Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

National Broadband Plan

Timmy Dooley


1. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the completion of the tendering process for the national broadband plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3370/19]

Could the Minister outline to the House the status of the tendering process for the national broadband plan and when he expects a tender to be signed, construction to begin and the project to be completed?

I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the status of the national broadband plan and the progress of this initiative towards its goal of ensuring high-speed broadband to all premises in Ireland, regardless of location.

The Deputy will be aware that the national broadband plan, NBP, has both a commercial element and a State intervention element.

The commercial element has been hugely successful, encouraging significant investment by the telecoms sector. Commercial operators have invested more than €2.75 billion in upgrading and modernising their networks over the past five years. In 2012 fewer than 700,000, or 30%, of all 2.3 million Irish premises had access to high-speed broadband. When this Government came into office, this had risen to 52%. Today 74% of premises can access high-speed broadband.

Under a commitment agreement signed with my Department in April 2017, Eir is in the process of passing 300,000 predominantly rural homes with high-speed broadband. According to data for quarter 3 of 2018 submitted by Eir to my Department, the company has passed almost 210,000 premises nationwide as part of its ongoing deployment.

Regarding the State intervention element of the NBP, my Department is now in the final stages of a procurement process to engage a company which will build, maintain and operate the State intervention network.

My Department has received a final tender submission from the bidder which is tendering for this contract. This submission is under assessment by my officials.

It is my priority that the procurement process be brought to a fair and impartial conclusion as quickly as possible. In the coming weeks I will bring a recommendation to Government on the remaining bidder's submission.

There is somewhat of a recurring theme to the response the Minister has issued. It is a theme that preceded his arrival into the office he now holds, an effort on the part of the Government to take credit for the work being done by the private contractors in the overall roll-out of broadband. The facts remain that the Government committed back in 2012 to roll out high-speed broadband to areas that were not commercially viable. People made decisions in this regard but there has been little or no progress since. It is the case that a final tender was submitted in September. However, back when the Government negotiated the programme for Government, the projected date for the signing of that contract was June 2017. We are no closer to it now than we were then. What we need from Government is a clear timeline of completion of its work. I have some issues with the Smyth report but it is completed. I cannot understand, nor can most people, the necessity of these ongoing discussions within the Minister's Department. He knows what is required. This has been ongoing for a very considerable period. What we now need is action and timelines in order that we bring some certainty to the people who have waited far too long for this really important service. The work the Department agreed under an arrangement with Eir to roll out broadband to 300,000 homes throughout the country has infuriated as many people as it has resolved issues for them. A house that is one house beyond an area that Eir has committed to serving will not get broadband. There is no sign of it happening. The Department's work has created almost as many problems as it has attempted to solve.

We are very clearly a lot further on. A detailed final bid was submitted in September. It is a comprehensive bid to deliver a broadband plan. The Deputy asks why my officials and I are taking so much time to evaluate this. I think he himself the other evening raised questions, as did numerous other Deputies, about issues such as the robustness of the technology, the deployment strategy, the contract terms, the governance of the project and the terms for connection.

Deputy Dooley heard them himself. Numerous legitimate issues were raised. It is right that we would tease them out and be satisfied. If I am in a position to bring a recommendation to the Government it will be based on having teased out the very issues Deputies here are raising with me. That is the reason time is being taken for that.

The Deputy complained that the Government is taking credit for commercial operators deciding to carve out part of the original 750,000 households, but that is under the terms of State aid. Once one enters into the provision of State support to a project such as this, there has to be an opportunity for others to come in, and that has triggered the arrival of others to make provision for 300,000 households. They are the facts.

We must observe the clock in order to make some progress. Deputy Dooley has one minute.

I have raised very serious concerns about the capacity of the remaining bidder to deliver. I and others have been raising them for the past year and a half and, sadly, it seems that it has only dawned on the Government in recent weeks. Perhaps the concerns are being taken more seriously following the Minister's arrival in office. I have been raising concerns since the main contractors that had the capacity to deliver the project, who were identified in the KPMG report before this process ever started, pulled out. What I cannot understand is the continued delay of the Government in reaching a decision. Surely the information is there. If tough decisions have to be taken then the Minister will find support on this side of the House, but let us make them and then move on.

I am sure anyone would have preferred that the five bidders who originally entered into the process stayed right to the end, but as Deputy Dooley knows, the number reduced to three and, in turn, they reduced to one. That is the nature of any procurement process. Having just one bidder left required far greater due process by the State to ensure that the State interests are protected. That is the reason there has been this level of work to evaluate carefully the risks and benefits, technically and financially. I do not think anyone would forgive me for short-circuiting that work. It is important that when I go to the Government with a recommendation it is based on a thorough evaluation. That is clearly what I am attempting to achieve.

National Broadband Plan

Brian Stanley


2. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the progress in relation to completion of the tender for the national broadband plan; and if an alternative model, for example, the use of State-owned infrastructure has been given consideration. [3358/19]

The best way of putting this is that the long wait continues. The Minister has chosen a model. I believe that he is caught in a vice between two companies, namely, the finance house and Eir, which is now owned by a French investor. The Minister mentioned that he will bring a recommendation to the Government in the coming weeks. I have heard that for a long time in this House. The wait is one thing, as people want broadband, but the other concern is the capacity of the company that is left in the tendering process.

As the Deputy will be aware, the procurement process to appoint a bidder for the State intervention network is now in its final stages, with the bidder's final tender with my Department officials for assessment. As I have noted in my previous response, the Government's priority is to bring the procurement process to a fair and impartial conclusion as quickly as possible and I will bring a recommendation to Government in the coming weeks.

The tender for the national broadband plan State intervention network is technology neutral and does not mandate the delivery of service by any specific material or infrastructure. This means that selection of the most appropriate infrastructure to use as part of the roll-out of the network is and was a matter for the bidder. That notwithstanding, the bidder has indicated to my officials that it intends to utilise both private infrastructure, belonging to Eir, and State-owned infrastructure, the MANs, to deliver its solution.

My Department maintains a register of infrastructure owners, both commercial and public. This register is available on my Department's website and remains open to new entries. The register is available for commercial operators to use for the purposes of engaging with infrastructure owners, including the bidder.

The remaining bidder is being left with the best of both worlds. He will get a State subsidy and from what the Minister said he will be allowed to use State infrastructure. I heard what the previous Minister said about Eir. I previously asked to see the legal advice concerning the cherry-picking by Eir of the 300,000 households that were taken out of the broadband plan. I wanted to see the legal advice on State competition rules that said Eir had to be allowed to pick the most commercially lucrative 300,000 households. To date, I have not seen it. If that was the case, the logic would follow that the electricity network in the Dublin area or any of the city areas in the State would have to be sold off to the private market to allow them to operate them because it is commercially viable to do that. Rural areas would then be served by the State or a State-subsidised system. I do not think that argument stands up. Under the current plan the company will own the system after 25 years. The company is stringing the Minister along. The current situation is that he is caught with this.

Could the Deputy ask a question?

This is where we are at the moment. There is a question mark over the timing but the real question relates to the capacity of the company to carry out the work.

It is important to bear in mind that it was open to any bidder to enter the process. As Deputy Stanley is aware, the ESB was previously part of a consortium. There is no sense in which anyone was excluded, State-owned or otherwise. It is also important to bear in mind that under state aid rules, state aid cannot be given to a commercial venture. State aid cannot be given to either a private company operating a commercial business nor to a state company operating in a commercial world. They are the rules of state aid. Because of that rule, Eir was entitled to make a request that it would deliver commercially an element of the process. There was an obligation under state aid rules to accept that offer. That is a different point to Deputy Stanley's suggestion that we cannot have a State commercial company. Of course we can have a State commercial company such as the ESB, but we cannot give state aid to such a company. They are the rules of state aid. There is a clear distinction here.

I accept Eir is entitled to make a bid to pick off the most lucrative households and businesses but the State was in a position to say "No" as well. The logic of that would carry over into other infrastructure in the State and that has not happened.

There are significant problems with the current system. The town of Stradbally is served by a mast and my information is that the mast is composed of copper. We are left with a shambolic system. Despite the fact that in the programme for Government it was stated that additional Exchequer capital would be provided if needed to deliver on the commitment to bring next generation broadband to every house and business in the country by 2020, we are as far away from that today as we were this time last year. We are hearing the same answers as we heard previously.

Is the Minister stitching in conditions in the tendering process that the cost cannot escalate over the term of the contract, in other words, that the costs cannot escalate beyond whatever price is agreed with the remaining bidder over the term of the contract?

We are not as far away today as we were a year ago. The reality is that we have a final bid submitted by the bidder at the end of the process. I have heard various comments of concern and that is the reason I and my officials are taking the time to tease through this to make sure that any recommendation I make is made on the best advice possible. It is not true to say that the State was in a position to refuse a commercial entity that wanted to carve out from a state aid package. Under state aid, if an undertaking is commercial and a company makes a claim that it is commercial, then the State cannot include it in a State intervention area. That is the reality.

The system is not to be delivered by copper. This is to be delivered by fibre to the home. That is to future proof it. All of those who entered the competition were going to use such technology. The aim was to future proof the system.

Climate Change Adaptation Plans

Timmy Dooley


3. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans to address freshwater temperatures in view of increased fish mortality rates in summer 2018. [3369/19]

The Minister is aware that the increases in water temperatures during the summer of 2018 had a considerable impact on fish mortality rates. Will he outline to the House any proposals he has to address this issue?

Observations show that Ireland’s climate is changing in terms of sea level rise, increases in average temperature, changes in precipitation patterns and weather extremes. The observed scale and rate of change is consistent with regional and global trends, and these changes are projected to continue and increase over the coming decades. Climate change will have diverse and wide-ranging impacts on Ireland’s environment, society and economic development, including managed and natural ecosystems, water resources, agriculture and food security, human health and coastal zones. Ireland's first statutory national adaptation framework, NAF, was published in January 2018. The NAF sets out the national strategy to reduce the vulnerability of the country to the negative effects of climate change. Under the NAF, Departments are preparing sectoral adaptation plans, which are due to be completed by September 2019.

Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, is the State agency charged with protection, management and development of the inland fisheries resource.

I am advised that climate change has been identified by IFI as one of the greatest threats facing the wider aquatic environment and fish populations and structures in the medium to long term. This will require significant efforts to overcome the considerable uncertainties and research requirements in relation to the impacts of climate change on Irish fish species, populations and habitats. IFI has been proactive in this regard as the impact on fish stocks can be a barometer of climate change.

In addition, IFI is exploring the building of an evidence-based assessment programme to assess the impact of climate change on the Irish fisheries sector in both freshwater and estuarine environments, with the ultimate aim to inform and build capacity for fisheries conservation and protection measures.

The Minister of State has outlined the impact of climate change but the sad reality is that this is the tip of the iceberg of the horrific impacts of climate change. Since 1980 there has been a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have happened since 2000. We are playing Russian roulette with the future of our planet.

When the Taoiseach was elected, he claimed the Government would be taking new initiatives in respect of climate change in the wake of budget 2018. Looking at this Department his assertions are laughable. That is the case across Government. Our transport, energy and home heating sectors amount for almost half of our emissions yet the Government has done almost nothing to move them to a greener future. All the time we see the impact on our economy. The impact on freshwater fishing has an effect on our salmon stocks and the industry around that, which is valued at €100 million based on the 2016 levels. We have to get real on climate change and start extrapolating the impacts of climate change on our economy in a real way.

Project Ireland 2040 which was launched in February 2018 consists of the national planning framework which sets out a spatial strategy for the country. It also sets out the expenditure on the national policy position, a planned €21.8 billion investment including €14 billion to be invested by semi-State companies and private sectors in the national strategic low carbon and climate resilience plan, to prepare for that.

There will be a transition period because we cannot just stop one thing and change to something else. For example in agriculture and fisheries, it has to be built upon. I am confident in the plans we have set out and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, has been given permission to set up an all-of-Government action plan for climate change. The investment is there but we need to make sure we change in such a way that we do not leave people behind or target the wrong people.

While I accept that the development plan for 2040 contains certain targets, the difficulty is that when we start pushing something as far out as 2040 that allows people to glaze over and effectively say that is for another generation, it is for somebody else beyond this electoral cycle. The principle of carbon pricing was introduced by the then Government in 2012. Fine Gael-led Governments since then have failed to even raise that by €1 or a cent since 2012. If appropriate measures are taken in time, it means less will have to be done in the latter part of the target period. I see nothing here or elsewhere that suggests to me that the Government is serious about tackling the impacts of climate change or addressing the future concerns the Minister of State has rightly identified. He has laid out the difficult road ahead for this sector. Unless we can bring that back to specific Government action, we will be failing future generations and our environment.

Project Ireland 2040 is the lifespan of the plan. The Minister has already announced that seven major climate action projects will share €77 million in funding, leveraging a total investment of €300 million in the first round of applications for the climate action fund. These projects will support decarbonisation of transport, heating, electricity and agriculture and demonstrate the type of investment that is happening here and now, not in 2040. We will be building on this and for example, we want Bord na Móna, one of the companies in my remit, to change from brown to green and show by example how it can be done for the rest of the country. I am very confident that we will see tangible results in the immediate future, rather than waiting for 2040.

We move now to the next available Deputy and Other Questions.

Question No. 4 taken after Question No. 6.
Question No. 5 replied to with Written Answers.