Ceisteanna — Questions. Priority Questions. - Digital Broadcasting.

Enda Kenny

Question:

3 Mr. Kenny asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands her programme for the introduction of digital broadcasting; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19872/98]

The Deputy will be aware the Government agreed to my proposals for broadcasting legislation on 22 July 1998. One of the main elements is the provision of a statutory regime which will facilitate the early introduction here of digital broadcasting services, in particular digital terrestrial television. The proposed legislation will also create the necessary structures for the regulation of broadcasting services from a broadcasting and cultural perspective across all platforms, terrestrial, cable, MMDS and satellite.

The necessary legislation is being drafted as a matter of urgency and I intend to present the Bill to the House during this session. Concurrently with the drafting process, arrangements for the selection of a partner for RTE to form the commercial entity which will be responsible for the provision of transmission and technical facilities to broadcasters in the new digital era is under way. I am also asking the newly appointed Independent Radio and Television Commission to make all possible advance preparations for the expanded role envisaged for that body under the proposed legislation.

At this stage, I hope the legislative and practical arrangements for the establishment of the digital terrestrial television infrastructure will be in place by June of next year and that DTT services will be available in the middle or latter half of the year 2000.

I welcome the Minister's decision to have a digital terrestrial method of transmission. The digital revolution in terms of satellite began last Sunday in Britain with 57 channels being provided. That will have a serious impact here between now and June next year in that consumers will want to purchase the set top boxes which are preprogrammed with the other channels. I am aware from discussions that there is a serious move within the Minister's Department to have Digico set up. That is vital.

When the broadcasting legislation is brought before the House, will the Minister be in a position to give primacy to the Irish television networks on the channels to be allocated in Ireland? Studies from the United States show that those who switch channels on their television sets for the first few minutes invariably return to the first few channels. According to the Government programme for action, if there is to be an Irishness about our television content and what is broadcast to the people, it is important the Minister is able to guarantee primacy of channels to the Irish television networks.

I concur with some of the Deputy's remarks. The legislation I will publish this session is the first comprehensive broadcasting legislation in the past ten years. It is obviously much needed if we are to be to the fore in this technological revolution. It is very important Ireland takes its place in that revolution. I accept and appreciate Deputy Kenny's recognition that the preparation for Digico is well under way in my Department.

I also accept what he said about channels because a number of studies conducted in the US and elsewhere prove that people are likely to use only one to nine channels and that a conscious decision must be made to go beyond nine. That is not the way I use my television buttons but such use has been proven by these studies. The cultural import and quality of programmes on RTE and Telefís na Gaeilge has been of the highest standard. With the onset of the new technologies, there will be an onslaught from other cultures, so it is important that our Irish identity is not swamped. However, it is the consumer's choice.

Regarding the electronic programme guides with which Deputy Kenny is particularly concerned, one of the new responsibilities of the expanded Independent Radio and Television Commission will be to draw up guidelines for the electronic programme guides. The intention is that indigenous broadcasters will not be disadvantaged on Irish digital platforms. We have no control over BSkyB content. It is one issue which will occupy a great deal of the new Independent Radio and Television Commission's time in discussions and resolutions. It is a matter which must be carefully monitored to see how our indigenous stations can be best promoted. It is important that is done to protect our own cultural identity.