Priority Questions. - Telecommunications Services.

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

53 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if he is concerned that students and schools here may be seriously disadvantaged in regard to e-education by comparison with their counterparts in Northern Ireland where a dynamic programme of broadband infrastructure and on-line home facilities is being implemented; if there have been consultations with the Department of Education and Science on this issue; if he plans to take an initiative in this area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10960/03]

As the Deputy will be aware, my responsibility lies in developing and implementing public policy that ensures that broadband services are widely available at affordable prices in the Irish market, whether such services are provided for citizens, schools or the business community. There have been a number of significant developments recently which should lead to the realisation of this policy. My Department has co-funded private sector investment in telecommunications infrastructure and services. There has been development of open access metropolitan area networks in upwards of 19 towns around the country. My Department is exploring the potential of satellite and wireless-based technologies. FRIACO will be mandated before the end of June 2003.

With regard to the delivery of e-education services to students and schools, the Deputy will be aware that this is primarily a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science. I understand that the Minister for Education and Science has engaged consultants to review the options for delivery of broadband services to primary and secondary schools. The terms of reference for the consultancy study are available from the Department of Education and Science. This study will be completed by mid-2003 and will conclude with recommendations for broadband connectivity to all schools, an implementation plan and a draft tender document which may form the basis of an approach to market in light of available funding. My Department is represented on the steering committee for this consultancy with the Department of Education and Science and the National Centre for Technology in Education.

In addition, my Department is actively considering a number of innovative methods of providing the resources for connectivity to schools in light of the consultants' recommendations. One possibility is a flexible public service levy designed to provide funds required for investment in educational connectivity as well as a number of other areas of importance. I have asked my officials to examine this issue with a view to proposals being brought to Government in this regard.

I met the chief executive of ESB and the chief executive of ESB Telecoms on the issue of a proposal for the use of power line technology to bring broadband to schools in remote areas. This technology provides broadband connectivity through existing power lines and could be suitable for use in remote areas. I will shortly announce details of a pilot project in this area. My Department is supporting wireless LAN projects and I launched such a project yesterday in my constituency. This will provide a solution to the problem of restricted broadband connectivity in remote areas.

I acknowledge that the primary responsibility rests with the Minister for Education and Science and that a programme for the provision of IT began after the 1997 general election. Over the past two and a half to three years, primary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland have embarked on a radical programme of broadband infrastructure for all the children of Northern Ireland. They are all to be given an e-mail address, hands-on access and perhaps home access. Is it not true that as usual, we are left at the starting gate and the Minister and his Department are trying to catch up on what his predecessor did not do in the four or five years before?

This is a crucial area and the Minister must address it in the period of his tenure of office. Is it not the case that a two-tier society is being created? Better off children in highly resourced schools, from highly resourced homes, will be on-line, have access to broadband and know about the Internet and its capabilities. Children from disadvantaged areas will be left with no resources or facilities. The Government is creating a two-tier society in terms of e-exclusion. Will the Minister agree that a recent survey by Amárach Consulting proved that half A, B, C1 category households are on-line, whereas 20% of C2, D and E category households are on-line? This is already creating a two-tier society in another direction, which indicates another hopeless failure for the Government.

The Minister should have had the national vision of Seán Lemass or Éamon de Valera 60 or 70 years ago, to ensure that every household, no matter what its income or resources, would have continuous on-line access. The approach of the Department is ludicrous, half-baked and completely hopeless in relation to children.

I can say without fear of being contradicted that the Deputy did not know what FRIACO was until I referred to it a number of months ago. He then though it was a great idea. There is more to opposition than simply responding to commercially driven inserts in newspapers. I warn him to be somewhat careful about taking a lead from quotations from industry representatives who are endeavouring to force a situation where they will gain from a profit point of view. I am surprised that someone from the Labour Party is taking a lead from the private sector which clearly has a vested interest in what it is suggesting.

They seem to be able to get to the Minister's party – Eircom.

The Deputy acknowledges, on the one hand, that broadband in schools is not directly an issue for my Department and, on the other, he goes on to castigate what is happening. While I do not have direct responsibility in this regard, I have gone through the process of getting some information for the Deputy on what the Department of Education and Science has done.

The Department of Education and Science has to date invested more than €140 million in the integration of ICTs into teaching and learning at first and second level. There are two phases. The first phase, school IT 2000, ran from 1998 to 2000 and concentrated on the provision of computer equipment at school level – basic and advanced ICT. I am sure the Deputy will acknowledge there have been good strides in this regard and I agree it is vital to ensure there is not a two-tier society. There are ongoing discussions between the Ministers for Education and Science and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív, and me in this regard. No Minister of any political hue has been more active than I have been in recent months in bringing forward Internet access. As one can see from recent developments, there has been significant progress in bringing forward FRIACO and cheaper DSL.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

We must proceed to Question No. 54. We are well over the time.

A final supplementary. The cost is €45 a month. From this month on, Eircom's retail price will be almost the highest in Europe. In relation to more disadvantaged households in rural areas—

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:

The Deputy has gone well over the time.

—what does the Minister plan to do about ADSL provision in rural areas, given that one needs to be within three miles of an ADSL enabled exchange?

I could be here all night telling the Deputy about the other types of technologies available. Wireless LAN is one of the most significant proposals in that respect, which works. I saw it demonstrated yesterday in my own county. While I accept it is not a remote area, the technology can be used in remote areas. There is also the issue of satellite, which provides significant broadband connectivity. Perhaps the Deputy was not listening when I referred to the other pilot project we are considering. We have had discussions with the ESB in regard to using the power lines. This is being done on a pilot basis in two other European countries, and we are following on from that. I assure the Deputy that we are leaving no stone unturned.