Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Cybersecurity Policy

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

63. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his plans to increase funding and resourcing for the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC; when the capacity review of the centre will be published; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29408/21]

What are the Minister of State's plans to increase funding and resources for the NCSC? When will the capacity review of the centre be published? Will he make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy. The NCSC budget allocation for 2021 is €6.9 million, of which the provisional allocation for salaries is €1.8 million. The Government has trebled the capital and programme funding for the NCSC from €1.7 million in 2020 to €5.1 million in 2021. The funding and resourcing of the NCSC have increased substantially over the past five years. Staff resources at the NCSC have been increased from seven persons at the end of 2016 to 29 persons in 2021.

Recognising that the environment in which the NCSC operates is extremely dynamic, the programme for Government included a commitment to undertake a capacity review of the NCSC to expand the centre's ability to monitor and respond to cybersecurity incidents and developing threats. This detailed capacity review of the NCSC will inform the Government as to how the centre needs to continue to evolve. The capacity review is being carried out by an expert international consultancy and it is due to report in the coming weeks in line with the deadline for the completion of this work, quarter 2 of 2021, as set out in the 2019 national cybersecurity strategy.

The Minister and I will consider the report and its recommendations and, having regard to the focus of the report, it is likely to require wider Government consideration. As I have stated previously in this House, the Government will ensure that the NCSC is properly resourced to meet not only the needs of today, and it will also invest further to ensure the centre is equipped to fulfil its vital role over the next five years.

May I ask about the position of director? What moneys are available to fund that role? When will it be filled? There is considerable interest in that. At what stage are the risk analyses of critical infrastructure that are under way or that have been conducted? When will they be reported on?

Is the Minister of State satisfied the review is comprehensive enough in scope? The remit extends beyond the NCSC. There are some indications from expert witnesses that we need a new regulatory structure, the equivalent of the likes of the Irish National Accreditation Board or HIQA, which set and enforce standards. We do not have that. Does the Minister of State believe we need it?

The Deputy started by asking about the position of director. It is a new position. We sought a new director for the NCSC at the end of last year. We advertised a salary of €106,000 to €127,000 and we identified a candidate but that candidate decided a couple of months later not to proceed. We are going to recruit again. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I will suggest a new salary for the position. I will discuss it with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to seek approval for it and then it will have to be approved by the Government. That will be in the next few weeks.

Risk assessments, which the Deputy asked about, are being carried out by every critical infrastructure body in the country, as required by the directive on the security of network and information systems, the network and information security, NIS, directive. Part 2 of the directive is coming out and I will be discussing it with other communications ministers at the Council of Europe meeting on Friday.

I thank the Minister of State. I ask him to revert to me on the regulatory framework that cybersecurity operates within. The NCSC has an important role and needs to be resourced and equipped but it is one piece in an overall jigsaw. Is the Minister of State satisfied? It was suggested by experts that the system is of a type that needs to be taken within the Department of the Taoiseach. Is the Minister of State satisfied that the overarching systems are being reviewed and assessed?

On a related matter, bearing in mind critical infrastructure such as gas interconnectors, there was a major incident in the United States that had a significant impact. Is the Minister of State satisfied this type of critical infrastructure has the necessary systems in place to minimise the risk of the type of attack that the HSE and Department of Health suffered?

The role of the NCSC is to advise critical infrastructure providers on how to protect themselves. It carries out research and training and when an incident occurs, it provides the incident response, which is exactly what it did for the HSE. It does so under the auspices or framework of the NIS directive. That is the overarching, regulatory framework. We are producing new cybercrime legislation to put the NCSC on a statutory footing. At present, CSIRT-IE is on a statutory footing but not the NCSC. With my European partners, we are developing a new NIS directive, the NIS 2 directive, which will go further than the existing one and will probably extend to more critical infrastructure providers. I am happy with the current position but I remind all Deputies it is the responsibility of all critical infrastructure providers to provide their own cybersecurity and to protect their own networks.

National Broadband Plan

Seán Canney

Question:

64. Deputy Seán Canney asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications his plans to expedite and provide a five-year programme with expected completion dates for the roll-out of the national broadband plan to facilitate remote and blended working; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29210/21]

We have heard talk that the national broadband plan may be expedited. What dates are expected for the new programme to facilitate remote and blended working? The programme needs to show dates for areas because the detail on dates available to consumers is very vague.

Since the pandemic, the national broadband programme and its importance have been underlined for everybody. When the programme was first introduced, there were debates on whether it represented value for money, but at this stage it is well understood by everybody that broadband is essential to the running of commerce and government, and even social networks. The original objective was to implement the national broadband plan within seven years. The Government has committed to reviewing this and to finding a way to reduce the term to five years. With that in mind, considerable progress has been made with the suppliers and through Departments and negotiation on finding a way to reduce the period from seven years to five. There will be announcements in this regard shortly.

We are talking about having a five-year programme. The problem consumers have is that when they make inquiries about when they may expect to have fibre broadband in their homes, they are not being given dates. They are basically told they are at pre-survey stage. No date is forthcoming when they ask about expected dates for having broadband provided.

If a company has a programme that runs for five years or seven years, there has to be some indication or target dates for when things will be done. I was involved in the national broadband plan and I understand how it is being rolled out. However, we are a year and a half into the programme and almost 4,000 houses have been passed at this stage. That is a small number compared with the target we had set.

I understand negotiations are under way. If consumers are not going to get fibre broadband for three or four years, why can we not tell them that? They could then make alternative plans rather as there would be no mystery about the date they will get it. This is very poor. The answer given is to check the website but the website does not give dates. It is important that we have specific dates built in so that consumers know when they are going to get fibre broadband and whether it will be in two years, three years or however long.

The current position is that when a consumer asks National Broadband Ireland for information the company will provide it up to a certain point. For the coming two years, consumers can find out whether their home is in a given district and when that district is due to be done. Beyond that, the company has not provided data. One of the reasons is that the times are being shortened. The whole plan is being reworked. Another reason is that there is uncertainty in years three, four and five about exactly what point these things will be done. Premises which are due to be done in years six and seven are being brought forward into years four and five. There is a realignment of the plan. There is an analogy with the weather. It is far easier to tell more accurately in the coming six or 12 months when a consumer will be connected rather than in three years or four years.

I understand that when a district is at survey stage the company will say that once a survey has been done, consumers in the district will get a connection within 18 months. However, if the Minister is revising the plan, it is important that we tie down the contractors to what will be done and when it will be done in years three, four and five. That needs to be done now so that there is certainty for the 500,000 households which are expecting broadband. These people have been told they will get it.

We hear about a shortening of the timeframe and I welcome that. It is good news that completion dates for years six and seven are being brought forward to years four and five. It is good news that we will get it all done in five years. Nevertheless, we should remember that we need to let people know. If I do not have fibre optic broadband in my house and, as it happens, I do not, I have to look at an alternative. I have to decide what to invest in and consider the duration for which I should enter into a contract with a satellite or other provider. The main point is that people need to have certainty.

The Deputy makes a good point. The whole experience, from the point of view of the public, of finding out when a household's broadband will be connected should be clear and transparent and similar to the experience of a consumer dealing with a commercial provider. I absolutely accept that. The Deputy makes the point that he believes the contract with National Broadband Ireland should include terms along those lines. The contract is being renegotiated at the moment and we are approaching a point where we will have a new or amended contract. I will talk to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, about how we can bring the Deputy's suggestions into effect.

North-South Interconnector

Darren O'Rourke

Question:

65. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications when the review of the North-South interconnector will be published; if he will ask Eirgrid to halt all activities relating to the construction of the interconnector, including stopping procurement processes until such a time as the Government review into the project is undertaken and reports; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29409/21]

When will the review of the North-South interconnector be published? Will the Minister request that EirGrid halt all activities relating to the construction of the interconnector, including stopping procurement processes, until such time as the Government review into the project is undertaken and reports? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

The North-South interconnector is critical to improving the efficient operation of the all-island single electricity market and increasing security of electricity supply in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will also help Ireland to move towards our 70% renewable electricity target by 2030. A resilient and well-connected energy infrastructure is vital for Ireland's economic well-being and the ability to respond to the future needs of energy consumers.

The option of undergrounding the North-South interconnector has been comprehensively assessed on several occasions. Most recently, the key finding from the international expert commission's report of October 2018 was that an overhead line remains the most appropriate option for this critical electricity infrastructure.

Notwithstanding this, I have decided to commission a further short review to assess if the overall finding from the 2018 report remains valid. Terms of reference for this study were published on my Department's website on 21 April. On 7 May, my Department initiated a procurement process using the procurement frameworks administered by the Office of Government Procurement to appoint an expert to undertake the review. The aim is to complete the review as quickly as possible.

The 2012 Government policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure states: "The Government does not seek to direct EirGrid and ESB Networks or other energy infrastructure developers to particular sites or routes or technologies". Due to the long lead times that can arise in projects of this nature, EirGrid gained early approval from the independent energy regulator to commence procurement. However, there will be no supply of materials until the planning process in Northern Ireland is complete and construction will not commence until the latest review is concluded.

On the current review, has the Minister appointed a review team yet? If so, who is involved and when were they appointed? If not, when will the team be appointed? What is the timeline for its work? When and where will it meet and who will it engage with?

I read the terms of reference for the review. This is a missed opportunity to get the project back on track because it does not do the two things that are needed. The first is to provide assurance that the best and most up-to-date evidence is being used and the project is being developed with the best and most up-to-date information. The second reason is related. The review will not assuage the concerns of residents who see it for what it is, that is to say, another box-ticking exercise. That is regrettable because I believe there is an opportunity to get this right. The Minister needs to be brave and take it.

We have not yet appointed the team. I expect it will be appointed shortly and that the review will take a short number of months. It is important for all concerned that we get clarity on this and it reaches a conclusion. The project has been an issue for many years now. It has been subject to extensive planning consultation, court hearings and ongoing court proceedings in Northern Ireland. Nothing can happen until that judicial process is concluded. That allows us a period to do a further review.

The North-South interconnector is critical infrastructure. We need to assess again the recommendations issued with regard to overgrounding versus undergrounding. One thing is absolutely clear; we need this project completed quickly. There are real stressed conditions in the provision of power in this country. The same applies on the other side of the Border. If we do not provide proper interconnection, a fracturing of energy policy will materialise across the island, between North and South. I imagine we all agree that is something we should try to avoid.

Energy needs in the North have changed substantially according to the information presented. That points to the need to have some analysis and a review of this project that is up to date and takes on board current and future demand. I note reports in the Sunday newspapers on the prospect of blackouts and concerns about energy security.

I believe the North-South interconnector is a perfect example of the failed efforts of EirGrid, supported or enabled by Government, to deliver needed projects.

Will the Minister acknowledge that there are fundamental weaknesses in the approach taken by EirGrid with regard to public involvement in this project when compared with, for example, the approach taken in respect of the Kildare-Meath line? Will he acknowledge that, according to the 2018 report, undergrounding is technically feasible and that the arguments made to the contrary do not stand up and have been busted?

I acknowledge the reports in the Sunday newspapers to which the Deputy referred. They are correct in that we have seen, in recent months, a series of amber alerts on our system pointing out the real difficulties we have. These are due to a whole variety of different complex issues, largely gas infrastructure being out of commission. They are also due to a lack of investment in the grid and our lack of options to move and balance power across the island at local and national levels. One of the other things which is becoming increasingly clear, and which I see in my everyday life as a member of the Government, is that new industrial developments and employment opportunities are increasingly going to those areas where the grid is secure and accessible. This is one of the reasons an overground solution presented itself. Such a solution allows for the north east to attract industry which will need to connect into that grid. This will only work, however, if it is part of a stable grid. This requires North-South interconnections. As we develop more and more renewable power, we will be able to balance our system and provide jobs, which is what this grid interconnection will do more than anything else.

National Broadband Plan

Catherine Connolly

Question:

66. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the status of the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan in Galway city and county; the number of premises in Galway city and county that are now connected; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29389/21]

I will return to the issue of broadband. Deputy Canney has raised this issue but I am raising it with specific regard to the status of the roll-out of the national broadband plan in Galway city and county. How many premises in Galway city and county are now connected? I do not know if the Minister of State is familiar with the works of Kafka but I have privileges as Leas-Cheann Comhairle and therefore have the reply here. If he likes, the Minister of State can save going into the detail of the reply but I fail to see the answer to my question within it. Perhaps he can enlighten me.

There are 38,897 premises in the intervention area in County Galway that will receive access to high-speed broadband under the national broadband plan, NBP. I am advised that, as of 27 May, 14,914, or 38%, of these have been surveyed by National Broadband Ireland, NBI. Surveying is the first step towards delivering the new fibre network and informs design solutions for the provision of that network. The detailed designs are then used to initiate the "make ready" project with open eir whereby open eir ensures that any poles and ducts being reused are fit for purpose and that other required infrastructure is made ready.  This step also informs decisions on ordering equipment.  Survey data is also needed to initiate preliminary works which pave the way for the deployment of fibre. Preliminary works involve construction of new duct routes, erection of poles, building chambers and tree trimming.  On completion of these works, the main construction works can commence.

The NBP deployment plan is divided into 227 deployment areas. I understand that the network build is ongoing in two deployment areas in County Galway. These comprise one deployment area around Galway city and a second in the Ballinasloe area, which includes some premises in County Roscommon.  The build works include 5,340 premises in County Galway. Once these construction works are completed and the appropriate level of testing has been undertaken, the fibre network can be commissioned and end users will be able to order their connection. For the areas around Galway city, it is anticipated that connections will be available in July or August and in August or September for the Ballinasloe area. Further details on specific areas in Galway are available through the NBI website, which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register an interest in being provided with deployment updates.

Broadband connection points are a key element of the NBP, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre-to-the-home network.  As of 27 May, 317 broadband connection point sites have been installed by NBI.

I am not sure if the Minister of State understood my reference to Kafka but his reply has just confirmed that I have misjudged that writer. He is much easier to understand than the reply I am getting. I asked a simple question. How many premises in Galway city and county are now connected? Does the Minister of State have a reply to that question or do I take it that no premises have been connected? Of the 38,897, fewer than half have been surveyed. That is one step. We then move on to preliminary works, preliminary design and so on before finally building. Further into the reply it is stated that connections will be available by August. Build works are to be carried out in respect of 5,340 premises. A portion of this comprises premises in Galway city and these will be connected by August. Will the Minister of State enlighten me in that regard? I will even give him extra time.

That is very kind of the Deputy. She has it right. I am not sure I understand her reference to Kafka but the answer is that these 5,340 premises will be connected later in the year. It is a multistage process. There is a step where premises are surveyed, a step where they are moved past and a step where they are connected. This is happening in counties all around in Ireland in parallel. Those premises near Galway city and in Ballinasloe will be the first connected. I am not sure what part of that is unclear, complex or self-referencing. I have read Kafka but I am not sure this situation is Kafkaesque.

I am going back to read him in both English and Irish because he would be much easier to understand now. I read him before and had difficulty. No premises in Galway has been connected. I have to determine how many of the 5,340 premises are in the city and how many are in the county. I do not know. The reason I and other Deputies have raised this is because, outside of questions on housing and health, it is one of the most frequent inquiries we receive. As Deputy Canney said earlier, we simply want information. I welcome the fact that an acceleration of the programme is being considered. I do not believe that any Deputy was against broadband. What we wanted was clarity as to who was getting it and on what terms. We wanted accountability and a public service director and we wanted the State to own the network. There were many concerns but now we are looking at the practicalities. I cannot explain this to people. They are in amber areas or blue areas. The Minister of State will know better than me that people working from home are working under serious pressure. Some have no broadband while their neighbours do. It is extremely difficult to explain to them, although I do my best. I am going back to them to say that no premises have been connected but there will be light at the end of the tunnel for some premises in the city in July.

I can come back to the Deputy with a breakdown of how many of these premises are in Galway city and the Ballinasloe area or with any further information that would be useful to her. My office is always open for the Deputy to contact me. One thing I did not get to say is that broadband connection points have been rolled out. The idea is to set up areas in villages or towns that have broadband which can be used by anyone living in the area. Some 317 of these have been set up around the country. They can be rolled out much more quickly than fibre connections. It is not as good as having a fibre connection to one's home but it does provide community access to broadband within villages and towns which people can use if they need to work from home or need access to the Internet. It can be rolled out very quickly. A number of these points have been set up in Galway. Cortoon Community Centre, Comhar Na nOileán, Lettermullen Community Centre, the old secondary school in Glenamaddy, Brownsgrove National School, Mweenish National School, St. Joseph’s National School and St. Mary’s National School have all been connected to high-speed community connections. It is not the same as fibre but it is something and it is quick to roll out.