Pandemic Supports to the Islands and Rural Ireland: Department of Rural and Community Development

I thank Deputy Haughey for facilitating us this morning.

I ask members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones as they interfere with the recording equipment. I also remind members to sanitise their desk area and seat when leaving the committee room.

The main item on our agenda is the continuation of our previous hearing on mobile and broadband coverage across rural Ireland. In this regard I welcome officials from the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications who have joined us here today. Mr. Fergal Mulligan is the programme director for Ireland's National Broadband Plan and Mr. Patrick Neary is chief technology officer of the Department. We will look at the National Broadband Plan roll-out and the associated broadband connection points. As we continue our examination of this critical issue for rural development in Ireland, the reality is that Covid-19 has increased pressure on our mobile and fixed telecommunications networks. Now, more than ever before, we need to ensure our citizens have access to reliable mobile phone networks as well as the fixed broadband network. The committee notes that during the recent lockdown one of our fixed broadband or mobile networks went down every second day yet the mobile phone and broadband taskforce established by Government to liaise with the telecom sector did not hold a single meeting to discuss the Covid impact on our telecommunications sector. The deterioration in these networks must be rectified irrespective of how the public health emergency pans out in 2021, not just to facilitate remoter working which is so essential to employees, employers, families and communities but also to ensure the delivery of new technologies into isolated rural areas. This includes, for example, Garda drones that cannot only be used for policing activities but illegal practices such as fly tipping, replacing the limited availability of the Garda helicopter and for emergency calls and medical treatment in isolated areas that will require reliable connectivity.

Members of the committee and of the Houses have absolute privilege in respect of the statements made to either House of the Oireachtas or before the 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 the committee. If, in the course of the committee proceedings, witnesses 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 Member outside the House, or an official by name or in such a way as to make him, or her identifiable.

I call on Mr. Neary to make his opening statement, which will be followed by questions and answers.

Mr. Patrick Neary

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it on matters relating to broadband and mobile coverage in rural Ireland. My name is Patrick Neary and I am the chief technology officer in the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Fergal Mulligan, who is programme director for the National Broadband Plan. We look forward to discussing these matters with you today.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of high-speed, quality, reliable broadband and mobile coverage to ensure that citizens in rural Ireland can participate in remote working, online schooling, shopping, critical video calls - both business-related and social - and a plethora of other online activities which most now take for granted.

With respect to mobile coverage and in order to assist mobile network operators, MNOs, to meet demand and maintain service levels during the pandemic, regulations were made in April under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1926 enabling ComReg to release additional rights of use for the radio spectrum on a temporary basis. This framework, established with the consent of the then Minister, enabled mobile network operators to create additional capacity across their mobile networks and accommodate the increased demand which arose earlier this year, particularly in suburban and rural areas. Licences were issued to the three mobile network operators, Three, Vodafone and Eir, on a temporary basis for three months. A further temporary licensing framework was put in place in October enabling licences to be issued for three months and ComReg is currently considering applications under this framework to allow licences to continue into March 2021.

Also in April this year, the main electronic communications providers signed up to a common set of commitments to assist and help their customers to stay in touch and work from home during the Covid-19 Pandemic. In light of the pandemic, operators, both fixed and mobile, reviewed their network capacity against the voice and data traffic demand and put in place measures to mitigate the risk of network congestion. As a consequence, and to the credit of the industry, the networks have remained stable throughout this period with their infrastructure remaining resilient despite being tested in an unprecedented manner. As members will appreciate, providing telecommunication services, including mobile services, is a matter for the relevant service providers operating in a fully liberalised market regulated by ComReg as independent regulator.

As set out by our colleagues from the Department of Rural and Community Development to this committee on 2 December last, the mobile phone and broadband taskforce has been a driving force for improving access to telecommunications services nationwide from the commercial sector. It has completed over 70 targeted actions to alleviate connectivity barriers and enhance information provided to consumers, and continues to tackle issues impeding the roll-out of essential infrastructure in rural areas.

With respect to broadband, of the 2.4 million premises across Ireland, 77% of premises now have access to high-speed broadband of more than 30 Mbps. National Broadband Ireland, NBI, is now tasked with addressing the remaining premises through the National Broadband Plan State intervention. In many parts of the country, very high capacity networks are now becoming the norm. For example, 40% of subscriptions are for services offering speeds in excess of 100 Mbps. There are more than 225,000 fibre subscriptions across the country, representing a 55% increase on last year. It is encouraging to note that a number of industry players have announced further investment plans in high-speed broadband. This includes Eir which has said it will roll out fibre to a further 1.4 million premises, bringing their fibre deployment to some 1.8 million premises. SIRO is currently completing the first phase of its fibre deployment which will see 375,000 premises passed with gigabit services. It is actively considering the scope of phase 2 of this project. Virgin Media is offering 250 Mbps as a standard offering with 500 Mbps and 1 Gbps available to many of their customers across the more than 1 million premises that they cover. It too is continuing to invest in upgrading its network. Many other network operators and telecom service providers across the State also continue to invest in their networks.

I will hand over to Mr. Mulligan who will outline the position on the National Broadband Plan.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

As the Chairman knows, the State has stepped in to ensure homes and businesses that are not receiving the reliability required will be assured of such a broadband service. This will be delivered by the State-led intervention under the National Broadband Plan. As the Chairman knows the contract that underpins this commitment was signed in November 2019 with NBI. NBI is currently well advanced in the design of the network, and it will build and operate this new high-speed, high-quality and reliable broadband network which will see minimum speeds of 500 Mbps available to homes across all of rural Ireland, regardless of how remote those premises may be. This is a commitment that is unique when compared to many other jurisdictions across the world and, when combined with commercial sector investment, will see over 90% of premises across the State served with speeds in excess of 100 Mbps by 2024, coverage that was unimaginable only five years ago.

The Department’s high-speed broadband map shows those premises marked blue. As the Chairman knows, on our map we have the colours blue and amber, with amber representing the intervention area. In the blue areas we understand high-speed broadband services are currently available from the commercial sector, based on information from the sector itself. However, we understand that some homes and businesses have experienced difficulty getting a reliable high-speed broadband service and we are proactively engaged in dealing with any such anomalies to ensure no home or business is left behind.

We are dealing with any such anomalies on a daily basis. It remains open to the Department to bring additional premises into the National Broadband Ireland, NBI, roll-out plan under the contract where no commercial high-speed broadband service is available from any of the commercial operators. NBI’s roll-out will bring an initial minimum standard 500 Mbps service to all premises in the intervention area. It should be noted that this represents an increase from the original 150 Mbps contracted this time last year.

In addition, services of up to 1 Gbps will be available to businesses and other users on request and it is important to note that that is not an "up-to" service but is a guaranteed minimum speed. NBI has made significant progress in 2020 despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is worth noting that to date NBI has surveyed more than 145,000 premises across 26 counties, which continues apace; completed detailed designs for more than 105,000 premises, which is also increasing weekly; installed 220 broadband connection points, which are a key element of the NBP and will provide high speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to all of the homes surrounding those broadband connection points, which includes all of the primary schools across the country; and signed contracts with 33 retail service providers who will be selling the services to end-users through the NBI network, which have now directly employed more than 170 people and more than 627 indirectly through its sub-contractors across the country. In addition, an acceleration to the roll-out of high-speed broadband to some 679 schools across the State by the end of 2022, that is within the next two years, was recently announced.

Build work has started in rural parts of counties Cork, Limerick, Cavan and Galway. NBI is currently in its test and trial phase where the first commercial connections will be made by the many retail services providers mentioned earlier in early 2021, with the scale of connections to the network ramping up over the new year.

The need for access to high-speed broadband by all has never been clearer. Recognising this, the programme for Government specifically commits to seek to accelerate the roll-out of the NBP. The programme also recognises that the NBP will be a key enabler to many of the policies envisaged, particularly around increased levels of remote working and remote service delivery.

The Department is currently engaging with NBI to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the NBP roll-out to establish the possibility of bringing forward premises that are currently scheduled in the later years six and seven of the current plan. Any change requires detailed technical, commercial and financial analysis as this is a very complex and significant build of a national network.

NBI has now established a dedicated team to investigate acceleration of the roll-out from its current contracted schedule of seven years and members of my Department are actively working with it on a weekly and daily basis in that regard. However, the immediate priority is to ensure any delays as a result of Covid-19 experienced to date that might arise in 2021 are mitigated to the greatest extent by NBI to ensure the current roll-out timelines are met. NBI is working closely with all its build partners to address the many challenges presented by Covid-19.

The Department is aware that concerns have been raised by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications Networks regarding the level of information available on the deployment of the NBI network. We note from that meeting that NBI has undertaken to carry out further work and to provide more detail on its website, with a rolling update on network build plans covering at least the next 18 months and it is expected that this will be available in the new year. We are hoping to get that done as soon as possible, given the vacuum that seems to be there with the information.

I thank the Committee once again for inviting us and welcome any questions, which we will do our utmost to answer. Where we do not have an immediate answer, we will be more than happy to respond in writing as soon as possible following this session.

Before we bring in members to speak, can Mr Mulligan please go through and explain he pictures on our monitors?

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

Yes, of course I will. We decided that the best way to explain what NBI is doing and in how it is building this network is to show the committee some maps. Mr. Neary, the resident engineer and chief technology officer in the office, is overseeing the network deployment, will explain that in detail and will set out a number of examples. These examples are representative of every county, and even though we will show just one county it is representative of every one.

At the outset, a couple of key questions that people ask are who decided the places in which the roll-out will happen first, how this works, and are we hitting or cherry-picking areas first so that NBI is getting a better bang for its buck, and so forth? As Mr. Neary will explain, the network roll-out is divided in to 227 deployment areas up and down the country in every county. The architecture of the network design is specifically based on the design of the NBI network coming from the Eircom exchanges or Enet's metropolitan area networks, MANs. As Mr. Neary will show the committee in a moment, it is not quite as simple as an inward-out process. Members will see that there are what we call shape files, which are these polygons that represent a deployment area, each being one of the 227. The blue and yellow deployment areas for Galway and its outskirts represent a deployment area. I will hand over now to Mr. Neary to explain what those polygons mean and how they are arrived at before one designs something.

The most fundamental point in principle in all of this is that NBI, through the contract, is not deciding on what the build is on the basis of cost or on how easy it is to get there. This is based on a network design of getting everywhere as fast as possible but within the confines of how rings are built around certain areas to ensure that the fibre rings are there to provide robustness, reliability and resilience. If, for example, a cable falls over or is broken, all of these networks need to have back-up plans where if one cog in the wheel falls over, 1,000 premises are not then left without broadband. That is how networks work. They are done in rings so that the data can go backwards and forwards to the Internet and one point of failure does not bring down the entire network. Mr. Neary will explain these rings to the committee in terms of fibre build.

When one looks at any one of these deployment areas, there is low and high-hanging fruit. It is non-discriminatory in that regard because there are remote and non-remote premises in every deployment area. The deployment area, for example, in which I live is at the bottom of a mountain in County Wicklow but I am in the same deployment area as Kilcoole and Greystones, which are urban areas. I am five miles from the nearest village but it just so happens that I am within the ring of that fibre network. The homes in my area will be far more expensive to get to than some of the homes in Kilcoole or Greystones and again this depends on particular circumstances, because getting to homes in some urban or semi-urban areas can be quite expensive as it may be all underground or trenching may have to be dug, which will be more expensive than overhead cables that one might bring through rural areas.

The plan is not based on cost or any particular economic model but primarily on an engineering model. Now is a good time for me to stop talking about engineering and to hand over to Mr. Neary.

Mr. Patrick Neary

I will introduce a couple of terms to explain the NBI roll-out. As can be seen from the screen, there are blue and light green polygons. Each one of these is a deployment area and is akin to an exchange area. In the centre of that area is the electronic equipment that all of the fibre feeds back to so that it all connects to the Internet in due course. The electronic equipment is based, typically, in a town or a village and is in an exchange building or it can be a cabinet. These are referred to in this map as optical line terminals, OLTs. A deployment area, therefore, is a group of premises, typically around a 25 km radius, where the electronic equipment resides to which the fibre feeds back to.

There are 227 deployment areas covering the whole country. Every area within the intervention area in Ireland is covered by one of these deployment areas. There are 33 very important deployment areas, which are more important than the others from an engineering perspective. These are coloured on this map in light green and yellow. These are the points of handover where another operator can put their own equipment alongside that of NBI and access the network.

Another important part of the hand over of the deployment area is for them to connect back to the main data centres in Dublin that then connect to the international Internet and all the content providers. There are 33 of those in Ireland and the first step is to deploy them. Without those in place, the other deployment areas have no connectivity to anything. They do not connect to the Internet until those 33 areas are in place. The roll-out strategy is to get the 33 areas in place as quickly as possible and then start building the deployment areas alongside them so they can then connect to the deployment area, which is coloured light green on the map, and back to the Internet through Dublin.

The next slide shows a map of Galway. I am more familiar with County Mayo so Claremorris, for example, is a point of handover location because it has a MAN, which is already connected back to Dublin thus one is reusing an existing structure. If the NBI places the initial electronic equipment in Claremorris, it can just rent infrastructure back to Dublin, so there is no need to build new infrastructure, and that is already a connection to the Internet, etc. Claremorris is a good example. Once the NBI provides its own electronic equipment then anything connected to Claremorris can be connected to the Internet. The strategy is to connect all of the premises within the Claremorris deployment area. So that is the first town in that area that will be deployed. Next is a move to the area beside Claremorris. In this scenario that means Ballinrobe or Cloonfad. The reason for doing so is once the NBI deploys its electronic equipment in Ballinrobe, it will be connected to Claremorris, which then goes back to Dublin. If one were to start in Ballinrobe, the area would not be connected to the Internet. Ballinrobe would just be an island and would have no connectivity to the Internet unless one starts building back to Dublin. The quickest way back to Dublin, and in truth to the international Internet, is from Ballinrobe to Claremorris and then back to Dublin.

Let us consider the scenario. One has deployed the Claremorris deployment area so that is now live. One moves on to Ballinrobe and builds out all of the premises surrounding Ballinrobe so within a 25 km radius of the town, which encompasses every secondary and primary road, and boreens. So every premises that is in an intervention area will be covered and that is then brought back to Claremorris. The dark line that we put on the map represents the connectivity between Ballinrobe and Claremorris. That connectivity is the backhaul between Ballinrobe and Claremorris. What happens to Claremorris is that all of the surrounding deployment areas are built out in a ring, so there is Ballinrobe, Maum, Liscarney, Castlebar and Cloonfad. That is really the progress of the deployment. One will consistently see it built out in a ring and one will see the same in Galway.

As Mr. Mulligan mentioned earlier, if there is a break in the backhaul at some point in the ring then one has two options. Let us say the connectivity between Maum and Claremorris is broken somewhere in Ballinrobe. The connectivity can go the opposite way on the ring. The design is clever as it gives resilience and allows the NBI to ensure that the actual service will be very positive for consumers once the NBI gets the ring in place. There has been a lot of commentary as to why one would not start out, for example, in Liscarney, which is near Westport, and come back. Until one gets connectivity back to the global Internet then that would be an island on its own. It is important that the green areas are done first and then everything else will feed from those points of handover.

I wish to point out that every premises in each area is covered in a fully coherent way as the build is done. It is not that the main ones are done before moving on. Each of the deployment areas can be seen on the NBI website. There is a cascade of these happening in parallel. For example, there are 3,500 premises in the Galway point of handover that is marked in a light green colour on the slide shown. In the surrounding areas surveys and the deployment of structures will be commenced very quickly once the Galway one is in situ.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

I will explain the service provision, which is the most important aspect from an end-user perspective. When Claremorris, Ballinrobe and Liscarney are all connected then we call them the premises passed. The first thing that the NBI must confirm to us is that they are all passed and we can guarantee the 500 Mb service in that ring and within the polygons there. It is only after the NBI prove that to us that it will get the subsidy under the national broadband contract. After that it is entirely up to the consumers and businesses whether they want the service from NBI. Under the contract, once they order the service then the NBI must connect them within a certain number of days or weeks, depending on the connection.

As we know, the NBI is only a wholesale network. So some of the 33 retail service providers will sell services in the areas but that depends on the geography. For example, Westnet in the west of Ireland is a local small retail service provider. It is contracted now to offer services over the NBI network and it will offer services to its existing customers and new customers located around Claremorris and those areas. Similarly, if one goes to Cork, certain operators only operate out of Cork or Limerick so on and so forth. National providers such as Sky, Vodafone, Eir, Three and Virgin Media also will sell services. Heretofore, the consumers in these areas may have had the option of using one to three retail broadband providers, which is the most that is available in many rural areas. In the next few years as this initiative is rolled out consumers can avail of a plethora of retail providers that will offer not only broadband but television and landline buy services, which can also be delivered over fibre and security systems. Mobile service companies will probably also bundle mobile services.

From the point of view of consumer choice and value for money, in the coming years consumers in rural areas will be given the same choice and options enjoyed by people who live in Dublin, Cork or Limerick where they can walk into a shop or ring an operator and ask for all of its four services to be put on the one bill. People will probably save a lot of money monthly by doing so because currently in rural Ireland people probably pay separately for a television service, a broadband service, a mobile phone and a landline with Eircom. These are the benefits that will accrue as this initiative is rolled out around the network. Not only will there be greater speeds and quality of service, there will be an absolute 24-7 guaranteed service with videos and everything else. The choice in terms of television and mobiles will spread out in terms of consumers and competition. The initiative will grow a ubiquitous national network where everybody and every network can sell services whether one lives on an island or on the west or east coasts. That is the ambition and objective within the next five to seven years.

Deputy Ó Cuív is next. I ask the witnesses to explain to him the broken line on the map between Roscommon and Castlerea.

This debate is really useful because we are hearing the type of information that has been difficult to get. Before discussing the NBI I wish to ask a few questions about mobile services. Who decides the policy that licences for mobile services are sold on a population basis to the private sector?

I know ComReg issues the licences. Who decides the policy, the Minister or the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg?

Why was this done on a population basis rather than a geographic basis? My understanding is that covering, say, 90% of the population allows huge areas of countryside with relatively sparse populations to be left out. On the other hand, I understand that some of the Nordic countries provided operated on a population basis and covered 99% of the population. Their populations make Ireland look very densely populated. In the northern Arctic regions the population is very small but the geographic area is huge. I understand they have something like 99% coverage. Perhaps the witnesses can explain this and say where responsibility for policy resides.

What is the population coverage requirement for a licence at the moment? In other words, what population do 4G and 5G licence holders have to cover? What area coverage does that translate into? That is very important. Those are the hard questions people in the areas with no decent signal are asking.

Regarding National Broadband Ireland, NBI, I have always believed in providing fibre to the home, as long ago as 2011 and 2012. I am glad speeds have improved from 30 Mbps. That is historic now. I welcome the idea that rural Ireland is getting 500 Mbps. That is fantastic. The fibre solution is the only solution. I know there will be exceptions to that but they will be very few and far between. I have one question in that regard. The offshore islands have quite dense populations. I see the Aran Islands are marked on the witnesses' graphic. How will they be connected to the mainland? Will there be a fibre cable connection or a wireless radio connection?

There is another question that everybody is asking. At the moment, when users connects to the Internet and enter their eircode they are either served or told they are in the NBI area. It is very black and white. No indication is given of whether service will be available in five years, six years or whatever. When will indicative dates be available? In all fairness, Eir did this. There was slippage of months, but not of years. When will there be some indication of when this will be carried out? Presumably those responsible already know.

The witnesses say the contract runs for six or seven years from this time last year. Has one year of the contract elapsed? Could that be reduced to five years from this time last year, that is, four years from now? That is becoming absolutely critical. These centres are fine, but they do not replace what people are looking for. They want connections in their homes and businesses.

We have been told the cost of the NBI last year. I have always believed it was worth pursuing one way or the other. I went against my own party on this because I thought it made a mistake. It was costing €2.9 billion, but I understand that included a big contingency. Given what happened this spring in relation to fibre connections to the 300,000 Eir premises, am I right in thinking that there could be a very substantial drop in cost? That was contingent on a very low take-up which has probably already been exceeded in the Eir coverage area.

I am trying to keep my questions very specific. Do we have figures for the current take-up of fibre in the Eir deployment area, which is almost equivalent? Did Eir cover the full area the company said it would cover, that is, the 300,000 houses and premises? I thank the Chair for his indulgence.

I will let the Deputy comment again when other members have contributed.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

The Deputy has asked about two areas. I will refer questions on mobile to Mr. Patrick Neary and I will answer questions on broadband.

Mr. Patrick Neary

The Minister is responsible for overall spectrum policy. The coverage obligations contained in awarded spectrum licences are set by ComReg. I would make a distinction between the overall spectrum policy and the obligations set out in individual licences.

Can the Minister decide he or she wants it done on a geographic basis with 99% coverage and simply tell ComReg to get on with the job? For the last ten or 15 years every time we have asked a parliamentary question on this we have gotten the same kind of fudge. Everybody on this committee would like a straight answer to the question of who has the ultimate power where the big issues are concerned. I am not talking about the micro issues.

Mr. Patrick Neary

The overall policy on efficient spectrum use resides with the Minister. Obviously the Minister could direct ComReg in that respect. The coverage obligations are set out and awarded by ComReg. The multi-band spectrum award that was conducted in 2012 set out the main obligations that apply today. They were set across three main spectrum bands. They obligated operators to provide 70% coverage by population. That was in 2012. Since then there has been an award of 3.5 GHz spectrum in 2017. Ireland became the first country in Europe to award 5G spectrum at that time. It was awarded in nine different areas, five urban and four rural. That was done on a site basis. There was an obligation for several sites to be deployed within a three-year timeline. Ireland has been the European forerunner in 5G deployment, granting an award in 2017 and seeing the fruits of that now.

The target for 5G deployment in Europe called for deployment in one major city in Ireland. 5G services are available in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick. The target was to put main thoroughfares in place and to launch 5G in the countryside. Some three operators have fully launched a 5G service to some extent.

I would like to direct the members' attention to the State's next major award, which will be the multi-band spectrum award in 2021. It represents an increase of almost 450% in the spectrum available for operators. ComReg is currently finalising the details of the obligations which will go with that. The obligations currently envisioned by ComReg for that auction include 99% population coverage, 92% geographical coverage, coverage of motorways and primary roads and specific obligations around voice quality. The obligations also include the requirement to cover specific locations, including hospitals, educational campuses, ports and airports and 42 tourist visitor locations. The next award will have a very different emphasis to the 2012 award. That is the direction of travel where spectrum awards are concerned. That award is still being finalised and is due to be granted in the first half of next year.

Mr. Neary might come back to the committee at a later stage on the ComReg report that was produced, wherein it was asked specifically by the Minister to look at 5G coverage on a geographical basis. A synopsis of that report and its conclusions would be of assistance to the committee.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

I will refer back to one thing before I get into more of the detail on the NBP. The Deputy asked about how the islands are connected. Does Mr. Neary want to take that question?

Mr. Patrick Neary

The strategy for the islands is that a fibre network will be deployed. The main question and challenge for NBI is how to get the connectivity from the island back to the mainland and there is a mix of scenarios and solutions around that. A high gigabit wireless link is one solution, as is fibre. The service islanders should expect will be absolutely the same as in any other part of the country. They will get the 500 Mbps minimum service and they will have access to other gigabit services for businesses and so on. There will be quite a large fibre deployment on the islands.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

I will go back to the last few questions. The Deputy asked about eircodes and timing of connections over the last seven years. We all understand that the biggest bugbear for people in rural Ireland is needing to know when they are getting their connections and they need to know that from the NBI website. They do not want to be told they could be in whatever year. That is a major frustration. NBI was in front of the previous Oireachtas committee on communications and it was told in no uncertain terms that the information out there at the moment is not sufficient. It has made a commitment and it is working very hard on that. We have had meetings with NBI about improving its website and improving the visibility of eircodes, as well as premises that do not have eircodes. At the moment it is telling us that it can provide visibility for the next 18 months. We have told it that that probably is not good enough. It is certainly not good enough for anybody beyond the 18 months because they still will not know.

NBI has a challenge in that, if people are in years four, five, six or seven, it is very difficult to give them much clarity on exactly what month or even what quarter they will get a connection because the network design has not been done yet. The stuff Mr. Neary has just shown the committee on the network deployment is subject to a lot of variables in terms of interaction with Eircom or Enet, the points of handover and all those different things, on which NBI works on a yearly basis within that seven years. While it is a work in progress, everybody is absolutely clear that there is an information deficit. Everybody wants to have more information. The people who are within the 18 month period will be getting absolute clarity. The way it works is that NBI will be able to give people clarity on what quarter they are in 18 months out. At six months out, it will be able to tell them what month and then a month before the premises is ready to be serviced people will probably have a plethora of retail providers banging on their doors looking to connect them.

Over this Christmas period and into the new year, NBI is going directly out to about 19,000 of the premises in the initial five deployment areas we mentioned, which are under construction. Some 19,000 people are being told that they will get a fibre connection by April. Many of those premises will get a connection in February, March and April. That is 19,000 people who have absolute clarity on when they are getting their connections. The other 80,000 or 90,000 in the next tranche will have very good visibility. For example, I am hopefully going to get a connection in the third or fourth quarter of next year. That information is good for people in my area because one knows that it will happen in 2021. NBI appreciates that it is not all about just the month, the day or the week. People just want to know what time on the horizon it is at all. We are working on NBI giving information for people who are in 2021 and 2022, and 2023 if possible. Beyond that, it is a real challenge. The challenge is twofold insofar as we could end up telling people they are in year seven but hopefully we will get them back into year four or year five. It would be a mistake to tell people that they are in year seven if we can bring them forward, and that is the ambition.

That comes to the Deputy' next question on whether we can make this go faster. The ambition is to give people as much information as possible. I am optimistic that NBI will have a much better website in the new year and I am optimistic about the communications channels it is using in parallel to the website. This is very difficult in the Covid environment but it is going to every local authority and every stakeholder, be it Irish Rural Link or the Oireachtas. It needs to go to every stakeholder across rural Ireland and communicate to them what is happening, like Mr. Neary did for Galway. It must do that in every area and that is what it is doing. NBI was in Clare this week with the local authority there going through all this and it has already been in a number of other local authorities. That is a work in progress. If Covid-19 had not happened, the contract required NBI to do town hall events and go through the country with road shows and explainers and everything else but again, those personal events were not possible. When restrictions are lifted that road show will start again. The NBI team would be heavily engaged in that and it has a big team involved in the communications area. Let us wait and see how the next few months go. We in the Department are putting a lot of pressure on NBI on behalf of the Oireachtas to get that information out there. We are working closely with it and we have a communications team on both our side and its side who are working diligently on that.

The Deputy asked when the contract period started. The effective date was 9 January 2020. That is when it started and when it all kicked off. We signed it on 19 November 2019 and the effective date was 9 January 2020. The seven years started from January 2020. Contract year one is until the end of this coming January, and so on and so forth for the next seven years. NBI is contracted to build this network within seven years. Every deployment plan has to be done within that seven years and there are clear milestones set out in the contract. The ask is whether it can it be brought forward. There is clear ambition in the programme for Government to seek to accelerate this roll-out insofar as possible and in particular to bring those people in years 7 and 6 and those most in need forward. Some people are reasonably satisfied with their broadband service but there are many people who are not and they cannot function or work remotely.

That is where the broadband connection points, BCPs, with all their faults, come in. They can help farmers who might want to buy and sell at farmers' marts if they cannot do it from home or can be used if people want to upload or download videos, or an architect wants to upload or download designs. There are now BCPs within reasonable proximity of every premises in the country where heretofore there were not. By the end of this year there will be more than 200 of them in community halls, parish halls and other community centres. The Michael Cusack centre was opened in Clare last Friday and according to digiclare.ie, instead of four digital hubs Clare County Council now has seven or eight. Again, that is with the benefit of NBP wind behind it. We have now 75 schools connected which heretofore were not and 690 will be connected by the end of 2022.

A huge amount of progress is being made and that communications machine is ramping up and getting better, getting the message out there about what is happening, where it is happening and when. I cannot say at the moment whether we can bring it forward from seven years because there is a massive amount of work to get around to be able to say with any clarity that we can bring this forward by a year or two. There are many people working hard on that as we speak within my team, within the NBI team and with their partners because NBI cannot do this without their partners, be they Eir, ESB, or other network providers. Many people are in discussions around what can be done to make this process faster. That is absolutely on the radar. We hope to have positive news on that in the next quarter or two but it would be a dereliction of my obligations to say I can absolutely do that because that would be setting false expectations at this stage. When we know more we will absolutely let people know and it is a top priority of the Government to get this done quicker.

The final question Deputy Ó Cuív asked was on the subsidy. The gross amount approved by the Government was €2.9 billion. At the time, that included €355 million of VAT. The Revenue Commissioners have since confirmed to us that at least €250 million of that is no longer applied so €250 million of the €2.9 billion is no longer relevant. The €2.9 billion was brought to the Government in 2019 based on a prudent estimate of what the VAT might be but since then we have gotten clarification from the Revenue Commissioners that the majority of that VAT is not relevant to the NBP and the Department's Vote. The €480 million, which was a contingency pot on top of the €2.1 billion, has not been drawn down.

We are optimistic and hopeful that a large majority of that will not be required or necessary but, again, we are only in year one of a seven-year build, so it would be premature to say where we will be in five years time on that. At the moment, as Peter Hendrick, the CEO of NBI stated at the last Oireachtas committee meeting, he is very confident it will remain on time and within budget, and the budget at the moment is €2.1 billion. If it requires drawdown of contingencies, there are very strict rules and parameters within the contract as to the basis on which it can do that.

We are all reasonably optimistic that that will happen. The pandemic, for all its ills and all the carnage it has created, has given some breathing space to NBI insofar as the commercial investment that might otherwise have been going on in fibre build is not happening, and there is more capacity with fibre build network contractors and fibre materials and so on. I hope that will be to the benefit of the cost of the project. It is certainly not something that has seen any cost overruns so far and that is certainly not something we see happening in the short to medium term. We are quite optimistic on that front. Hopefully, I will be sitting here in five or six years time with a clear picture on that because we will know an awful lot more. That is the story on the subsidy.

If people knew it was starting in Claremorris and going to Cloonfad or Ballinrobe next, it would make a big difference and at least people would know where they are on that list. I call Deputy Donnelly.

I thank the witnesses for a very interesting presentation. I was going through the maps and the details for Dublin West and I noticed there is a broadband connection point in Tyrellstown which is said to be “pending”. More rural parts of the constituency are in the yellow section but there are also sections of the map, for areas like Cruiserath and Ballycoolin, where there are small yellow dots, and I suppose they are the individual houses or units within that area which are not covered by broadband. I find this interesting because 99% of Dublin West is covered and is marked in blue on the map. In addition, a number of data centres, to which the witnesses referred, are in Dublin West and a couple of others are being built, even as we speak. Mention was made of starting at Claremorris and working out from there. Given the existence of these data centres, what decision has been made to work out from an area which has 99% coverage to those smaller, more rural parts of Dublin West?

Given the State is providing the infrastructure, what is the cost to the providers on a consistent basis? When they come in and look to provide their service, what will we be getting back from them?

My final question is around 5G and optic fibre. My understanding of 5G is that it uses small masts and there would be hundreds, if not thousands, of them. Does that connect into this broadband or is it a separate system? In terms of future proofing, on which a question was asked earlier, how does that impact on provision? If 5G explodes all of a sudden, does it make this null and void or surplus to requirements into the future?

I ask the witnesses to respond to Deputy Donnelly but to be as brief as possible because we only have 55 minutes left, and we will have to call the witnesses back if we do not finish all the questions within that time.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

On the timing for Dublin, I do not believe the particular areas Deputy Donnelly is talking about are in the first 18 months so, at the moment, I cannot tell him whether it is in year two or year three. What I would recommend, and I would recommend this to any Deputy, is to reach out to NBI, and I believe NBI is actively reaching out to Deputies, Senators and councillors to give them that information in the best way it can.

On the BCPs, if it is pending, it will be live in the coming months, I would imagine. Vodafone is to go live with those. To explain the BCPs, the first BCP was launched in Dublin by the Ministers, Deputy Ryan and Deputy Humphreys, not so long ago. NBI builds the connection and it brings the actual high-speed broadband connection to the side of the wall of the building. Our colleagues in the Department of Rural and Community Development have a contract with Vodafone, and Vodafone goes live in each BCP and provides outdoor coverage and indoor coverage. Within the BCPs in the Dublin area and every other county, residents and others can get broadband within 40 m of that building at 150 Mb, and they can also get it internally, obviously. The benefit of outside is that if, at the weekend, for some reason, a person needs to do something they cannot do at home, they can go up to that building, although they would want to check the opening times, whether the car park is open and whether it is actually available, as every BCP is separate and bespoke, and it is up to the owners of the site what they do. I cannot remember exactly how many BCPs are in Dublin but I know there are two in north Dublin and Fingal, and my understanding is they will all be done very shortly in the new year. That is a big bonus to anyone living in that area if they need to use it.

I am not sure I quite understood the question on the State infrastructure and the subsidy, but retailers will be buying access to the NBI network on a monthly basis at, say, €30 per month, which is pegged to the regulated rate that Comreg oversees with Eircom for a wholesale provider service. It allows them to sell the same retail service to consumers in north Dublin, north Donegal or anywhere across the country at the same level. Therefore, generally, a bundle of broadband and television in Dublin might cost €50, €60 or €70, and it will be the same across the country when this is built because the wholesale input will be the same to all the retailers.

With regard to 5G masts and towers, I might pass that question to Mr. Neary. In terms of connection, if the 5G towers are built and there is no connection, NBI is allowed, subject to very strict state aid criteria, to offer backhaul to mobile broadband providers with mobile masts across the country if there is a deficit in the commercial sector. Most masts and towers would be connected by other commercial companies with backhaul, like Eircom, Enet and so on, but subject to strict state aid rules. NBI, which is a commercial company too, may in certain circumstances be able to offer mobile backhaul as well, and it is certainly part of its job jar to do. Certainly, where there is a deficit in fibre backhaul, its job across the country is to do that, and there are lots of towers and masts in Coillte forests across the country, and so on. Where it is commercial for NBI to do that, it can go and do it, but we do not subsidise that part. We do not subsidise mobile backhaul; we only subsidise the fibre connection to the home.

In terms of future proofing, we had this debate long and hard for the last couple of years before the contract was signed in regard to whether fibre will become a thing of the past when 5G is rolled out, and Deputy Ó Cuív probably has an opinion on that. We on this side of the table see that all ships are rising because the data usage growth of consumers and businesses is exponential, and there is no one-size-fits-all and no one network that is going to outdo another network. Fibre is critical to every network, including 5G, and the ultimate test of the networks is how much fibre backhaul they have out there and what capacity can bring all that data and video down. As members can see from the ComReg stats, year on year, the double-digit growth in data for mobile and fixed means we will need to have loads of fibre across the country, and the NBI build is bridging that gap in rural Ireland. The fibre to the home, the mobile 5G, the Internet of Things, and all those things people talk about in the home and in business, will be underpinned by that fibre going to that building, but we will still need a 5G network for outdoor coverage for cars, machines and that sort of thing. Perhaps Mr. Neary can come in on that as he would be the expert on 5G and can explain what that is going to do.

Mr. Patrick Neary

Many solutions are being brought to the market and they are almost like a tapestry in that they complement each other to a great extent. 5G mobile would be an outdoor connectivity for on-the-move, outdoor coverage while the NBP deployment is targeting indoor WiFi, essentially to ensure people have broadband in their house, so they can be very complementary services. To answer the question, they are separate networks and 5G is deployed separately by the mobile operators and wireless operators, and the cells the Deputy mentioned are micro cells that are primarily around urban areas but, in more rural areas, they can cover quite large areas as well.

They go hand in hand. 5G is not the only solution but is part of the connectivity that people will rely on.

I thank both witnesses for their presentations and for the documentation they have made available to us. I will not bother asking about the acceleration. It is important but, clearly, they are not in a position at this stage of the process to answer. Nevertheless, given that there is a commitment in the programme for Government, people naturally want to see it happen.

Covid has had a big impact, resulting in many delays. On the other side of that, it has led to a ramping up of the need for broadband roll-out. There is a need for acceleration, given that more people will be relying on remote working.

I assume it is envisaged that the broadband connection points will continue to be rolled out while the broadband programme progresses. How many connection points are due next year? Is it still the case that people can apply for those connections? Is it envisaged that that will continue for the next while?

Of the 679 schools in the State that will be connected by the end of 2022, is there a breakdown of where they will be or how that has been decided?

A question that I am sure that many Deputies and Senators are asked relates to when someone enters an eircode postcode and is told that he or she is in an intervention area. Many people have asked me when County Roscommon or County Galway, for example, will be rolled out. Mr. Mulligan stated that build work has started in rural parts of Cork, Limerick, Cavan and Galway. Is there somewhere that states when it is coming to Roscommon, Sligo and Mayo? When people look at the website, they want to know when broadband will be provided. I appreciate that it is difficult at this stage, but is a breakdown of the roll-out per county available anywhere? It is also an issue for people who might be considering signing a contract with a private company, if they do not feel that the broadband will come to them quickly enough even though they will be signing up to 12 or 24-month contracts.

I assume that for those people who sign up to a private provider and enter into a contract, broadband will still be made available to them. Where a company is in place and is providing it, will the customer have the option to move on to the national broadband plan when it is rolled out to the area?

For the build work that has started in Cork, Limerick, Cavan and Galway, do the witnesses have any idea how long each phase will take? How long will the build work in each of those areas take to progress to the next area?

In respect of the website, other members asked about the time frame, and of course that is important. The language is also an issue. When people input their Eircode postcode, they may be told they are in an intervention area. People often ask what that means. The website may also state that the premises is pending a survey, and while there is an option to keep oneself up to date, I have found that people read the language and do not know what it means.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

Covid has, undoubtedly, had an impact on the speed of the roll-out over the course of the past 12 months. Since January, National Broadband Ireland, in fairness to it, has set up a new company in very difficult circumstances. It now has more than 170 people working directly for it, with more than 700 working throughout the country. Hiring people in a Covid environment is a feat in itself, given that it started with virtually nobody in January, apart from the 30 or 40 people involved in the bid. It has struggled to meet the demands of Covid, as everybody has, but it has met that challenge pretty well.

Even with the BCP roll-out, islands and GAA halls were shut down and staff could not get in to connect them. That impacted the whole timeline that it had showed us in late 2019. It had to work around all that and, in fairness, did so very well. To answer the question on BCPs, the roll-out is on time and on track. Initially, when the contract was signed, we had an ambition to get 300 of them connected in 2020. That has been achieved, whereby 274 or 275 will be done within the first contract year. The difference between that figure and the 300 is due to local authorities changing ones in and out where site owners decided they did not need one or want one, or that the conditions of getting it did not interest them, or that it was not a suitable site. Things happen.

It is a flexible and dynamic list, which also goes to the Deputy's question about whether it can be changed. It absolutely can be. Where there are good sites that could help the problem of the year five, six and seven roll-out in any particular county, we are all ears, as is NBI, to see whether there is a good site that we can get a connection to that would help those local residents. If there is a reasonable business case for helping people in that regard, the door is open to considering those sites. We will consider it and talk to NBI and the Department of Rural and Community Development about doing that. That Department is the first point of contact with the local authority to engage on those sites. A broadband officer in each local authority engages with local communities, as do the community officers in local authorities. It is through that funnel, into the Department and back to us in NBI, that those BCPs are selected.

The schools are selected by the Department of Education and, therefore, we liaise directly with it. The 690 schools we are targeting for next year comprise every primary school that remains outstanding, so that was an easy choice. As for the selection of who will get what first, we are in discussions with the Department about which schools' resources are really bad, and we are prioritising them. Some schools' resources are really bad, while those of others are not so bad, but they will nonetheless be dealt with in 2021 and 2022.

The BCP programme has gone very well under the conditions that we have faced with Covid-19. We announced only last week the acceleration of the schools project, because many of those 690 schools were not due for another four or five years, so that was a really welcome development. NBI is putting that project plan together and getting its partners involved to get those schools connected, working closely with the Department of Education.

On the Eircode postcodes and whether we have a breakdown of the roll-out, it goes back to my earlier point. For the next 18 months, there is a good level of information on the website. I take the Deputy's point about the language used. Following on from meetings of the previous Oireachtas committee on communications, NBI is conscious of that and now has many people working on how we can communicate better, how the wording can communicate better and how the presentation of the website can communicate better. We have asked for a county-by-county website. We have a national website from NBI but it should be broken down by county. It should show people maps and use language they can understand. That is our ask of NBI, following the ask of the committee at a previous meeting. NBI has many people working on that and I have been told we can expect something on that front in January. Hopefully, something new will be on the website very soon, including different language. I know what an intervention area means because I have been working on the subject for seven years but nobody else knows. NBI needs to be careful about such issues because it is not experts who use the website but rather ordinary people who want to know when they will get broadband.

On the private providers, if somebody who is signed up with, say, Eircom, Westnet or a local Wicklow broadband provider happens to be in contract, that is a discussion between the customer and the provider. Wicklow Broadband, Regional Broadband etc. are some of the 33 providers that are signed up with National Broadband Ireland, which means they want to migrate their customers from the wireless network to the fibre network. They will do that if the consumer wants them to do that. Ultimately, it is for consumers to put their hand up to say that NBI is in their area and that their premises are passed with fibre, and that they would now like fibre connections. The consumer's first port of call is the existing provider, probably to ask whether he or she can be moved to that broadband connection. NBI cannot act in a discriminatory manner and will treat the smallest wireless operators the same as it will treat the largest operator. Under the contract, it cannot differentiate between the two or treat anybody favourably. It has an obligation not to discriminate.

Nevertheless, the answer is "Yes". If someone is tied in to a contract with a wireless provider for a year or two years, there are circumstances where he or she may have to wait until the contract is expired or may have to take the cost of getting out of the contract if he or she really needs fibre. That is just the dynamic of the market and it is what happens throughout Ireland with all the operators. Currently, many people take out one or two-year contracts.

I hope that answered most of the questions.

I think I might feel more confused than I was before I came to the meeting. There is a lot going on. I will begin with some general questions before asking some more specific ones. I want to get a clear picture. The roll-out of the national fibre broadband plan is based on the 33 MANs. How many of those 33 are in place and how many have yet to be built? Will they use existing infrastructure owned by private phone companies?

How is it working? It is not just the State paying all of these private companies loads of money to do everything. What is the balance? In some ways if these MANs are going to be built it is giving these options to the private companies also because retail services were mentioned. What is the relationship with the private companies and the Government in this realm? We all know the mobile phone companies are fleecing us all to death even for bad quality broadband. At present, how many people in Ireland have no reliable broadband? I do not. How many of the 33 MANs are in place? Is there a commitment to equality of service? I presume if people have fibre broadband that is it and they have good quality, end of story. Is this ipso facto and can it be taken for granted?

If the big plan is to roll out fibre broadband everywhere, what is the big thing with 5G? We have been told that fibre broadband is needed. The 5G is to take care of the external issue only and fibre broadband is to take care of all of the internal domestic requirements in buildings. That is it. How does 5G rely on fibre broadband? It is not connected. It is that one is for indoor and the other is for outdoor. I was a bit confused about that.

NBI is the private company that got the big gig and the onus is on it to do it right. It got the big gig so the Department can dictate to it on certain issues. For instance, when I go onto its home page and put in my eircode it tells me my premises is in the intervention area and my locality and infrastructure will be surveyed. Is it still carrying out surveys? It is very hard to make a plan when not everything is surveyed. I was assured we had moved on from the surveying phase.

The website also lists the nearest broadband connection points and it has two that are 16 km and 14 km away from me. One is the Michael Cusack Centre, on which my father cut the ribbon as he was chair of the group. What is interesting is the website does not list the Wi-Fi hubs. What is that about? There is a Wi-Fi hub 8 km from me. It is part of DigiClare. If the Department is going to pay the company a lot of money for a good website can it please make sure the information is accurate? The website tells me I have to go 16 km to my closest broadband connection point. Of course, the whole thing with broadband connection points and remote Wi-Fi hubs is that there is more jargon that confuses people. Why are the digihubs not listed on the website? They could be much closer to people than broadband connections points. This is important because if we can get broadband we can get people living in rural Ireland again.

Is the company looking at all existing fibre broadband infrastructure? Eir came to the village 5 km from me but nobody outside the village can access it. Even if we promise to dig up the road and put in the cable ourselves we are not allowed to do so. Is NBI looking at all of the existing infrastructure? When we are rolling out fibre broadband can we do it in line with other infrastructure being put in place? We see all over Ireland roads being dug up, then somewhat put back in place and then they are dug up again. There has to be joined up thinking between NBI, the Government, all of the mobile phone companies and other infrastructure through the local authorities. I am glad the Department is meeting the local authorities.

Are the schools being connected through fibre broadband? Is it 5G? How do we find out when a school will get it? What is the roll-out plan? Is there a proper plan in place? I worked with schools and it is great to see them getting it.

With regard to these data centres that will be built all over Ireland, we have heard about the MANs, the feedback and the handover. The MANs were made to sound quite archaic, with the web structure going back in to be handed over to the big guys and out to Europe. The data centres also do this. Will there be an improved quality of service if people just have to go to a data centre in the town near them? Are there any pluses for us getting these data centres? There are plans to have one in Ennis and we are wondering what is going on with it.

When fibre broadband is being rolled out and the data centres approved by the Government are being built, is the Department looking at the carbon footprint of it all? Are there any offsets for this? Every committee has to look at the sustainable development goals. It is 2020 and there is a climate emergency as well as a broadband emergency. I wonder about this because there are big fears. The more knowledge people have, the fewer fears they have about issues such as 5G and data centres being guzzlers.

The Senator has finished with a very important question.

I threw it all at the witnesses.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

That is no problem. We have an answer for all of them.

They are well able for it.

Carpe diem and all of that.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

I will go through the questions and Mr. Neary can fill in the gaps.

I ask the witnesses to keep it tight because we have other members who want to ask questions but it is important that we get answers.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

MANs were funded by the Government through local authorities many years ago, approximately in 2002. They are managed by a company called Enet and they have been built. To answer some of the Senator's questions, and it is part of the Enet solution, one of the tenets of the contract negotiating process of recent years, which is inbuilt in the contract, is the requirement to reuse existing infrastructure. We are not duplicating, overlaying or redigging roads where we should not. Eir, which owns the national pole and duct network and has exchanges throughout the country, and Enet, which manages the MANs in many towns throughout the country, have, therefore, built infrastructure. National Broadband Ireland is under contract using them as partners, which we call subcontractors, and it has these contracts in place since last November. It was part of the contract with the Government that it had to have them in place. It has a 25-year agreement with Eir and Enet to use all of these.

The basic infrastructure is in place in terms of poles and ducts. NBI's job is, with Eircom, to replace bad or old poles that have been there 40 or 50 years throughout rural Ireland and fix broken ducts. Then NBI will get contractors to put in new fibre because the fibre does not exist. This is the new piece. The new piece of the jigsaw is the fibre cable. The exchanges all exist so they are not being rebuilt. The only new piece of this jigsaw is new equipment that comes from Nokia. Nokia is deploying its boxes of equipment throughout the country because that is what lights the fibre. The fibre cable does nothing on its own. It requires a box on either end of it, in the home and at the exchange, to make the 500 Mb work. If people want to go to 1 Gb things in the boxes are switched and it goes to 1 Gb.

The primary context here is that the money from the State is going on the pieces of the jigsaw that are not already there. NBI rents the pieces of the jigsaw that are already there from Enet and Eir. The analogy is that the house is built and we are doing up the house and renting it. That is exactly what we are doing here. We are making sure the house stands up for the next 25, 40 or 50 years. NBI has an obligation to upgrade the house and maintain it and make sure it is working. This is the contract.

The relation between the State and National Broadband Ireland is that NBI is a commercial company and we have a contract with the State for 25 years. Mr. Neary and I, together with a large team in the Department, oversee the contract. We make sure NBI sticks to the contract it signed last November. We can vary the contract through change controls and all that good stuff. Where it becomes difficult is if those changes we want it to engage in cost more money than it envisaged at the time of the contract. That is where we would get into a difficult conversation. There are many things we can ask it to do that do not cost more money. We have already made changes, for example, the acceleration of the schools project was a change we made and it will go ahead. These negotiations go on all the time.

The Senator asked how many people do not have broadband at present. The short answer is that everybody in Ireland, bar a very small percentage, has basic broadband.

Reliable broadband.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

We are dealing with 544,000 premises, which is more than 20% of the population of Ireland. There are almost 2.4 million premises in Ireland and we are dealing with more than 540,000 of them as well as all new homes. We expect that over the next 25 years there will be an additional 60,000 or 80,000 new homes throughout rural Ireland. NBI will be effectively dealing with more than 600,000 homes over the next 25 years and they are all part of the contract.

The Senator asked whether fibre is guaranteed. Under our contract it is. Many providers will provide fibre and it still may be an "up to" service. Under the contract, NBI is not allowed to offer an "up to" service. It is required under contract to provide a fast reliable minimum speed of 500 Mb and whatever they tell the customers they are getting. From our perspective, it is guaranteed under the contract. I cannot speak for other companies in the market. Generally, if fibre is going directly from the exchange to the home it is as good as can be got in terms of broadband. It is future-proofed and can be upscaled. The fibre cable will last forever, barring storms or other such occurrences. The equipment can always be upgraded and that upgrade can take it from 500 Mb to 1,000 Mb to 10 Gb using the same cable. It will last forever. With regard to what its role is with 5G, fibre will be brought to masts and towers. We have a plethora of masts and towers throughout the country.

Some of them do not have fibre cable to them. They are using point-to-point links, which are resilient wireless networks, but fibre is a better network to bring to them. It provides more capacity and resilience given weather conditions and what not. There are economies of scale and scope for fibre networks as well. The more fibre there is across the country, the cheaper it might be to use those networks and consumers and businesses benefit.

Regarding the nearest broadband connection points, BCPs, in County Clare, there is an issue with BCPs generally across the country. BCP is the term we use but I will just use the terms Wi-Fi hubs and digital hubs. Our colleagues from the Department of Rural and Community Development were at a committee meeting a couple of weeks ago and they talked about that. The Department, in conjunction with local authorities and other partners, has a working group in place to look at digital hubs across the country. We are only dealing with digital hubs in the remotest areas. There is a digital hub initiative across the country. I think there are up to 1,000 digital hubs across the country but we are dealing with approximately 200 in our plan. There is an initiative now to bring all of those together. The Western Development Commission is doing significant work on that front. It is seeking to develop a website to act as a catch-all for digital hubs so that DIGICLARE does not stand on its own and one would have to go to the DIGICLARE website to see the four or five BCPs there, but one will see everything in County Clare, be it in towns, villages or in rural areas, and the same will be true for Donegal, Roscommon and everywhere else. That is a work in progress. The commission has been working on it all this year. Stephen Carolan and Deirdre Frost in the Western Development Commission have done significant work. I am optimistic that in the next 12 months a lot more will come out of that, and consumers and businesses will know exactly where it is at. I think the commission is looking at a website where one can book a table or desk online, regardless of where one is. A tourist or a person who wants to work in a hub will be looking at an Airbnb-type facility for someone who is going on holidays in Donegal who needs a hub to work in every two days. We hope the website will be available.

I think I answered the question on schools. Some schools will be done with fibre in the coming years. Others will be done with wireless rather than have them waiting for fibre for four or five years. We have brought it forward and we are going to give them a point-to-point resilient wireless connection for an interim period until we get the fibre. There is a mixture of wireless and fibre, but the broadband connection is very good and reliable.

I understand what is happening, but I was looking for a timescale for it. Is there any way of finding out?

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

About schools?

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

We have a list of the schools, but we do not have the timeline per quarter for each school. It is planned to be done over the next two years. When NBI is designing the network, it works out the best way to get to the schools and what it can do. We are prioritising the worst-off schools with the Department of Education. I expect that in the next three to six months we will have visibility and it will be on our website what school is getting broadband and when.

Data centres are commercial outfits. Apple and Google have commercial data centres for their services. The exchanges that Mr. Neary was talking about in Claremorris, Galway and other places are not data centres; they are exchanges where one has equipment. The national broadband network would not come back to data centres.

I know they are not data centres, but does it not go back into data centres?

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

Data centres go to them. From the point of a view of a data centre and our broadband plan, Claremorris would have fibre going to it from Dublin from Enet or Eir, and the data centre would be brought back to Claremorris. All of that fibre is there. The data centres would not have an issue with regard to getting backhaul fibre. The data centre are good in terms of capacity, if that is where they are going to build. There will not be any issue with data centres. Mr. Neary might come in on the data centres if he wants to offer any more on them.

The impact on the carbon footprint is manifold. First, people are not travelling. Second, fibre networks are very efficient networks, far more efficient than the old copper networks. I saw one report which said a fibre network could be up to 80% more efficient in energy consumption than a copper network. That is true in general in respect of international travel, local travel and all the rest that goes with it in terms of the footprint.

The question is if people will need big offices in cities and towns or if we will have smaller offices and people will be working from home. The network straddles the environment of economics and the reduction in carbon emissions. Once we have a ubiquitous national fibre network, that will be the platform. The aeroplanes will fly off the platform eventually. We are getting the runway built and when it is built, we will see an awful lot more development in energy efficiency coming from that

I accept it is a positive, but has any research been carried out or are there any figures in that regard? The sooner broadband is provided in rural areas, the more people can work from home. Do we have any statistics on that regarding money saved by the State and carbon fines? We are doing something good in this regard.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

The world is moving at such a pace. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, we did a cost-benefit analysis and one aspect of it was looking at energy efficiency. Last year, as part of our cost-benefit analysis we got assumptions back on how many people were working from home and how many fewer journeys people were making. This year has blown that out of the water. If I were to give the Senator a number last year for how much travel time was reduced, in terms of a reduction in the carbon footprint, that has been blown out of the water at this stage. I do not have an answer today because the answer I had last year is completely out of date.

It would be useful to have information on something the Senator raised. Mr. Mulligan might get the energy division to come back to us with a briefing note on the impact of data centres on the cost of electricity, the demand for electricity and our carbon footprint.

I thank the witnesses very much for their presentations. Useful questions have been asked. Regarding mobile telephone coverage, is there a measure or mapping of the households, estates and areas that do not have it? What advice can they give to people who do not have coverage? There are many, even within the county town of Castlebar in Mayo, who do not have mobile telephone coverage. What role can departmental officials play in rectifying that?

What control do we have over the pricing and affordability of the retail services? Could Mr. Mulligan comment on the splitting of villages in the roll-out of broadband? If there are ten houses in a village and it is split down the middle, half will get broadband and the other half will not. In some cases, people are being told they will have to wait three to four years. That is causing great frustration for them. I do not understand the reason for it. Why would an entire village not be taken together?

Eir representatives were before us a few weeks ago. They promised to set up an Oireachtas line where we could talk to a human being about representations we received, but that has still not been done. All of us have many outstanding cases for Eir, but we cannot get anybody to talk to. Could the departmental officials play a role in helping us to resolve the issue?

Who will own the broadband infrastructure at the end of the 25 years?

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

Mr. Neary will go first on mobile coverage.

Mr. Patrick Neary

On the mapping of mobile coverage, an initiative was developed by the mobile phone and broadband task force, via ComReg, that brought all the mobile operators together to create maps for the benefit of consumers so that they could check coverage in their area. That is on the ComReg website, comreg.ie. If one types in one's service provider, it will indicate the level of service provision for the eircode in the locality. That is a new map that was launched in 2019.

There are households and estates that have no coverage.

Mr. Patrick Neary

The maps show coverage for 2G, 3G and 4G services. One will be told about the coverage, which ranges from very good to very poor. The coverage is outdoor coverage. The 2G coverage is in a lot of locations. It is available outdoors nearly nationally. There is a problem with the coverage inside in the house as the signals do not penetrate due to insulation and the thickness of walls. Another initiative was put in place to try to address that. There is a solution for consumers to put a repeater on their home, which will boost the signal so that they can get coverage inside their house. Those repeaters are now available.

A list of providers is available on ComReg's website. They are licensed providers of the solution. Again, this is something that came through the mobile phone and broadband task force.

The second item, which we have been pushing the operators to introduce, involves functionality whereby a person's phone will use the Wi-Fi connectivity in the house to make a call on the mobile service. Thus, the phone automatically uses the Wi-Fi service. It is called Wi-Fi calling. That will have a quite dramatic impact, particularly when high-speed reliable broadband is available in houses through the NBP and in other areas. If one has access to Wi-Fi in one's house, one's mobile service should work very well. These are two major initiatives that will make a major difference to consumers over time.

The repeater initiative would require the consumer to take action and put the solution in place whereas Wi-Fi calling is operator controlled. The latter will be available once one has access to Wi-Fi. These are two major initiatives that will help.

Could Mr. Neary clarify a point and correct me if I am wrong? Is it not the case that as one moves from 2G to 3G, 4G and 5G, indoor coverage diminishes because the wireless frequency used does not travel as far, particularly in newer homes? Am I wrong?

Mr. Patrick Neary

I will correct the Chairman. Basically, the higher frequencies find it more difficult to get through walls and insulation. The lower frequencies penetrate walls more easily. Sticking to 5G, the frequency that was released in 2017 is 3.5 GHz. That is quite a high frequency. It is probably medium. That would struggle somewhat to get through walls but the 5G frequency that is going to be released next year is 700 MHz. That would penetrate walls a bit better. Ultimately, however, once the frequency hits a second wall it starts to diminish anyway. Wi-Fi calling will have a big impact once there is a Wi-Fi service. The NBP will have a big impact on how reliable the Wi-Fi service will be in rural areas. Once people have the Wi-Fi in place, they will be able to make high-quality calls. In the immediate term, there is the repeater, a solution that was brought into play last year.

The other aspect of 5G is that there is a native voice service available on it. A voice over IP service is available on 5G. It is not available today on 4G. That means that one needs 2G or 3G coverage to make a voice call today, which really means that the 4G coverage is not very useful for voice.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

Regarding retail service providers and our control over pricing, we control the wholesale price of NBI, which, as said, will probably be in the order of €30 per month. We will have 33 retailers that will sell to anyone who wants the product in an intervention area. The packages will be the same as those available in urban areas. The price control is effectively achieved by a cap on the wholesale price, on which retailers will make their margin. It is very heavily controlled. The wholesale price is pegged to the regulated price of Eircom. Effectively, ComReg does a lot of work on determining the price Eircom should charge and an affordable price, and then we say to NBI that it can charge no more than that. Then Sky, Vodafone and all the rest of them can say that they can sell what they would sell in Dublin everywhere in Ireland. Generally, retail companies do not differentiate between one area and another; they just want a blanket approach. They want to sell their television package, such as Sky Sports, across the country. The want to advertise just one price nationally. That is what will happen when the network is fully rolled out but, of course, all the large and small operators will be looking at the areas bit by bit and will probably be doing local advertising before national advertising. From that point of view, there is tight control.

The other main point, which is more important, is that we have very tight control over what people are charged to get a connection. NBI is required under the contract to provide a connection to every home. It does not have a choice, and it can only charge a maximum of €100. Most retailers, or some, may charge nothing while others pass on the charge to the consumer. This is important because the challenge we have seen with fixed networks, including Eircom and Virgin Media, is that getting into the home is very difficult. It can be very costly. There is no contract with the providers to make sure the consumer gets a connection. Sometimes a company such as Virgin Media, Eircom or another might say it is just too expensive to connect the customer. In that instance, NBI and the national broadband plan step in. If a customer cannot get a reliable high-speed broadband connection from a commercial company, that customer should be amber on our map. If the location is blue on the map and the customer cannot get a connection, that is something we are not aware of, provided it is not above 30 Mb. If one can get above 30 Mb, one is in a blue area, as long as one can get the connection at a reasonable price or one is willing to pay a lot of money for it. Some might do that. We have a lot of control in the contract in this area.

The splitting of villages, which Deputy Naughten mentioned, is an ongoing issue. Eir, ComReg and NBI have been in and a constant theme has concerned premises right beside those in the blue areas. Deputy Ó Laoghaire said that somebody might be able to get 100 Mb or 1,000 Mb while somebody across the ditch may not be able to get anything. It is asked why the fibre is not going all the way. The answer is that Eircom has built the network and a network design whereby the service just stops at a certain point and cannot go any further. It has been asked over the past four or five years by many stakeholders whether it can go a bit farther. In the majority of cases, if not all, Eircom has said it just cannot. I believe Ms Carolan Lennon, managing director of Eircom, was before the committee and said it is the responsibility of NBI to connect the affected customers. The problem is that there is a big time gap before the person who does not have the service is connected. It just keeps coming back to the issue of our needing to get the information out better. Those in blue areas probably should get the service quicker. As is evident on the map Mr. Neary showed members, the fibre will be going past the people in blue areas in Claremorris to those in adjoining amber areas so they should be getting a fibre connection quicker than people over in Liscarney or Maam, for example. Someone in Ballinrobe will probably get connected quicker because the service is coming out from Claremorris.

With regard to Eir and its telephone line, all we can say is that we will bring the issue back to the Department. We will let ComReg and Eircom know the question has been asked and ask them to update the committee.

On the question on who will own the infrastructure, NBI will own the fibre cable on Eircom's infrastructure and on the Enet metropolitan area network. MANs are owned by the State. The Eircom infrastructure – poles and ducts – are owned by Eir. If we use the ESB, it owns the poles and ducts, and we are funding NBI to put the cables on that infrastructure. It will own that cable in 25 years and it will own the business of NBI. On the protections we have in that regard, the State will recoup 60% of any excess profits NBI earns over the next 25 years. When there is a valuation of the company in 25 years, the State will get 40% the value back. Therefore, there are, over 25 years, clawbacks that could see money coming back to the State from the moneys spent initially on the network. If it is a very profitable enterprise and is worth money at the end, the clawback provisions in the contract will apply. There may be no money or there may be a lot. We do not know, obviously. It is like looking into a crystal ball at this stage. It will depend on how successful the company is. It will own the cable network and it will own the business.

I have a couple of questions for Mr. Mulligan. On the dark blue area and Deputy Paul Donnelly's question regarding the pockmarks, let us consider the town of Ballinasloe and the Gaelscoil there. It is one of the priority areas. In the town of Ballinasloe, 2 Mbps is being received. The colour on the map is dark blue. It is amber in the area to which I wish to refer. There is one house on the housing estate that is amber. All of us know it is likely that there are more people on that housing estate who are not getting a minimum of 30 Mbps but, as far as the national broadband map is concerned, only one resident is going to get a fibre connection. What are we doing to highlight that among the residents in Ballinasloe? The fibre network is going to be built out in the second quarter of next year and when NBI moves on to the next location, it is going to be very hard to come back to the affected houses.

If those people try to sell those houses, they will not be able to give them away because no one will want to move into a house that does not have a basic level of broadband.

On the issue of the 30 Mbps test, when will that threshold up? A level of 30 Mbps now is like 2 Mbps was ten years ago. It is outdated with the demands that are being put on. When will we revise that up?

Can the witnesses explain the broken line between Roscommon and Castlerea? These high-speed connections to the schools are being rolled out, which is welcome, but 19 marts in the country do not have decent broadband. One of those happens to be in Castlerea, which probably has the worst broadband service of a mart on the country, with huge demands being put on it. Is there any chance we could service those 19 remaining marts around the country?

I have another question on the broadband task force. I am surprised to hear the task force did not meet this year, particularly when it is the liaison vehicle between the Government, the telecommunications sector and the local authorities and State agencies around the country, especially in the context of Covid-19. Everyone realised the challenge we have in our broadband and mobile networks on the night of "The Late Late Toy Show". If one happened to be on a Vodafone network, it went down on that occasion. According to the downdetector.ie website, one of our networks went down every second day during the most recent lockdown. Either our mobile, wireless or fixed broadband networks went down. Pressure is being put on those networks so what are we doing to try to address that, taking into account what the witnesses have detailed in their earlier evidence?

Mr. Patrick Neary

I will start with the dark blue area and I thank the Chairman for that question. It is an important point. We have concerns on the dark blue area in that there are homes that we have marked on our map that are getting 30 Mbps and may not be getting that. We have a team of people who are monitoring the maps and making sure that those houses that we believe are getting 30 Mbps are getting it. It is important that where there are instances in which local authorities or broadband officers, for example, recognise that there is an issue, they should contact us and give us that information. We will investigate that thoroughly. We have an email address set up for that, namely broadband@decc.gov.ie. We are looking into anomalies. Perhaps I am not exactly familiar with the one the Chairman has raised but where individual houses are marked as getting 30 Mbps and may not be getting that, we will contact the providers of that-----

I mention an instance where we have one of the neighbours on an estate in amber. A lot of this comes down to the homeowner to report it in the first place and there needs to be a communications strategy on that. Where there is a housing estate on which one house is amber, is there not a responsibility on the Department to make sure that every other house on that estate is getting that minimum of 30 Mbps?

Mr. Patrick Neary

That is something we are doing. In 2019, we changed the designation of nearly 40,000 premises across the country from blue to amber because we recognised issues in those locations. It is from our analysis and from queries raised with the Department that we carry out investigations. Like that, one house can trigger a whole area being redesignated and that is what happened in 2019 in our latest change to the map. Previous to that, we brought 84,000 premises in during 2017. That is an exercise on which a team of people are working. We use a conduit of the broadband officers to highlight many issues such as that, consumers email the Department and on a case-by-case basis, we look through what operator we believe should be serving those premises. It is an important item to raise and to give visibility to and we will continue to work on it.

We are seeing that as NBI surveys an area, this triggers all the people in that area to check the map to see if they are in the intervention area. To date, 145,000 premises have been surveyed by NBI and those areas have been active in contacting the Department. There is a process in place that is triggering consumers to contact the Department in that respect. That is a key area of focus for the Department going forward.

The scheme we have today is based on a 30 Mbps test. That has been the basis of our state aid application. While that remains the test, we are seeing that the commercial activity is far and away beyond that in the blue areas. The NBI intervention project is delivering a 500 Mbps service as standard. We are seeing that the investment from industry on its services is outstripping that 30 Mbps dramatically. Commercial operators across the country are delivering a 250 Mbps and 500 Mbps service. Our test is still a 30 Mbps one and that is based on where our state aid decision was made.

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

I want to clarify that 30 Mbps is embedded in the state aid guidelines from the European Commission. That is the source of it and it is not something the Department came up with. It is a Europe-wide policy that at the moment, if one wants to intervene in what are called the white areas-----

It was a Europe-wide policy but I presume that figure has been-----

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

No.

It still has not been revised up?

Mr. Fergal Mulligan

In terms of its digital agenda, the European Commission has an ambition to get a gigabit society. The only thing that is in a quasi-legal document that allows one to intervene with state aid from the point of view of the Directorate-General for Competition Communications Networks, Content and Technology, which approves state aid, is the threshold at 30 Mbps. To clarify that so that members do not get the wrong end of the stick on what we can and cannot do - and it is open to Ireland to do this - some member states can intervene and set a bar at 100 Mbps or 500 Mbps in grey areas where there are other commercial companies offering 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps, if the country believes from a policy perspective that it needs to do that. Ireland has not done that and it is only intervening in white areas. When the decision is made to only intervene in white areas, which is what we have done because of the commercial activities in all the other areas, there is no market failure in other areas as we see it, other than in the white areas, which are what we have designated and where 544,000 people are based. Some countries have intervened in grey areas, even in cities, and they have decided to subsidise networks that will offer 1,000 Mbps, for example. It is open to us to do that but we must get state aid approval. It is a new state aid approval process but it is open to us to do that.

I note that the European Commission is revising the state aid guidelines and consulting on them. I expect, therefore, that in the next 12 to 18 months, a new and updated set of state aid guidelines will presumably change that 30 Mbps threshold but we do not know.

The witnesses can come back to me on the other questions in writing. Senator Garvey wanted to ask a quick question and the witnesses can come back in writing to the Senator along with coming back to me on the other questions I had asked.

I want to clarify what Mr. Neary said about 5G. I understand the concept of how it all works and so on. He said, and I have read previously, that ComReg is planning to bring it down to a lower frequency. Is that still on the cards and when is that happening? That might dispel some myths around burning down the pylons.

Our time is up so Mr. Neary might come back to the Senator in writing to clarify that.

Mr. Neary did say that so I wanted to clarify it.

I thank Mr. Mulligan and Mr. Neary for their comprehensive contributions this morning. We look forward to their responses to the outstanding questions. The joint committee stands adjourned until Monday, 10 January, at 10 a.m., when the committee will meet in private session on the Microsoft Teams platform.

I again thank our two guests from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment for their evidence. We may revisit this issue again. I thank them for their comprehensive answers. The difficulty is that the time simply did not allow us to go through all of the issues.

I wish committee members, staff and my former colleagues in the Department a peaceful, happy and safe Christmas and a happy new year.

The joint committee adjourned at 11 a.m. sine die.