categorical question of how much money can be made from it or how much it will cost. The value of genuine communitarianism and social solidarity is being reduced to the balance sheet, as is the categorical imperative of human dignity. This is why, like other Members, I have much to contribute to debates about issues such as embryo research and care of the elderly and the disabled.
As the wording of the Labour Party motion stresses, it is vital that we recognise the importance of rural Ireland to the social fabric of our nation and the level of isolation felt by many residents in rural Ireland, not just older people. I do not wish to give the impression that we are not in the midst of an economic crisis and that we can be as fiscally liberal as we like. Cuts must be made and spending must be reduced, but society is not at the service of the economy. It must be the other way around; the economy must be at the service of our society, and an integral part of our society is our rural population.
Is ceist luacha í a bhaineann le dínit an duine. Is cuma más i duine faoin tuath nó duine i lár na cathrach atá i gceist. Is cuma más duine nach bhfuil ar an saol go fóill nó seanduine atá i gceist. Tá sé riachtanach go mbeadh sé mar aidhm againn go mbeadh an meas céanna againn ar gach saoránach sa tír seo. Ba chóir dúinn bheith chomh dáiríre faoi na seirbhísí atá ar fáil do dhaoine faoin tuath is atáimid faoi na seirbhísí atá ar fáil do dhaoine sna cathracha.
Senator Brendan Ryan: My colleagues, Senators Hannigan and Prendergast, in proposing and seconding this motion, set out the issues as we see them and as highlighted by Irish Rural Link. As Senator Hannigan pointed out and as everybody here knows, access to broadband is, unfortunately, dependent on where one lives. Access is now almost universal in urban areas but not in rural areas.
The national broadband strategy, which was announced earlier this year and is welcomed, seeks to provide 100% rural access to broadband by the end of next year. The intention of the strategy is supported by all sides of this House, as is evidenced by the contributions tonight. The purpose of the debate is to obtain a restatement of the Government’s commitment to the strategy and to ask the Government to extend the strategy to cater for those homes and businesses not covered by it. The strategy is a first step towards rural access to broadband.
The rural population is dispersed, which makes service provision difficult. However, there are issues with proposed mobile wireless broadband service offered by 3, including limits on speed. It is intended that the scheme be in place by 2010, but to meet this we need 390 telecommunications masts around the country, of which only 230 are in place, so a further 160 will need to go through the planning process. These are potential roadblocks ahead of which we must be wary. Local residents are concerned about mobile phone masts and this provides challenges to the Government. Isolated houses remote from masts will have difficulties which may need to be resolved by way of satellite. It has been proposed that a business broadband voucher scheme be introduced for businesses excluded from the NBS or having higher-spec requirements, and that community initiatives be encouraged. Community groups seeking to develop eco and enterprise works in rural locations must be guaranteed high quality broadband. A portion of available funds should be directed to upgrading broadband in schools.
Broadband access is essential for rural Ireland and helps combat isolation and rural unemployment. Senator Prendergast, in seconding the motion, noted the severe disadvantage for SMEs without broadband, with some going out of business as a result. All broadband infrastructure should be subject to fast-track planning rules and it should be noted that schools and colleges need priority for high bandwidth access.
I note the Minister’s statement of the Government’s commitment to the strategy, but how soon will that be delivered upon? Will availability of finance be an issue? He noted that new housing and new roads will have ducting in place for ease of access to broadband provision as part of new building standards regulations. He also observed that long-term investment in Eircom’s networks is required.
I thank other Senators for their contributions. Senator O’Reilly described the Government’s efforts as tardy in several dimensions and compared our performance unfavourably with other regions in Europe. Senator Brady proposed the Government amendment, stating that common sense must apply and noting where we came from in the past. He also asked why the proper infrastructure was not installed by Eircom and lamented that company’s performance. Senator O’Toole expressed concern about the slowness of broadband connections and referred to his inability to access broadband services even though he lives only 17 miles from Dublin. He highlighted the opportunities broadband can provide for cottage industries in the west.
Senator Doherty spoke about the digital divide that exists in Ireland. Senator Boyle also contributed. Senator Butler referred to the opportunities for a smart economy and spoke about the gaps in the system. He indicated how the European Union might assist and observed that we may be wise not to move too quickly. Senator Ó Murchú spoke about the distortion of the market, similar to a previous debate on roads. He urged that this remain a priority issue and lamented the lost opportunities for private sector investment. He also referred to the special case for rural areas.
Senator O’Malley, like Senator O’Toole, expressed surprise at the Government amendment. She referred to the gap between the ideal of 100% broadband coverage and the reality that only 70% of homes have computers. She welcomed the schools initiative and noted that broadband provision cannot simply be left to the market. That is an interesting post-Progressive Democrats Party position and I am interested to see how it develops. Senator Alex White observed that insufficient progress has been made on the provision of broadband and asked why the House should divide on this matter. There were several observations in that regard. Senator Ó Domhnaill made the case for the roll-out of the broadband strategy and noted the progress that has been made but observed that Eircom has failed to fulfil its mandate to deliver broadband to all homes. He expressed the hope that townlands in Donegal will be serviced soon.
Senator Walsh noted the importance of the issue and the potential of technology and welcomed the roll-out to schools. He also referred to the failure of the market, particularly Eircom, to deliver to certain areas. Senator Ormonde spoke about the role of telecommunications in revitalising rural communities and the need to keep the issue on the agenda. Senator Mullen supported the motion, emphasised the need for rural broadband services and spoke about the digital divide. It was interesting that he succeeded in including in his contribution a reference to embryo research.
Even in parts of my constituency, such as Skerries, and my home in Portrane, which is only 20 minutes from the city centre, residents cannot avail of Eircom’s broadband service because the physical telephone lines are so poor. This is not just a problem in rural areas. The sooner Eircom is taken over by a company that understands the industry and looks on this as a long-term investment the better. There is a strong case for nationalisation but the timing may be wrong. I thank the Minister for responding to the motion. I commend the motion to the House.
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