Other Questions

Broadband Service Provision

Mick Wallace

Question:

6. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if his attention has been drawn to the poor quality of broadband services in the Wellingtonbridge and Bannow areas of Wexford; his plan to address same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24773/14]

Seán Kyne

Question:

11. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will report on the progress of the rural broadband implementation plan; if the plan has cleared the EU regulations; and when it is hoped to begin the roll out of broadband infrastructure to the rural locations identified recently. [24720/14]

A constituent of mine in Bannow told me he is currently forced to use Q Sat for his broadband connection. It gives him a speed of 5 Mbps and a monthly usage allowance of 10 GB. He said the service is barely adequate for conducting day-to-day business and is definitely not good enough to allow him to use facilities such as Skype. What are the Minister's plans to address the poor quality of broadband services in the area?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6. and 11 together.

The Government’s national broadband plan, which I published in August 2012, aims to change radically the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring that high speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses. That will be achieved by providing a policy and regulatory framework that assists in accelerating and incentivising commercial investment, and State-led intervention for areas where it is not commercial for the market to invest.

Since publication of the plan, investments by the commercial sector are under way and in some instances have been accelerated in both fixed line and wireless high speed broadband services. Commercial operators combined have either invested, or committed to invest, more than €2 billion in their Irish networks, delivering high speed broadband to homes and businesses. As a result of this accelerated investment the addressable area required by the State-led intervention has reduced by 30% since the national broadband plan was launched. While these commercial developments are welcome, investment is largely contained to cities and towns. Consequently, the speeds that are available in these areas are demonstrably better than those that are available in more rural areas such as those raised by Deputy Wallace.

On 25 April last, I signalled the Government's commitment to a major telecommunications network build-out to rural Ireland, with fibre as the foundation of its investment, as part of the State-led intervention under the national broadband plan. This commitment is a clear expression of Government’s determination to address the connectivity challenge in rural Ireland in a meaningful and sustainable way. Central to the strategy will be a fibre build-out to locations in every county in the State identified as having no existing or planned enabling fibre network. It is intended that the fibre will be delivered directly to access points for homes and businesses, where service providers can utilise the fibre to provide high speed services to end users.

I have published a county-by-county list of towns and villages which have already been identified for a fibre build-out. It is an indicative list and is subject to the completion of the comprehensive mapping exercise currently under way in my Department. Further locations may be identified as this process continues. Similarly, it may be determined that some locations on the list will be addressed by the commercial sector and will therefore not require State intervention. The list, which is just short of 1,100 villages, is available on my Department's website www.dcenr.gov.ie. I expect that the mapping exercise will be concluded in the autumn.

In tandem with the completion of the mapping exercise, intensive design and planning work is ongoing in my Department with a view to producing a detailed end-to-end implementation strategy for the State-led intervention. It is my intention to conduct a full public consultation on the outcome of the mapping process and the proposed implementation strategy. My Department has had initial discussions with the European Commission on the relevant state aid guidelines and a formal application for EU state aid application will be made to the Commission once details of the intervention are finalised. That will be followed by a detailed procurement process with a view to commencing construction of the fibre network and provision of services in identified areas as quickly as possible.

The European Commission’s guidelines on state aid for high speed broadband infrastructure preclude member states from intervening in regions in which private investors have demonstrated plans to roll out infrastructure within the following three years.

In this regard, I understand that at least one network operator has published a programme to roll out fibre-based broadband networks in County Wexford, including the area of Wellingtonbridge, by July 2016.

Am I then to understand that because some private operator has agreed to do it before July 2016, Wellingtonbridge will not be on the list for direct State intervention in this regard? Can the Minister identify the private company that has been designated for the Wellingtonbridge area? July 2016 seems like a long time away and as most things are not delivered on time in Ireland, it could be even further away. Does the Minister think it is fair that the European Union insists the State should not be allowed to help, given that a private company wishes to invest in the area but cannot do so straight away? As the private company cannot do it now but perhaps the State can, does the Minister not think there is an argument for allowing the State to go ahead? On a different subject, can the Minister tell me how much the State's direct aid will amount to? How much does the State plan to invest in this regard?

As to whether it is fair, it does not really matter whether I think it is fair. These are the European Union rules and I sometimes find some of them to be massively frustrating. However, given that the Government has decided the commercial sector is doing a job in the cities and towns of Ireland which is comparable with anything that happens throughout the European Union and that the very basic quality of broadband in parts of rural Ireland is entirely unacceptable, only a State-led intervention will then address that problem. To pass muster with the European Commission in respect of state aid rules, the Government must engage in a detailed mapping exercise for presentation to the Commission.

If the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will permit me to continue for a second, this is somewhat complex, and Deputy Wallace has asked a fundamental question. The Government has engaged consultants in the preparation of this plan and my answer formally states that it will be submitted in the autumn. While I believe it will be submitted before that, it is being done and must be done in consultation with the private commercial operators, because the European principle is that if a commercial operator has a credible plan to provide the service, the Commission will not approve the state aid permission.

I will come back to the Minister, but I must allow Deputy Kyne to contribute.

I certainly welcome the Government initiative announced in April on rural broadband and the State-led intervention. It is an issue that has come up repeatedly over the past number of years and certainly during the most recent canvas, particularly in the most rural areas. However, this issue was not limited to such areas, as companies with inadequate services were also identified in places on the outskirts of Galway city, such as Bushypark. In a Dublin context, this is comparable with a company in Ranelagh, Firhouse or somewhere similar not having adequate high-speed broadband. If one goes further afield to areas that are only eight to ten miles from Galway city, such as Tullykyne, Knockferry or Rosscahill, one finds that private companies have been unable to provide adequate cover. Is the Minister confident of approval or are hiccups likely in respect of European Union approval under the State aid rules? When does the Minister believe construction of the first tranche will take place? Time is of the essence.

There has been a shift in the European policy approach to this issue, which is that the Commission is looking for a future-proofed system. Whereas it was previously technology-neutral, without specifying the type of network, European policy now essentially states that a fibre-based solution is required. Therefore, the answer to Deputy Kyne's question is that from the regular contacts the Department has had with the Commission about this issue, I am confident that approval will be forthcoming for the plan.

The Government approval for this tranche encompassing almost 1,100 villages about which Deputy Wallace asked is up to €512 million. I cannot be more precise than this, but that would be the cost of building out a new network. However, were one to leverage existing State properties, for example, it would deduct something from that figure, and the Government is of course working towards that end. The broadband task force I chaired myself was designed to remove obstacles and barriers that had traditionally existed and to encourage the leveraging of State assets that are in place, whether they are on State lands or whatever, which would mitigate that figure somewhat.

In addition, it is not acceptable that, notwithstanding the accelerating investment in urban Ireland, somewhere like Bushypark, which is less than three miles outside Galway city, has such a basic service. Therefore, considerable work and detail must go into the mapping exercise. It is painstaking, takes up a lot of time, is costing a lot of money and so on, but in conclusion, high-quality connectivity is absolutely essential for the future economic and social progress of this country, particularly the former. I was very pleased that last night, Counties Galway and Wexford were represented at an event organised by my Department at Google to announce the availability of the trading online voucher scheme to encourage more small to medium-size enterprises and microbusinesses to actually transact business online. Moreover, the local enterprise offices, LEOs, now are equipped to provide mentoring, other advice and backup to implement the scheme.

I welcome the State's intention to invest €500 million in direct state aid. A recent World Bank study of 120 counties found that for every increase of ten percentage points in the penetration of broadband, there is an increase of 1.3% in economic growth. Given that the private sector organisation that has earmarked provision for the Wellingtonbridge area is at least two years away from doing so, does this not mean that the European Union breaks its own rules sometimes? It bends over backwards to guarantee the maximum opportunity for private investors, sometimes at the cost of the people. It would be fine were the private sector in a position to do it straight away, but given that it cannot, does the Minister agree there is a strong argument that the European Union is fighting against economic growth by not allowing the State to invest in what is really important for rural areas and would help them to contribute to economic growth? Moreover, this undoubtedly would lead to greater employment in rural areas.

In respect of the roll-out of rural broadband, has a decision been made on whether one company will receive a tender or whether it will be split into regional areas? Second, how does the ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Act 2014, which was passed some time ago, fit in? Presumably it will be ready in order that a company may co-operate with the ESB to use its infrastructure for direct roll-out and the direct provision of high-speed broadband into people's houses.

The provision of broadband to rural areas is a necessity at this stage. It is not a luxury; it is a requirement for those who work at home. People have told me that they have to drive to their local GAA club to get coverage because the area in which they live does not have adequate cover.

For those of us who support the noble post-war aspirations that led to the European Union project, it is sometimes a cause for concern that the degree of intrusion by the apparatus of the European Union can be excessive. It is frustrating that one Directorate General is urging that quality of connectivity is a sine qua non for economic and social progress, while a different Directorate General dealing with competition demands that we comply with the letter of the law with a very strict rule book. We are, however, taking great care that our submission passes muster and the project will go out to procurement at that stage.

In regard to Deputy Kyne's question on whether the project will be awarded to one company, a decision has not been made in that regard. My view is that it ought not to be only one company. To some extent that will be determined by the precise economics of putting it out to procurement, for example, in terms of one company operating in Munster and a different company dealing with the rest of Ireland.

The ESB's project will proceed in parallel and I hope it will be ready to start stringing cable at the end of this year or, certainly, by quarter one of next year. Vodafone has been selected as the joint partner on foot of the expressions of interest process for the project. Detailed and conclusive work has been done on the project and I hope that a formal announcement will be made in the next couple of weeks. The aim is to reach 450,000 premises in rural Ireland. This is a joint commercial venture under the auspices of the ESB and Vodafone.

Electricity Transmission Network

Michael Moynihan

Question:

7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will provide an update on the review of EirGrid's Grid25 project; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24724/14]

Thomas Pringle

Question:

10. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will provide an update on the review of EirGrid's Grid25 project; when this review will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24769/14]

I ask the Minister to update us on the review of the Grid25 project and the various reports that are pending.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 10 together.

I have appointed an independent panel of experts chaired by Ms Justice Catherine McGuinness to examine the Grid West and Grid Link projects. The independent expert panel has held five meetings between 10 February 2014 and 10 June 2014. At its meeting on 2 May 2014 the panel finalised and approved the terms of reference for comprehensive route specific studies and reports of fully undergrounded and overhead options for each of the Grid West and Grid Link projects, including assessments of potential environmental impacts, technical efficacy and cost factors. The terms of reference were published on 7 May 2014 and are available on my Department's website. The studies and reports will be undertaken or commissioned by EirGrid in accordance with the terms of reference set by the panel, which will also oversee EirGrid’s study and reporting process. In due course the panel will provide an opinion to me on the completeness, objectivity and comparability of the studies and reports undertaken or commissioned by EirGrid and will oversee the publication by EirGrid of the two studies and reports prior to EirGrid proceeding to public consultation on the two projects.

I also asked the panel to consider what, if anything, it can do with regard to the North-South transmission line project and it has considered that issue. Although the North-South project was not covered by the Government’s decision, having discussed my request and in the light of the finalised terms of reference for the studies and reports of fully undergrounded and overhead options for each of the Grid West and Grid Link projects, the panel decided that it would provide an opinion to me on the compatibility of the methodologies to be employed on the Grid West and Grid Link projects with what has already been done on the North-South transmission line project. I understand that the panel wrote to EirGrid shortly after its May meeting to convey its requirements in regard to Grid West, Grid Link and the North-South project and that EirGrid is attending to those requirements.

I am advised that EirGrid, in response to the panel's inquiry regarding the compatibility of the methodologies, has provided a detailed submission to the panel. This submission was discussed by the panel at its meeting on Tuesday of this week. I understand EirGrid made a detailed presentation at that meeting and that the panel requested EirGrid to provide it with additional written material. The panel will continue its work at its next meeting, which is provisionally scheduled for 30 June 2014. I have on many occasions emphasised the importance of the North-South transmission line project to citizens in both jurisdictions on this island. The project when implemented will give rise to considerable savings for electricity consumers and will contribute significantly to security of electricity supply for Northern Ireland.

On 18 February I informed the House that the North-South line had been designated at EU level as one of 248 key trans-European energy infrastructure projects listed as projects of common interest. I also said that, while I had yet to receive formal confirmation of this, this status meant that the planning application could be subject to specified procedures to ensure public participation, as set out in EU regulation 347 of 2013.

An Bord Pleanála was designated as the competent authority for projects of common interest in Ireland. The board published the necessary projects of common interest manual on 15 May and on 23 May it informed EirGrid that the North-South transmission line would not come under certain transitional provisions of the relevant regulation and that the regulation will accordingly apply in full to the pre-application and planning application stages of the project. However, I understand that the regulation requires An Bord Pleanála to take into consideration any form of public participation and consultation that has already taken place before the formal start of the permit granting process in respect of this project.

I fully understand the Minister's response and why he referred to the regulations. Given the detailed and technical nature of the discussions between EirGrid, the European Commission and An Bord Pleanála, it is no surprise that communities are fearful of the extent of bureaucracy around this project. When will the independent panel of experts come to a determination on the matters arising? That is the crucial question to which communities around the country want an answer.

When I asked Ms Justice McGuinness to take on this task, I did not envisage that she and her panel of experts would have delved into matters so deeply. I did not intend to impose on them the burden of work they have taken on themselves. I very much appreciate that they are examining the issues entrusted to them so rigorously. The meeting they held this week, which lasted four hours, was their fifth meeting and they plan to meet again on 30 June. I understand that by 30 June they may be at a stage when it will be a matter for commencing the studies on the comparisons between underground and overhead transmission.

It will then be a matter for the studies to commence on the comparable underground versus overground transmission. The panel's job from there will be to supervise the integrity of the process, having briefed itself on all aspects of the issue and having taken expert advice from whomsoever it was felt necessary to take such advice. Arrangements have already been initiated to put those studies in place in respect of Grid West and Grid Link. The expert panel will then be able to assure the Minister of the day that all is above board and in accordance with best practice.

Did the Minister say that the body of work will be completed by 30 June?

It is vitally important, if this project is to have any public support, that everything is examined. I accept the Minister's point about the volume of work involved but it is crucially important that this is scrutinised to the nth degree. Can I take it that on 30 June the studies will go ahead on the underground versus overground options? Is the Minister saying that the panel will have completed its preliminary work and will set in train the studies at that point? Will a report be issued on 30 June?

I should say, for complete clarity, that I have not spoken to Ms Justice Catherine McGuinness since the first meeting with her and the panel members where I explained the Government and Cabinet decision and the task that I was asking them to take on. I am not in a position to speak for her. It is a matter for her and her panel to decide whether to issue a report. I am not saying to Deputy Moynihan that the studies will start on 30 June but rather that the final scheduled meeting of the panel will most likely take place then. I know that preparations have been underway for the initiation of the studies but whether they start on 30 June or 7 July I cannot say. They will start as soon as everything is brought together. I expect that an announcement will be made but I am not in a position to speak for the panel, nor am I authorised to do so. That said, I expect that an announcement will be made. The panel may not initiate the two studies simultaneously but may start with one or the other. The panel will supervise the integrity of the process.

I understand the concept of a report being submitted to a Minister for his or her information. Will Ms Justice McGuinness's report inform the planning process?

The studies done arising from this, having been validated by the independent panel, will be put out for public consultation so that citizens can compare one with the other. Then the normal public consultation process leading to ultimate decision by An Bord Pleanála will kick in.

National Postcode System Establishment

Michael Colreavy

Question:

8. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the minimum turnover requested in respect of companies tendering for the post code project; the reasons for the minimum level of turnover requested; his views on whether the minimum level of turnover would have rendered many Irish companies ineligible to quote; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24783/14]

I have touched on this issue before concerning the postcode project and the minimum level of turnover that was requested of companies to tender for the contract. The last time we spoke, the Minister did not have the information to hand. Has he established since then the minimum level of turnover required? Why was that level required and does he believe that it was such that most Irish companies were not eligible to quote for the contract?

My Department commenced the procurement process for a national postcode system in 2011. An open and competitive procurement process was conducted in accordance with Department of Finance and EU procurement frameworks. A pre-qualification questionnaire was issued on www.etenders.gov.ie on 17 January 2011. This invited interested parties to tender for the contract as a postcode management licence holder for a period of ten years to design, provide, disseminate and maintain a national postcode system. This procurement process followed the negotiated procedure under the relevant EU regulations. Given the technical complexity of the project, the Department ran the procurement following a competitive dialogue procedure provided for in the Public Supply and Works Directive.

There was an annual turnover threshold of €40 million applying to certain bidders for the postcode contract. The figure was arrived at by reference to the estimated cost of provision of the service in the initial stages of operation by the postcode management licence holder. The threshold set did not preclude Irish companies from participating in the procurement process. The tender documents permitted a partnership approach whereby entities could join together to submit a bid.

The inclusion of a turnover threshold is a standard feature of large-scale procurement tenders. As part of the tendering process it was important to ensure that the preferred bidder had the financial capacity to design successfully and implement the project. All entities that satisfied the tender requirements, either singly or as part of a consortium, were eligible to enter the process.

There is something wrong here.

There is something badly wrong here. The Minister said that €40 million was set for seven companies but generally minimum turnover requirements are set before companies submit their tenders. Is the Minister saying that tenders came in and that because seven companies were over the €40 million limit, they were accepted or is he saying that whoever was doing the evaluation looked at them and decided that €40 million would be the minimum requirement in order to qualify those seven companies? There is something wrong here. The requirement for a minimum turnover of €40 million would certainly have excluded most, if not all, Irish companies tendering for the contract. There is something badly wrong here.

No, in fairness, I know the Deputy is a glass-half-full man but there is nothing wrong. This has undergone very careful scrutiny right the way through. In fact, it is late. We ought to have done it before now. In its first year in office the Government could not do it because it did not have the money. It ought to have been done seven or eight years ago and it certainly must be done now because of the scale of the digital economy here. The digital economy is growing at a rate of approximately 16% per annum or eight times the rate of general economic growth. The digital economy and the demand for a postcode system is accelerating all of the time.

The inclusion of a turnover threshold is standard procedure in public procurement. It is very important that the company selected after a fair, transparent and open tendering process, has the financial capacity to do the business. If it was discovered halfway through the process that the company selected did not have the financial capacity and the process broke down, there would be a further inevitable, prolonged delay. The one thing this country cannot now take is a further prolonged delay.

We are not debating the necessity of a national postcode system; I agree with the Minister that we need one.

What we are discussing is the process that was used to award the contract. If I understand what he said correctly, the Minister indicated that an annual turnover threshold of €40 million was set in respect of seven companies. This means that a process was used, after the tenders were received, to set the threshold in question.

Is there a person involved with the successful bidder who was also instrumental in designing the system in the first instance? I would regard it as very unusual business practice if an individual who was responsible for identifying the need that exists and designing the system to be used would be employed by the company to which the contract was awarded. Is this the case?

That is the first I have heard of it. I do not know for sure - I will communicate further with the Deputy on the matter - but I am pretty certain that it is not true. I am aware that there is one individual who believes he is in possession of a better solution for a postcode system for Ireland and who has been discussing the matter with some Deputies and Senators. The individual in question was free to submit an application but he did not do so. It is not at all unusual that a consortium would apply for a contract such as that under discussion. The notion that the successful bidder - a company which already employs in the region of 1,000 people in Ireland and which has expertise and a proven track record in this area - had any prior involvement is complete news to me and I do not believe it is true. When the competitive process was in train, many people might have stated that An Post was going to be awarded the contract. That did not prove to be the case. The company to which it was awarded has a proven track record and is a major employer in the Irish economy.

Hydraulic Fracturing Policy

Clare Daly

Question:

9. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will withdraw all fracking licences in view of the environmental consequences. [24552/14]

I am aware that the Minister of State discussed this issue, or aspects of it, on Priority Questions. I am also aware that the traditional response is to state that the EPA is examining the whole issue of fracking and that nothing will be done before its investigations have been concluded. By the time the EPA reports on the matter in 2016, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, will be in place. Whatever decisions the agency makes at that stage could potentially be overruled, and the State - if it is interested in protecting its citizens and the environment - could be brought to court by the likes of Chevron. I would like the Minister of State to address my contention to the effect that we need to withdraw fracking licences now.

I am going to respond to the actual question the Deputy tabled for reply. I will obtain and forward to her the further information she is seeking as soon as possible. As she noted, the key point is that nothing can happen in respect of fracking in this country until the EPA submits its report in 2016. It will then be a matter for the Government of the day to decide what will happen because the current Administration will not be in office at that time as a result of the fact that a general election is due to be held early in 2016. I wish to reassure the Deputy that there are currently no fracking licences in existence. The previous Government awarded options to three companies but they are not allowed to engage in fracking under the terms of those options. The companies in question are obliged to wait for due process to be completed in respect of this matter. I will be happy to obtain the additional information the Deputy has requested as soon as possible.

This is the key point. The Minister of State has indicated previously that nothing can happen. I tabled my original question in response to the growing concerns with regard to the environmental problems relating to fracking and the widespread opposition to it in nearly every European country in which its use has been proposed, as well as across the United States. Discussions are under way in respect of the TTIP, which contains safeguards that are designed to protect corporate investments above the rights of citizens and the environment. The fracking issue is being teed up in respect of this matter in such as way as to steal from states the ability to protect themselves. Essentially, the TTIP will give companies more rights than governments. If the Government is genuinely serious with regard to protecting the environment and people from the effects of fracking, then the clause in the TTIP relating to investor-state dispute settlement rights must be removed. Governments that have put in place regulations to protect their citizens and the environment are already being taken to court by multinationals on the basis of either a loss or a potential loss of profits. If the clause to which I refer is not withdrawn and if a future Irish Government seeks to protect its citizens from the effects of fracking, the State will be brought to court by multinational corporations seeking billions in compensation. On that basis, we should rescind the options to which the Minister of State referred before it is too late.

I wish to make it clear that my initial reply was to the original question tabled by the Deputy. I will be happy to obtain for her an answer in respect of the new question she has posed. The Minister and I do not believe that the Deputy's very important question is not actually relevant to our brief at present, but I wish to reassure her that I will obtain for her a complete answer in respect of it. I reiterate that no fracking will take place in this country for the remainder of the Government's term of office.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.