Priority Questions

Post Office Network

Timmy Dooley

Question:

37. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications; Climate Action and Environment the implementation status of the Kerr report and the date by which the strategic plan for the network will be published. [49411/17]

Brian Stanley

Question:

40. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications; Climate Action and Environment the policy in terms of progress towards changes in services available through the post office network or broadening services to maintain a viable network of post offices. [49250/17]

The Minister will be aware of the report which Bobby Kerr was commissioned to write with the Government's blessing and possibly its financial support, with the acquiescence of the postmasters and with An Post. Bobby Kerr wrote a comprehensive report which was aimed at securing the future of the post office network. When the report was published, it was strongly supported in this House and the Government gave commitments here, both in writing and orally. Scarcely anything has happened on that report since. I note the Minister's announcement today and the Government decision, and in light of this, will the Minister give some indication as to where the recommendations of the Kerr report stand?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 37 and 40 together.

I wish to advise the House that the Government has today been briefed by me on the comprehensive strategic plan that An Post has prepared, the objective of which is to secure the long-term viability of both the post office and mails businesses and return the company to a sound financial footing.

The Government is fully supportive of An Post in its endeavours. Reflecting its commitment to sustaining a nationwide post office network and daily mails service, the Government has agreed to make available State funding of €30 million to enable An Post to move quickly in delivering on the vision of the plan, building on the momentum of actions taken this year. This funding will be provided in the form of a repayable long-term loan and is to be used to support the renewal of the post office network and the continued fulfilment of a five-day delivery service. To ensure its long-term success against the backdrop of an accelerated decline in mail volume and falling revenues, An Post is embarking on a significant transformation programme.

The current financial challenges facing An Post have been well documented and I have addressed this matter on several occasions in this House. They have arisen, in the main, from the decline in mail volumes and the move to electronic transactions in both the mail and post office network. This is a global trend and is not unique to the Irish postal service. I have taken a very proactive approach to An Post since becoming Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I acted quickly by introducing legislation to facilitate the repeal of the price cap mechanism when the drop in mail volumes accelerated in 2015 and 2016. This has resulted in an improved financial forecast for An Post for 2017 with a much lower level of losses now anticipated.

In response to the challenges facing the company, the board has overseen the preparation of a strategic plan for which it is ultimately responsible. It harnesses the company's existing strengths such as its nationwide reach, trusted brand and the relationship of postmasters with communities, both rural and urban. At the same time, An Post has recognised that it cannot and should not fight the digital agenda. It must be embraced and this is reflected in the plan, especially in the emphasis on growing the parcels business. For example, the company now offers Saturday and evening deliveries and has launched new product lines such as AddressPal and ReturnsPal, embracing the rising trend of online shopping. Enhanced banking services are becoming available through the post office network with the smart bank account. It is expected that further such opportunities will be available across the network, especially as high-speed broadband becomes widely available through the roll-out of the national broadband plan.

The Government has also committed to exploring the potential for extra Government business, including motor tax, to be channelled through the network. The local post office and local staff who deliver mail is still an important part of the fabric of local communities, especially in rural areas, and the Government recognises the importance of ensuring that this continues into the future.

The question seeks to establish the Minister's vision for the future of the post office network. The Bobby Kerr report set out an action plan that did that to secure the future of the post office network. The only thing on which the Minister could be complimented is his knee-jerk reaction to An Post's calls for increased funds. On this occasion the €30 million of Government intervention by way of a loan is nothing more than a job loss announcement dressed up as some new departure. There is nothing in today's announcement to provide for the future security and viability of the post office network. The moneys that are being provided by way of a loan will be used to create a redundancy fund for those working in the mails business and will be used to pension off postmasters. I accept that postmasters who have come to the end of their working lives should be provided for at an appropriate level in their retirement, but that cannot be used as a ruse to close post offices. Post offices are more than the postmasters and postmistresses. They provide a valuable service to communities. If they are not financially viable in the short term, the State must intervene and provide State funds on a recurring basis to ensure the service is protected. That was what we needed to hear from the Minister today, in line with the recommendations of the Kerr report, but it was not there.

The €30 million which has been put into the company has been ring-fenced for the five day a week universal postal service in order that it continues to every address in the country and to support and develop services in the post office network. The nationwide reach of the post office network makes it uniquely positioned to act as a gateway to Government. In addition to the existing range of Government business, such as social welfare payments, and Passport Express, a new pilot initiative called Digital Assist will use the local post office as a digital gateway for Government business such as motor tax. That will be rolled out in ten post offices in different parts of the country initially and is in line with the recommendations of the Kerr report. The proposed strategy for An Post involves it being split into two distinct business units, An Post mails and parcels and An Post retail. Efforts to improve profitability will be targeted through growth, pricing and cost reduction strategies and are aimed at establishing a sustainable, modern and vibrant network for the future, capable of adapting to the changing environment in which it operates.

There are concerns about the closure of post offices and it is something that also concerns me. I am advised that An Post has not made any definite decision on post office closures, but the move to electronic transactions has affected the post office network.

Overall activity levels are down by 15% since 2013 and annual payments to some post offices have reduced by up to 20%. These reductions mean that the income model is becoming unsustainable, especially for postmasters operating smaller post offices.

I am extremely conscious of the value placed on local post offices in towns and villages across the country. While it is accepted that, in light of the ongoing decline in activity, the network must be renewed, it is also important that this is done in a controlled and transparent manner. Changes to the footprint of the post offices network, where they occur, should be a consequence of the modernisation process as opposed to its objective. In this regard, a protocol will be put in place to manage the modernisation of the network and the impact of postmaster exits on the local community. It is expected that this protocol would have regard to existing contract arrangements and become a blueprint for decisions on the future of the network, including the opening of new post offices as well as managing the future of a post office where a postmaster decides to take a redundancy package or otherwise to exit the business.

The protocol must also make provision to ensure that the existing business is effectively transferred in order to support the remaining network and local businesses and should take account of recommendations made by Mr. Bobby Kerr in his report. This protocol will be agreed between An Post and the IPU and these negotiations will be supported by an external facilitator.

An Post is entering into a period of significant change but this change is critical to ensuring the long-term success of our national postal operator and a sustainable post office network. Doing nothing is simply not an option. To the credit of the board, management and employees of An Post, the strategic plan sets out a positive vision for the company, positions it for the digital age and aims to put the company in a position where it can support sustainable jobs in both its mail business and post office network right across the country.

I will allow Deputy Stanley to come in for a minute and then Deputy Dooley to conclude.

I do not think the Chairman can do that during priority questions.

The questions are grouped. I call Deputy Stanley.

I do not think the Chairman can group them.

I can. I call Deputy Stanley. Unfortunately, it is only for concluding remarks. He has one minute.

Hold on now a second.

You were not here, Deputy. I am sorry.

I have a priority question.

Yes, but you were not here.

I do not think you can group priority questions.

Through the Chair and on a point of order, to save the Deputy, I will just protect my corner first and then let him protect his. My understanding is that a priority question cannot be grouped. We are entitled to our time. If the Deputy has a similar question he is entitled to pursue it with the Minister. I have been around the House a while and I may be wrong on this, which is why I seek the clarification, but my understanding is that, when it comes to oral questions, a priority question is just that: it is a one-to-one between the Deputy and the Minister. The same applies to the next Deputy. Groupings, as I have always understood it-----

The Deputy has made his point. Thank you.

The normal thing would be for Deputy Dooley's question to be taken first. I am here for the second question. My question was listed and no issue was raised about it. With respect to the Chair, all I am expecting is that I get equal opportunity.

Unfortunately, Deputy, while I do not disagree with what Deputy Dooley has just said about priority questions, the fact remains that the questions are grouped. The Deputy was not here at the commencement of priority questions.

I was here before he finished.

The Deputy was not here at the commencement of the business.

I am not accepting that.

That is fine. I call Deputy Dooley to conclude.

I am not accepting that. My question-----

Deputy, it is not a matter for you to accept.

Mine is the second question.

The decision has been made. You can have a minute to respond to the Minister's response or you can take your seat and Deputy Dooley can conclude.

To be fair, having put in a priority question, I am allowed one minute-----

Let me clarify Standing Orders for the Deputy.

Can I clarify something with you?

Standing Orders allows six and a half minutes for the questions. The six and a half minutes have concluded. In fact, they concluded two and a half minutes ago.

And there is six and a half minutes for my question.

No, Deputy. The question was grouped.

It is a separate question.

A decision has been made and we have moved on from that decision.

I am sorry but it is a completely separate question. This is very unfair.

I note Deputy Dooley's remark, and I do not believe he is incorrect, but the point is that we have already done it.

Can I propose a suspension of the House until we examine the facts?

It has been done before while I have been in the chair and while the Ceann Comhairle has been in the chair. I was present for it.

This is very simple. Questions are listed for priority.

I am giving the Deputy an opportunity to address his question.

We wait for five or six weeks to have them addressed. All I am asking for is my minute, a minute for the Minister to respond and a minute for me to come back in.

In fairness, Deputy, the Minister has given his entire response, which was two pages long.

That is not how I have seen it working here. The Chairman is deviating from the practice of the Ceann Comhairle and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

I am not deviating from practice.

You are. I have been here when questions were grouped.

The Deputy is wasting the time of the House.

All I am asking for is one minute to raise the question with the Minister and a minute for the Minister to respond. Two minutes is all I am asking for. It is very simple.

I will give the Deputy the minute-----

I am trying to be fair.

-----and I will ask the Minister to make a brief response.

A quick response.

If Deputy Stanley would like to take his minute, Deputy Dooley has a right to his minute after Deputy Stanley.

Will I get my final round as well?

Then the Minister may make a final response.

And I will get a minute to come back in.

No. That will be the Deputy's concluding remark.

Okay. The clock shows 55 seconds now.

Yes, but we will give the Deputy the minute. We will not argue over five seconds.

My question relates to the changes in An Post and the expansion of services. As the Minister said, doing nothing is not an option. We totally agree with him on that. It is not an option. We believe that it has to be sorted. We have put forward a number of proposals. The Kerr report and the McKinsey report are sitting there. I note that the Minister announced a €30 million loan today. Will the Minister outline exactly how it can be utilised? I am not convinced I see an urgency with regard to putting in new services. The Minister said he wanted to see it become an interface with Government, which is to be welcomed. There are other areas that it could get into, particularly banking-----

-----and linking in with the credit union where there has been a successful pilot scheme. However, we need to see that action ramped up in the coming weeks. I have told the Minister many times in this Chamber that we do not have time on our side when it comes to the post office network. We need to see improvements. If the services are not expanded, the reality is that many smaller post offices will be lost. We need to see action and the services expanded and a clear plan put in place, but I do not see that. What I see is the McKinsey and Kerr reports left hanging in midair. Today the Minister announced a €30 million loan to the company but I would have preferred to see the plan first and then the €30 million going into it. That is what we need to see. I am concerned about the post offices in the midlands and in County Laois which will close if further services are not put into them.

Thank you, Deputy. I call Deputy Dooley to make his concluding remarks.

Will the Minister be straight with the House? I am not suggesting that the Minister is not normally but I think he could on this occasion. He speaks about the money and what it will do. There is a series of events that will have to take place, and the provision of ten digital gateways on a pilot basis will not use up €30 million. The Minister should come clean and talk about the cost reduction that will assist An Post into the future. He should explain what cost reduction really means, which is redundancies. This is not about improving services or coming up with innovative ways of driving people into post offices. A financial slide rule is being placed across the books of An Post and this is about eliminating people, cutting jobs and reducing access to the services of the post office. It is about making the organisation leaner and fitter to continue doing what it is doing but in fewer areas. We get the continuation of the five day universal obligation on the postal side. That is a given. There is nothing in this for people who depend on post offices in rural areas. It is quite the contrary, notwithstanding the glossy language on the periphery of the kernel of this.

This is about expanding the number of people who will utilise and depend on the post office in rural areas. Since David McRedmond became chief executive, we have already seen the expansion of the parcel service. We now have a service in Ahascragh and Elphin that is equivalent to what is available in Amsterdam or Edinburgh. A van travels six days a week to homes throughout this country delivering parcels and taking back returns. This provides huge opportunity, particularly for local businesses. In the new year, the company will launch a new initiative called eLocal.ie. Initially it will be a pilot in Mullingar, Ennis and Bantry. It will examine how those provincial towns can service the local community with an overnight delivery service using the An Post vans to do it.

On Deputy Stanley's point, it is about putting in more Government services and about putting in new and additional financial and banking services. As I have stated consistently, it is not about holding the tide back but about using technology, including digital technology, to provide new and additional services in An Post. The €15 million is specifically for the development of services within the post office network. There is €15 million to maintain the universal five-day-week postal service. It is specifically ring-fenced for that.

Deputy Dooley referred to the ten pilots for the digital assist mechanism. The funding in this regard is completely separate from the €30 million loan. The money to pilot the mechanism is funding that will be found elsewhere. It will be to enhance and show how Government services can be provided across rural communities and expanded right across the network.

May I clarify what the €30 million is being spent on? Could he give one or two sentences on the mail centres? What is the future of the centres? There are four of them. There are nearly 1,000 workers in them and they are worried about their future and what will happen.

The Deputy will have to submit a parliamentary question on that matter.

Waste Disposal Charges

Brian Stanley

Question:

38. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of progress towards proposed changes to household waste collection charges; and if he has considered an alternative system of tendering the collection of household waste. [49249/17]

My question is on progress on the proposed changes to charges for household waste collection. Has the Minister considered an alternative means?

I thank the Deputy. The necessary regulatory steps have already been put in place to phase out flat-rate fees for household waste collection. The permits of household waste collectors have been amended in order that existing customers who are seeking to renew their contracts or new customers are not offered flat-rate fees. It is worth noting that this measure is not "new" for about half of kerbside household waste customers because they are already on an incentivised usage pricing plan - in other words, a plan that contains a per-lift or weight-related fee. As I announced in last June, mandatory per-kilogram pay-by-weight charging is not being introduced.

This phasing out of flat-rate fees is consistent with national waste policy. Research has shown that all-in flat-rate fees are the least successful pricing structure in preventing waste. However, it is a necessary measure because twice in 2016, local authorities had to exercise emergency powers to make additional landfill capacity available. If emergency measures had not been taken, there would have been no way for waste collectors to continue collecting household bins. In the past two years, the amount of waste disposed of in landfills has increased. We must act now to avert a return to over-dependence on landfill across Ireland.

Furthermore, Ireland faces challenging EU targets to achieve by 2020, including a household waste recycling rate of 50%. Failure to achieve such targets could leave the State open to infringement proceedings and potentially punitive fines. More ambitious waste objectives for 2025 and 2030 are currently being negotiated at EU level.

When introducing the measure to phase out flat-rate fees, the Government gave a commitment to consumers to carefully monitor the transition in the sector. Accordingly, a household waste collection price monitoring group has been established. That group has begun the process of tracking the rates charged by household waste collectors. In addition, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is undertaking an independent study of the market that will, inter alia, assess the nature and scale of consumer and operator issues in the household waste collection market and consider whether the introduction of an enhanced regulatory regime could efficiently address these issues in the short and long term.

I thank the Minister for the reply. The problem with what the Minister has done is that he has left a range of options open. Everyone wants to reduce the volume of waste being produced but the problem is that the Minister has left the system open for standing charges, pay-per-lift arrangements, weight bands, per-kilogram charging and weight allowance charges. There is a range of options, therefore, and they can be used in combination. That is the problem with what has happened. There is no control over this.

The Minister mentioned a monitoring group. Who is on the group? I understand the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission did not take up the offer to participate.

What we have is side-by-side competition. According to the Government's regulatory impact assessment in 2012, the household waste collection market in Ireland is unique. It is unique because it is very cumbersome. Poland has enacted legislation to switch away from side-by-side competition to a municipalities system. Finland has also switched from side-by-side competition to a franchise system. Has the Minister examined this? The current model in Ireland is unique among the models of OECD countries in that Ireland does not have either a franchise system or municipal system. Has the Minister considered either of these?

On the matter of having mechanisms other than side-by-side competition, mechanisms been considered and reports have been published on them. The results of the analysis of the household waste collection price monitoring group, in conjunction with the results of the study being completed by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, will provide an evidence base regarding future monitoring and the potential need for changes to the regulatory regime or a different type of regulation or system. These are all being considered by the commission at present.

The members of the price monitoring group are the chairman, Mr. Frank Conway, a respected media commentator on financial matters, an economist and author of financial guides, Mr. Kevin O'Donoghue, principal officer within the Department, Mr. Eoin Deegan, assistant principal officer within the Department, Mr. Evin McMahon, an economist within the Department, and Mr. Colin Cotter, a statistician from the CSO. Shelfwatch, a marketing research company, has been contracted to carry out the mystery shopping mechanism that is being used to monitor prices.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is not part of the price monitoring group. The reason is that because it is carrying out a review of the industry itself, it believes it would be compromised. It must make recommendations regarding the type of regulation that should be applied.

With regard to the model we are using, side-by-side competition, in some counties, such as County Leitrim, there is only one operator. Has this been considered?

I am concerned that the volumes of waste being produced by manufacturers are not being emphasised enough. If manufacturers are still producing the waste, along with the wholesalers, it is still finishing up in the wheelie bins, be they recycling bins or other bins. That is an issue.

While the gas and electricity markets are privatised, there is still a large number of controls. The Minister is familiar with this in terms of advertising, complaints procedures, etc. The option of franchising, which we have not considered in this State, should be considered. In the estate in which I live, several companies are racing in and out. While this may give an appearance of competition, the companies all charge the same prices, or almost the same prices. I am not sure side-by-side competition is the best model. It is not being used in the main in other OECD countries, where there tend to be franchise or municipal systems. I ask the Minister to review this.

On the Deputy's final comment, there is a review taking place. That is what the commission is doing. I am quite happy to consider the recommendations that emerge from that review.

My objective is twofold. First, it is to try to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place. As the Deputy knows, we have set up a group involving the retailers and major supermarkets across the country to consider specifically waste being generated at supermarket level. Admittedly, we need to go back a step further in this regard. We are involved in negotiations at European level on the circular economy. At the end-user level, or on the domestic side, we have rolled out brown bins to every population centre of 500 people or more. My intention is to roll out a brown organic waste bin to every single home in the country that wants one and, in tandem, encourage people not only to use brown bins but also to get them to think about what they are putting into it them order to reduce the amount of waste being generated in the first instance.

National Broadband Plan Implementation

Timmy Dooley

Question:

39. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the implementation status of the national broadband plan; and the date by which the contract for the State intervention area will be awarded. [49412/17]

The regular update from the Minister to this House relates to where we are at in the procurement process of the national broadband plan. He will be well aware that the programme for Government, to which he is a signatory, and of which he is a significant beneficiary as a Minister, sets out a commitment to have an agreement in place to sign off with a contractor for the project in June 2017. We are now approaching Christmas. The Taoiseach told us in the House last week that from his point of view, the national broadband plan has seen significant and unacceptable delays and it will be some time next year before the project is signed off. Can the Minister set out a timetable as to when he hopes to appoint a contractor, when the work will begin, and when he thinks the last tranche of houses in the State ultimately will get high-speed broadband?

The national broadband plan, NBP, is about connecting people in rural areas, towns and villages across Ireland to high-speed broadband through a combination of commercial investment and State-led intervention. The NBP continues to act as a catalyst to commercial investment, with more than €2.75 billion invested by industry over the past five years. That is €1.8 million every single day.

Examples of the high rate of investment include Eir's rural deployment of broadband to 300,000 premises. Eir has surpassed its target of 101,000 premises passed by the third quarter of 2017. SIRO continues its roll-out to 500,000 premises across 51 towns, with more than 100,000 premises now passed. Enet and SSE's plan to provide high-speed broadband to 115,000 homes in the west and north west is under way. Virgin Media continues its plans to expand its high-speed service to an additional 200,000 homes. Imagine has also committed to a deployment of fixed wireless broadband services particularly in rural and other more remote areas. A number of other operators have engaged with the Department on roll-out plans. The communications regulator's auction of the 3.6 GHz spectrum will also help pave the way for next generation connectivity for mobile customers.

When I was appointed Minister, just over 50% of homes and businesses in Ireland had access to high-speed broadband. Today the equivalent figure is 65% and by the end of next year, it will have risen to 77%. By the end of 2020, more than 90% of premises in Ireland will have access to high-speed broadband.

As a result of the national broadband plan we are witnessing a significant increase in the availability of high-speed broadband in Ireland. The Government is committed to leaving no one behind. Delivering connectivity to the 542,000 premises that fall within the State-led intervention phase of the national broadband plan remains a Government priority.

In the public procurement process, the NBP specialist team is continuing its evaluation of the detailed submissions of the two bidders, which were received last September. This is the last stage of the procurement process before moving to the final tender stage and subsequently the appointment of a preferred bidder or bidders. I fully appreciate that people want quality mobile and broadband connectivity as soon as possible and reiterate that this remains a priority for the Government, for me and for my Department. To help achieve that my Department will engage with the winning bidder or bidders to ensure the most efficient deployment as part of the NBP contract.

The Minister's response is as ridiculous as if José Mourinho, when asked about the performance of Manchester United, were to respond by telling us how Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool are doing. I asked the Minister to outline on numerous occasions in this House where the Government is at in respect of the national broadband plan in providing high-speed broadband to those 542,000 homes. He comes in week after week and month after month telling us what Eir, SIRO and Virgin Media are doing. I know what they are doing. They are not State secrets. Those companies communicate with me and I communicate with them, as does everybody else. What is farcical is that the Minister created a situation in an arrangement with Eir that put in place a scenario whereby it rolled out fibre to certain areas and then stopped. There are people on the other end whose appetite has been whetted. They have seen the fibre come so far but no further. They cannot understand why fibre goes as far as a certain house but ten adjacent houses are not connected and have no idea when they will be connected. The reality is that they are the prize for Eir or Enet, whoever ultimately wins the contract. Those people now need clarity from the Minister.

The Minister should set out the situation for us clearly and give us an indicative date. There must be a project plan or Gantt chart somewhere. That is standard operational practice with any contract. I ask the Minister to set out for us clearly when he hopes to sign off on the deal. If it runs over by a month or two I will not beat him up about it. He will at least have drawn a line in the sand and then he can set out clearly from there the length of the project. This is not rocket science. It just takes a little bit of initiative on his side and gives some certainty to the people who are seeing the fibre come within a snowball's distance of their door but they have been left waiting. They cannot understand why they cannot get connected.

When I was appointed as Minister last May 12 months, no one envisaged that at this stage we would be talking about fibre being on the ground in rural areas.

We thought it would be done.

It is happening. I have said before that my focus is on delivery not indicative dates. People in this country are sick and tired of being promised they would have broadband by a certain date but it has not happened. My priority is the people who have not got high-speed broadband at the moment. I am leaving no stone unturned to ensure that is delivered as quickly as possible. We have a core team within the Department of 39 people directly involved in the issue. The broader team involving external advisers is about 80 people. This is a 25-year contract. It is fundamentally important that we get it right, not just for the people who need broadband today but for the next generation and the generation after that. We need to make sure that we get it right once and for all and that we do not have any more hollow promises in relation to it.

In the interim I am working with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, to provide hot desks in rural communities where fibre is located. If people cannot have high-speed broadband of 1,000 Mbps in their own home they can have it in their own local community centre to enable them to work from there rather than being obliged to commute into the city. We are working with wireless and mobile operators to see how we can exploit the fibre that is already rolled out across the country to improve the existing services that are available so people have access to a broadband service before they have access to the high-speed broadband service.

I do not know if the Minister's constituency office is as inundated as is mine with people who are concerned about the issue. I am sure it is but I do not intend to offer such a solution to anybody. I refer in particular to families where children come home at the weekend from college or with secondary schoolchildren. I do not want to say that they should toddle off to the community centre to find a hotspot to do their homework, assignments and projects. We know that when people are on holidays, they drop in to the local McDonald's to get access to high-speed broadband. That is fine for a holiday environment but many people in the 542,000 cohort require broadband to live their lives, do their studies, apply for jobs and in the case of farmers to return information to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We must address the issue. The sooner the Minister sets out dates the better as it will force others to meet the deadlines. That is his job and it is the challenge of the companies to adhere to them.

Many of my constituents do not have mobile phone coverage never mind broadband services. As Minister, I am determined to make sure that every single person, home and premises in this country gets access to high-speed broadband. I am determined not to stop until that happens.

It is important to point out that 27% of our population live in villages of fewer than 50 people. We have one of the most dispersed populations on the globe. Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet, came to Dublin last June. He said that Ireland was working on one of the hardest problems that we know about, that is, a highly distributed, highly rural and low-density population. He said that our success would be a real beacon for other populations that have similar rural populations.

No one in the world has done what we are doing. We were the first country in the world to bring electricity to every home in the country. We will be the first country in the world to bring high-speed broadband. I am monitoring this on an ongoing basis to ensure that it happens and that it takes not a day longer than is absolutely necessary. I will ensure that every home, no matter how isolated, gets high-speed broadband as quickly as possible.

Question No. 40 taken with Question No. 37.

Mobile Telephony Services

Seán Sherlock

Question:

41. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to outline the steps that have been taken to improve mobile telephone coverage in rural parts of the country in the past six months; the number of times the mobile phone task force has met in the past six months; the mobile telephone operators the task force has met; and the number of officials and their Departments dedicated to work on the task force. [49410/17]

We are speaking a good deal about broadband today, but I want to move the agenda on to the fact that in large swathes of the country, people cannot get mobile telephone coverage. I want to speak for those people. I have specific questions about the work of the mobile phone task force. Will the Minister outline when the task force met? How many officials in the Departments are working on the task force? When can people who do not have coverage expect to have coverage? What are the timelines? When we can expect delivery of a 100% rate of penetration for 3G coverage in the country?

I specifically included in the programme for Government a commitment to a mobile phone and broadband task force. In July 2016, I established the task force to identify immediate solutions to broadband and mobile telephone coverage deficits and to investigate how better services could be provided to consumers prior to the full build and roll-out of the network planned under the national broadband plan State intervention phase. The task force worked with key stakeholders to produce the December 2016 report which contained 40 actions to alleviate some of the deficits. The report is available on my Department's website.

The implementation group I co-chair with the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, is overseeing the implementation of the actions. The group comprises all key stakeholders responsible for delivery. Meetings were held in March and July and the next meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, 22 November. Three officials in my Department and three in the Department of Rural and Community Development are immediately engaged in managing the task force actions. Several other officials and experts from various Departments and State bodies are working with key stakeholders to assist in the delivery of the actions.

Achievements to date by the task force include funding of all local authorities to assign a broadband officer and close co-operation with local authorities to develop local digital strategies. This includes the Government working closely with local authorities to identify approximately 320 high-speed strategic community access hubs that will be connected at an early date after the national broadband plan contract. Other achievements include the development by ComReg of a testing regime to check mobile handset performance. This will inform consumers in choosing products and network services. ComReg will also develop a new network coverage map. Moreover, most local authorities apply waivers in respect of development contributions for telecoms development. Transport Infrastructure Ireland has constructed 80 km of ducting on the M7-M8 corridor and 14 km on the N25 in Cork, with more to follow in the coming months to help expedite infrastructure roll-out. Transport Infrastructure Ireland is also reviewing the cost of duct access for telecoms operators.

I conducted a straw poll today of people I know throughout the country. Cushenstown in rural Wexford has little or no mobile coverage. Maryborough Hill, Douglas in the heart of Cork has little or no mobile coverage. North Meath outside of Kells and Navan has no coverage. Other places, including the area west of Carrigrohane in Cork, have no courage. Wolfhill in Laois, Balgriffin in north Dublin and Knocknacarra in the heart of Galway city have no coverage. North-east Kilkenny has no coverage.

We must get the basics right. I am asking the Minister the question in simple terms. Will he ask the mobile telephone operators specifically to ensure that they provide coverage? It is all well and good to talk about tender processes for selling bandwidth and so on. The Minister referred to the 3.6 GHz band spectrum and so on. If people in the places I am talking about cannot use their mobile telephones, then we are on a hiding to nothing in respect of the roll-out of broadband. I am simply calling on the Minister to give some impetus to getting ComReg and the organisations I have referred to, including the mobile telephone operators, to ensure a 100% rate of penetration throughout the country. If we can start at that basic point, we will have done a good day's work.

Deputy Sherlock has given me a day's work with those questions. As Deputy Sherlock knows, I cannot bring in ComReg. The only body that can bring in ComReg is Deputy Sherlock and his colleagues who are members of the relevant Oireachtas joint committee. ComReg is answerable to the committee, not to me.

The Minister can bring in the mobile telephone operators.

While I am on the issue of ComReg, I wish to point out that since January, ComReg has received a little more than 5,000 complaints, a total of 163 of which relate to mobile telephone coverage. People are not complaining.

I do not disagree with Deputy Sherlock. This is a problem. Far too many times I have had to turn off the data on my mobile telephone to try to get telephone coverage. I should not have to do that but that is the only way I can get coverage at the moment, and that is not good enough. More and more frequently, people are seeing the "no service" notice when they look at their handsets. Whether we are in Kiltoom, Ballymore or other areas, the problem is the same throughout the country.

Part of the problem has been the phenomenal increase in mobile data. That is why we released the 3.6 GHz band spectrum. It provides an 86% increase in capacity throughout the mobile telephone networks. This allows for more data to be carried and improves the quality of mobile data and mobile telephone coverage as well.

I believe the mobile telephone operators should be brought in, along with ComReg, before the committee to deal with these issues.

The Minister is shifting it back onto the committee. The committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas have discussed these issues ad infinitum. The Minister acknowledges that mobile telephone coverage in his experience is patchy in part. He has acknowledged that he has had to turn off his own data service. It is a sad indictment on the House when the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment stands before the House to answer questions from people like me and says that it is simply not good enough.

Will the Minister bring in the mobile telephone operators? As part of his armoury, the Minister has the power of persuasion as a Minister. He has the facility to be able to nudge or cajole mobile telephone operators to provide a rate of 100% penetration for 3G services at least.

Sadly, the problem dates from before I came in-to this job. I am unsure who was the Minister at the time. We will not go into it, but I understand one of Deputy Sherlock's colleagues was in the Department when the last auction took place for the 4G spectrum. That auction sought 85% population coverage throughout the country. I do not think that is good enough. That is why I am committed, in respect of 5G, that the licence will be for coverage throughout the country and that it would be done on a geographic basis.

People cannot even get 3G, never mind 5G.

The problem is that under the licensing in place, those companies are compliant. I have spoken to the companies and I will be speaking to company representatives again tomorrow. I will continue to do that. What I am dealing with is unacceptable; I am not disputing that. That is why we have released the 3.6 GHz spectrum.

The committee has a role as well. The communications regulator is answerable to the committee. When did Deputy Sherlock and the committee bring the communications regulator before the House and talk to those responsible in ComReg about mobile telephone coverage? I am not simply talking about the current committee. I am talking about the previous committee as well. The communications regulator is not answerable to me. The law states that the communications regulator is answerable to the committee. I am actively encouraging the committee to bring in ComReg.

The Minister was well able to take the credit for SIRO and Eir and so on.