I propose to take Questions Nos. 140 and 332 together.
The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, is a matter in the first instance for the private companies operating in a fully liberalised market, regulated by the commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. The Government recognises the importance of a balanced regional rollout of broadband, and in this regard is taking a series of initiatives to support and complement investment by the private companies operating in the market.
An indicative €200 million was set aside for the current programme of broadband infrastructure developments under the NDP 2000-2006. This includes funding for 19 metropolitan area networks in towns and cities across the country, the extension of digital subscriber lines by both Eircom and Esat BT, the construction of a 1,300 kilometre fibre trunk network by the ESB, and other regional broadband investment initiatives.
The MANs are now nearing completion, and will begin coming on stream in mid-2004. DSL rollout has now reach over 900,000 lines countrywide, and the ESB telecoms fibre trunk was completed recently.
Recent figures released by ComReg show the dramatic increase in the take-up of broadband in Ireland in the past year. Ireland can also boast one of the highest internet penetration levels in Europe with more than 50,000 customers accessing the internet though flat rate packages offered by Eircom Net and other internet service providers.
There are now more than 32,000 DSL subscribers nationally, compared with 1,000 in March 2003, and the number is increasing every month. Ireland can also boast, at 30%, one of the highest digital TV penetration rates in Europe.
Last December, I announced my Department's broadband action plan outlining the proposals to stimulate broadband-capable infrastructural investment throughout Ireland. The key elements of the plan include the provision of broadband infrastructure in more than 90 towns with a population of 1,500 and more, using community broadband exchanges and strategic fibre. A new group broadband scheme, similar to the group water schemes, is proposed for smaller communities to pool their broadband requirements and secure high speed connectivity from a range of service providers, with grant assistance from the Government.
An annual spend of €35 million between now and 2007 has been committed to the broadband action plan in partnership with the local authorities and in co-operation with the telecoms industry here. Operational details for the broadband action plan are now being finalised, and I expect to be able to make a full announcement shortly.
It is possible to obtain broadband services in most places in Ireland at the moment, and my Department's website www.broadband.gov.ie gives full details of broadband availability in all areas and the names and contact numbers for all service providers.