National Broadband Procurement Process: Statements (Resumed)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about broadband provision. Last week before the adjournment of statements I made reference to a meeting I had had in Sligo with a UK company which was prepared and eager to set up a business in my home town of Ballymote. We were looking at between eight and ten jobs being provided. Unfortunately, we do not have a broadband service to allow the company to start up. We have the premises, but we do not have the broadband service required.

Rural Ireland needs a guarantee that it will have fair access to the social and economic services which are essential if communities and businesses are to thrive. Whether it is the closure of post offices, the reduction of infrastructure funding or poor broadband coverage, rural Ireland is facing official policy which is making it tough to survive. I recently asked the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, by way of parliamentary question the status of work to market counties Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal and Roscommon as job locations; the number of IDA Ireland site visits that had taken place in these counties in the past five years; and the other initiatives that had taken place to contribute to highlighting the north west as a destination for new businesses. In her reply the Minister stated, as regards site visits, "The IDA always does its best to highlight suitable sites in regional areas - including in counties Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal and Roscommon - to potential investors. It is sometimes the case, however, that IDA clients will have specific requirements that may preclude certain locations." The elephant in the room is that the Government refuses to acknowledge the importance of broadband or, more appropriately, the lack of it in many parts of rural Ireland. Companies will not move to invest in or support rural counties if they cannot access high quality broadband. Jobs growth in the regions is being stunted. People have lost patience, especially in isolated rural areas.

The World Bank found that a 10% increase in broadband penetration increased economic growth by 1.3% in the long term. The facts do not lie. Ireland ranks 42nd in the global rankings for the distribution of high speed broadband, while 40% of the population and 96% of the country geographically still lack commercial or fibre broadband coverage.

The Government's national rural broadband roll-out programme is a shambles. I do not blame the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, for this, as what has happened is unfortunate. Since the tendering process started in 2015, two bidders have left and there is now only one bidder remaining, namely, enet. The further delay in the roll-out of the national broadband plan will limit the number of jobs which can be created in the regions. With rapid advances in technology, Irish households should not have to settle for moderate Internet speeds which will be overtaken by technological progression in the next five years. The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, must do better. She needs to make it crystal clear that IDA Ireland's continued overlooking of rural Ireland needs to stop and, above all else, the two Ministers must impress on the Taoiseach the absolute need to deliver the national broadband plan.

As a rural politician and a businessman, I am consistently disappointed, although not surprised, by the neglectful stance taken by the Government towards the provision of broadband for rural homes and businesses which are struggling to survive in an increasingly digital era. In order to reduce rural isolation and ensure businesses across the country will have a fair opportunity to compete, we need to deliver fibre broadband to every home. Black spots are costing jobs, threatening rural sustainability and creating an already large digital divide between urban and rural areas. Broadband provision can help to open up a global market for rural tourism and small local producers. The lack of broadband is directly harming business, as well as frustrating people in their day to day lives.

We have seen multiple reports, Bills and regulations, but none of them has advanced the process. The latest estimate for broadband to be rolled out is 2023. It beggars belief that ten years after it was announced that it would be done by 2012, some 540,000 homes are still not connected to fibre broadband in the ground. It seems extraordinary that the tender has not yet been put in place and it will take between three and five years to build the network. This week we are talking about the national planning framework, Ireland 2040, and capital infrastructure investment, but it will be 2040 before every home in Ireland has fibre broadband. When will the neglect of rural Ireland end? I call on the Government to allow rural communities to reach their full potential and prosper, retain young people, jobs and businesses and give people a real future in their home towns and counties. The project cannot be held up any longer.

It is almost 12 months since I first raised the issue of fibre broadband provision on behalf of the residents of Castlebaldwin, County Sligo and those living off the N4 route through the village. I have done so by way of parliamentary questions, emails and letters to the Minister and eir. For several months I have been trying to resolve the matter with eir, or at least I have been trying to ascertain the position on the issue. Progress has been nil and it is beyond frustrating. However, it is nothing compared to the frustration of locals in the village of Castlebaldwin and the surrounding area. That is just one example of a rural area without broadband. Several letters and emails to the CEO of eir, Mr Richard Moat, have not even been acknowledged, let alone responded to. I am extremely disappointed by the lack of response, competency and support offered by eir. For almost two years it has had a fibre to the cabinet, FTTC, unit in the village to facilitate the provision of broadband. However, the service remains unconnected. The fibre broadband connection passes Castlebaldwin on the N4 but does not branch off for those residents or businesses who need it. In recent months work has been done to rectify this and the points and boxes were upgraded but not connected. One person, in particular, is affected in that he has been offered employment with Apple, as an at-home adviser, on the proviso that he has a fixed-line Internet connection with a speed of at least 10 Mbps, which he does not have. I have written to eir, with a view to having the matter resolved on behalf of my constituents in the area who are, over a year later, still without broadband. It is difficult to understand. The box is in place, as is the fibre cable, yet the company will not connect it.

More than 500,000 homes and businesses in rural areas do not have broadband. They will not have commercial broadband and their service will not be enhanced by announcements on the roll-out of the tender process. In 2016 Fine Gael committed to providing high speed broadband for at least 85% of premises by 2018 and 100% of premises by 2020. It appears that the deadlines will be missed. Almost one third of the population live in areas where commercial broadband is not available. Elsewhere in Europe, between 15% and 20 % are in that position. In certain parts of rural Ireland there are broadband speeds 36 times lower than those in Dublin. That is not acceptable.

I accept that the Minister is in a difficult position. He is a rural Deputy and knows how people are suffering and job creation has been delayed by the lack of broadband provision. I wish him well in dealing with the company that remains in the process. I hope it will reach fruition and that we can deal with the issue as quickly as possible.

I am not convinced that the Minister's belief the sole bidder under the national broadband plan is "really committed" is enough on its own. We need more than that; we need certainty. There is a serious problem with broadband provision in the State. At the end of 2017 Ireland was ranked 62nd for average mobile download speeds and 81st for upload speeds.

In the second half of 2017 the State was ranked 42nd in the world for average fixed-broadband download speeds, with an average speed of 38.81 megabits per second. At 13.42 Mbps, the State was ranked 59th for upload speeds, placing it between Cambodia and India. Ireland is 21st of 25 EU member states for broadband speeds, behind Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia and Jersey.

Fingal is only out the road from here, but, as I said to the Minister's colleague during a debate on roads, sometimes it might as well be Timbuktu for all the notice that is taken of it. There are major connectivity issues there. The problem is particularly acute in rural Fingal, for example, in certain parts of Balbriggan and areas surrounding the airport. The lack of availability of broadband is preventing Balbriggan and surrounding rural areas from achieving their economic and social potential. This is having a devastating effect on residents. People living in Fingal want to be able to Skype their parents or children or book tickets online to go see the Dubs play. Regrettably, the connectivity problems restrict what they can and cannot do. When I am driving to work in the morning I look to my left and right and see people who I know are in their cars because they cannot work from home. Many of them come from my constituency and clog up the M1 in the morning. If there was connectivity, they would much rather work from home, but it is simply not an option for some.

There have been problems with broadband and telecommunications in the country for many years. The genesis of the sharp side of these issues was the forced liberalisation through the European Commission of telecommunications infrastructure. As technology developed, the Commission and private interests saw an opportunity to make profit and forced liberalisation had to follow. Forced to open up the sector to private operators, the State had to privatise Telecom Éireann in 1999. It was madness at the time and the forced marketisation is still madness. It should be resisted. We should now look at the possibility of progressing the national broadband plan under State ownership.

I thank all colleagues who contributed to the debate. I know that some of them disagree with the approach we are taking with the ownership model. We held a debate on the matter in the House in 2016. However, I believe everyone in the House agrees with the primary objective, that is, to bring high speed broadband to every home, community, business and farm in Ireland.

I appreciate the frustration being expressed by colleagues. I, too, am experiencing it, not only as a public representative but also as someone who was born, bred and reared in rural Ireland. I know its extraordinary potential.

I have always likened this debate to conversations I had on numerous occasions with a former Member of the House, my late father. He spoke about the impact the rural electrification scheme had had in our village of Ardkeenan. People living in communities throughout rural Ireland wanted to have electricity in order to have a lightbulb in the kitchen in order that they could read the newspaper. However, they soon found out about the extraordinary potential the supply of electricity offered in cooking, listening to the radio, watching television and operating milking machines. The scheme transformed the economy of rural Ireland and the lifestyle of women. It gave them great opportunities at the time. Broadband will do the same. We should remember that this was the first country in the world to bring an electricity supply to every home and it will also be the first to provide high speed broadband for every home.

I understand and appreciate the sense of frustration. That frustration has been compounded by the fact that some people are gaining access to broadband. The commitment agreement into which I tied eir is delivering high speed broadband to approximately 300 farms per week and 40,000 premises every quarter. That is some achievement, but it makes it even more frustrating when people see a neighbour at the end of or half way up the road being provided with pure fibre high speed broadband, while they are left with absolutely nothing. That is why I was determined, in tandem with the commitment agreement, to make progress on the issue under the broadband and mobile phone task force. There are ways by which we can encourage the roll-out of wireless, as well as 3G and 4G, broadband in the short term.

Mobile broadband is a sticking plaster. The point was well made in the article in the Sunday Independent by Adrian Weckler, who is not a strong advocate for me. If anything, he has probably been one of the biggest thorns in my side. However, I acknowledge that throughout the process he has called a spade a spade. He has set out the idea clearly. I have heard people the length and breadth of the country say on radio that those of us living in rural Ireland should damn well accept 4G mobile broadband, that it is good enough for us. It is not. A 3G mobile broadband service was rolled out under the national broadband scheme. I recall that the former Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was involved at the time. The day it went live, it was already obsolete. Mobile broadband will never meet our needs. It is a stop-gap measure, albeit a welcome one. I will assist in that regard, but it is a mobile, not a point-to-point, service. The reality is that over time people will not use broadband simply to watch a range of television channels or surf the Internet using a range of devices. I am engaged with several companies and what we are looking at is a pilot scheme to improve health outcomes for people living in rural communities. There are major opportunities for small post-primary schools. For example, if children want to take applied mathematics but the option is not available in their school, they can take it using online tools. The opportunities are endless for Irish ingenuity and business. I urge everyone to work with me. I will work with Members, too. I will give one commitment. I will engage with Members both here and in the Upper House. We will keep them briefed and updated on what is happening.

May I speak briefly to make one brief comment?

The Minister has spoken. It was the closing speech.

I will not say anything contentious. If I can, I will make one point because I had not realised the time-----

There is but one simple thought to put to the Minister as we enter the final process. We did not vote to delay the process, but this needs to be done. I have one question to put to the Minister. The fundamental principle, in thinking 20, 30 or 40 years ahead-----

May I finish the sentence?

Two wires will be put into every house. It may make sense for us to pick one of those wires, probably the electricity wire, and say it is the connection point.

I am sorry, but the Deputy is out of order.

The final decision should reflect the fact that the enet-SSE group has expertise in the provision of electricity wires. It may make sense to make a decision to go with the electricity rather than the telephone wire as a point of entry. The reasoning is simple. Why would we support the provision of two wires, two poles and two systems?

The Deputy is out of order and I want to explain the reason. There was no one in the House offering to speak when the Minister replied. There was space in which to do so when the previous speaker, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, finished her statement. As there was no one else offering, I called the Minister to make the closing statement. That is it. We cannot and do not go back.

On a point of clarification, we received notification of certain times. This is a really important topic. Is there any leniency or leeway for those Deputies who want to make a contribution in the national Parliament on what is an important issue in our constituencies? Would the Minister be willing to stay to hear the contributions of those who are present and would like to speak?

Otherwise, we will have to revisit the matter.

While I appreciate the Deputy's point, the problem is that during statements, when a speaker concludes and no other speaker is available, the only order is that the sitting be suspended. I did not have any other name and no other Deputy presented. That is the end of the story.

This is the sixth day in a row I have dealt with this issue.

I appreciate that, but it is not as if other Deputies were not ready to speak. I have been put a great deal of work into making a submission and preparing my contribution.

I assure the Deputy that it is not personal.

Is there any facility available to Deputies who wish to speak?

No; if we were to start facilitating Deputies in these circumstances, it would bring the House into disrepute and we would have to facilitate everybody at all times.

I ask that Standing Orders be suspended to allow Deputies to contribute. It is not the case that we intentionally decided not to appear in the Chamber or that we were not following the debate. We draw up rotas of speakers for a legitimate reason. As Deputies have prepared for this debate, I ask that Standing Orders be suspended to allow us to make our contributions.

There is no provision in the order to suspend Standing Orders. The instructions, by order of the House, are that statements must conclude not later than 5 p.m. and, in the event that they conclude earlier than 5 p.m., that we proceed directly to Topical Issues. The Minister was the final speaker and there were no other speakers available when he was called.

I made inquiries several times today because I would not have been able to contribute today if speakers from two of the groups that had indicated an intention to speak had done so. I had been monitoring the position and made inquiries throughout the day. When I saw the Minister rise to speak, I rang to ask what was happening. A degree of fairness should be shown.

The Deputy knows the rules as well as I do. If we were to depart from them in the manner proposed, it would set a precedent. We will not do so. Deputies can raise the matter with anyone they wish in any form they wish.

Under Standing Orders, must the Minister's response be the final contribution?

The Minister was the final speaker.

Several Deputies were in the Chamber while the Minister was still on his feet. If Standing Orders do not explicitly state the debate must conclude when the Minister finishes speaking, those who were present during his contribution should be allowed to speak.

The Minister finished the debate.

Given that we were here when he finished speaking, unless Standing Orders or the order before the House state the Minister must be the final speaker, there is no reason other Deputies should not be able to speak now.

When I took the Chair, I had before me a long list of speaking slots, but there were no Deputies present to fill them. When the final speaker concluded, we had to proceed to the next business.

I understand that, but I am asking a different question. Several Deputies present in the Chamber indicated that they wished to speak when the Minister concluded his contribution. Unless the order states no further speakers may be called after the Minister concludes, we should simply proceed to the next speaker. I suggest it would be within Standing Orders to proceed to the next speaker.

According to the order, a Minister or a Minister of State shall be called on to make a statement in reply which will not exceed five minutes. The Minister was called on because no further speakers were available at the time.

I understand that, but other speakers were present by the time the Minister concluded his contribution.

The Deputy is missing the point. When the second last speaker sat down, the Minister became the final speaker because no other Deputies were present. He was entitled to reply for not more than five minutes. That is the end of the story and I do not propose to break the rules.

I want to operate within the rules. Does the Acting Chairman have anything before him that states the Minister must be the final speaker? If not-----

I will explain the matter in its entirety. Deputy Eamon Scanlon was in possession when the debate was adjourned the previous day. He concluded his contribution this afternoon, at which point we had a rí-rá about the list of speakers along party lines. The order provides that all other Members have ten minutes' speaking time each and that the Minister or a Minister of State shall be called on to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed five minutes. Since no one else was present to fill the remaining speaking slots, the Minister replied. I could have informed him that other Deputies were on their way to the Chamber, but no one gave me information to that effect.

Does the Acting Chairman have a list of speakers in front of him?

The Bills Office informed me that my name was on a list, as were the names of other Deputies, including Deputies Clare Daly and Stephen S. Donnelly.

I am sorry, but I am closing the discussion. I ask the Deputy to, please, resume her seat. The speaking slots are set out in the normal manner, with the Government, the Fianna Fáil Party and the various Opposition parties and groups listed. The list did not feature the names of Deputies. We would have proceeded if the names of Deputies had been listed, but there was no one in the House.

On a point of order-----

As the Deputy knows, a point of order does not arise.

-----the Minister does not appear to oppose listening to the contributions of Deputies for the next 25 or 30 minutes, after which he could make further concluding remarks. I can think of numerous examples of the Chair, in such circumstances-----

I will not change my mind. When it became obvious that there were no other speakers, I asked who was the next speaker on the following item of business. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has come to the Chamber to deal with the next business and we should deal with it now because otherwise we will delay him. I do not mind if Deputies wish to delay the Minister all day. It is unfortunate that no further speakers were available before the Minister spoke, but I cannot change the position. I am sure we will have statements on the matter at another time.

On a point of clarification-----

No clarification is required. The position is crystal clear.

Will the Acting Chairman confirm that he did not have a list of speakers in front of him at the time we are discussing?

I did not have a list of speakers at the time, although I have one now.

When did that list appear?

After Deputy Louise O'Reilly spoke, the next slot was to have been taken by the Labour Party, followed by Solidarity-People Before Profit and Deputy Clare Daly. No one was present in the Chamber at that point.

Did the Acting Chairman have the list when he called the Minister?

Yes, but the bottom line is that there was no one in the Chamber. I am sorry, but we must proceed to the next business. I have been in a similar position as the Deputies. It is a matter of watching who is speaking in the House.

I suggest the various groups lobby have a short period provided on Tuesday to allow us to contribute. The Minister could send a Minister of State to the House. I acknowledge that he has spent a long time in the Chamber for this discussion.

Members could do that. Perhaps they might raise the matter at the Business Committee.

I am sure the Minister, who is my constituency colleague, will accommodate us. I was informed that I should come to the House by 4.30 p.m. I am not making an issue of the Acting Chairman's decision because I accept that these things can happen. Perhaps the Minister might consider providing a slot next week to allow those of us who have not spoken to contribute.

I do not have a problem with that suggestion.