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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 Feb 1998

Vol. 486 No. 5

Ceisteanna—Questions. Priority Questions. - Digital Television.

Enda Kenny


1 Mr. Kenny asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands the proposals, if any, she has to allow for digital broadcasting of television in Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [2980/98]

I refer the Deputy to my replies to Questions Nos. 49 and 52 on 23 October 1997 and to Question No. 287 on 16 December 1997. As I indicated, my Department has been following international developments, particularly in Europe, relating to the introduction of terrestrial and satellite digital broadcasting with particular reference to the implications of its introduction for Irish broadcasters and viewers. There continues to be conflicting international opinions regarding the relative merits of terrestrial or satellite digital broadcasting and the implications and impact of the introduction of either form of digital broadcasting in Ireland and in other countries is far from clear. It is also unclear as to the extent to which the introduction of either technology will increase the choice available to viewers in terms of completely new television channels.

The issues involved are complex. As I have already informed the House, I have received a submission from RTE which puts forward for consideration a possible strategy for the provision of digital terrestrial television in Ireland. The capital cost of the provision of the necessary transmission infrastructure and for viewers in terms of acquiring the necessary receiving equipment either in the form of new digital television receivers or of set-top converters in respect of existing receivers will be significant. The issue of the date for cessation of the existing analogue transmissions on the provision of digital transmissions will also have to be addressed.

I recently discussed the submission with the RTE Authority and its submission will inform my thinking, in consultation with the Minister for Public Enterprise, who has certain responsibilities in the matter. I intend to develop and put policy proposals to Government on digital broadcasting for consideration as a matter of urgency.

The Minister's reply has added to the conflicting signals from her Department. The Irish Times carried a report this week that cable television viewers and MMDS consumers will have access to up to 450 channels on digital television by the end of the year. The implication is that the Minister has given authorisation and consent for this to happen. Given that digital television will become a reality in Britain by Autumn, should she now have a clear focus on what she wants to do, along with her ministerial colleague, and have a timetable in place to have her plans implemented? What is her response to the RTE submission? Should the authority be involved in the provision of digital services and does she favour its proposal for the acquisition of a strategic partner to finance them?

The confusion on the matter seems to lie with Deputies opposite because any one who has been involved in examining digital television will understand its complexity as digital broadcasting technology can be applied to satellite, cable and MMDS technology as well as terrestrial broadcasting. It is not just a simple off the cuff choice as these issues are extremely important.

We know of their urgency and underlined that when we had the opportunity to have a very fruitful discussion with the RTE Authority about having them looked at immediately. It is important to realise that while there is an urgency to develop a policy relating to digital broadcasting, a note of realism should be maintained.

A number of doubts have been expressed with regard to BSkyB, for example. Recent media reports suggest that the already delayed launch planned for Spring 1998 may be further delayed and there is a question as to whether proposals that have been put forward in other jurisdictions will lead to a greater choice in channels for viewers. The issues must be looked at in detail and firm decisions reached. I intend to put a policy on digital broadcasting before Government by mid-year.

The Minister has not answered either of my questions. The report in The Irish Times states that cable television and MMDS suppliers will have access to digital services by the end of the year. That implies the Minister has given authorisation for that to happen. She did not respond on the report she received from RTE. Has she formed an opinion as to whether it should be involved in the provision of digital services? Does she favour its proposal on the acquisition of a strategic partner to raise the money to provide them? Given the urgency of the matter and that digital services will become a reality in Britain by autumn, should she concentrate a great deal of her attention on the matter?

I understand the urgency of the matter and that is why I took the opportunity to meet the RTE Authority to discuss it and others pertaining to broadcasting. I have received the RTE submission and it is being considered. I am sure the Deputy will understand that I do not wish to expound Fianna Fáil policy on the matter until I have an opportunity to put it to the party and the Government. When that happens in mid-year, the policies will become known and there will be an opportunity to discuss them in detail.

It is important to realise the issues with which we must concern ourselves, for example, the provision of the necessary infrastructure. The Deputy referred in particular to transmission and the RTE proposal in that regard. However, it is only one proposal and a number of other issues must be considered. We must also examine the interests of viewers and listeners. It is interesting to note, particularly with regard to BSkyB, that it has been reported that the number of new channels which will be on offer initially will also be very limited and it was quoted as saying that only one new channel was definitely due to launch, which was to be called a Manchester United channel. We must keep perspective and make sure the road we take is the right one.

The interests of programme and film makers must be considered as well as the provision of new services and the optimising of opportunities to provide specialist services, including education, for those suffering from sensory deprivation in local and community services. I hope these opportunities will come on stream in the proposed digital system. Special attention must also be paid to the commercial exploitation of increased capacity. These matters must be taken with great seriousness. It is not a question of prevarication on the issue but one of looking at all options and coming to a firm decision. I propose to do so in mid-year following discussions with the Government and it can then be discussed with Members.

Does the Minster have a timetable set out for the implementation of her policy once it becomes known? Will there be Government action before the end of the year? Has she considered the cost of it and a mechanism to finance it?

The first supplementary relates to my legislative programme which is the subject of Question No. 2 and the Deputy will have an opportunity to ask supplementary questions when we get to it.

We have been waiting more than four and a half years for legislation on broadcasting. The former Minister published an interesting and erudite paper called Clear Focus. Its proposals, however, were based on the analogue rather than the digital system. Things have moved on considerably since then. I want to harness all new information, particularly on technology. I am sure the Deputy will appreciate the position in regard to technology. Our experiences with other international broadcasters have changed considerably in the past year and a half.