Rural Hubs, Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage in Rural Ireland: Department of Rural and Community Development

I ask members and witnesses to please turn off their mobile phones as they interfere with the recording equipment. I remind members to sanitise their desk area and seat when leaving the committee room. The main item on our agenda is our consideration of rural hubs, mobile phone and broadband coverage in rural Ireland. I welcome officials from the Department of Rural and Community Development, Dr. Stjohn O'Connor, principal officer, and Mr. Turlough O'Brien, assistant principal officer, who is joining us remotely. They are both very welcome.

The committee will today receive an update from the Department on the Atlantic economic corridor enterprise hub network project on which the Department and the Western Development Commission, WDC, have been working since 2019 with the aim of delivering an integrated network of remote working and enterprise hubs along the Atlantic economic corridor. The work programme and outputs of the national hub network working group will also be explored. The network has been convened to investigate the feasibility of mapping and developing a national network of remote working facilities, including hubs and broadband connection points in libraries, based on the model developed in the Atlantic economic corridor region. The committee notes that an additional €5 million was recently allocated in budget 2021 to support the expansion of the Atlantic economic corridor hub network model on a national scale. In addition, we will consider the broadband connection points, their roll-out and the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP, as well as an issue that is close to my heart, namely, the work programme of the mobile phone and broadband task force.

Members of the committee and of the Houses have absolute privilege in respect of statements made to either House of the Oireachtas or before a committee. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are required to give to a committee. However, if during the course of the committee proceedings they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way that would make him or her identifiable.

I invite Dr. O'Connor to make his opening statement.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

I thank the committee for inviting the Department to address it this morning. As the Chairman outlined, I am joined by Mr. Turlough O’Brien, assistant principal officer in the regional development and innovation unit. Our appearance before the committee is timely, in light of the increased shift towards remote working that has taken place over the past eight months as part of the country-wide response to Covid-19. It has highlighted the possibilities for remote working facilities to contribute to a greater regional distribution of jobs and to support a better quality of life for many people who may previously have spent long hours commuting.

A growing body of research and survey data from the organisations such as the regional assemblies, as well as the Western Development Commission and NUI Galway, shows that, in spite of the obvious negative context of the Covid-19 crisis, people are increasingly recognising the benefit of remote working for their own work-life balance. For example, recent research by the WDC and NUI Galway indicates that 84% of respondents to their survey wish to continue to undertake some form of remote work after the current public health crisis concludes. Perhaps even more importantly, 7% of respondents have already made the move to counties such as Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. A further 23% of respondents indicated they would consider relocating, with most of them being from Dublin. It is clear that a seismic shift in how people think about work has occurred and, as many commentators have publicly indicated, there is unlikely to be a full return to the way things were.

The Department was established to advance and support the development of vibrant, inclusive and sustainable communities throughout Ireland and to promote long-term social and economic development in rural areas and the regions. Our role is to work with local authorities and rural stakeholders to advance the roll-out of telecommunications infrastructure and the adoption of digital technologies. The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications retains overall responsibility for the roll-out of broadband, including the NBP, and communications infrastructure, such as 5G.

One of the areas that we are particularly focused on is the promotion and development of remote working through a wide range of projects and schemes such LEADER, the town and village renewal scheme and the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF. The first and second calls of the RRDF have approved 36 projects that are delivering remote working or enterprise hubs in rural towns and villages, including the gteic@An Spidéal hub in County Galway and the Ennistymon digital hub and multi-service centre in County Clare.

The Department has also provided €570,000 through the LEADER programme and €683,000 through the town and village renewal scheme to develop remote working, conferencing and other facilities. Budget 2021 allocated a further €5 million for the development of remote working facilities at broadband connection points, BCPs, and digital hubs. The details of how this money will be disbursed is under active consideration within the Department and an announcement is expected in 2021.

At a national level, the Department has adopted a lead role through the establishment of a national hub network interdepartmental working group under the chairmanship of the Department's Secretary General, Mr. Kevin McCarthy. This work aims to complement the efforts of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in developing a remote work strategy, which I understand is well advanced and is expected to be published in December. This working group will initially develop and map a national data set of hub infrastructure, facilities and services throughout the country. It will also work to identify current and capital funding and revenue generation arrangements across the network, identify any funding gaps and consider future investment requirements and opportunities.

Other activities that the working group will undertake will be to identify barriers to developing the network, raising awareness and identifying appropriate development models for remote working facilities. The working group will build on the classification model developed under the Atlantic economic corridor, AEC, hub project. This collaborative effort involving the WDC, the ten local authorities in the AEC region and the Department has, to date, identified, surveyed, mapped and engaged with more than 100 hubs in the AEC region. This work is detailed in the associated slide deck that I provided.

The WDC has also developed a comprehensive strategy for the network, which the Minister will shortly publish, and a number of supports to drive the development of the AEC hubs into a collaborative ecosystem. One such support will be a suite of shared applications that is currently being developed. These will include a common booking engine and client relationship management system and an online community platform to allow for the exchange of ideas and best practice.

The BCP initiative was established in order to ensure that remote areas are provided with some access to high-speed broadband in advance of the full roll-out of the NBP. BCPs are located in some of the most isolated and rural communities throughout the country including islands off Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Cork. BCPs represent an opportunity for local communities to use the newly delivered connectivity to provide a range of innovative services for their communities, including ehealth, education, remote working and the promotion and development of the creative industries. We are working closely with our appointed retail service provider, Vodafone, to roll out multiple programmes through the BCP network in 2021.

In addition to developing remote working facilities, the Department has been actively supporting the development of rural digital infrastructure and improving mobile connectivity through the work of the mobile phone and broadband task force since its establishment in 2016. The original task force identified more than 40 actions, of which some of the most impactful have been: the appointment of broadband officers in all local authorities to remove obstacles to infrastructure deployment; the laying of more than 1,000 km of ducting by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, enabling operators to expand their networks along the road network route; the publication by ComReg of a composite national outdoor coverage map to inform consumers and assist them in choosing the best operator for where they live and work; and the development of new advertising guidelines to ensure that certain marketing terms used by telecommunications operators convey clear meanings to consumers.

Options for the future of the task force are under active consideration in both Departments. Suffice to say that the low-hanging telecommunication challenges have been addressed, and what remains is more complex, more involved and will require a greater level of collaboration among stakeholders.

I have also included in the slide deck a number of mobile phone coverage maps from ComReg which show 2G, 3G and 4G coverage across Ireland. The availability of these maps is a direct result of the work of the task force. I thank members for their attention.

I thank Dr. O'Connor for the presentation. I presume he is working in consultation with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications on this matter. I welcome the hubs but I have a fear at the back of my mind that some people think hubs are a substitute for bringing fibre to every building and home. I am concerned about the fact that because the hubs are located in very isolated areas, that tells me very clearly that these are going to be the areas that will get fibre last. Could Dr. O'Connor confirm whether that is the case? Looking at the pattern of roll-out to date, it seems to be starting in big towns and cities and working outwards, and the most rural and isolated areas will be four to five years later. Given the work that is being done with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, could Dr. O'Connor confirm that my guess is right, and that is the reason the hubs are being created by the national broadband plan in these more isolated areas, as he referred to them?

So far, the hubs have been developed by the private sector. Some of them might be owned by the public sector, as are all the Údarás ones, for example, but they are for the private sector, they are not specifically for the Civil Service or the public service. Have discussions taken place on the possibility of providing public sector hubs so that people working in Departments in Dublin or around the country could work from a hub and have secure links into the public service network, and that these would be controlled by the public realm?

I do not know if I can bring the map onto the screens.

I do not know if that is technically possible. Is that the national broadband plan map?

No, not that one. We could figure that out easily enough, where Eir did not cover, the rest of the country included and then one could make a guess that from the patterns worked to date that they are working out from the centre and there are a lot of nodes outwards. The map I am looking for is the mobile phone coverage map, but we do not need it.

It is in the Deputy's folder. Dr. O'Connor provided it in the presentation showing 2G, 3G and 4G coverage.

Yes, but when one looks at the map, what one is going to find is that the hill areas are the places with the worst service geographically. Unfortunately, if I understand it correctly, Dr. O'Connor’s group cannot do anything about it because this was a mistake made by the Government in giving licences to mobile communications providers. In other words, they had to cover a percentage of the population and not a percentage of the territory. That means if one goes into the Wicklow hills, there is no mobile service in plenty of valleys. When one goes into the mountains in the west, as I do, there is no mobile, no broadband, nothing. There are a few landlines in some of the valleys.

Did the task force look at the possibility of providing State-owned infrastructure that would then be leased to companies in more inaccessible places? In my discussions with companies, they are very reluctant to put up mobile masts in the more difficult valley and hill areas. There are two reasons to do it. The obvious reason is that people are living in these places, but we also know that there has been an explosion in rural recreation and hillwalking. We need to have the availability of a mobile signal in as many places as possible. Many a person who has got lost on a hill has been saved by his or her mobile phone where there was a service, but if there is no service there is no rescue. What is being done about the issue?

One can have all the task forces in the world but that does not help the people living in those areas with no service. The issues raised are all valid and laudable but they do not address the fundamental point that compared with some other countries we have much lower coverage because of a Government decision. I understand the 5G licence will be given on the same population basis rather than on an area basis. Has the task force made a recommendation to the Government that the law should be changed so that ComReg would be directed by this House to cover by area not by population in any issuing of further licences?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

Deputy Ó Cuív has asked some very interesting questions. I will start with the first question about hubs and where they are located. There are two strands. The first strand is the work of the interdepartmental group.

That is seeking to map all the hubs in the country and nearly all those are located in what are deemed commercial areas, because they require fibre. The BCPs, however, because they are part of the national broadband plan, are located in rural areas. A key feature of that aspect has been to bring high-speed broadband to those locations. Initially, that will be done via wireless link, and that tells us how rural these areas are. All the BCPs are located in rural areas and are in the amber area. I think that addresses that aspect.

I am sorry, that was not really the question. A BCP is not going to be put in Moycullen or Bearna, for example, because the fibre is being rolled out fast in those areas. By the time the BCP was in operation, the fibre would be in place.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The locations-----

In the national broadband plan, and the BCPs come under that plan, can I take it that the reason the BCPs are located in these "remote areas" - and I do not accept anywhere is remote in Ireland because nowhere is more than 30 or 40 miles from a major town or city, compared to the north of Finland, for example, where people would be laughing at us for saying that - is because they are going to be in the tail end of the roll-out of broadband? The process is starting from the inside and moving out, and the further places outside will get it last.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The ambition was to bring high-speed connectivity to places in the most rural locations. I am not privy to decisions regarding when fibre is going to reach all those areas; that is a matter for NBI and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. The whole purpose of the BCP project was to bring high-speed broadband to those locations which are isolated from other areas and where it is not available commercially. If we look at the BCP network and the associated map, and I have the details here if the Deputy is interested in looking at them afterwards, we can take it as read that across the country BCPs are located in some of the most isolated locations. We have BCPs on nine or ten islands now, and it does not get more isolated from commercial areas than those. Those BCPs will be transformative for those communities.

I do not agree. I live in a community-----

In fairness, I have given the Deputy a great deal of flexibility and other members are anxious to come in.

I will finish on this point. I live in an isolated, back of the mountains area and some 100 of our houses already have fibre, while 300 do not. Nobody can understand how Eir went 300 or 400 yd. farther down that road, where there were three or four houses, and then suddenly stopped. It does not make sense. It would have been possible to roll out the national broadband plan from the outside in. The contract could have been granted, but at the same time stated that it would commence at the furthest out places because they need it most.

Regarding what Dr. O'Connor said, the reason it is not possible to do what Deputy Ó Cuív just suggested is that it is necessary to have the MANs to light up the fibre. If the fibre is put at the most peripheral location, it will not be possible to have a service until it is connected to the MANs. I ask Dr. O'Connor to respond to all the questions now.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

Exactly yes, and the next question concerned whether discussions have taken place regarding civil servants using hubs. I understand that conversations have taken place between the Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and she intends to write to him about this issue. Ultimately, however, it is a matter for Government regarding whether civil servants will use those hubs. In the BCP network, however, we have provided a second service set identifier, SSID, which could be used by the Government. Each of the BCPs, therefore, could be connected and used as part of a Government network.

What is an SSID?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

It is effectively a separate network. It grants the ability to create a separate network which could be used for Government civil servants. This was something we certainly foresaw as being of use, but it is again a matter for Government regarding whether that is turned on. There is a bit of work involved in doing that, but it could be done.

The third question concerned mobile coverage. The Deputy is correct, and I draw attention to the 2G coverage map which I included in my presentation, which as I said was very much taken from the work of the task force. The coverage provided by 2G networks is the minimum level, but it will give voice and some limited data services. At this stage, however, the vast majority of the country is covered by 2G. I also draw the Deputy Ó Cuív's attention to some of the initiatives which came out of the task force. We are keen, and have always been keen, to ensure State assets are available to telecommunications companies. Most telecommunications' operators now end up on the same masts and they share infrastructure all the time.

The big challenge is identifying suitable locations in these rural areas to place a mast. One of the projects we carried out through the digital innovation project was in Malin Bay in Donegal, where we worked with Vodafone, the local authority and the community to find a suitable location for a mast to bring coverage. Those familiar with Malin Bay will know that there was zero coverage there. This was a pilot project which we funded to see whether industry could work with local authorities and central Government to bring connectivity into these locations. I am delighted to say it was transformative. Previously, for example, doctors would not go to Malin Bay because coverage would drop, and if there was an emergency, they could not be out of an area with coverage. Now, however, the mast is sited on the community centre and the intention is that they will create a BCP from that. We have, and continue to have, discussions as to whether that would be a model for rolling out elsewhere in the country. It is something we and the industry are keen on.

The other thing I will draw the attention of the members of the committee to as a direct outcome of the task force - and again this aspect goes back to the map - is that outdoor coverage, generally speaking, is fine; the difficulty is indoor coverage. The difference between having outdoor and indoor coverage can be a factor of many things, including insulation, the thickness of walls, windows and frames, etc.. One of the things the task force did was to work with ComReg to put in place a regime that allowed people to install a repeater, and there are now multiple suppliers of approved repeaters to a technical standard which does not interfere with other users of the network. They are now available to everybody in rural Ireland, and they will make a substantial difference because they are taking whatever coverage is outside, bypassing all those things interfering with the signal and bringing it into houses. We are equipping the BCPs with repeaters. In most of the BCPs, we have outdoor and indoor coverage, and there is a difference. We are putting in repeaters, therefore, to ensure that the quality inside matches that outside.

I thank Dr. O'Connor and I call Deputy Kerrane.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. One thing we can all agree on is how positive it is to see the Department moving so quickly regarding remote working facilities. If any positive is to come out of Covid-19, it is that work-life balance may be made much easier for people, such as in saving on commutes etc.. Most positive of all, is the sight of people moving out of Dublin and to the west again. In many cases, people are moving home and that is nice to see.

Regarding the map that was referred to in the presentation earlier-----

Which map is that? Does it refer to 2G, 3G or 4G coverage?

There is no heading. It concerns the hubs.

It referred to the location of the hubs and the BCPs.

The blue area on the map represented the hubs and the red area signified the BCPs.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The blue areas on the map were the hubs in the AEC region, and then the others are the BCPs.

Does that map represent what is there or what will be there?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

It is representative of what will be there.

Regarding the BCPs, how many have been rolled out to date? On the remote working hubs, I visited the one on Arranmore Island. It is obviously important that these remote working facilities are just as available on the islands as the mainland. Are there plans for additional remote working hubs on the islands or is there an update on the roll-out for people living on our islands? There was also a reference in the briefing document to a commitment in the programme for Government to accelerate the roll-out of broadband.

Is there any update on that? Is there a plan for how that acceleration will proceed? Many of us will be aware of the frustration people have experienced, especially since Covid hit and more people are working from home and relying on Internet access, when fibre roll-out comes to an area but connectivity stops at a certain house. There is a great deal of frustration and people are anxious to get broadband rolled out in their areas. They would very much welcome an acceleration. Is there an update on how that will happen?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

It is intended that we will have about 300 broadband connection points. I will give the Deputy some of the backstory to explain where we are with the BCPs and how new BCPs can come into the process. Since we started the BCP process a few years ago, a number of sites have come in and dropped off because at that stage there was no process as such. It was just an expression of interest and once the contract was signed, we quickly moved to firm that up by putting an agreement in place. That process is working. NBI connects the site to make it ready for service and then it gets handed over to our regional service provider, which is Vodafone. As of last week, Vodafone has connected 99 broadband connection points. There will be an update to the NBI map in the coming weeks, with the intention that all the remaining sites will be connected before the end of quarter 1 next year. The crews are working away and connecting between five and 15 sites each week, depending on the number of crews and sites. There are a number of complexities before a site gets handed over to the Department and Vodafone, which involves all the backhaul licensing. As it is a wireless link, all of that has to be put in place before the site is ready for us. From our perspective, the process is pretty quick once we get the site. Vodafone goes out on the site, connects it and it usually goes live within two or three days.

As to where we are at now, we have 260-odd sites that have gone into the system and will be connected over the next period. We still have a number of slots available. I am pleased to advise members that broadband officers have been particularly active in recent weeks and months in identifying new sites. We are approving sites on a week-by-week basis and pushing them through to get priced up and approved by the NBI and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. They then come back to us and we approve them for Vodafone to connect. We have still some remaining capacity for new BCPs but I am pleased to say that capacity is diminishing all the time as new sites are identified. We are particularly focused on sites that would provide remote working. That is a ministerial priority, one which the Minister has been expressed a number of times. Many of the newer sites coming on board will have that capability.

The way in which the BCP project has evolved has been interesting. From the get-go, it was all about community benefit but it was not only restricted to economic benefit. I referred to cultural activities and ehealth opportunities. These are all important. When Covid hit it changed everything about how we roll out the BCPs. The increase in the number of locations that we were interested in pursuing for remote working from 20 or 30 to probably 70 to 80, with the vagaries of how we would connect them and the different technical kit that needs to go into those sites, has proven to be something of a challenge. The NBI has done really well. Vodafone has done an extremely good job to be able to respond to that and put in place an infrastructure that will be future-proofed. To take the example of the BCP in Tulsk in County Roscommon, it is up and running and we are working with it. It is looking for a technically advanced solution because it is a remote facility and an incubator unit. The solution we need to put in there is much different from what would be needed in a community centre in a more rural part of Ireland.

We still have a capacity if Deputies are interested. We have broadband officers in each local authority and they are the first point of contact. If members know of a location that could be a BCP, they should contact their local broadband officer and there is a application process which we would then approve.

The Deputy asked if there were plans for additional remote working hubs. That is a good question. What the WDC identified in the advanced economic corridor area was approximately 70 hubs that it knew of and that figure grew to 114 by the time it finished its data collection exercise. The interdepartmental working group is in the middle of a data collection exercise. We recently wrote to all local authorities, Enterprise Ireland, which is a member of the National Association of Community Enterprise Centres, NACEC, and other organisations looking for the first pass in terms of what hubs are out there. By our reckoning, we expect there will be more than 400 hubs across the country.

I noted that most local authorities have sought to develop new hubs. It is not something we in the Department are proactively seeking to do but, given the massive infrastructure of hubs that are in place, part of the exercise we are doing is to categorise them in the first instance to know what they are doing and to consider how we can ensure we have the right hubs in the right locations for the right purposes. That is the where it gets interesting when we look at it as more of a nuanced picture. Rather than everybody looking to build hubs, everybody should be looking to build the right hub in the right location for the local community. At this point, we do not have that feasibility. We have not collected all the data, which are still drifting back to us. We expect that by the end of quarter 1 and into quarter 2 of next year we will be in a position to publish a map that will give us a clear indication of what is out there. As we move forward and through next year, we will build up that picture. We will send out a questionnaire to every hub and gather all those data. We will then be able to plot them into the five levels of categorisation which I included on the slide. That gives us a very good data set from which to start looking at this as a national network.

I referred to the idea of a common booking platform. One of the most interesting questions is how we will develop that network into a national asset. We do that by using the same tools. Imagine that regardless of where one lives in Ireland, one could use an app to book a seat anywhere and this would be done using the same platform. That is our ambition and where we want to get to. We will be using the Atlantic economic corridor hub network to trial all of that before we roll it out nationally.

The Deputy asked about accelerating the roll-out of broadband. Unfortunately, that is a matter for the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications rather than us. We have all seen the public statements but I know no more than the members in that regard.

I thank the witnesses for the presentation. In February, I had never heard of Zoom. There has been a complete change in milieu and our way of doing work as a result of Covid. As Deputy Kerrane said, hopefully it is one of the positives we will take out of the pandemic and we will be able to retain some of those gains as we move forward.

In the first instance, I echo what Deputy Ó Cuív said about the possibility for decentralisation. For that to happen, we should not only build new broadband points but we should allow flexibility in places where there is existing capacity to allow for more than one Department to be represented in a building. These are not questions but comments. Another idea we discussed at the coiste Gaeilge is using moil dhigiteachta or digital hubs and remote working to help us achieve the recruitment figures in the Irish language that we are hoping to do on foot of the Bille teanga that is coming through.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor referred to the SSID. Are the moil dhigiteachta designed to the same standard? Do they have that separate channel if we decide to leverage that network in order to have Government work happen within those communities?

I am playing the devil's advocate in putting my next question. In the interests of maintaining work-life balance, people want to work closer to home but they like to have a division between home and work life and they also like to go out to work so that they can come home from work. Are we confident that we are not building a structure that is already redundant?

As more and more people get high-quality broadband into their homes, will they choose to go to a remote working hub or, instead, to build an office at home?

I was very interested to hear Dr. O'Connor's remarks on categorisation and beginning to look at how the remote working hubs are being used. What does the business plan look like after installation? Will people have to pay for hot desking? Is a plan being uniformly being rolled out or is it being done very much on a hub-by-hub basis? I worry that the latter approach would lead to failure. We should be building towards a situation whereby we know hubs will be able to pay for their upkeep, including heating and other services that are going in there. Is there any information on what the business plan looks like after launch?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

I thank the Deputy for his very interesting and relevant questions. He referred to the moil dhigiteacha. Does that relate to the Údarás na Gaeltachta network?

Yes, digital hubs in Gaeltacht areas.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

We are working very closely with Údarás na Gaeltachta. It sits on the interdepartmental group. The second SSID I mentioned is only in the BCPs because that was an initiative that we were in control of and we always had the idea that this might be something that might emerge. There is no extra cost for us at this stage because we can put it in. The additional cost would arise if it is turned on. I doubt it is overly complicated from a technical perspective to install a second SSID. In fact, I know that it is not complicated to do so.

The Deputy asked very relevant questions regarding whether the structures we are putting in place will be redundant. Part of the work is to really understand the network. Without having any data, one just does not know the capacity, the usage numbers or what one's target market is. That is what we are trying to understand. It is probably unlikely that the structures will be redundant. The research that has been done, even within Departments and the wider Civil Service, indicates that working from home does not suit everybody. I have two young children and it can be very tricky for me to work from home. Some of my colleagues have more children than I do and find working from home even more tricky. Working from a remote working facility not far from their home can make much more sense for all the reasons the Deputy outlined. The facility may only be a five-minute walk or five-minute drive from one's home and, as such, one is still in the locality and can return home quickly. The key benefits identified by the research carried out by the WDC and NUIG included the lack of commuting time, while the most important benefit was the cost savings associated with not commuting. Commuting is a big challenge.

The Deputy asked what the business plan is. That is very much on our radar. One can start with a BCP. We are paying for the cost of the equipment going into the BCPs. The plan may depending on whether the location is revenue generating or making a contribution. BCPs have very low costs of operation. All that is needed are a few desks and a Wi-Fi access point. There is effectively no cost apart from a recurring monthly charge, whereas there is obviously much more cost associated with building a digital hub. We need to understand what the business model is. There are five categories in the classification and then below them sit the BCPs. There are also libraries, which provide some level of remote working in rural communities. There are 300 libraries. If they are all on the same booking platform, one can take that cost back up onto that single booking platform and thereby generate revenue. One of the things the WDC and others are looking at is how we would potentially get a couple of the big corporates to act as anchor tenants for the network. In that way, we would be providing them with resilience and allowing them to choose staff from across the country. They would no longer have to choose staff based in places such as Dublin, Cork or Galway but, rather, would have access to talent across the country. Their recruitment would no longer be place-dependent. From their perspective, there are many reasons they would look at that. The Deputy is absolutely right that one of the key things is understanding the business plan behind these hubs. The plans would be very different depending on the nature of the hub. We are looking at the business plan.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. On hubs, who is responsible for setting standards in respect of toilets, heating, lighting and that kind of thing? In some of the areas where hubs are located, it is left to communities to take care of that, but they do not have the finances to do so. They do not get assistance from the local authority. In some cases, those resources are very scarce. Will there be a certain standard in terms of the facilities? Who is responsible for that?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

That is a good question. In the case of BCPs, it is the BCP site owner. We provided extensive funding this year and we are likely to provide funding through the €5 million fund for the upgrade of those facilities. It depends on what is required. In terms of what we are trying to do with the national hub network, we are trying to have a minimum standard in each of the hubs. The idea is that the expectations of customers using the hubs will be met at each of the levels. If one is using a community hub, one should expect X, Y and Z. We will roll out programmes to support the upgrade of facilities to get them to that point. It is not just about facilities; it will also be about the programme and the level of support one will receive. There is always the infrastructure piece. In many cases, that is the easy piece to do. The more challenging part is to ensure that those using a community hub should be able to expect to contact somebody within a certain number of hours and have certain supports available if they wish to progress their business to the next level. We will be aiming to do something similar for BCPs. We expect to be able to bring them up to a certain standard.

The BCPs are a diverse range of facilities, which is acceptable because they are there to do different things. One could have a BCP hub, the primary goal of which is education. We know that several BCPs will be used for educational purposes for the time being and may then change to something else. For many BCPs, it will be important to have that ability to flex between different services. They may have a separate room. One of the things we are keen to support is increasing the number of remote working and connected facilities that are available. If there is a spare room, it could be set up as a remote working facility. There would then be the capability to do other things in other rooms. That is something we are very keen to support. I could pick ten BCPs, all of which are completely different. We are very conscious that the beneficiaries are the communities and it is about what the community needs. In terms of what we are seeking to do next year, we will run out programmes relating to e-health, the cultural side and remote working, but also to education and skills. Not all BCPs will take up everything. Some of them will go after the cultural aspect, others will go after remote working and others will do a combination of both. In time, we hope to build that up such that they will be delivering multiple solutions. We need to be careful to remember that it is about what the community needs the BCP to do. As such, we will try to facilitate each BCP to become what the community needs it to be.

In other words, they have to send a plan for what they-----

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

We have done that. As I stated, we pushed out nearly €700,000 this year in funding for BCPs. The vast majority of that money was to upgrade the buildings to do what the communities wanted them to do. Much of the need this year was for remote working but we think that will change as the programmes start to be rolled out next year. It is hoped that BCP site owners will see the opportunities for them and will decide that they wish to tie in with their local schools, for example by offering VEX robotics or Coder Dojo. They may decide that is what is really needed and put in a dedicated room to enable children to take part in Coder Dojo or to be used as an overflow classroom. Let us be very cautious about saying the facilities have to be X. They should be multifunctional spaces. We need to make them capable of providing multiple services.

As a person who has used the Wi-Fi hub in Ennistymon, I have to say "thanks a million" to the Department. The hub has been great. I worked remotely for 14 years full-time at home on my own and it was a very lonely place. When the Wi-Fi hubs started opening, I could not wait to use them, even if only for one day a week. They make a significant difference. It is great.

Thanks to Covid, we have been shoved into the 2020s and providing these all over the country. I wish everyone good luck with that because everyone is going to want them. I still get confused between BCPs and Wi-Fi hubs. I will attempt to set out the difference. A BCP is a Wi-Fi connection installed in an area where there is no existing broadband-----

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor


-----and a Wi-Fi hub is a hub located in a town or village that has broadband

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

This is one of the big difficulties.

Why do we have the two terms? I find it really confusing.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

There are probably 20 different terms, including incubator hub, eHub and so on. They all effectively mean the same. The purpose of the slide I showed earlier was to try to put in place a terminology that everybody can get behind. It is not perfect because there is no way of adequately describing 400 different hubs but at least it gives us a starting point. I would expect over time that that language would change.

The objective is to get broadband to every area that we can.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor


On the €5 million that was provided in the budget, two social enterprise hubs in Clare were forced to close because they could not compete with the low prices of the local authority Wi-Fi hub being developed in the area. Social enterprise is important as well. Can social enterprises apply for funding for hubs or is this provision only available through the broadband officers? When people set up social enterprises in remote areas and the local authorities then set up state-of-the-art hubs in the same areas, it is a challenge for the social enterprises. As I said, two social enterprises have closed but perhaps it is because they had served a purpose at a particular time and now that the service is being rolled out through government they do not need to remain open. I would be interested in hearing if social enterprises can apply for funding. There are broadband officers in place so I will try to find that out from them.

Another issue is the 5G masts. I do not believe in the fear of 5G but it would be madness not to raise the issue because it is a concern. I know from my psychics background, and having researched it and talked about it with my brother who works in IT, that the issue is that it is coming in at a higher frequency because of communications regulations. Hopefully, it will come down to a frequency below 4G. This is an issue we will have to address. In Donegal, a mast used for emergency services was burned down because people thought it was a 5G mast. I have been to public events where people have expressed real fear of 5G even though they all had mobile phones in their pockets. When issues such as this are raised in communities it is usually a case of NIMBYism, "not in my back yard", as we saw in regard to wind farms. Unless the 5G is explained properly roll-out will be delayed. There is a need for an educational campaign around it. Is the Department engaged with ComReg on that issue? Is it proposed to bring it in at a lower frequency and to run an educational campaign on 5G such that no more masts are burned down?

I will give an example which may help the witness better understand the point I am trying to make. The people in my local village, Inagh in County Clare, want the old Garda station converted to a Wi-Fi-BCP remote working hub but they are unsure if they can apply as a community group to do that. The local area housing development committee needs a place for its staff member to work. I made a pre-budget submission on Wi-Fi hubs to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, which fed into the €5 million allocation provided in the budget. It is not all about new build. There are many community halls and old buildings that could be used for hubs. I was involved in the pre-budget process but I am still unclear as to whether the community group I mentioned should engage with the broadband officer to have the Garda station converted or if it can seek to set it up as a social enterprise. In my view, if we allow local communities to set up these hubs it would generate funding that could be reinvested in the communities. Communities are used to fund-raising for initiatives in their villages or towns.

In responding, Dr. O'Connor might pick up on the initial comment by Senator Garvey that she worked remotely for 14 years and the issue of loneliness. There are many advantages to these digital hubs. Deputy Ó Cathasaigh asked if they would go out of fashion. If a person is working at home alone, it is lonely. There is an attractiveness and advantage in having access to a digital hub where there are other people in similar situations. Hopefully, that collaboration will stimulate new enterprises and businesses. I ask Dr. O'Connor to touch on that point in his responses to Senator Garvey.

There is fibre broadband in some villages and towns but they do not have Wi-Fi hubs. They are important from a social and mental health perspective as well. It is important provision of them is not narrowed to only areas where there is no broadband. I hope Dr. O'Connor understands my point.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

I do 100%. The Senator is correct. I refer the committee to the National University of Ireland, Galway,-Western Development Commission research on remote working which found the top challenge is loneliness and isolation. This is one of the few times I have been out of my children's playroom because that is where I am working remotely. I fully understand the Senator's point that remote working in hubs addresses the issue. The Department is of the view that a blended approach is required. It may be that a person will work at home one day per week, in the office two days per week or in a remote hub two days a week. Covid has taught us that we need a more nuanced solution. The idea of bringing everybody back to the office is, I am sure everybody realises, somewhat unrealistic. If we move to only working from home we will have challenges. There are companies who are entirely based on their staff working from home and they manage that by providing toolkits and so on. In terms of my team, it does not suit one of my team to work at home because he has children but it would suit him to work remotely in a hub and that would address the loneliness issue.

Urban McMahon is the broadband officer in Clare. He is also responsible for building the DigiClare hubs. DigiClare hubs are really interesting in that Mr. McMahon and Clare County Council are advanced in their thinking. The hubs provide hot-desk facilities at a cost of €10 per day.

It is €40 per week.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

They are only providing a base level activity. The type of social enterprises mentioned by the Senator should be a different kind of offering. I refer to the classification. We need to be able to locate hubs in different places and move on but that is not what social enterprises need. A social enterprise hub should not be threatened by DigiClare because that is not the market it is working towards. DigiClare should be an added benefit for a social enterprise in terms of supports. Anybody can provide a desk. A social enterprise or a business start-up needs more than that. That is the piece that requires different levels of provision. Part of it is provision for people in the right places. A person may want to go to a hub but it is not right for him or her because it does not offer what he or she needs to get to the next level of business. We are very conscious of this because social enterprise is also part of our responsibility in the Department. We are keen to support social enterprise and hubs that will be focused on social enterprise but we would clearly distinguish those from other offerings. They would be distinguished by the level of support provided.

The Senator mentioned existing buildings. The town and village renewal plan and the future rural strategy place hubs at the centre of regeneration of towns and villages. We have all this infrastructure and we need to use it and to re-equip it. The lessons we have taken from all activities and hub development is that they need to be in towns and villages. People going out to work want that social aspect. They want to be able to pop out to the local café for a cup of coffee and to be able to walk around at lunch time. They cannot do this if the hubs are located outside of towns. That works in some instances but not in every instance. We are talking about economic hubs. We want those to be located in the centre of towns and villages. That is really important.

The Senator is correct in regard to 5G. We have a monthly meeting with the broadband officers, which has been happening since we established the network about four years ago. The Chairman will be familiar with this network as he launched it when Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. We have dealt with 5G a number of times. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has presented to the network. There is a substantial amount of material that was generated for broadband officers to deal with this issue at a local level.

We are very familiar with the matter and have a lot of close engagement with industry. As I outlined, it is a matter for the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications primarily. I know the EPA is very active. The Senator may have seen some research that it published in the past couple of weeks. It touched upon 5G radiation, ionising and non-ionising. I will butcher an analogy, and I apologise to the EPA for this, but it always says that spectrum is spectrum - it is there, we are not creating it - and the question is how one uses it. It is like a road, and the devices are what one puts on the road. We need to get that message out that there is nothing inherently dangerous about the spectrum, the only question is its use. If the Senator is interested, I can point her in the direction of a lot of material. It is something that the broadband officers would be engaged in at a local level and is something we have briefed chief executives on. It has been raised all across the country at local council chambers. We have provided materials to support them in addressing those concerns. It will definitely be an ongoing issue.

Could the information that was given to the broadband officers be circulated to the committee?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

We can circulate a version of it, certainly.

I thank Dr. O'Connor for his presentation and his responses, which have been very informative. On phone coverage, according to Dr. O'Connor's opening statement, we should have 2G coverage almost everywhere in the country. I raised this the last day. I am from Kildare, just outside Athy. It is not a million miles from here but there are people who have to go out to their back gardens to receive or maintain phone coverage. How can we address that? These people live less than 50 miles from the capital and cannot get basic phone coverage. It is a huge problem in that area 30 or 40 miles along the bottom of south Kildare and into Laois.

Dr. O'Connor said it is probably a matter for the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, but I am aware of several businesses where the exchange stops within 100 m or 50 m, or 10 yd., from them. This is a significant challenge for many businesses in rural Ireland. I have dealt with one company which employs seven people which could employ many more, doubling or trebling that number, but it cannot get the broadband it needs to increase its workforce. It has been regularly ringing the Department and the provider but the exchange remains 200 m from their door step. It cannot continue. How can we help a company like that? It should be all about job creation, particularly in rural locations. We should be giving such a company the answers it needs, but it has not had a response to date.

I welcome the appointment of a broadband officer in the local authorities. The one in Kildare, who I deal with, has been a godsend for many public representatives. There have been many occasions when I had to phone or email him.

On hubs, has the Department had to refuse any applications from communities and, if so, why? The information that will be built up in the first quarter can be fed out by public representatives and local authorities. I know of local communities which are looking at this and require that information. I was interested to hear about e-health. Have there been discussions with service providers in the primary care centres that have been and are being rolled out with the Department of Health about locating hubs in those primary care centres? It would mean health officials on the doorstep and the hubs to answer questions or queries that may come from the communities. I have seen it work in places such as Ballymore Eustace in Kildare.

The common booking platform was mentioned. How do we go about that? I also worry about the advantages that might be there in the private versus public sectors. I thank Dr. O'Connor. I think everyone will agree that the town and village renewal has been a godsend for many rural communities.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The question about indoor versus outdoor coverage is a good one. There is a framework and repeaters are there to solve that problem. I do not know anything about the area. The houses could be new or very old. If they are very old they could have very thick walls which can be a problem for the signal getting through. If they are very new, they are probably extremely well insulated which creates an issue because insulation blocks the signal. ComReg's website has a list of providers of repeaters. They are relatively new but they are available and many companies install them. That would be the first solution and it should work. We install them in BCPs.

On helping companies, it is difficult to respond without knowing specifics. I can address it if the Senator wishes to send me details. I would normally direct people to the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications because it actively engages with providers to improve services. There is no stick to compel operators but I am happy to take on board any information.

We have had to refuse communities for BCP applications. It is primarily in cases where what was being offered for the substantial State investment did not balance out. That was only in a small number of cases. The whole idea of BCPs is that it is for community gain and public benefit, therefore they are not approved where opening hours or facilities were not to an appropriate level or there were no plans. The key determinant for us for approving BCPs was whether the applicants had an active community group. If there is an active community group, one knows that they are behind it and things will happen whereas if there is a community group that would like a hub but it has no plans and the facilities are not great, that does not represent a good return on a substantial investment but that has been in a minority of places.

The question on e-health is interesting. We are actively engaging with both the HSE and Department of Health in the area. We have four pilots which we would like to try for different areas of e-health, including a couple of the islands. There are obvious benefits. We have established a group, chaired by one of my team, to look at this very specific idea. The clinicians are very much on board. It is a question of how to roll it out. We were holding back a few BCPs to potentially address what the Senator outlined. I am keen for it to happen. There are obvious benefits and savings to the health sector.

On private versus public hubs, the booking platform which we are putting in place is not restricted to public hubs, it is for everybody. There are AC hubs, private, public, social enterprises, every kind. The tools we make available will be available to all hubs across the country.

I will make a comment on Senator Wall's remarks. If someone can get coverage outside, it shows the problem is not the mobile phone coverage, but, as Dr. O'Connor said, one of insulation or the thickness of the house. Returning to Senator Garvey's comment on 5G, that is an even bigger problem inside because that frequency does not go through the insulation or thick walls so as the technology improves, it is travelling reduced distances. Repeaters will become required indoors in many cases. Approximately 80% of mobile phone usage is indoors.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

I forgot to say something related to that, namely Wi-Fi calling. Two or the three operators are offering Wi-Fi calling on the networks.

Ironically, I was talking to my own mother about this yesterday. She has a different broadband provider from her mobile provider. Depending on the nature of a customer's phone and the package, phone calls could potentially be made over Wi-Fi, so that somewhat addresses the indoor coverage issue. If a customer has decent broadband, the phone provider will use that. That is interesting, because I understand two of the three, but all three of them may be offered at most.

I thank Dr. O'Connor for his presentation and engagement with the committee. I welcome the allocation of €5 million in this year's budget for the further development of the network along the Atlantic economic corridor, because it is key. We must work together and put a strategy in place so that there is no overlapping of services. As Senator Garvey mentioned, there was a case where one hub was developed, which displaced two other similar hubs. There needs to be co-ordination, and it is good to hear that there are monthly meetings with Urban McMahon and others like him throughout the country to try to achieve that co-ordination.

I must say that Clare is very much at the forefront in this, because there is a digital strategy in place and there is a network of hubs throughout the county. There are plans to develop further hubs in locations such as Ennis, and I have been working with the county council and the Department on that project.

I would like to go back to what Senator Burke mentioned about a minimum standard, and that is important in respect of the broadband connection points, BCPs. They are diverse and they are not all uniform, which I accept, but there must be a minimum standard. To reach that minimum standard, community groups need access to funding, which they currently do not have. Will a tranche of that €5 million that has been allocated be made available to community groups in particular to meet that minimum standard so that they can offer a service to the local community whereby people can engage with local public services and can possibly work remotely? Will Dr. O'Connor confirm if that is the case? The use of town and village renewal fund and the rural regeneration development fund, RRDF, to roll out this network is welcome too, but it is a bit disjointed. If there was one single fund and local authorities worked in conjunction with the Department, there would be a more uniform system in place whereby they could feed into the plan in a more co-ordinated way. Perhaps Dr. O'Connor would comment on those points.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

On the question of whether the €5 million fund will be available to boost the BCPs, it is explicitly targeted at the BCPs and hub development. To answer the Deputy's second question on the difference between the funds and having a coherent approach, if we step back 12 months, this issue was not as topical as it is now. The world has changed and our response has changed. Previously, for 2020 - obviously the budget was allocated in the previous year - hubs that were applying for works up to a certain value applied through the town and village renewal scheme, and if an applicant was seeking to construct a hub or do substantial works, he or she applied through the regional rural development fund. That was appropriate and worked quite well, and it was generally considered to be coherent and people understood it.

The world has changed in 2020. More was drawn down for those smaller works than was probably originally envisaged, but that is okay and we are able to flex with the demand and we have responded to that demand quite well. Around €670,000, which is a substantial amount, was spent. There were very few counties that did not benefit from that in terms of the BCPs.

The idea behind the €5 million fund is to bring greater coherence for next year. Looking at the bigger hubs, such as the PorterSheds and Ludgates of this world, €5 million would not go very far in developing those kinds of hubs. The RRDF is still the appropriate vehicle because it is a much larger source of funds, whereas everything else could fall into the €5 million fund. In designing that fund, we will take account of what we are learning around the hubs that are out there and what the demand is. Earlier this year, through our Covid response and the Western Development Commission, WDC, we allocated out about €180,000 to hubs in the AC area for Covid response. That was done at very short notice and the WDC did a great job, and we learnt a huge amount about what is required to make a hub Covid-ready. We are using this data collection exercise from the interdepartmental group as a means of informing how we design that €5 million fund so that we get the best bang for our buck.

It seems to me that we are serving two separate markets. BCPs are for areas without broadband, and the hubs are for areas with broadband where people want the socialisation of work and to work in good workspaces. These are very different requirements.

On the wider issue, people work where they are. I think most Deputies have been doing this for years; I certainly have. For example, I have worked in airports, hotels, at home, and in my offices in Galway and Dublin. People who do this want broadband everywhere, and I think that Dr. O'Connor will find that many ordinary people are doing this. When I visited America, I found that people in some of the big companies had already moved into a context pattern of work that suited their day: working from home, working from the formal office, working on the road, and working in other offices that the business might have in other parts of the state. That is going to happen here. There is no question about that. I do not think that anybody is going work to always in one place. The world must allow for that flexibility.

My concern relating to BCPs is that people will think that they are a substitute for fibre to the home. I hear reference to the islands and that we will give them BCPs. I am telling Dr. O'Connor, on behalf of the islanders in County Galway, which account for well over half of the islanders in the country, that they want what everyone else wants.

I was interested in what Senator Garvey said and I understand it perfectly, because we all like moving around and meeting and connecting with people. As Deputies, many of us have found over the past eight months that it has not been our broadband connectivity that has been missing but the face-to-face contact with people in constituency clinics, where it would be better just having the face-to-face contact for certain meetings. On the other hand, other things we have done very successfully because we could work where we were. I imagine Senator Garvey, and maybe she could be prompted by the Chair to answer this, really likes the Wi-Fi hub, but she would not like it if that was at the expense of the broadband in her house, because I bet she uses that sometimes. That is what people really want. People want choice everywhere they go. For example, if I am ever booking a hotel, I want a bed and I want Wi-Fi. It is very simple, and I would not stay in a place that could not provide me with Wi-Fi.

Or with a bed either, I am sure.

Or with a bed, but it would be a toss-up which could be done better without. On behalf of rural people, I must re-emphasise that the quicker the national broadband roll-out, the better.

It would be useful if we could very quickly get a fix on the different usage of a broadband connection point, BCP, versus a hub in an area where there is already broadband fibre to the home, or by the part of the area where the broadband fibre is to the home. How do they use the hub as compared to those people who do not have the broadband at home? We need to get that fixed. The future is going to be the hub where everybody has fibre to the home.

I often believe there is a misconception, not by the Department or anyone here, but by some people and certainly commentators who seem to have an idea that rural Ireland has no bite. The Chairman will be able to confirm that when the manual exchanges were abolished in the 1980s they were replaced by small exchanges. These were brown boxes one would see around the countryside in all sorts of areas and every little village had one. It is quite some time since Eir rolled out fibre into each one of those boxes. Eir started with the box and worked out for a mile or two in each direction but suddenly stopped. Many of us could never figure that out. There is one place close to me where it went out a road and stopped short of what is for our area a good cluster of houses. Nobody could figure it out. One would think that Eir might say, "Having gone this far we will pick up these houses", but it did not. I understand that it was due to some logarithm it had. There is no area, village or street in the country that has one of these brown boxes that does not have fibre in it. Everywhere, from County Dublin outwards, all over rural Ireland the fibre is going down and there are two communities: one with fibre and one without fibre. It is not just a west coast problem. This is the midlands, the east coast, or three miles from a city. We need to encourage the national broadband company to get on and get the job done. I am disappointed.

I now turn to the technicalities of it. It is my understanding that they are hanging the fibre on the existing telegraph poles, and that one of the big jobs Eir had to do in rolling out its fibre was to upgrade the poles. Where they are being upgraded there should be no problem in hanging another fibre wire and actually starting that part of the work. I understand they are going back to base with the wires but in hanging the fibre one does not have to do the whole thing of checking the poles and renewing them because that would already have been done by Eir. One could start having to check those and the last pole out. As an aside, it is my understanding that when the fibre is rolled out the copper wires become redundant. The copper is very heavy and tends to be the cause of blown down poles. There was also a problem that under some ComReg regulation they were not allowed to remove the copper even when it was redundant. We need to clarify that issue because it causes issues with the wind blowing down poles. The fibre is so light that this is not an issue.

I accept the socialisation and the working in groups, but even those people are going to work from home. I have made that point. I am still not happy or reassured that there is a will and that it is really happening to put in mobile signals. While there are places where there are no mobile signals full stop, for example, inside a rock, I still do not see the will or the way to make sure that infrastructure is put into these areas. I cannot see from a technical point of view that it is any more difficult. While more small masts are needed it would be no more difficult to find sites than it is to find all the sites that must be found in the rest of the country.

It might have helped if the Government before last did not sell off some of the State mobile infrastructure that was owned by Coillte.

To answer Deputy Ó Cuív's questions we will have to get officials in from the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications.

I think so, definitely, and ComReg also.

That would be to talk about rural broadband in a general sense. I am totally with the Deputy that we need it, but the roll out of rural broadband is a different Department from this Department of Rural and Community Development.

I was going to email my pre-budget submission to the Department. I have calculated and number crunched around how one could do it for between €10,000 and €30,000 for existing buildings. I will send on the lists of what it is was based on.

The Department said there was still some capacity there. Do we contact Dr. O'Connor? If so, can I have his email address? If not, do we contact the broadband officer?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The broadband officer.

I thank Dr. O'Connor. I must go now. I thank the witnesses for coming in.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

I will come back on one point from Deputy Ó Cuív. It is important that I make this clarification. Broadband connection points, BCPs, are not a replacement for fibre. They are there to address a gap while the fibre is rolled out. Very interestingly, we are connecting our first direct fibre BCPs, which are currently wireless connectivity. The intention is, and it is our view, that all the BCPs will convert into fibre BCPs for all the reasons we have discussed today. Just because there is fibre in everybody's home it does not invalidate the need for the BCP. The first one of these will be connected in the new year, which is a trial run. Obviously, the kit and how it all hangs together needs to be tested. Again, it is really important to understand that it is not a replacement for fibre to the premises. It is an offering for the community. That is very important.

I hope there is one of those specific pilots close to home now, or put on the list anyway.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The Deputy asked another question, or maybe it was a statement, but it is absolutely worth repeating, which was about how people are using the hub. It is important that we understand what is being used. We would be very cognisant of that. As it stands, when one connects there is a short survey as to how the experience was. The intention is to roll out a questionnaire at some stage next year, probably towards the latter half of the year, to understand how the hubs are being used. We believe this to be an iterative process. Some hubs very clearly will not be needed when fibre is rolled out, but the vast majority will. It is about making the community benefit real. That is our objective with the BCPs. The fibre is only the infrastructure. The interesting bit is what we do with the fibre.

I have just one brief question on the hub and keeping order. If everybody was on a Zoom call, for example, in a small space like the one we have here, who would be in control of the whole thing?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The speed that we are putting in at the moment is 150 Mbps into each download and upload. There would be no capacity issues. It automatically balances.

Who would be in control in the community centre, for example?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

They do not need to. Each of them is different.

If they are all speaking at the same time would that work out?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

That should be no problem at all.

From a capacity point of view it should not be a problem, but from an audio and interference perspective there are headsets and microphones to deal with that. One could not deal with such capacity using just speakers on a laptop, and the person would need to have a headset and a microphone. I presume that would be a protocol issue.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

Exactly, and that would be for each hub to decide. Most people use headsets now. We have all been working from home and most people use the headphones because it is easier to work around.

If it is a parliamentary party meeting one would just be better off inviting a journalist in so that he or she could record it accurately.

I have some questions for Dr. O'Connor. I will bring him back to the mobile phone and broadband task force. I was very surprised to see this particular task force put into abeyance at the start of the year. As Dr. O'Connor is aware, many of the challenges we came across this year in network capacity were dealt with because of the work done over the past three years by the mobile phone and broadband task force. If that task force had not been established a number of years ago, our network probably would have collapsed on quite a few more occasions than it did over the past nine months.

Due to the capacity issues with our network, right across Europe the EU asked Netflix and other video channels to reduce the capacity of their streaming services. The quality was disimproved in order to take pressure off the network. Here in Ireland, ComReg did the same thing with the mobile network. Our voice services were diminished in quality in order to increase the capacity of data, 4G and 3G services. There are clearly deficiencies within the existing networks in a European context but also in our mobile and wireless networks here in Ireland if ComReg took that decision.

I have gone on to the website, which logs reported problems with various online networks. This issue came to the fore last Friday night. I happen to be a Vodafone customer. I was watching the "Late Late Show" on Friday night and was frustrated, like everyone else, by what happened when the service went down on a number of occasions during the show. That brought to the fore what is taking place on a regular basis. During the most recent lockdown, there were 24 reported service outages, according to Vodafone, Three, Virgin Media, Eir and Imagine all went down at different times over the last six weeks. Clearly, there are ongoing problems with our broadband network and our mobile network in particular. Surely it makes sense, at this stage and in light of those capacity problems, to re-energise the mobile phone and broadband task force rather than put it in abeyance. Can someone explain to me why, at a time when unprecedented pressure was put on our mobile networks, the liaison between the Government, the industry and the various players around the country was shelved? Why did that happen? What is the future of that task force?

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The task force was originally created in 2016. The implementation group spent three years implementing the first task force report and identifying new actions. That work concluded in the first quarter of this year. We then got hit with everything that has gone on, including the election and formation of the new Government and so on. It is certainly not the intention of either Department for the task force to be in abeyance. However, as I alluded to in my opening address, at this point in time the low-hanging fruit or easy fixes have been addressed. The Chairman referred to the work of the task force and what it has achieved and I have spoken about maps and repeaters. All of that emerged out of the work of the task force. The relationship with the industry is extremely strong on foot of the task force and it would like to see the task force maintained, as would both Departments. We just need to fix on the best use of the task force and what it could be put to bear on, such as bigger ticket items. The matter of 5G was referred to earlier and that is certainly something that could be considered by the task force. It needs to change and shift because by and large, those low-hanging fruit and all the issues the Chairman noted, which were impeding the ordinary operation of the networks, have been addressed. The task force needs to find a new identity. I am hopeful that proposals will be put in front of the Government very shortly.

I have a suggestion for something it can put at the top of its agenda. During the recent lockdown, one of our networks went down every second day. Either a fixed broadband or mobile network went down every second day over the last six weeks. That should be at the top of the agenda and I cannot believe that the task force has not been re-established. Dr. O'Connor can take that back to the Department.

My second question is a bit closer to home and is relevant to all of the members here. The map on the national broadband plan website has two colours on it. The first is amber, which covers about 96% of the geographical area of the country, and National Broadband Ireland and its contractors are mapping those locations at the moment. Before Christmas they will bring fibre to the first of those houses and it will be rolled out in Deputy Ó Cuív's constituency early in the new year. That is great. People in dark blue areas have a mix of fibre to the door or fibre to the cabinet. In my constituency, Eir is bringing fibre to the door in the urban areas, and Virgin and Siro have done so as well. However, a cohort of people are in no man's land. They are not part of the current planned fibre roll-out by the commercial companies in urban areas, they are not getting a minimum of 30 Mbps over the existing copper wire from fibre to the cabinet, and they are not part of the National Broadband Ireland intervention as they are not in the amber area.

When one zooms in on the map, there are little pockmarks of amber in the dark blue areas. These are people who have been identified as not getting a minimum 30 Mbps for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They will be part of the National Broadband Ireland intervention. Some of them are within a mile of where we are sitting here in the city of Dublin, while some are in peripheral rural villages. However, I know of more than 80,000 homes across the country, besides those little pockmarks, that are not getting 30 Mbps. Some of them are getting 29 Mbps and some are getting 2 Mbps. Once National Broadband Ireland installs fibre in an area, it moves on because it has to meet its timelines, and these homes will then be left behind. These people will not be able to sell their homes. The value of their properties will depreciate dramatically because it would be like trying to sell a house without electricity or water where the buyer has to pay €5,000 to get them connected. People will not want those properties. What can be done in the short term to make people aware that if they are not getting this service at the moment, they need to report it and ensure they are part of the intervention? There are a substantial number of people who do not know that, have not reported it and are going to be left behind.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The Chairman is correct about this issue and we have been dealing with it for the past three or four years. We have asked the broadband officers about it and I reiterate the message we have been giving for almost three years. If a person's premises is in that situation, that person needs to record the speeds available and then send an email to for the Department to record it. I understand that NBI recently attended the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks, where it indicated that it would engage on this subject. The first thing, which we have been saying repeatedly for three years, is that we need to know where those locations are and they must be categorised and sent in to the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. If any Deputy or Senator is in a similar boat, he or she needs to talk to the broadband officer in the first instance, capture that data and then make sure it gets sent on to the Department. It is primarily an issue for the Department because it manages the national broadband plan but that is the message we have been pushing out to all the broadband officers for the last three years. We know it is happening every day because I get copied on a lot of those emails. The message is quite simple. If people are in that situation and are not getting the relevant speeds, they need to alert

I appreciate that. When I was a Minister, I brought all Deputies and Senators to a room here in Leinster House and explained this issue to them. However, it has not been reported back that way. Both Departments have been putting this out into the public domain, as have I, but it is not getting traction. My point is that a proactive approach must be taken urgently before these homes are bypassed. Very soon people will be contacting Deputy Kerrane and Deputy Ó Cuív and saying that National Broadband Ireland came and went and they were not included because they did not report that they had a problem with their broadband.

If I am having a problem with my broadband and I live in a dark blue zone and they have to come back to resolve it, that has a direct impact on communities in the more peripheral areas, which is the point that Deputy Ó Cuív was making earlier. Most of the peripheral locations are not, as perceived, on the west coast. Deputy Kerrane's constituency and my constituency are the most difficult locations to reach and it is the people in those communities who are going to be left behind if we have to go back in respect of these areas. It is in everyone's interests that people check the website and take note of whether they are located in dark blue zones. If they are and they are not getting the 30 Mbps, they should report that now.

Dr. Stjohn O'Connor

The broadband officers have been very energised about this for the past three years. It is not that on the ground they have not been doing anything because many broadband officers have been actively canvassing communities and passing on this message at local level. I agree, however, that more can always be done.

I thank Dr. O'Connor for his time. I also thank Mr. O'Brien, on whom we did not exert a huge amount of pressure. A number of important issues have been raised. The committee needs to hear from ComReg, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and National Broadband Ireland in regard to some of the issues that members raised. We will revisit this issue and we will continue to engage with the witnesses on it. Dr. O'Connor clearly has a passion for this particular issue. I again thank him and Mr. O'Brien for their participation and their comprehensive contributions.

Before we conclude, I would like to comment on the mobile phone and broadband task force. Much of the work done by the task force was at a very technical level. While it will improve mobile and broadband coverage, people do not actually see that. One of the very significant pieces of work that was done that has a direct impact on consumers is the mobile coverage maps. Christmas is a time of the year when many people will upgrade their mobile phones. I plead with people, before purchasing mobile phones and signing contracts with whatever operator they choose, to visit the ComReg website where they can see the map, input their Eircode postcode and find out which provider can provide them with a service in their homes and communities. There is not much point in a person buying a cheap package from a particular operator only to find out that it does not provide coverage in his or her location. The information is available to people. A massive amount of work was done behind the scenes to make this happen. Before purchasing mobile phones, people need to visit the ComReg website in order to discover which service suits their particular location.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.44 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2020.