Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

National Broadband Plan

Michael Moynihan

Question:

99. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications the status of the roll-out of the national broadband plan in County Cork. [35090/20]

I apologise to the Minister because we are back to broadband again but I assume over the next few years the Minister will be well used to listening to various Deputy speak about it. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of good and reliable broadband to ensure all citizens can avail of remote working, education and other essential online services. Will the Minister outline the plans for and the fast-tracking of the national broadband plan? Will he make a statement on the matter of the roll-out of the national broadband plan, with particular reference to Cork?

The high-speed broadband map, which is available at www.broadband.gov.ie, shows the areas in Cork which will be included in the national broadband plan. As of this week almost 122,000 premises across 25 counties have been surveyed by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, which is ahead of the full-year survey target of 120,000 that had been projected by the company. Of this figure, some 16,432 premises have been surveyed to date in Cork. This activity informs design solutions for the provision of the fibre network, and NBI crews have started initial works for the build covering approximately 4,000 premises in the Carrigaline area, including Cullen, Templebreedy, Carrigaline, Ballyfoyle, Douglas, Ballyphehane, Glasheen, Mahon, and Kilpatrick. The first fibre to the home connections are expected next month and they will be subject to technical testing and validation prior to a wider release of the area. I am advised that, from the end of January, retailers will be able to resell the service and householders in these areas will be able to order high-speed broadband provided via the NBI network.

Further details are available on specific areas within Cork through the NBI website, which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register their interest in being provided with deployment updates through its website www.nbi.ie. Individuals who register with this facility will receive regular updates on progress by NBI on delivering the network and specific updates related to their own premises when works are due to commence.

Broadband connection points are a key element of the national broadband plan, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to the home network.

As of 30 October, 187 sites have been installed and the high-speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites, and by the Department of Education for schools. Fifty-nine publicly accessible broadband connection points, BCPs, across the country are now live, with seven of these in County Cork. In addition, Clogagh and Ballycroneen national schools in Cork will also be connected for educational access as part of the BCP initiative.

I thank the Minister. My office has been inundated with broadband queries since the onset of this pandemic. My constituents are very frustrated. I often hear from households of five and six people where both parents are working from home and three or four children are trying to continue their studies online, both at second level and third level. It is nearly impossible for them to do this because of their poor Internet connection.

I have made several representations to Eir and NBI but because many of these Eircode postal codes are included in the national broadband plan, I am informed there is nothing that can be done, and I receive a generic response, much to my frustration and that of my constituents. One of my constituents recently remarked: “I work from home using my phone through a hotspot and do not have Wi-Fi fast enough to do my job”. Other constituents drive to nearby public buildings to access basic services and people at home are unable to give their schooling or studies their full attention.

Unfortunately, this is becoming the norm in my constituency. We have all now accepted that the pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future. Can anything be done for my constituents in the short term or is it simply a case of waiting for the roll-out of the national broadband plan?

If Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan does not mind, I would like to also respond to what was said earlier by the Ceann Comhairle during a debate on a Topical Issue matter because the case he made is proper and important. We represent our constituents and at this moment in crisis, when people are dependent on these services, for them not to be able to get a response from the companies providing the services is a real issue of concern. Whatever about my comments and those of other Members, the fact that they came from the Ceann Comhairle in the middle of our debate is something I will bring to the attention of ComReg and Eir. This deserves real attention from the company and the regulator.

That said, the challenge that we all recognise is that we need to accelerate this during Covid. Deputy O’Sullivan mentioned the family situation and I can see this in my own home, where there are six of us on various devices, and if anyone cannot get broadband, he or she is cut off. There is a particular challenge in rural areas, where there may often be a distance from the nearest connection, and it is a question of how that is rolled out. It was originally set to be a seven-year project and we are looking to see can we accelerate and shorten that. The vast majority of houses will be delivered in the early years and it will only be the very difficult to reach houses that are being put back to that later date. The incentive for the company now is that the demand is so great, and I hope we can accelerate this project to the best of our ability.

I welcome the comments of both the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister. It speaks volumes when the Ceann Comhairle expresses an opinion like that. One need only look at any Twitter account in regard to Eir's customer service. It is nearly legendary at this stage that people are dissatisfied with the level of customer service they receive from that provider in particular.

The elephant in the room is the lack of information for so many people. Many of the requests are common to all of our offices weekly and many of the misgivings and problems people have with their providers could be addressed with more up-to-date information on those providers’ websites. If there was a timeline for various villages, towns and rural areas, so they know broadband will be coming to them in, for example, quarter 1, quarter 2 or quarter 3, it would provide great relief to those people to know that it is coming. I would appreciate it if the Minister could progress this issue.

At the Estimates committee meeting last week, a number of Deputies echoed Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan's comments by making the point that access to information, particularly in regard to roll-out plans, will be a key issue. I reverted to my Department during the week and we agreed that we need to look again at how we map out some of the work that is going to be done. It is hard at the moment because a lot of the work that is being done is survey work, so we will not know what the actual timeline is until that survey work gives us some broad indication. One way we might approach this is to work through local councils or other agencies to try to make sure there is better communication. People can now register on that nbi.ie website but only some 16,000 households have registered thus far. This website will give them updated information on when their house is due to be reached and what the broad timelines are. We can start by trying to promote that, and I am promoting it, to try to give people more information. We will work with the county councils to give them an update and, in that way, help local representatives and Deputies to give a service to their constituents.

Data Centres

Duncan Smith

Question:

100. Deputy Duncan Smith asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications the status of plans to develop efficiency standards of data centres as outlined in the programme for Government under the heading "Regulation Driving Climate Action"; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35068/20]

I was encouraged to see a reference to data centres under the climate action section of the programme for Government. My concern in regard to data centres is that they are a blind spot, not only for the Government, but for governments and states throughout western Europe and North America. I would like to hear the Minister's thoughts on the Government's plan for dealing with the carbon emissions from these massive buildings.

The Government statement on the role of data centres in Ireland's enterprise strategy acknowledges the role of data centres as part of the digital and communications infrastructure for many sectors of our economy. The statement also noted that data centres pose considerable challenges to the future planning and operation of Ireland’s power system. Such challenges arise in terms of renewable energy policy, generation adequacy, security of electricity supply and electricity customer costs.

The programme for Government commits to developing efficiency standards for equipment and processes, particularly those set to grow rapidly, such as data centres. The ICT sector needs to undergo its own green transformation. Earlier this year, the European Commission adopted Shaping Europe's Digital Future, which includes an objective to foster an open, democratic and sustainable society. Key actions include initiatives to achieve climate-neutral, highly energy efficient and sustainable data centres by no later than 2030. I note that the EU ecodesign regulation on servers and data storage products sets minimum standards around the environmental impact of these products and requires that circular economy principles will be mandatory for suppliers of this type of equipment from next year.

The climate action plan also provides that the IDA will use its new strategy for 2020 to 2024 to fully integrate decarbonisation objectives across its portfolio of clients. This strategy will seek to ensure new large-scale enterprise investments in Ireland, including factors such as location and power purchase agreement opportunities, are aligned with the build-out of the grid to maximise renewable sources. We have seen recently a number of unsubsidised corporate power purchase agreements, purchased by data centre operators, in the Irish market and I hope we can encourage more. When data centre operators purchase electricity directly from renewable generators, it contributes towards the State objective to decarbonise our electricity system without any subsidy from electricity customers.

In addition, the Government’s climate action fund is supporting South Dublin County Council to develop an innovative district heating project in the Tallaght area, using waste heat from a local data centre. The Tallaght district heating scheme will provide low carbon heat to public sector, residential and commercial customers, with the objective of decreasing the level of emissions associated with the use of fossil fuels for heating. This project will provide valuable information in regard to the synergies between district heating and waste heat recovery from a data centre. This will inform future policy for the use of waste heat in appropriate locations and where technically feasible.

My Department is working with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the relevant energy bodies to implement the commitments in the climate action plan and the programme for Government.

The Tallaght district heating scheme is very welcome and is something we support. However, it does not allay any concerns I have in regard to data centres. According to EirGrid, by 2028, data centres, along with other large users, will consume 29% of Ireland's electricity. We are already Europe’s data centre capital, with Amazon, Google and Microsoft having operations here. Dozens of centres have opened in recent years, bringing the total to 54. We have ten centres under construction, including a €1 billion Amazon hub in Mulhuddart, west Dublin, and another 31 centres have planning permission.

These centres do not get the same attention as the agriculture industry, the aviation industry or the fossil fuel industry but they should and, in fact, they should get more attention. They are jobs poor and carbon heavy. People drive past them in industrial estates on the outskirts of towns and because they do not have two smoking chimney stacks going into the sky, they do not attract the same amount of attention. This is a flawed model.

I am not encouraged that there is enough detail in the Minister's response to suggest that we are truly going to tackle what is being done.

Every industry will have to operate within the planning framework where we go to net zero emissions by 2050 and 50% reduction in the next ten years. A key to that will be energy efficiency. We focus all the time on the generation side but efficiency is vital. Looking at the use of electricity across a range of different sectors, we have seen significant growth of our economy without a commensurate growth in electricity. We can do this.

The development of data centres, and EirGrid is the key company which manages and oversees this, can only work in tandem with the development of our grid and our renewable electricity system. We will not allow one industry to tip us over the edge in terms of our emissions profile. It has to contribute but if, as the Deputy said, we get 75% or 80% of our electricity from renewables by 2028, which is feasible, then we can make that equation work. In the subsequent decade, when we are looking to develop some 30 GW of offshore wind, particularly in the west coast, the south-west coast and so on, there is the possibility for us to run a digital, modern economy, electrifying transport and industry, and including data centres. The scale of the power we will have available to us will be a multiple of any use. It will be low carbon and relatively low cost compare to other locations. We can only make this work in a way that is carbon neutral.

My other concern is that these data centres are light on creating jobs. For a building of such size, there may only be a couple of dozen workers there. We are dedicating large spaces to companies like Amazon, which has appalling workers' rights records throughout the globe, to create these massive data centres.

I know these corporate purchasing power agreements are unsubsidised but I am concerned about them because it is the beginning of corporate creep into our energy generation at a time when our energy security is not certain. The Minister is strong on this and there is much in the programme for Government on energy security but we are not there yet and these data centres will be hiving off and keeping for themselves much clean renewable energy generation to go into centres which, although storing data, are not creating jobs. Is it cumulatively a total good? I am not convinced it is.

We are starting an energy security review. It is looking at the wider context in terms of gas networks and so on but when one starts looking at it, one realises that to have a full review one has to see the full picture and that includes demand, which includes these operations and others. It is an important part of our economy. As the Deputy said, the data centres themselves are relatively small in terms of jobs but many of the companies operating them here have tens of thousands of workers in my constituency and in the Deputy's. There is a connection in having the data centres, which are in many ways the core of the business, and being able to attract other elements of the business. That is hard to prove. I go back to the basic level of asking someone if they have a phone and if they use it. If so, that is the data centre. The phone is just an extension of the data centre. We are not going to remove our use of our phones any day soon. We need to work with and set the highest standards with the companies and say we will only do this if it works in a low-carbon the way, including the use of district heating, having the most energy-efficient centres going and using our comparative competitive advantage in renewable power. That model can be sustainable.

Question No. 101 replied to with Written Answers.

Electric Vehicles

James O'Connor

Question:

102. Deputy James O'Connor asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications the status of his plans to support the development of infrastructure for electric vehicles. [35091/20]

Electric vehicles are the future of our personal transportation system, particularly for long journeys and in rural areas. We need to have more of a discussion around how we put in place the infrastructure we require to sustain that type of transport system. Will the Minister give the House some guidance as to what steps his Department is taking to fulfil some of the actions that are required?

The Government is fully committed to supporting a significant expansion and modernisation of the electric vehicle charging network over the coming years. We have committed €10 million from the climate action fund to promote the charging network and this has leveraged a further €10 million investment from ESB. This intervention will result in 90 additional high-power chargers, each capable of charging two vehicles, 52 additional fast chargers, which may replace existing standard chargers, and 264 replacement standard chargers with more modern technology, with each consisting of two charge points.

Since the delivery stage of the product commenced in October 2019, four multicharger sites have been delivered, one each on motorways in Galway, Kildare, Laois and Meath. The programme to upgrade 50 standard chargers to fast chargers has already commenced with 13 installations now in place. In addition, 159 standard chargers, each with two charge points, have been replaced, bringing the total number of those chargers nationally to 318.

My Department also provides support to the SEAI public charge points scheme. This scheme provides funding to local authorities for the development of on-street public chargers. The primary focus of this scheme is to provide support for the installation of infrastructure which would facilitate owners of EVs who do not have access to a private parking space but rely on parking their vehicles on the public street to charge their EVs near their homes. A total of 75% of the capital cost is provided through a grant up to a maximum of €5,000 per charging point.

My Department will continue to support this scheme through the grants provided by the SEAI and in parallel is developing a charging infrastructure strategy in line with the programme for Government. This will ensure capacity keeps ahead of demand, while also putting in place guidance for local authorities on how best to expand the network of public charge points at local, national and regional levels.

Work is currently being progressed to expand the EV home charger grant to include shared parking in apartment blocks and similar developments. However, there are a number of complex planning and legal issues to address before we can expand the grant in an appropriate manner so as to include the required categories of shared parking. My Department is working closely with the SEAI and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to address the issues.

On new build, it should be noted that the EU energy performance and buildings directive requires member states to ensure that appropriate infrastructure is installed in all new residential and non-residential buildings as well as those buildings with more than ten car parking spaces for the purpose of enabling the installation of a larger stage of charging points for electric vehicles. It is intended that the EU requirement will be transposed into Irish law by the end of this year.

In addition to the schemes outlined above, the Department of Transport is also undertaking an EV small public service vehicles, SPSV, charger project, which will see the installation of SPSV-dedicated EV chargers at Dublin and Cork airports and at Heuston train station in Dublin, Colbert train station in Limerick and Kent train station in Cork. In budget 2021, additional funding has been allocated to extend this dedicated infrastructure network further and dedicated recharging network is key to supporting the sector in making the switch to greener, cleaner alternatives.

I welcome the Minister's efforts so far to deal with this issue. What needs to be explored in Ireland is our conversation around having a system in place where we are moving from a fossil fuel-based cars industry towards a greener one. There is much apprehension and fear among many families which is damaging consumer confidence in the car industry around purchasing vehicles. I strongly encourage the Minister to tackle that issue in the next number of years so that there is a degree of certainty as to whether it is a wise move to purchase an electric vehicle, to focus on hybrids or to buy a car that runs on diesel or petrol, which some families are still considering. I am a keen motorist with an interest in this area and I know from talking to people in this industry that that is a fear. I would appreciate it if the Minister responded to that.

There is definitely a growing demand among the public for public EV charging points, from people living in apartments to tourist destinations to car parks. Macroom Town Council, for example, led on this a number of years ago and installed one of the first charging points in Cork. I acknowledge the Minister has made funding available to local authorities. However, there seems to be little interest among local authorities in accessing it. In the past year, only two of them accessed the funding and less than half made inquiries.

Has the Minister engaged with local authorities in order to energise them in accessing funding and putting in place electric vehicle services for the public, whether in Ballincollig or other places across County Cork? Has the Minister engaged with the local authorities and is it possible to energise them and get them accessing the available funding?

I will start by replying to Deputy Aindrias Moynihan. As it happens, I had a meeting with Cork County Council last week on the issue of sustainable travel in general. I take every chance I get to encourage local authorities to make an application for funding and look to develop their infrastructure. The benefits, as I see it, are setting out a direction of travel. We are running a towns first strategy aimed at bringing life back into the centre of Macroom and any other town. It would help if we could put good quality infrastructure in the centre of towns. It would be particularly appropriate where there are rows of terraced houses, tightly knit together. It is hard to service those houses with electric charging points because if three or four households in a row have an electric vehicle, there would be a difficulty on the distribution grid at that level, as well as the potential problem of getting a parking spot outside the house and so on. Having that sort of infrastructure would be a part of a town first revival.

I was impressed with the engineers and officials I met from Cork County Council. There was a lot of discussion around public realm and investing in the centre of towns. This is now part of the public realm infrastructure.

I thank the Minister.

I have not yet responded to Deputy O'Connor, if I may briefly run over my allotted time.

I believe that the future will be all electric. Certain other players, including the likes of Toyota, would say that hybrid cars have a real advantage. Toyota would say that a hybrid vehicle is running on electricity 80% of the time, taking the energy from the brakes, and that there is efficiency because there is a large number of cars for the amount of battery power required. The reason I think electric vehicles will prevail in the long run is that there are fewer moving parts, the fuel costs are a fifth of those of other types of car and the maintenance cost is a fraction because there are fewer moving parts. They are simply better cars. They are coming in for certain.

I thank the Minister for his response. I will reiterate, to a certain extent, that there is a lot of fear among families who are purchasing an electric vehicle. It is an expensive thing to do. My constituency is very rural where there is no option for public transport and people need to buy cars every few years, depending on the mileage they are doing and so on and so forth. I feel there is a lack of clarity around purchasing vehicles at the moment and what the transition is going to be like. We are moving towards an electric-based system and I agree with the Minister that it is the future. We, as a country, are seeing significant investment in green technology and transport. The Minister knows that his Department has recently invested significantly in Youghal and Midleton with the new greenway system, which is welcome. It is coming in at a cost of €10 million.

A strategy would be welcome and a prudent move from the Minister. It would certainly quell a lot of fears that consumers and families out there have around this particular problem.

I mentioned the problem of the distribution grid. When we are using heat pumps as well as electric vehicles, probably the biggest engineering and technical challenge is how do we do that in an urban area. We will not have that problem in one-off houses in rural Ireland because cars can be charged right outside the door of the house. That vehicle and a heat pump can be managed. There will be new home energy management systems coming in which will turn the vehicle or the pump on or off and get power going backwards and forwards. The range of these vehicles is improving. We have access to renewable wind power in many rural parts of the country. This is probably going to be a rural solution first. It will probably be more difficult in some of the urban areas because of the charging difficulties we would have in apartment blocks, terraced housing and semi-detached houses. It will not be easy. One-off rural housing is a perfect target market for electric vehicles as their range comes up and costs come down. The quality is there, as I said. The maintenance costs are lower and the fuel costs are a fraction of other types of car. I see this, first and foremost, as a rural solution.

Landfill Sites

James Lawless

Question:

103. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications if additional funding is being made available through the landfill remediation programme at the landfill site at Kerdiffstown, County Kildare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35102/20]

My question inquires about the progress of the remediation of the Kerdiffstown landfill and, in particular, what additional finances may be forthcoming in relation to same.

In the year to date, funding of almost €3.4 million has been provided through the landfill remediation programme for the project at Kerdiffstown. It is expected that further funding in the region of €2 million will be drawn down by Kildare County Council by the end of this year.

Following the completion of the 2021 Estimates process last month, I expect to be in a position to allocate funding of €23.5 million to the landfill remediation programme next year to continue the remediation of environmentally-degraded, discontinued landfill sites operated by local authorities and private landfills taken into State ownership. A significant proportion of this overall allocation will be directed towards further remediation works at Kerdiffstown.

On receipt of confirmation of 2020 total funding from my Department, Kildare County Council entered into a contract for final remediation work. The contract was awarded after the completion of a successful procurement competition. Significant work has already been completed on the site in making it safe and in securing appropriate access to allow for final remediation works to be carried out. The contractor for the final works is due to mobilise on site later this month and the contract is of 54 months' duration with project completion scheduled for 2025. Funding beyond 2021 will be determined in the context of the annual Estimates process and the funding requirements of the project.

Kildare County Council has a page dedicated to project progress on its website where regular up-to-date information on Kerdiffstown Park is provided.

I thank the Minister for that positive answer and acknowledge that €23.5 million is quite a significant sum. I know that is not all for Kerdiffstown but is for general landfill remediation. The €3.4 million and extra €2 million that the Minister has committed to this year amounts to a total of €5.4 million, if I have that right.

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the issue of Kerdiffstown landfill. This has been a long battle. The Minister probably recalls me raising it on numerous occasions during the previous Dáil with the then Ministers and at the Joint Committee for Communications, Climate Action and Environment on which the Minister and I sat. It is a good news story that started off as a very bad news story. I am sure the Minister and the House are familiar with the background. This landfill reached national attention when smoke and fumes were blooming out across the N7. That was the nadir of the whole debacle and various unauthorised developments and activities were going on at the site. It went up in smoke and the place went on fire with all sorts of toxic substances within it. That shone a negative light on the landfill.

I thank the Deputy.

Do I not have a few minutes longer? How long do I have?

The clock says the Deputy has no time but I ask him to go on.

I will not come in again to ask a supplementary question. I will leave my contribution at this. The battle over the landfill was a long one. It is a good news story that we are out the far side of it.

I will briefly mention the Kerdiffstown residents' group, the cleaner Naas group and other groups. I will also mention Kildare County Council and the people under the stewardship of Joe Boland who have brought matters to this point.

On a historical note, things go full circle. My predecessor in this role and former Deputy, the late Michael Fitzpatrick, raised this issue in 2007 with the Minister's predecessor, former Deputy John Gormley, when it was first breaking. I worked with then Deputy Fitzpatrick at that time and he pressed this issue. It is really positive to see it come full circle.

I regularly drive past the landfill on the way home and it is amazing to see the work that has gone on. It is not yet open to the public, as the Minister knows, but one can see the remedial work that has taken place if one looks through the fence or the gate. It will be a park. There will be vantage points, a path to walk around and playing fields within it. It is an ugly duckling that has become a swan and it is a credit to all involved.

It is a sad tale but I hope it is one that has a somewhat better ending, as the Deputy says. It was a quarry, dating back to the 1950s. In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, issued a waste licence. A revised licence was issued in 2006 but the EPA then had to take court action in 2009 because there was significant odour pollution at the site. The EPA found that the site was not operating in accordance with the licensing conditions. It was effectively abandoned in 2010, when enforcement actions were being pursued, and the EPA took possession of the site in 2010. A fire broke out on the site in 2011, as the Deputy said, requiring an emergency response by the State.

That is the sad tale of why we are here. The issue is real and relates to odours and to leachate into the River Morell, which is a tributary of the Liffey. This is a shocking example of how the cost of protecting our health increases when we do not look after our local environment. The expectation is that we will be able to manage it and that, at the end of this process, we will be able to restore it safely into a multi-use public park. That will mark the end of what has been a sorry saga.

Post Office Network

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

104. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications if supports will be put in place for the post office network in view of the significant financial challenges facing the network; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34562/20]

I raise the issue of the challenges facing the post office network. An independent report by Grant Thornton recently concluded that the network is at a critical juncture and the financial viability of the network is being challenged like never before. The report projects that the annual cost of running the post office network in 2021 will be €70 million and that it will generate a retail revenue of €53 million, leaving a €17 million shortfall. Can the Minister outline if he will give consideration to the recommendations contained in this report?

The importance of the post office network has been clearly demonstrated during the pandemic. We have seen a range of initiatives carried out through our post offices which have helped to support local communities, the elderly and vulnerable. However, the serious decline in the volume of mail and the impact of Covid-19 on footfall through post offices has had a severe impact on the postal network. I am aware of the concerns of the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. I am also aware of the findings of the Grant Thornton report, which was commissioned by the IPU.

It is a long-standing policy of the Government that postal services will not be directly subsidised by the Government. However, we remain fully committed to a sustainable post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure in both rural and urban areas. The programme for Government recognises that a modernised post office network will provide a better range of financial services and e-commerce services for citizens and enterprise, as part of our commitment to a sustainable nationwide post office network.

An Post put in place a strategic plan, covering the period from 2017 to 2021, in response to the structural challenges faced by the postal sector. In order to implement the plan, the cost of which was estimated to be in the region of €150 million, the Minister for Finance provided a loan of €30 million to the company in December 2017. The cost of supporting the renewal of the post office network was €15 million and the continued fulfilment of a five-day mail delivery service cost another €15 million. As part of the delivery of the plan, the company was split into two distinct business units - An Post Mails and Parcels, and An Post Retail.

An Post is transforming its retail network by delivering new products and new formats. Among other things, it is diversifying and growing the financial services products it provides to individuals and SMEs to include loans, credit cards and more foreign exchange products, it is offering local banking in association with the major banks, and it is providing a full range of State savings products. Two new dedicated sub-brands, An Post Money and a new business-to-business brand, An Post Commerce, have been launched. An Post's investment of €50 million in the network is about getting communities to use the enhanced services in their local post office.

The Government believes An Post has untapped potential to do more and to make a further significant contribution across many areas of public, business and community life in Ireland. With an evolving mandate, An Post can emerge as a central hub for a wide variety of valuable community-focused services. We will work closely with An Post to see if there is scope to channel additional services through the network. All options will be considered fully and efforts will be redoubled to give effect to our commitment to ensuring a sustainable and viable post office network.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire. I appreciate that the Minister's Department is considering the Grant Thornton report, but we need to do more in the current climate, given the crisis we are experiencing now. This is an important issue, as acknowledged by the Minister. The post office is a vital service in many towns and communities throughout the country, particularly in rural areas. As the Minister has mentioned, during the Covid-19 lockdown the post office assumed the role of a social contact and provided a reassuring knock on the door for many people, especially our elderly and vulnerable.

The post office is at a critical juncture. During the Covid-19 pandemic, its transactions are estimated to have decreased by approximately 25%. I acknowledge that it is a long-standing Government policy that postal services will not be directly subsidised by the Government. However, we find ourselves in unprecedented times. In 2017, the Minister for Finance provided a loan of €30 million to the company to support the renewal of the post office network and its continued fulfilment of a five-day mail service. Can the Minister consider a further loan to make up for the existing deficit?

The Government has continued to look at this matter. Today, we announced a series of further Covid-related payments, in this case to the aviation industry because it is in real trouble. I would not rule out whatever further measures that the Government might have to consider.

The Deputy is right when he says that the 25% reduction in footfall is a real issue. An additional cost of €6 million has been incurred in post offices to pay for PPE and other protection measures. There has been a further acceleration of the decline in mail revenues and volumes. Traditionally, in recent years, it was declining by approximately 7% per annum. The decrease has been closer to 10% or 15% this year. As in many other sectors, business is down. The factor that compensates for this is that revenues from the parcel business are up 100%. That is probably true for many businesses involved in the online system.

The success that An Post has had in recent years in turning its fortunes around, getting back to break-even or to profit and having a very positive outlook compared to what people might have expected in these difficult circumstances has resulted from its approach of aiming for markets for new products for which there is a real demand and being innovative in looking at new opportunities. In addition, there are Government services that we can distribute through the post office network. I commit to doing anything I can to get as many of those services as possible delivered through the post office system.

I acknowledge what the Minister has said. I ask that both he and the Government continue to monitor the situation. It is imperative that we do all we can to support our post office services. I ask the Minister to comment briefly on the public service obligation model which is used in other countries throughout Europe, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Such a model was advocated in the Grant Thornton report. I acknowledge the role that An Post and its staff have played throughout the pandemic in being a port of call for people who need to touch base with someone. I wish the firm and all its employees the very best coming up to Christmas.

I join the Deputy in thanking the workers in the post offices for the really good work they have done throughout the year in this Covid-19 crisis. The Deputy mentioned European examples which we will look at. I should also mention, further to our previous discussion, that An Post availed of a European Investment Bank loan of approximately €40 million as part of its strategic investment plan. We have been tapping into European funding as part of the overall plan. Government funding is not the only funding that has been provided. We will look at other models in other countries while reviewing the Grant Thornton report.

National Broadband Plan

James Lawless

Question:

105. Deputy James Lawless asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications if he will address the broadband deficit in the areas of east County Kildare particularly Eadestown, Rathmore and Kilteel in view of an increasing population density, a high concentration of persons working and studying from home and little progress to date on rolling out fibre infrastructure to the area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35101/20]

I understand that we covered some of this issue during Topical Issue matters last week. Can the Minister comment again on the predicament of rural east Kildare with regard to broadband provision?

I remember the Topical Issue matter. I hope to get the placenames right in this case, rather than including west Kildare in my east Kildare line-up. My response is similar to the one I gave earlier in response to a Topical Issue matter.

The national broadband plan, NBP, intervention areas are set out as those areas that cannot be met by targeted commercial operators. Premises in the amber area in the map will be provided with high-speed broadband through State-led intervention, the contract for which was signed last November with National Broadband Ireland, NBI. The blue area on the map represents those areas where commercial providers are currently delivering or have plans to deliver a high-speed broadband services. The NBP will offer users a high-speed broadband service with speeds of 500 Mbps from the outset. This service will reach over 90% of all premises in the country. This is expected to be delivered within the next four years.

Details on east Kildare are available through the NBI website, www.nbi.ie, which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register its interest in being provided with deployment updates. Individuals who register with this facility will receive regular updates on progress on delivering in their local areas and specific updates on their own premises. I am advised by NBI that, as of 4 November 2020, almost 122,000 premises across 25 counties have been surveyed, which is ahead of target.

Surveys have been completed in the following areas across County Kildare: Killashee, Oughterard, Naas rural, Rathmore, Eadestown, Kill, Kilteel, Carnalway, Gilltown, Ballymore Eustace, Bodenstown, Naas urban, Newtown and Donaghcumper. The next step is for National Broadband Ireland to develop network designs to deliver the new fibre to the home network to these premises, followed by pre-build and build works.

Broadband connection points are a key element of the national broadband plan, NBP, providing high speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to the home network. As of 30 October, 187 sites have been installed with service provider contracts being done by the Department of Rural and Community Development for publicly available sites and by the Department of Education for schools.

Rathmore National School and St. David's National School in County Kildare will be connected for educational access as part of this initiative by the end of the year. My Department continues to work with the Department of Education to prioritise other schools with no high speed broadband within the intervention area for connection over the term of the national broadband plan.

I thank the Minister and for his engagement on the previous day also. He is very on the ball on this issue and his geography is spot-on today so there are no issues in that regard. Rather than repeat what was said in the debate last week I will focus on a different aspect today. The national broadband plan is under way, which is great, and we want it to happen as quickly and effectively as possible, but is there merit in also looking at measures to complement that and to make it easier for private or public providers to get in alongside that to allow for greater coverage penetration? In the previous Dáil I introduced the broadband planning framework Bill to enable that. It was working its way through the Houses before the Dáil was dissolved. The type of things it sought to do included planning synchronisation across different planning authorities; a register of assets that would be maintained by the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg; a central depository where kit and infrastructure would be re-used if it is already in place; mandating site sharing so if there is already a mast or a duct on a particular hillside or road it would be re-used rather than reinventing the wheel; and ducting to the door, which may be of interest to the Minister, in that a change in the planning mandate that ducting be provided to the door be part of that new build planning framework.

The Deputy is absolutely right that we should not simply rest on our laurels or wait for the national broadband plan and not do anything else. There are large areas in other parts of the country not in the intervention area and we have to have an eye on them. Competition does help here, particularly where a technology evolves. There may be innovation occurring in fixed wireless or other wireless systems that may even move into areas we had not expected. We should certainly encourage and support that without interfering directly in the market.

The way the national broadband area is configured is, by tradition, more rural. In terms of the way the previous agreement was done with Eir, the first surrounding area around a town would typically be an Eir area where it is rolling out high speed broadband very successfully, even if its customer service is letting it down. The area beyond that then is the national broadband area. It is not just the national broadband plan. We also tend to have Eir doing the hinterland area around most towns. In the larger towns and cities we tend to have competition, be it from the cable provider or a range of different providers including SIRO, Eir and a number of others, so it would be more difficult in rural Ireland. That is why the national broadband plan is there but we may see other potential providers.

I welcome the Minister's interest in considering other possible options. A parallel path could be mapped out. The NBP is providing broadband to as much of the country as it can, particularly in those rural areas, but there is nothing stopping us from facilitating others in that regard. I welcome the Minister's commitment to accommodate competition in that space because I believe that competition lifts all boats. It is important to have a technology mix also because the NBP is predicated upon a fibre infrastructure, which we know is currently the scientifically fastest option, but from a practical point of view I refer to the likes of fixed wireless, which the Minister mentioned, although not satellite, which can create an expense. Other options that may be able to get services to certain areas faster, albeit that fibre is the ultimate choice, may be coming down the track at a later stage but getting a better service to certain areas sooner and then having fibre coming in in due course is something to keep an eye on.

I fully agree that there are developments in fixed wireless and other non-fibre based solutions but that is what we have gone for with the national broadband plan. It is largely fibre based. I remember talking to the engineers around the configuration of that. They found it was optimal in terms of meeting the needs of the national broadband plan. There was not a blind spot ruling out fixed wireless but if I remember rightly they found a difficulty with the configuration, particularly of our pole network along the roads, and getting an equivalent high quality provision using fixed wireless. No matter how many shared masts or other fixed wireless configurations there were they found it very difficult to get the coverage in with the dispersed nature in hollows, behind hills and so on in terms of one-off rural housing. That is why the fixed fibre option was the one picked.

Questions Nos. 106 and 107 replied to with Written Answers.

We are running out of time. I want to go to Question No. 108. We have a short amount of time for Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh to ask her question.

Warmer Homes Scheme

Rose Conway-Walsh

Question:

108. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications the status of and position regarding energy upgrades as part of the better energy warmer homes scheme planned for 2020 due to the Covid-19 crisis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35175/20]

I welcome the Minister's earlier answers on the SEAI scheme and the warmer homes scheme. On the additional 107 staff, who are they to be employed by? He will be aware that my main concern is the waiting list for the warmer homes scheme. Last month, 7,300 people were waiting of which 345 are in Mayo. How will they be prioritised? Who will decide who goes first? Will it be according to medical need or how will it be done? How will the Minister get more contractors in each county to be able to clear that backlog?

Of the 107 jobs there are approximately 50 within my Department, primarily in the energy sections. There are so many different projects going on at such a scale we find that we need additional resources. It is about the ability of the State to deliver but sometimes we meet a constraint. Fifty-seven will be in the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. It is an independent public agency but an agency of our Department so it is very closely connected, and that is a matter for the agency itself. It has already started that hiring process. One of the immediate urgent needs will be to recognise that we do have a backlog in the likes of the warmer homes schemes, partly due to the constraint in the resources of SEAI to be able to meet upscale demand, the constraint in the contractor space but also because of the unprecedented level of demand; it is a very popular scheme. It is up to SEAI to manage that. It uses other agencies to assist in the processing of it. We need to streamline and accelerate it and make it much easier for both contractors and householders. It is a slow enough process in my experience. I am aware that many contractors and householders have had difficulty in terms of the day-to-day management. It is not the most fast response type system. I am hoping that many of these additional resources will smooth out the process of applying and the process for the contractors to ensure they are spending most of their time working on the buildings and that it is a very easy process for them to register and carry out the work. SEAI has been a very reputable agency for a long number of years. It was given a challenge to scale up a massive new retrofit programme. The agency will have to be the key star actor in this.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.30 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 11 November 2020.