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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 22 Feb 2007

Vol. 632 No. 2

Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill has two major goals. The first is to allow RTE to provide a television and radio service to Irish communities living outside the island of Ireland. The second is to hasten the development of digital terrestrial broadcasting services in Ireland. I propose to deal with each of these goals in turn.

The issue of contact with Ireland and the desire for information about contemporary Ireland is fundamental to Irish communities and individuals living abroad. That longing to connect to events at home affects even those of us who live on this Island. Many of us on holiday abroad have found ourselves, despite our best intentions and resolutions, sitting in an Internet cafe logging on to the RTE website to catch-up with what is happening at home. The longer one spends abroad, the more acute that need to connect becomes.

Up until 2001, Tara TV provided a means for the Irish community in Britain to access some of RTE's programming. Unfortunately, this commercial venture did not manage to attract sufficient revenues and ceased to broadcast.

As has been pointed out by the task force on policy regarding emigrants, the loss of Tara TV is greatly regretted by many Irish people in Great Britain, particularly the elderly. As a consequence, the task force recommended that consideration be given to developing the role of television as a contact point for the Irish abroad and that funding be made available for the provision of such a service.

At present, RTE's public service remit, as set out in the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960 and the Broadcasting Act 2001, only extends to the provision of a television and radio service within the island of Ireland. Section 28(8) of the 2001 Act limits the use by RTE of television licence fee income to its public service remit. As a consequence, RTE cannot use such income to provide broadcasting services in Britain or elsewhere.

With a view to implementing the recommendation of the task force, the Government agreed that the draft general scheme of the Broadcasting Bill would include provision to amend the existing public service remits of RTE and Teilifís na Gaeilge to allow them develop broadcasting services for Irish communities abroad and that public funds could be deployed for such a purpose. Given the scale and scope of the draft general scheme of the Broadcasting Bill, and ongoing work by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources under the e-consultation initiative, the Government decided to extract and progress this small element by means of this Bill.

Sections 3, 14 and 15 outline the legislative amendments necessary to effect this change. Section 3 amends section 16 of the 1960 Act to require the RTE Authority to provide a television and radio service to Irish communities outside the island of Ireland. It also requires the television service to be provided to be representative of the programme schedules of the existing public service channels RTE One, RTE Two and TG4.

The final form of programme schedules will ultimately be a matter for RTE. However, given the issue of broadcasting rights, it is likely that the programme service provided will consist primarily of contemporary domestic programming commissioned or produced by RTE and TG4. RTE is acutely aware that Irish communities abroad will not be satisfied with a purely archive-based service and will strive to ensure that any service provided is reflective of the national domestic public services.

Section 3 also imposes a statutory duty on TG4 to supply some of its programming to RTE for the purposes of the new service at a level to be agreed between the two public service broadcasters. The provision is intended to define such supply as being in the nature of a public service duty rather than an arms-length commercial arrangement.

Section 14 amends section 28(8) of the 2001 Act to allow RTE to use public funds drawn from television licence fee income for the purposes of providing the new broadcasting service. The section also amends section 28(10) of the 2001 Act to require the RTE Authority to report to the Minister on its use of public funding for such a purpose.

Section 15 amends section 32 of the 2001 Act to empower the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to direct the RTE Authority to maintain a special account of its use of public funding in the provision of the new broadcasting service. It should be noted that this Bill is just the first step in getting a broadcasting service on air. It is nevertheless an important first step, as I am sure the Deputies will agree. This is an issue dear to the hearts of many in the Irish community in Great Britain and I commend the efforts of Irish community organisations in Britain and the Deputies and Senators who have worked on their behalf in driving this issue. It is fair to say that Deputy Stagg has been particularly vigilant in this area.

The Bill as originally published did not make specific provision for the broadcasting of RTE's radio services to Irish communities abroad as such services are already available in Britain and further afield by means of RTE's long-wave service and by satellite. The Bill, as published, was intended to remedy the immediate deficiency, namely, the absence of a television service. Having listened to Senators' concerns during the course of the Seanad debate, the Bill has been amended to require RTE to provide both a radio and television service to Irish communities abroad.

I propose to turn to the elements of the Bill that deal with digital terrestrial television, DTT, and digital radio broadcasting. The development of DTT in Ireland is integral to the continued availability of free-to-air Irish public broadcasting to Irish television viewers. Although satellite, cable and MMDS services can provide a range of televisual offerings to the Irish consumer, none of these platforms will provide the near-universal, free-to-air digital service regulated under Irish law that DTT can provide. Given the fast-changing developments in technology, analogue terrestrial transmission is set to become obsolete in the near future, particularly as most European countries move to digital provision. It is essential to ensure that Irish broadcasting services keep pace with these developments.

DTT will provide the technology upgrade necessary to maintain free-to-air availability of Irish television broadcasting. DTT can offer citizens much more in terms of choice of channels and quality of picture. It can also create opportunities for additional private sector investment and product offerings, with the possibility to provide new and enhanced Government and public services.

It is estimated that approximately 29% of households with licensed televisions use analogue free-to-air terrestrial television only, and that up to 90% of households use analogue free-to-air terrestrial television on at least one television set in the household. The roll-out of DTT will be particularly important for these households as it will provide them with a viable alternative to analogue television with increased quality and a better range of broadcasting services. It will also serve to meet the requirement that all TV licence holders continue to receive public service broadcasting on a free-to-air basis.

I am conscious of the need for Ireland to keep ahead of the fast pace of developments in digital broadcasting across the European Union. With this in mind, I launched my Department's DTT pilot programme in August 2006. The aim of this pilot is to bring momentum to the development of DTT in Ireland and to encourage stakeholder and public interest therein. The pilot project is expected to run until 2008 and will provide insight into the issues associated with the roll-out of a national DTT system and the potential impact on the analogue television network.

One of the advantages of digital transmission over analogue transmission is an increase in efficiency, which can benefit the spectrum-planning process. A move to DTT and a subsequent analogue switch-off will free up spectrum, which can be made available for additional broadcasting or telecoms applications. Demand for additional spectrum has increased significantly and has been a key factor in the move towards digital broadcasting across Europe. While demand for additional spectrum is not as significant a factor in Ireland as it is across Europe, Ireland will wish and be expected to plan for the use of spectrum in an internationally compatible way.

The European Commission has suggested 2012 as a target date for the switch-off of analogue services. Consequently, there is a pressing need to bring forward amending legislation in order to facilitate the activities that will lead to national DTT roll-out and analogue switch-off.

The Bill has already been the subject of a lively and wide-ranging discussion in the other House. Some Government amendments were made to the DTT elements of the Bill at that stage, which amendments mainly provide that the process run by the BCI for the allocation of multiplexes will take place in a timely fashion. They also clarify that ensuring compatibility across multiplexes so all services can be received on one set-top box is a key consideration for both multiplex contractors and the BCI. I may table further technical amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage.

The DTT parts of the Bill before the House essentially amend one part of the Broadcasting Act 2001, and the basic policy objectives underpinning the 2001 Act still remain in place. The licensing model set out in the Broadcasting Act 2001 required an all-or-nothing response from the market that was not attractive and proved to be unworkable. The proposed legislation seeks to establish a more scaleable model that allows public service broadcasters to migrate to DTT and private sector operations to seek DTT multiplex licences as they see fit.

This Bill offers a degree of flexibility in the take-up of multiplexes which will prove more attractive to private sector operators than options available in previous legislation. The proposed framework also puts in place a mechanism to implement analogue switch-off, which has not been developed before. Under this Bill it is proposed that up to six multiplexes or frequencies should be dedicated to DTT, allowing for approximately 25 to 30 standard television channels. However, flexible allocation of the frequencies thereafter could mean further DTT multiplex allocations, if required by market players.

It is proposed that the first multiplex will be allocated to RTE and will also contain TG4, thereby ensuring a foundation level of Irish broadcasting services on the DTT platform. A second multiplex could be allocated to RTE, subject to consultation. This is likely to be for high-definition television as it requires more spectrum. The next four multiplexes will be left to open competition run by the BCI within a specified time limit. The BCI will be obliged to run a competition for three of these multiplexes immediately, reflecting currently available spectrum. It is expected that TV3, as the fourth analogue terrestrial licensee, may be on one of the four multiplexes. However, TV3 can instead be carried on the "public service" multiplex if it so wishes. The framework will allow for multiplexes to be added as the market requires, with spectrum for these four multiplexes guaranteed. I expect these multiplexes will be in demand given the level of response from the market in the context of the DTT pilot. The framework will also allow for a gradual take-up of multiplexes over time if that is the market response.

A similar process will be run by the BCI in respect of the allocation of sound broadcasting multiplexes for digital radio, possibly of the DAB standard. While DAB is not as well established across the Union as DTT, it has been established successfully in the United Kingdom. RTE is currently running a DAB trial which will allow issues around a national roll-out to be explored. In that context, this Bill allows for the establishment of DAB multiplexes and provides a model for licensing by the BCI of DAB in the future. However, it does not rule out the use of digital sound technologies other than DAB.

I will now outline the provisions made in the Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title, collective citation, construction and commencement. These are standard provisions in legislation. Section 2 provides for interpretation and provides definitions for a number of terms used throughout the Bill.

Section 3 provides for the authority, RTE, to establish and maintain multiplexes and makes provision to ensure that the RTE and TG4 channels are carried on the first multiplex. It also ensures that consideration will be given to the carriage of TV3 on the DTT platform in the event that measures under section 4 do not bring this about. It provides that TG4 and TV3 may make payments to the authority in the event that the authority carries these channels on a multiplex.

Section 4 outlines the functions of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, BCI, in regard to arranging contracts with multiplex contractors for providing additional multiplexes of programming. The BCI will be required to ensure compliance by contractors with the provisions of the Act. This section also sets out conditions to allow for provision of the analogue commercial licensee's services on the DTT platform and for any Northern Ireland service that could be designated for carriage in the future.

Section 5 provides that the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, is required to make available licences for DTT services to RTE and other multiplex service providers. Under this section, ComReg may allocate further licences for DTT to be contracted by the BCI and other services. The section also provides for ministerial powers to make provisions for the use of services under section 5 in the event of a declared emergency.

Section 6 provides that ComReg is required to make available licences to RTE and other providers in a similar arrangement to that of section 5 but for digital sound broadcasting. Section 7 provides for ComReg to levy fees by regulation on to various broadcasting licences, including multiplex licences.

Section 8 provides that the BCI should run a competition within a specified time limit for the awarding of multiplex contracts for television and radio, which should be publicly advertised. The section obliges the BCI to invite applications for contracts in respect of three national multiplexes within six months of the coming into force of the legislation. Under this provision, the BCI has discretion to set the coverage area for any multiplex service and services can include regional and local digital services.

Section 9 sets out the criteria to be considered by the BCI when awarding contracts to multiplex contractors. Additional criteria can be added at the discretion of the BCI where necessary.

Section 10 allows the BCI to set out the terms and conditions for multiplex contracts and sets out a number of possible terms and conditions to be included. In addition, it provides that the commission may suspend or terminate the contract under certain conditions, that the contractor may pay fees to the commission and that each multiplex contract shall be open to inspection by the public.

Section 11 sets out the provisions to allow consideration by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources of a date for analogue switch-off, having consulted all relevant stakeholders. It provides for the Minister, following consideration of a report from the commission or the authority or at any stage, to issue a policy direction in that regard

Sections 12 and 13 give effect to various minor amendments to the Broadcasting Act 2001 in respect of DTT and the new licensing model proposed, with particular regard to electronic programme guides and the application of BCI codes and rules.

Sections 14 and 15 concern RTE's public service remit, to which I referred earlier. Section 16 provides for an analogue broadcasting licence for TG4 after the station's separation from RTE on 1 April 2007.

Section 17 provides for the repeal of sections of the Broadcasting Act 2001, in order that the new alternative licensing regime can apply. Section 18 allows for the Minister's costs in the administration of this Act. The Schedule sets out the sections of the Broadcasting Act 2001 that are repealed by section 17.

Extensive consultation has taken place on the proposed legislation with a wide range of public service and private sector bodies, including the BCI and ComReg. In addition, both ComReg and the BCI will have a role in the allocation for spectrum for DTT purposes. My Department has also been in communication with the European Commission in the context of analogue switch-off. The DTT pilot being run by my Department has also provided an opportunity for full engagement with regulators, broadcasters and all other stakeholders on issues concerning DTT roll-out. It is planned that this pilot will continue over a two-year timeframe, during which DTT broadcasts will transmit from Three Rock in Dublin and Clermont Carn in County Louth.

A DTT pilot stakeholders group has been established by my Department to provide a forum within which stakeholders can raise and discuss issues associated with the pilot and long-term DTT strategy. Key discussions have been facilitated with a range of public service and commercial broadcasters on the issues arising out of participation in the DTT pilot.

This Bill presents an opportunity to ensure that the Irish public continues to have access to new and improved broadcasting services on a universal and free-to-air basis. A national DTT platform is a prerequisite for maintaining and developing a vibrant and relevant Irish broadcasting sector, while meeting our commitments to the EU switch-off target date of 2012. Consequently, I commend this Bill to the House.

I welcome this Bill. However, given that it is part of a wider legislative initiative, it would have been more beneficial had we time to pass all the legislation discussed in the e-consultation process. Broadcasting is undergoing major change with the advent of the digital era. The future of free-to-air transmissions is in doubt and legislation will be required in that regard. The needs of consumers, both in Ireland and abroad, will have to be observed. The Irish diaspora is spread far and wide and significant numbers of Irish people travel on a daily basis to other parts of Europe and the world, not to mention the numbers who come here from elsewhere. All travellers have an interest in the current events of the country they have left or are visiting. We should be certain this Bill will meet the needs of these travellers.

Having visited the Irish diaspora of a different era in Camden Town and further afield in Boston and Chicago, I was struck by the interest of the Irish abroad in having up-to-date information about events at home. I once met a group of people whose forefathers had long ago been transported to Australia and who had never previously met an Irish public representative. They cried at their first meeting with the Irish parliamentary delegation of which I was part. It was disturbing to see their hunger for information about a country they had never visited.

Was the Deputy's visit covered in the Irish media?

The measures proposed in this Bill will be useful to that group of Australians.

With regard to the Minister's proposals on technology, I intend to bring amendments on Committee Stage because I am not certain that use will be made of the optimum technology.

Although this Bill only forms part of the wider broadcasting legislation currently under consideration, the building blocks put in place should be able to stand the test of time. As Members are aware, technology has an extremely short lifespan and some technologies become obsolete overnight. Consequently, it is imperative that the technology put in place and the systems used should stand the test of time. It has been suggested in some quarters that the proposed technology to be used, namely, the multiplex system, is on the cusp of being out of date due to overcrowding. It may not necessarily give the best possible service to those for whom it is intended. In this context, it may be necessary to consider amendments although the Minister has already stated there is provision to use other technologies in this regard.

I wish to refer briefly to the digital television pilot scheme in operation. While pilot schemes are well and good, they are merely pilot schemes. There are methods to acquire and condense the information and to bring it up to speed much faster than is the case with the existing scheme. A couple more years will elapse before anything worthwhile will be done in respect of moving towards the switch over from analogue broadcasting. I have received information from sources that suggests it would be possible to carry out a similar exercise to the pilot programme in a shorter time that would provide the requisite information and begin to put in place the necessary procedures for the change to digital broadcasting. The Minister will probably claim this is untrue and that other considerations exist. While I am familiar with such considerations, if we spend too much time debating the procedures to be followed, time may have caught up with the technology and it may be obsolete before it is ever put into place.

Although this may sound extraordinary or crazy, it has happened on countless previous occasions in Ireland and elsewhere. Other countries now recognise that some of the technology that has been proposed for use under this Bill is out of date and will not be used or must be changed. Given the Minister's opening remarks, obviously he is considering this issue.

Would the Deputy like to see the current Government on high definition television?

I am unsure whether that would be good for the consumer.

It might frighten consumers.

I suspect consumers would be taken aback in the era of high definition television. I take Deputy Broughan's point.

The Deputy has more to worry about in that regard than me.

Some of the Minister's colleagues have paid so many visits to television and radio studios recently that so doing in high definition might prove to be a shock for which the public may not be prepared. Although the public has been shocked on numerous occasions, I will not go into specific instances.

Although it should not apply to the service that is being introduced, some Ministers tend to regard the national broadcasting service as their own, or as "one of ours", in the catch phrase from RTE's "Killinaskully". However, the public broadcasting service is not "one of ours". It is available to all and to both Government and Opposition in equal proportions. The current or any future Government should be made aware that any attempt to subsume the national broadcasting service is simply not on. Ministers may believe that by virtue of their office, they have the automatic right to descend on a television or radio studio to give the public the benefit of their high moral tones and values on all kinds of issues at all times. However, they should realise that such facilities must be made equally available to everyone else without exception.

For instance, a change of Government, which will take place, might come as a terrible shock to the public because they will no longer see those familiar faces continually, even in high definition. This may create withdrawal symptoms among those unfortunate Members who are on the Government benches, but who will then be sitting on the Opposition benches. There is ample scope and space for all in the broadcasting area.

While I am on the subject, this Bill does not cover local broadcasting, which is a powerful element in Ireland's communications system. In future, there will be more local television. I will revert shortly to the difference between television and the use of a personal computer or whatever for viewing programmes. However, Members should consider the direction being taken by local radio. At present there are numerous cases, in Ireland and worldwide, in which other local media outlets are investing in local radio. This is taking place to such an extent that the years are being reeled back in that the local element is being replaced in a reversion to national or international services. While this is acceptable, local radio should not be so described if it is no longer local. While this has not happened in all cases, such a tendency exists and arises from a number of factors. In common with the telecommunications sector or the information technology sector in general, at a time of low interest rates, which has been the case for some time, it is much more lucrative for investors to consider investing in utility services to make high returns.

One need only consider the Eircom saga in this respect. It is a classic example in which a utility service has been rolled over four times in the last eight years. Each time, the emphasis has been on the value of the company rather than the value of the service to the consumer. As for the broadcasting area, Members must retain clearly the objective of providing a service to the consumer, rather than for the convenience of the service provider or investor. The Minister may need to investigate this issue in respect of the broader broadcasting legislation. While I do not refer to the legislation before the House, it will arise and must be dealt with. I know this issue will be dealt with, either by the Minister or by Opposition Members after they take office, as it will be necessary to so do. While this matter will be discussed in greater detail subsequently, I believe it must be done by way of legislation.

The question of regulation and competition appears to work better in the United States than in Ireland. Perhaps the model we are using is not optimal. However, it appears that in the United States, there is provision in legislation whereby the service being provided must be adequately funded, invested and upgraded on a regular basis to ensure its continued provision to the consumer, as opposed to fattening the company or utility service for sale as an investment venture. This matter requires a great deal of attention and pertains to all of the services for which the Minister is responsible, such as electricity generation, electronic communications of all forms, the communications sector in general and the postal transmission services. They are all utility services that will become highly attractive for investments or for a quick fattening sale. However, the potential exists in all to damage the level of service that the consumer has a right to expect. I raise this point to ensure Members are on the right track. Will the Minister indicate whether it is possible to shorten the pilot project to which he referred and bring forward proposals to telescope it and get ahead of the posse rather than chase it? While I do not suggest the Minister is to blame, in recent years we saw slow starts and progress in this area. The availability of broadband is a classic example. For whatever reason, we moved from a situation a few years ago where we were at the leading edge to being second or third last in the European league. No matter what we do, unless we jump ahead of our targets and set our own standards which should leave us at the leading edge, we will not be in a position to compete effectively in the European arena. It is short and simple. The same applies to every service provided by other Departments which have the ability or necessity to utilise modern telecommunications.

I will return to the use of technology and digital shortwave or longwave transmissions. The Tara transmission and long wave transmissions from here were of major benefit to Irish people living abroad. The degree to which they will benefit from the new system is what will most interest us now.

The Minister mentioned a single set-top transposer. It should be possible to build into the technology within receivers an ability to decode automatically. The more one switches on and off boxes, transposers and various thingamajigs the more complicated it becomes. It is possible to build into radio or television receivers a system which can automatically receive and decode a signal and deal with it in any way.

Way back in the early 1980s I won a video recorder. I do not know how I won it but I remember the first prize was a Volkswagen Golf——

Was it in a Fine Gael draw?

It was not. I think it was a GAA draw. The first prize was a Volkswagen Golf and the second a video recorder. They were that close together at the time. It came in a box and somebody who knew about these matters asked me whether it was a betacord or VHS recorder. I told him it was a betacord recorder and he told me I ought to get rid of it straightaway because it was old technology. In fact, it was not; it was the best. However, it was not the most used, which is a different matter. The major manufacturers had come together under a particular technology umbrella and decided to use the VHS system which was not nearly as good, easy to use or advanced as the betacord system. That is a fact. I used both and from personal evaluation, that is what it amounted to. It proves a point that what we are told is not always correct. We know this from the various expert groups which advise us. Expert advice varies. The great thing about experts is that two groups can have totally different opinions, each proving its case. However, only one of them is right. Which is it?

Will the technology to be used have a reasonably long lifespan? Will we avail of it early and will it have the ability to transmit a signal to the widest possible audience throughout Europe, in particular, and further afield, if possible? That is what I would most like to know. It can be done, as we can receive signals in tunnels. I must check whether we can receive a signal in the new tunnel here. From past experience, I know it is possible to receive an adequate signal throughout Europe. It is also possible to receive a good quality signal transmitted from this country throughout Europe, whether it be long wave, short wave or digital. The old-fashioned or overcrowded signal and the clear near stereo signal are as different as chalk and cheese. There is no comparison.

From driving cross-country, we are familiar with the automatic pre-selection system in motorcars. It changes to pick up various stations as one travels from one part of the country to another. One does not always get a good quality signal, sound or response. When there is a squelch, fade or loss of signal, one wonders what is happening. We had such an example in recent times. As the Minister is aware, broadcasting services from a number of churches ceased. Many parishes were annoyed and disappointed. They had available to them an FM signal which was quite good but then disappeared. As the Minister knows, I was in touch with his office and he provided me the information available to him. I was also in touch with the regulator and received the information available to that office. I was told air traffic control was in deep trouble with the system and that it had to be changed. From experience gained in a previous incarnation, I was amazed that was interference with air traffic control. I was not all that reassured from the information I received. Suffice to say, it is possible to have both signals. It is possible to provide a service for all churches in a way which will not interfere with anybody else, any other signal or emergency services. It is possible to provide such a service throughout the country and further afield. In the context of what is proposed in the Bill, it is possible to restore the high quality signal available to churches and utilise the technology available without interference. This is the right time to do so. The confidence in the system of those who had come to enjoy a particular quality of service would be restored. For regulatory reasons or otherwise, overnight they found they no longer had the service. It should not be this way.

Will the Minister examine how the Bill can assist those involved in providing a service from churches, particularly for older people and those who are ill and are unable to attend mass or church services on a Sunday morning? This would be of major benefit. Someone will argue that a system is provided for them through a new type of receiver box. It is a CB-type signal which is not of high quality. We do not need to rely on it. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate to the House how the matter might be dealt with.

Perhaps we are seeing the end of free-to-air television services; it looks to me that that is the way it is going. It has been that way in the United States for some time. This is sad, as there will always be a place for a free-to-air broadcast station which fulfils national broadcasting needs and the public service obligation. Such a station would be free and independent and not rely unnecessarily on advertising support, etc. There are different horses for different courses. TG4 provides an interesting service different from that provided by many other stations. It has been innovative and effective in the sports area and the broadcasting of Oireachtas proceedings. Live proceedings from the Oireachtas have been broadcast when the occasion has arisen. It has done a good job for the Irish language and the consumer by presenting such an option.

The time has come for the live broadcasting of proceedings in these Houses, something Members seek all the time. There is ample scope and space for building a service around the proceedings of the national parliament. For those who ask who would want to listen to them, it should be said people ignore proceedings in the Houses at their peril. Everything that is legislated for must pass through the Houses and the public has a right to know what its representatives say and do, how they vote and deport themselves and what is done in response to the Government or Opposition. It is a vital part of democracy and would be a very important service. Such a broadcast would be viewed by a large number. I am sure my colleagues share my experience of people walking up to me and asking about what a certain Member had said because I would have been present at the time and knew what was happening. If we wish to have a full House, something which receives much comment outside, we should make it interesting and bring the public with us. If it cannot be here, we should be brought to it. The people have a right to know as events happen. During the summer months, when everybody believes we all go away and have no interest in what goes on here, any radio or television station worth its salt would be able to build programming around issues already discussed. This could come from committees which sit for most of the year or by repeating some broadcasts from the Houses. TG4 has done tremendous work in this area and shown us the way.

I have referred to a number of points and, like my colleagues, hope to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage. We need time to do so. I do not believe it is fair or proper to expect us to deliver such amendments within 24 hours. The issue is too important for that.

I welcome the Bill in general and hope all the aspirations for it can be met in full. In so far as we can, we will do our best to assist its passage.

I wish to share time with Deputy Broughan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am very happy to be here speaking on this issue, but my interest lies only in sections 3, 14 and 15. The balance will be very ably dealt with by my colleague, Deputy Broughan, the Labour Party's spokesperson on this area.

The debate on the issue of broadcasting to the Irish abroad started with the Labour Party's Private Members' motion on 27 and 28 January 2004 which sought the implementation of the task force report on the Irish abroad. Amazingly, this was the first time the issue of the needs of the Irish abroad was discussed in this House, despite the large numbers involved over a protracted period. There has been real progress since. Funding by the Government has increased from €4 million in 2004 to €15 million this year and services have been increased accordingly. However, the task force envisaged a larger amount, €34 million, in funding from the Government. It could be said there is "a lot done, more to do".

That we are discussing the measure today is proof that campaigning works. I was not the only person involved in the campaign; Members from the Government side and other Opposition parties were involved also. We were persistent and successful, as is demonstrated by our discussion of section 3 today. The Opposition can propose as much as it likes but in the long term the Government disposes. I want to recognise that reality.

Arising from the 2004 debate, Fine Gael and the Labour Party have developed a joint policy position for the implementation of all aspects of the task force report during a period of government. Two issues have regularly and constantly come to the fore in my discussions with both individuals and organisations working for the Irish abroad. One is free travel when such persons visit Ireland, an issue the Government is addressing but an initiative it is having difficulty implementing. The other is reception of Irish television services by the Irish abroad, particularly in Britain, for which there is a strong demand, which grew greatly after the Tara service disappeared for economic reasons. The reason for such strong demand is very obvious, as people wish to keep in touch and ensure they know what is happening. They want to be in contact with home and do not want to be isolated.

I pay tribute to and thank the Taoiseach. I pestered him on the Order of Business with the matter which I raised 15 times. I got a good reception every time. He spoke to me privately and told me he was favourably disposed to my suggestion that this measure be removed from the large Broadcasting Bill and included in this one. He told me he would speak to the appropriate Minister whom I thank for doing exactly that and bringing this short measure before the Dáil. Other issues are attached about which I do not know much; I am interested only in this matter. My colleague is an expert and will tackle the Minister if the need arises.

Section 3(1)(b) states:

by inserting the following subsections after subsection (1):

"(1A) The Authority shall establish and maintain a television broadcasting service and a sound broadcasting service, which services shall be made available, in so far as the Authority considers reasonably practicable, to Irish communities outside the island of Ireland and the Authority shall have all such powers as are necessary for or incidental to those purposes."

That is key legislation which will empower RTE to broadcast outside the island. When we previously considered this matter, both sides of the House believed it could be done but RTE wanted to avoid it at all costs, putting every possible obstacle in the way. When the Government was at the point of instructing RTE to do it as a matter of policy, the body indicated that the old Broadcasting Act restricted it to broadcasting on the island of Ireland. This amendment arose from this and enables it to broadcast outside the island.

This will give a degree of recognition demanded by the Irish abroad for the very real and significant assistance provided by them during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The amount is colossal, even in the context of today's figures. It amounts to a real transfer of €3.5 billion. Through this measure and others, it is high time to thank the elderly people in question, many of whom sent money home to those who were regularly in poor circumstances. We should thank them for the food, clothes, books and education paid for with their money. Often, £5 sterling, equivalent to an Irish week's wages, would arrive in an envelope. As I have personal experience in this regard, I want to record my thanks.

The constantly recurring themes in the discussions with the Irish abroad were the reception of television and free travel. On the former, people had a service through Tara Television, but when it disappeared suddenly, the isolation felt by many was all the stronger. In England, there is a large number of Irish widows in the 55 year to 65 year age group arising from the tough lifestyles of their husbands, which affected the health of those men and caused them to die young. While the widows are not particularly poor, they are culturally isolated and removed from their communities. One's cultural identity is important, the most important part of which is retaining links. Being able to see contemporary RTE, home-produced, sports and news programmes would be a positive strengthening of that link and reduction of the isolation in question.

I ask the Minister not to allow RTE to drag its heels. Earlier, he stated that it might take some time, but there is no reason in the world for that to be the case. New services can be set up quickly, but this is an extension of an existing service. With modern technology and the provisions in the Bill, there is no reason the service cannot be in place in time for the All-Ireland Final. I look forward to counties Meath and Mayo playing. I am not hopeful of counties Meath and Kildare meeting in the final, as they are in the same province.

Their last match was rough.

I am sure it will be rough the next time.

It might be called off.

I look forward to the final being available to our brothers and sisters abroad. I will hand over to my colleague, who will address other matters in the Bill.

In general, I welcome the introduction of the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill. For a long time, the Labour Party has campaigned for and supported the two key objectives of the Bill, namely, the introduction of broadcasting services for the Irish diaspora, particularly in the United Kingdom, and the introduction of digital terrestrial television services. The Bill can rightly be said to be a victory for the long campaign led by my colleague, Deputy Stagg, for the extension of television services to the large Irish community in the UK, which was forced to leave these shores during the past 50 years or so. The Labour Party is proud of Deputy Stagg and his achievement and I commend him.

Last year, I had cause to describe the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and the Government as an analogue Government in a digital age. Unfortunately, that description remains merited. The Bill is a small first step rather than a comprehensive vision for facilitating a smooth and speedy digital transition. The Labour Party believes that a comprehensive plan for achieving digital switch-over must be prepared and implemented urgently, as we cannot afford the botched introduction of yet another critical component of the digital infrastructure.

Our particular concern is the digital inclusion of our whole population. Vulnerable groups that will be most affected by the switch-over, such as senior citizens and households that have low incomes and are socially or geographically isolated, must not be left behind in the transition process. In three months time, it should be a policy of the new Government to provide set-top boxes to senior and vulnerable citizens.

Hear, hear.

When the main broadcasting Bill, or the large broadcasting Bill, as we have been calling it, was published last September, a question that occurred to everyone concerned the whereabouts of the DTT section. It soon became clear, as Professor Colum Kenny of DCU predicted rightly, that the Government would need to publish a second Bill to amend the main broadcasting Bill and to provide for DTT, which is before the House today. The Government had no intention of putting the main Bill through the House.

The heads of the main Bill were historic because it was the first legislation to be submitted for full consultation to the people through the Oireachtas website. At least 60,000 hits were recorded in the main consultation period. It seems cruel, but typical of the Government, that a Bill so invigilated — our committee held two days of hearings on it — should be allowed to wither on the vine as the Government passes out of office. It is typical of the Government to kick issues to touch and to hope they will go away until after the general election.

Sneaking away.

It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the same ad hoc and disjointed approach to broadband is being taken to broadcasting matters. Is it not bizarre that the main broadcasting Bill was to establish the new broadcasting authority of Ireland, which was to subsume the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, yet this Bill refers to the BCI? It is an incredible mess in terms of legislative strategy.

An each-way bet.

Acting Chairman

Deputy Broughan without interruption.

Repeatedly, section 3 refers to new functions for the RTE Authority, but RTE was another body to be abolished through last September's Bill. I welcome that RTE is present in the legislation before the House. As I tried to clarify at the committee hearings, the Labour Party is opposed to the abolition of the RTE Authority and favours the British broadcasting model of regulation where the national broadcaster has its own regulating authority and OfCom regulates the rest of the broadcasting and communications landscape.

We are legislating for DTT in a regulatory and broadcasting environment that was to be radically changed by the overarching broadcasting Bill. Therefore, it is an incongruous and incomprehensible situation within which to bring forward DTT structures. Will the Minister address these matters in his response?

There are eerie and disturbing parallels between the ongoing disastrous broadband roll-out overseen by the Government and the roll-out of digital terrestrial broadcasting. More than a year ago, I warned the Minister of a significant danger, in that we could see a rerun of the broadband debacle that has resulted in the international joke that is our position in EU league tables for broadband penetration, as described in The Irish Times a few weeks ago. Many of the same issues are involved, namely, being extraordinarily slow on up-take, being left behind by our EU and OECD partners, undertaking no research or proper preparation, not establishing public information or awareness campaigns, not ensuring that all citizens will have access to developing services and allowing a digital divide between sections of our society to develop. Did the Government and Minister learn nothing from his mismanagement of broadband and its roll-out?

Hear, hear.

One of the starkest examples of the Government's lethargy on all matters digital has been the failure to set a timeframe for switching off the analogue signal. In section 11, which deals with analogue switch-off, we get only a vague commitment to conduct a consultation process and review in two years. The EU has stated that 2012 is the preferred end date for switching off the analogue signal across Europe. Perhaps analogue transmission suits an analogue Government, but the rest of Europe is beginning to live in the digital age. The Government has made no decision. The target dates for most other EU member states range from 2008 to 2012. I again ask the Minister to address the issue of whether 2012 will be the date for the switch-off of analogue services. I have asked this question six times already in parliamentary questions in the past year and a half.

A two-year digital terrestrial television, DTT, pilot programme at two locations has been established in the last couple of months but there are still few, if any, radio services available in the form of digital audio broadcasts, DAB. I understand people with DAB sets have nothing to receive and that interactive digital services such as video on demand, VOD, archive services or interactive commercials are also underdeveloped.

Neither the Government, the national broadcaster, RTE, nor the communications regulator, ComReg, has taken or been charged with taking the primary role in leading the digital switchover. In the United Kingdom the former head of Channel Five, Mr. David Elstein, told British MPs at the House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport that the digital switchover "will be the biggest single civil project in the history of this country". He went on to say, "Just telling people that all their TVs and videos are going to stop working is not managing things." That is more or less what the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, told me at Question Time a few months ago.

Converting terrestrial television services to digital services is a complex project that will necessitate a high degree of co-ordination and co-operation. So far there has been little management by the outgoing Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government of the unfolding digital transition. For example, how does the Minister envisage ComReg being involved? In sections 4 to 6, inclusive, it has a minimal role. On Tuesday we shall discuss a major Bill to change ComReg, yet the Minister does not seem to have given it a serious function, except in its role as dispenser of spaces on the spectrum, as mentioned at the top of the Bill. Most of all, the Minister has not published any costings or cost-benefit analysis of the digital switchover, or the potential cost to the taxpayer and householder of the total project. When I asked on 30 May 2006 whether he had any cost estimates, he replied:

It is quite a simple sum. One must add up the cost of the televisions that will have to be bought, perhaps one or two per household. That is a matter for the individual householder.

He appeared to be very unclear on the actual process of digital switchover. DTT allows for a relatively simple conversion process and may not entail every owner having to replace existing television and video recorders. The Minister told me last week that the DTT project would cost €6 million, with €2 million being spent in 2007-08. Therefore, the explanatory memorandum to the Bill is not correct, because it states it will be Exchequer neutral; yet, the Minister is talking about spending a minimum of €6 million, I presume on information campaigns.

The ceannaire of RTE, Mr. Cathal Goan, has costed the charge for set-top boxes which we need at €100 each. If there are 1.8 million households, the figure involved could reach a minimum of €180 million alone. Then there is the major cost to RTE and others of replacing analogue transmission equipment and rolling out the DTT network. However, there are no estimates for any of this and nothing as regards what multiplex licences will cost when we go past the second multiplex. It seems clear that on costings the Minister has done no homework and is not prepared to give the public or householders even a general view of what this initiative is likely to cost the country.

In other countries a much more proactive approach has been adopted by governments. The German region of Berlin-Brandenburg, for example, was the first in the world to complete the digital switchover in August 2003. The rest of Germany is on schedule to have converted by 2010. In Berlin-Brandenburg set-top boxes were supplied to around 6,000 low-income households. The process involved a staggered switch-off, a partnership with industry, a major public information campaign and a regional and local approach, none of which the Minister has attempted here.

The United Kingdom has been described as the "most advanced country in terms of digital progress". This progress has been achieved because of the strong proactive approach taken by the British Labour Party Government on the issue and the establishment of an effective partnership between the regulator, the main public service broadcaster, the BBC, and the Government. According to the British Government's cost-benefit analysis, of the cost and power implications of digital switchover, as produced by OfCom in 2005, the process would bring benefits in the region of £1.1 to £2.2 billion. We have a whole series of such reports from OfCom and the BBC, yet in this country, apart from a very brief document from RTE, we literally seem to be working in the dark.

A rolling series of dates for the switch-off of analogue services has been set in Britain. Wales, for example, will be switching off in 2009. The Six Counties will be among the last group of regions to switch off in 2012. The British have set up an independent non-profit organisation, Digital UK, to oversee and co-ordinate digital transformation and ensure the switchover is carried out in an efficient and equitable manner. I may table an amendment on behalf of the Labour Party proposing the establishment of a similar agency here.

New Zealand, too, provides an interesting example in the Irish context as it is a country of similar size, populationwise, and makes special provision for the representation and protection of the Maori heritage in a way not dissimilar to how we protect the Irish language and culture. A very proactive approach has been taken by the Labour Party Government towards moving to full digital transmission. It is concerned, in particular, to protect the free-to-air digital content which clearly is thought to be under threat. The transition to digital transmission is critically important for individual viewers. Digital services will provide many benefits, including enhanced picture quality, sound, range of portable and mobile reception, information services and increased choice of television and radio channels, as Deputies Stagg and Durkan have so eloquently expressed.

There will be significant problems for Ireland. In the informative briefing document sent to Members of the Oireachtas by the RTE ceannaire, Mr. Cathal Goan, he states 88,000 families in Leinster who receive free multi-channel television services will be cut off when UK services in the west of England and Wales go digital. This gives them just a couple of years. A further 115,000 households will lose free multi-channel reception in a staggered manner as other areas in the United Kingdom switch off. This is an enormous number of Irish families which are on the verge of losing multi-choice free-to-air reception. That is why I told the Dáil last week that a few years down the line many householders may well have a "Noel Dempsey moment" when they turn on their sets and they go fuzzy or blank.

Perish the thought, drifts of snow.

In the event they shall probably say, "God be with Noel Dempsey, wherever he is now, but he did not prepare our areas." RTE has stated the analogue transmission network "may not survive beyond 2012-2015". More than 500,000 households rely completely on terrestrial analogue services and nearly all will experience some cost because of the switchover. So far the Government has conducted very little research in this regard. As the rest of the European Union is migrating from digital in the next few years, the quality of Irish broadcast services will be affected unless we, too, rapidly make the switch to digital services.

For the Labour Party, public service broadcasting has always been a cornerstone of the broadcasting system, as it embodies qualities such as range and balance, diversity, social and cultural values and universality which are essential to a properly functioning democracy. We are proud of the role Deputy Michael D. Higgins played as Minister in the development of public service broadcasting, with the foundation of TG4 and the expansion of RTE's services. Digital technologies, however, may undermine the delivery of public service broadcasts and threaten such seminal principles as being free at the point of use, universally available and connecting with a majority of the national audience. There is a risk that as digital services become more ubiquitous, a broadcasting ecology that is predominantly pay-per-view, with few locally produced programmes, could develop. That is something we must avoid at all costs. That is the reason the national broadcaster has stressed the need for the urgent development of Irish digital services.

We have heard right wing journalists debate whether there should be a licence fee, if it is sustainable in the digital era or whether the public service broadcasters, RTE and TG4, should be allowed to take advertising. There are profound issues involved. I warmly welcome the development of broadcasting abroad but digital broadcasting necessitates a wider debate afforded by the discussion on this Bill.

The development of digital broadcasting offers the national public service broadcaster a major opportunity to forge a unique role in the broadcasting of programmes of national importance as the main facilitators of a national shared public space. I commend RTE, TG4 and other commercial broadcasters on the public service side on the work that has been done particularly in the past decade.

A disappointing feature of the Bill is section 9, to which I will table amendments on Committee Stage. Regarding the conditions to be applied to the awarding of multiplex contracts, there is no a specific reference to public sector broadcasting.

I welcome the provisions for digital radio and the multiplexes. I was contacted by a number of people who raised concerns about the introduction of digital audio broadcasting, DAB, technology. In an article in a recent edition of the The Guardian the ACC plus, the advanced audio coding format, was officially adopted as a new standard for digital audio broadcasting. A question posed in the article was whether DAB technology in the United Kingdom is perhaps obsolete. DAB technology necessitates the introduction of new transmission equipment. It also involves listeners having the relevant technology to access the radio services. I am aware RTE has recently run a six month trial of DAB along the east coast involving RTE Radio 1, 2FM, RTE Raidió na Gaeltachta, RTE Lyric FM, Today FM and WRN. I understand that currently there are no DAB services available in Ireland. Therefore, I am not sure if anyone who bought a DAB set recently can receive digital radio broadcasts. The Minister might respond to that point.

Developing DAB technologies offers RTE and other broadcasters an opportunity to establish new niche services and experiment with a wide variety of digital content. This would be a major development for community and local stations. I was contacted recently by a retired engineer, Mr. Enda O'Kane, regarding the provision of digital radio mondiale, DRM, services, which he and many others — I referred to the recent article in The Guardian — have said would offer many advances over the existing analogue broadcasting systems, especially from the point of view of interference which limits listening enjoyment, particularly at night. I ask the Minister to respond to that point in regard to the radio multiplexes.

One of the interesting questions arising under the legislation is how the Minister intends to proceed with spectrum management once the analogue signal is switched off. Spectrum space has potentially very high commercial values and can be used for a wide range of mobile TV, standard mobile telephone services, wireless broadband, terrestrial high definition TV, standard definition TV channels, interactive services or even, as described by the European Commission, the wildcard option of innovative new services.

The argument has been put forward that the public good will be best served by allocating much of the released frequencies to terrestrial high definition television, HDTV. However, HDTV requires much more spectrum space. The Minister indicated in his Seanad speech on the Bill that under this legislation six multiplexes will be dedicated for DTT facilitating approximately 25 to 30 standard channels. Why did he decide on standard channels rather than high definition television? As I said to Deputy Durkan, we might see the next Government and Opposition on high definition television. Why will there be only 25 to 30 standard channels?

The Minister will then be on this side of the House.

Perish the thought.

I welcome the Bill. The Government's approach to the legislation and to the way forward through the use of digital technology is a classic example of it behaving as an analogue dinosaur. We need a new Government for the digital age and, hopefully, that will happen a few months' time.

Hear, hear.

We need an Opposition that knows where it is going.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Crowe, Catherine Murphy and Finian McGrath.

Acting Chairman

That is agreed.

I remember when I lived in London in the mid-1980s thinking I might not return to live here and having a sinking feeling as I watched the BBC news in my flat in west London. Even though I had grown up watching the BBC news, as we had that channel at home, living on the east coast, I thought then for the first time that BBC News was biased in the sense that it did not give me the full picture. RTE was not available to me and on BBC News I got only half the picture or half the story of my country. That had a profound effect on me. That is when I had a sense that I was living in a foreign country.

I say that for two reasons, first, because I fully support and understand the proposal of providing Irish services to our emigrants in the UK who have a connection with this country and, second, it makes the important point that we need to have control, ownership and possession of our free-to-air Irish broadcasting services to ensure we do not lose control of that most important part of our civic and State life. I refer to the ability to communicate to each other and to have access to news which we, rather than Rupert Murdoch or another corporate individual, control.

I commend the proposal to provide services for those in the UK. Perhaps through amendments on Committee Stage we can discuss what proposals the Minister considers most appropriate to meet the aspiration that has been set. It is instructive that an earlier attempt to do this failed on a commercial basis. I am not saying the services should be commercial but we should be canny in how we spend our money. Those services, by nature, would not be ones to which royalty rights issues attach, rather they would be programmes that could be selected from RTE, TG4 or TG3, and possibly could be provided on a free satellite service in the UK or in combination with the web access service. That may be a cheaper way to provide universal coverage of services in the UK rather than free-to-air digital services, which might be more expensive. I would be interested to hear the Minister's view on the best channels of communication to achieve that and the cost implications. Has the Department an indicative outline of the cost of the various solutions or ways of distributing the services? While all Members here support the provisions as set out, it is important to be clear from the start about what we are talking rather than being aspirational and not committing ourselves because we do not know the possible costs or implications.

The provision of services here is complicated by the availability of other platforms. That 70% of households here are on either a cable or satellite service has an obvious effect. Furthermore, the fact that we will go through a transition period where those households who do not have that service will lose the British channels they currently receive by dint of geographical spillover is a significant development and complicates the issue before us as to how we plan our own free-to-air services. I contend that in two years' time, as Deputy Broughan said and as Mr. Cathal Goan pointed out, some 88,000 families in the Leinster area will lose that multichannel television they have had for at least the 40 years I have been here. This is of some consequence.

We should ensure we have a strong free-to-air service. If we plan for a free-to-air service which only contains the four existing Irish channels, such a service will not lose out to the alternative platforms, be they satellite or cable, which can carry the full array of channels. We should plan in this legislation for solutions which ensure a free-to-air service that attracts a reasonable viewership, even if it is not the full percentage of our population, to make it viable or justifiable. The solution would be to adopt a North-South — the Minister intimated this in reply to questions earlier in the week — all-Ireland approach, possibly on a free-to-air digital service, to the provision of the main public sector broadcasting channels, BBC 1, BBC 2, RTE 1, RTE 2 and possibly ITV and TV3, although I recognise there are difficulties with including TV3 and ITV in terms of royalty issues, North and South. I strongly contend that we need such an all-Ireland dimension to make sure we have a strong free-to-air service, although not necessarily to compete with NTL or Sky. They offer a different package, namely, a plethora of sports and other add-on adjunct channels.

I do not believe a free-to-air service would survive on just the four Irish channels themselves. I suggest that we should be doing something similar to what we have just passed in the energy area and to what will hopefully pass through the House of Lords next week. We should be looking at all-island solution, whereby ComReg, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, RTE, Ofcom and other bodies in the North, as well both Governments, can come together to manage the development of an all-Ireland free-to-air service. If this happens, people in Belfast and Derry can readily access Irish channels, while we might also be able to carry some UK public service channels on our free-to-air service. That would provide the type of free-to-air service that people are used to in Ireland. Without such a development, the free-to-air service will not hold up and we may push many of our new customers in rural areas towards Sky and cable. This will leave us without any free-to-air service that provides an independent State-controlled guaranteed broadcasting transmission network.

I will table amendments on this issue on Committee Stage and I will be interested to hear the Minister's views. There is an urgency about all this as we will be losing our current analogue services in two years' time. If that is to happen, we should try to get a better alternative. When dealing with ComReg's spectrum management and the possibility of the BCI as a future all-Ireland regulator, it is apparent that there is a cross-over in responsibilities. If we create a single regulatory structure, with very clearly defined and separate divisions within it, we might follow the Ofcom model in the UK where the spectrum licensing was held in a broadly defined broadcasting regulator.

I do not understand why the Department has engaged in pilot testing. This technology is developing all over Europe, including Northern Ireland, and I do not see the technological reason for the Department to do it. I do not even know why it rather than an outside body is doing it. We should also legislate to insist on the availability of a political channel in any Irish free-to-air service or for any free-to-air services overseas. We have to take seriously the opening up of these Houses and the Oireachtas committees. We should be legislating for that now so that one of the multiplexes opens up the work we do here. That is the right step in the democratic process.

Hear, hear.

We should use this debate to discuss the future of RTE. There is a real question about whether RTE is a content producer. That question should also be asked of TV3, but we have responsibility for RTE. It should not see itself as being involved in the transmission area. There are real questions about the future of RTE, which is unfortunate. We are not legislating here for a general broadcasting Bill, which we should have done before the end of this Dáil. Under the heads of the Bill set out by the Minister, a future Minister will have too close a relationship, responsibility and authority over the control of public sector broadcasting.

Having said all that, I still commend the Bill and I look forward to debating it on Committee Stage.

The irony is not lost on me, as a Sinn Féin elected representative, that I have an opportunity to make a contribution to a Bill on broadcasting and RTE, 13 years after censorship against Sinn Féin under section 31 was lifted. Section 31 was highly undemocratic, stifled debate and discussion and denied viewers and listeners in this State the experience of fellow Irish people. Despite our criticism of the effect of State censorship directed against my party, and its lingering effects on some RTE personnel, Sinn Féin is committed to support for public service broadcasting.

The core point is that we were promised an RTE-led digital television service in previous years by Governments led by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats Party. The original proposal from the then Minister, Deputy de Valera, in the late 1990s included an enhanced RTE service with an international partner. It would have extra Irish-based channels, including 24 hour news, current affairs, education, science and so on. The Government dithered, letting BSkyB and then NTL enter the market with their own digital offerings. This made any move by RTE meaningless. While new stations like Setanta, Channel 6 and the City Channel are welcome, they do not constitute the promised expanded public service. The full ignominy of this became obvious when RTE became an add-on to the BSkyB digital satellite service.

I welcome moves in the Bill to allow RTE to broadcast to Irish communities living outside the island of Ireland, but what about the situation on the island of Ireland? RTE has a remit to broadcast all over the island, but what about the areas in the North that do not receive RTE? Will the Bill address this problem in any way? I have heard the argument proposed that we should follow the French example of TV5, which is a worldwide publicly funded service. However, such a scenario seems far off for RTE when it is not broadcasting all over the island of Ireland. Does the Minister accept that there should be all-Ireland coverage? The Irish diaspora around the world should be facilitated by receiving up-to-date current affairs and news from RTE. Retaining a link with one's country is desirable and television is a good medium to provide it. It is also important for people to keep in touch with home when they are abroad.

I am conscious of the need to move with the technological times. We have been very late with the introduction of digital terrestrial television. Broadcasting is obviously evolving, like other sectors. The Minister stated that digital television was important in providing an alternative to analogue television, increased quality and a range of broadcasting services. It is not only about that, but the quality of programmes. With the advent of NTL Digital and other services, television in Ireland is rapidly becoming more like that in the United States. Bruce Springsteen famously sang about "57 channels and nothing on".

We want a television service that will promote Irish created content, be it news, current affairs, documentaries, sports, films or regional programmes. This Bill effectively states that such a service will not be delivered. Channel 4 has a similar budget to RTE, yet its More 4 and E4 channels have news and current affairs programmes that put RTE to shame.

I am glad that radio services have now been included in the Bill. The National Council for the Blind made a good argument about extending the Bill to include radio so that it caters for members of Irish communities outside Ireland who are also blind or vision impaired. Are there any provisions for subtitling programmes for people who are hard of hearing? I am also concerned that subscription charges should not be used as a back door for companies to introduce charges.

The broadcast media plays a major part in all our lives. Hardly a day goes by without every household in Ireland turning on the television or the radio. This Bill clearly represents a milestone in the delivery of broadcast services. There is no point in having very good technical quality if it is not matched by good content. It is clear that vision is needed in that regard. I regret the limited timeframe for the debate on this important issue. This is a missed opportunity. People often fail to participate in the planning process, for example, until its consequences become evident as the bulldozers roll in. The same thing will happen in this instance.

The Government's failure to provide enough time for this debate will mean that many people will not know until it is too late that they could lose services they are currently enjoying. There will be great resentment among such people if the proposed changes creep up on them. The number of people who lose services is equivalent to the combined population of counties Meath and Longford. If the Government tried to withdraw other services from those counties, there would be a national outcry. That will happen if a decent debate on this issue does not take place.

We need to ensure that quality free-to-air services are offered to consumers, who should be central to this debate. When the Ryder Cup was not designated as a free-to-air event, it was available only to those who could afford to pay for it. That such circumstances could arise again should be of concern to all of us. We need to outline a clear vision of the kind of service that should be offered to the public. It should not be delivered on an incremental basis. We have debated the nature of the broad vision we should have. Surveys in the recent past have found that when people who predominantly read British newspapers are asked to name their public representatives, they are likely to name British politicians. We will make a big mistake if we do not protect the integrity of the content that is delivered.

The explanatory memorandum that accompanies the Bill states that it aims to establish a market-responsive model for licensing digital terrestrial television in Ireland. The use of such a model in the broadband sector has led to inadequate delivery of broadband services to many people. I do not favour the hands-off approach that is adopted in many sectors. ComReg's consumer protection function does not extend to NTL and other service providers. Consumers were the losers when NTL recently decided to impose a charge on customers who do not pay by direct debit. There is no competition in many cases, which means that consumers do not have a choice and pay more than they should. Perhaps the points I have made relate more to content and the availability of services than to technical quality. Many people do not have enough money to pay for television channels which are not free-to-air.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006. I will speak about the broadcasting sector in general and take a deeper look at the role of the media in Ireland. We need to accept that the media has changed over the last five or six years. Before I consider the legislation, which relates to the broadcast media, I will speak about the direction the print media has taken over recent years. As elected Members of the Oireachtas, we should challenge the dumbing down by some sections of the print media of their coverage of Irish politics, which has been a sad development. Like many people outside the House, most Deputies are afraid to point out, in case they are punished for such comments, that many Irish newspapers are owned by a few wealthy people with a political agenda. The freedom and fairness of our press is diminished when owners interfere in the editorial control of the newspapers, as they sometimes do.

We need to examine the cultural bias and values of certain newspapers and media organisations. It is fair to ask whether they are acting in the public interest. As I understand it, top-class journalism is able to inform, educate and entertain. Two of those three core goals — to inform and to educate — seem to have gone out the window, as most branches of the media seem to be interested in entertainment and nothing else. At a time when the personal lives of politicians and pop stars are treated as being more important than serious political issues, some serious questions need to be asked. It is important to challenge media organisations about their lack of investigative journalism. I urge media professionals to reverse that trend.

Although I am critical of RTE from time to time, I generally consider it to be a top-class organisation which fulfils its public broadcasting remit. I wish to complain about RTE's bias in one respect. I refer to the way RTE represents Independent Deputies in this House, who are likely to achieve between 8% and 15% of the vote in many constituencies. They do not feature prominently on television as regularly as the members of parties which get between 1% and 3% of the vote. The journalists who work for our national broadcasting service need to explain what is going on. Is their approach democratic and in the public interest?

I was appalled in recent days when a journalist, Mr. Mick McCaffrey, was arrested in connection with the leak of a report on the case of the late Mr. Dean Lyons. The Minister, Deputy McDowell, and certain officials within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform showed their brass necks this morning when they took the high moral ground and said they had nothing to do with Mr. McCaffrey's arrest. We know they were directly involved in the Frank Connolly case. I raise these fundamental questions as part of the broader debate on the media.

The Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006 seeks to establish a more flexible and market-responsive model for licensing digital terrestrial television in Ireland. It will allow progress to be made towards the switch-off of analogue services. One of the Government's core broadcasting policy objectives is to ensure that the Irish public continues to have access to a range of quality programming, which is a central part of the Bill, on a universal and free-to-air basis. Many of us question the direction in which certain sections of the media are going.

I welcome the proposal to extend RTE's remit to allow it to use public funding to provide a broadcasting service to Irish emigrant communities abroad. I also welcome this positive development, which is necessary in light of the mass emigration from this country that took place over many years.

That is right.

The success of our economy means the opposite is now the case. We have a duty to ensure, through the broadcasting sector, that Irish emigrants abroad who want to retain a connection with their home country are able to know exactly what is going on here. We also have a responsibility to respect the immigrants who have come to our country to make a massive contribution to our economy. We need to be vigilant in that regard. The broadcasting sector can be used, as part of a top-class public service, to tackle issues like racism and the exploitation of workers. It is important that broadcasters are conscious of such requirements.

I understand that no financial implications to the Exchequer are foreseen as a result of the Bill. The amendments to RTE's remit will mean that it will engage in various activities, including the provision of services to Irish communities abroad, which is very important. When we discuss the Bill it is important to transmit the right message, which is that professional workers in this sector should act in the interests of taxpayers and citizens. We should highlight examples of good practice in areas like investigative journalism and quality public broadcasting. We need to express our strong support for broadcasting that deals with the Irish language, culture and sport, which are important. I commend all those who are directly involved in broadcasting. I ask them, in the interests of politics and democracy in this country, not to dumb down their coverage of Irish politics.

I thank Deputies for their contributions on the Bill. The two issues covered by the Bill are of particular interest to Deputies, who will agree that it is vital to ensure that Irish citizens can continue to access a quality, free-to-air broadcasting service. In particular, we need to uphold the right of Irish people living abroad to access Irish public service broadcasting.

I am disappointed at a number of the comments made across the Floor about the delay in the major Broadcasting Bill. This is not of my making and I suggest the Members might look closer to their own committee, whose work on this Bill I acknowledge, but it was supposed to have finished with the Bill by 16 December 2006 when it should have been returned to me. If I had received it at that time there would not have been any undue delay. Unfortunately I have not received the report yet——

That was last year.

Acting Chairman

The Minister without interruption, please.

If Members opposite want the Bill passed I suggest they try to accelerate the process in the select committee.

In response to Deputy Durkan, I do not know of any Member on this side of the House who has at any stage referred to RTE as "one of ours", meaning one of Fianna Fáil's. Most of what I have heard from Fianna Fáil would be the opposite to that.

I advise the Minister not to go there.

I accept that perhaps Deputy Durkan may not know this but if he cares to check it out he will find that RTE has had more visits from the Fine Gael press office and headquarters than from Fianna Fáil, in an attempt to intimidate it into changing the balance.

I was right the first time. It is "One of ours".

As the Deputy says, "Do not go there".

I thought it was illegal to put out a broadcast without a Minister being on board.

A Chathaoirligh, I understood there was a protocol in this House that when a Minister is speaking his microphone stays on and not that of the heckler.

My microphone was not on.

It just sounds as if it was on.

The Deputy is loud enough without the microphone.

Acting Chairman

The Minister without interruption.

The Minister and the Government have a persecution complex.

I fear for poor Deputy Broughan every time I come into the House to answer questions or to address a Bill. He gets himself into a lather of sweat about a whole range of issues during the course of his contribution. If he bothered his head and informed himself, he would realise there is no need to be getting excited about them.

He will be back in the Chamber soon.

The Government is dealing with many of the issues raised by Deputy Broughan. He believes that ignorance is bliss. If he informed himself about what was happening he would not have to get himself worked up into righteous indignation every time he stands up in the House to have a go at the Government and so on. He should calm himself down a little and inform himself. If there are criticisms to be made then let him criticise but he should not make a fool of himself in the House by talking about things that are being dealt with.

He is trying to inform the Minister.

I refer to a number of serious points raised by Deputies during the debate. I will leave the political points aside.

Deputy Durkan raised the issue of the provision in the Bill to allocate multiplexes on a regional basis for the purpose of radio broadcasting. This will be done by ComReg in consultation with the BCI. They may award the multiplex licence for radio specifying particular regions. It is important that this provision is in the Bill.

Many questions were asked about the value of the trial being undertaken and the reasons for it. The purpose of the trial is to assess DTT set-top boxes in an Irish environment. Deputy Eamon Ryan also raised this matter. Lessons were learned from the pilot scheme, in particular at the time of the Ryder Cup and more recently, which showed that it may interfere with other receptions. The purpose of a pilot scheme is to aim for perfection as much as possible.

We want to ensure set-top boxes which will operate in an Irish environment. The technology for DTT is known but it must be tuned and fine-tuned to Irish circumstances and the Irish environment and this is what we are doing.

It is an Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Deputies asked how soon DTT will be available once this Bill is passed. Once the Bill is passed RTE is immediately mandated to broadcast public service channels in DTT. There are currently no proposals with regard to ending free-to-air Irish broadcasts. I have indicated clearly to Deputy Broughan who has asked me the question six times but he has not heard the answer. I informed him it will not be any later than 2012 and will probably be a good bit earlier than that. The trial will take two years and it will finish in August 2008. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, BCI, is required to initiate a competition to allocate the multiplexes within six months of enactment of this legislation.

I acknowledge that Deputies on all sides have indicated they will facilitate the passage of the Bill as quickly as possible and I thank them. Within six months of the date of its enactment into law, the competition for the multiplexes will be in place and this will enable us to move ahead very rapidly. The trial also allows for commercial operators to assess the market case for full DTT roll-out which is essential to ensure the success of DTT in the future. We are trying to move this forward as efficiently and as fast as possible.

Deputy Durkan asked about the technical details and he questioned whether we are legislating now for something that will be out of date and whether there is a danger it will not be able to deal with changes in broadcasting and technology. The Deputy is correct that broadcasting and telecommunications are changing rapidly. The Bill does not specify any type of technology because that is the responsibility of the people in RTE and other places who are the experts. They decide on the most suitable equipment. The trials will help to inform them but there are no specific technological standards cited, be that in the radio area of DRM or DAB. The Bill will not specify any particular technology standards; we will leave it as open as possible.

Is the Minister setting out any particular criteria for the manufacturers and retailers?

No. We are not setting out anything. The trial will allow people to know what is the most suitable technology and it will be up to them to use the most suitable technology.

If a person buys a DAB radio in Dixons, what happens?

What does the Deputy mean?

What happens when it is switched on and there is nothing on it?

One would be very foolish to buy it until one was sure there would be something on it to listen to.

Will all technology be tested for user-friendliness and durability?

We will not be doing the testing as it is not the responsibility of Government. Those who want to use multiplexes are the people who will decide about the technology. We are insisting that whatever multiplexes are used that one set-top box should be suitable and this will be licensed through the BCI. This is the only area where the Government will be involved in the technology. It is up to the companies involved in the multiplexes to have the best possible equipment. This is a commercial operation and it will have to be commercially operated.

Multiplexes can have differing systems and standards.

Yes. Deputy Stagg made a number of points with regard to broadcasting to the Irish communities abroad. All of us would agree in general with Deputy Stagg on the importance of the matter. The proposal before us with regard to permitting RTE to provide a broadcasting service to Irish communities abroad begins the implementation, as Deputy Stagg said, of a key recommendation of the report on the task force on policy regarding emigrants. Deputy Stagg was concerned, perhaps because there was less enthusiasm for this in the past than we all feel there should have been, that it will be delayed unduly. From my contacts with RTE, I do not detect the same reluctance that might have existed previously.

RTE states it will fund this by borrowing. Is the Minister happy with that?

Is the Deputy referring to DTT? RTE is a commercial company and is entitled to do that.

The Deputy asked how much the roll-out will cost. I am reluctant to give any kind of estimates until people who know the business well get down to the final stages of preparing estimates and so on. RTE calculated a broad figure a couple of years ago, when it felt it would cost in the region of €160 million.

Then or now?

At that stage.

It could be €500 million.

I do not know.

It could be like the tribunals.

This explains my reluctance to mention these matters. People tend to take guesses as firm commitments by the Government and then wrap them around its neck later on.

That is unfair. It is a low blow.

Deputy Broughan's raised the question of the elderly and those on social welfare, and referred to the United Kingdom——

I referred to Italy also.

The United Kingdom made provision for groups such as the elderly with regard to analogue switch-off. We are considering the arrangements that were made in the UK and these will inform our view and policy in regard to analogue switch-off when we come to that point.

A Deputy opposite suggested we should be spending money on information campaigns at this stage. That would be very premature. What we need is to ensure we know when the system will become operational. When the pilot scheme is completed to our satisfaction, we can then start the information campaign.

The loss of UK spillover services is an issue. The UK intends to begin analogue switch-off in 2008. Many Irish householders have benefited in the past from free-to-air UK analogue television services. While they benefited from this, it should be remembered that this overspill was a positive but accidental benefit which occurred as a side effect of analogue transmission.

Will the Minister talk to Gordon Brown in this regard?

Following the regional radio conference in 2006, spectrum usage will now be bound by international agreements and DTT spillover will be less likely, so we cannot rely on it as a method of providing television services to Irish households into the future. With the advent of the national DTT roll-out, it is likely that UK television services will be offered on the DTT platforms. In addition, households will continue to have a choice between satellite, cable or MMDS offerings.

Deputies Eamon Ryan and Crowe raised the possibility of agreements North and South and east and west in regard to stations on a platform. I understand this is a matter RTE will pursue and it is certainly a matter the Government would support into the future.

Deputy Crowe raised the question of whether this is an all-island Bill and whether it applied North and South. He did not see anything in the Bill that indicated we were talking in those terms. However, under the Good Friday Agreement, we are committed to providing RTE and TG4 services on an all-island basis, which is covered. We already have a transmitter outside Belfast for TG4.

I thank the Deputies for their contribution to the debate. I look forward to moving quickly to Committee Stage and to dealing with and finalising the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.