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Seanad Éireann debate -
Friday, 22 Jul 1938

Vol. 21 No. 10

Telephone Capital Bill, 1938—(Certified Money Bill)—Second and Subsequent Stages.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This is the fifth Telephone Capital Bill since the transfer of the services in 1922. Funds for the development of the telephone service, that is, for the extension of the system as distinct from its operation and maintenance, are provided by the Telephone Capital Acts. These Acts authorise the Minister for Finance to issue out of the Central Fund such sums, not exceeding a stipulated amount, as may be required for the development of the telephone service, in accordance with estimates approved by the Minister for Finance. The moneys so provided are raised by means of terminable annuities extending over a period not exceeding 20 years. The present Bill provides for a sum not exceeding £1,000,000, which amount will, it is anticipated, suffice for requirements for a period of about five years. This provision, together with the moneys provided in the four previous Acts—£1,750,000—will bring the total amount provided by the State for telephone development since the transfer of services to £2,750,000. It was anticipated that the amount of £500,000 provided by the last Telephone Capital Act of 1936 would cover expenditure for four or five years. Telephone charges were, however, substantially reduced in July, 1936, and the increased rate of development which followed the reductions necessitated unprecedentedly heavy outlay for additional plant and apparatus. Of the money provided by the Act of 1936, £168,000 is still undrawn, but as the capital programme for the current financial year will involve about £300,000, the balance available will be exhausted in the next three or four months. The present Bill is accordingly necessary to provide further funds.

There are now 26,400 telephone subscribers, an increase of 3,000 during the past two years; 40,500 telephones in use, an increase of 3,800; 793 telephone exchanges and 1,485 call offices and kiosks—increases of 38 and 47 respectively. During the 12 months ended 30th June last, 29,400,000 local calls and 3,200,000 trunk calls were made, representing increases of 3,400,000 and 800,000 on the figures for the year ended 30th June, 1936. This gives some idea of the development of the service which has taken place in recent times.

Amongst the major works carried out during the past two years were: (a) the extension of the automatic system in Dublin. This embraced the installation of new automatic exchanges in Crown Alley and Clontarf, also the closing of the Drumcondra and the Dundrum manual exchanges and the transfer of the subscribers' circuits served from them to the Crown Alley and Terenure automatic exchanges, respectively. (b) The provision of a large number of additional trunk circuits to carry the greatly increased trunk traffic. The increase in circuit accomodation and the introduction of the up-to-date "carrier" system on the main trunk routes has materially improved the standard of the service both as regards expedition and the quality of transmission. (c) The laying of a new cross-Channel cable of the most modern type between Howth and Nevin, North Wales. The increase in cross-Channel traffic has been considerable, particularly after 7 p.m., when the low night rates apply; and in addition to the new cable recently laid it has been necessary to arrange for the provision of a further cable, the laying of which is about to commence. When the two new cables are fully functioning 16 cross-Channel telephone circuits will be available for public use, and a first-class service will be ensured.

The financial position of the service is satisfactory. A profit was made for the first time in the year 1931-32. This profit increased yearly to 1935-36, when it reached £105,702, but following the reduction in tariffs it fell in the year 1936-37 to £73,833, and it is expected that the accounts for the year 1937-38 will show a further fall. Expenditure is naturally growing by reason of extensions of equipment, increased staff costs, etc., but, on the other hand, revenue is increasing steadily. While, however, revenue will continue to grow, the profit on the service is not likely to show any upward tendency in the near future as the capital outlay must, in order to meet growing public needs, continue high for some years to come. I do not think that it will be possible during the next five years to keep capital expenditure below an average of £200,000 a year.

The programme of major capital works during the coming five year period includes in addition to the normal works involved in the provision of service to new subscribers, etc:— extension of automatic equipment in Dublin, a new automatic exchange for Dun Laoghaire and surrounding districts; new automatic exchanges in Cork and Dundalk, and possibly also in Waterford, Galway and Sligo, a new central trunk exchange in Dublin, additional overhead trunk circuits, a second new cross-Channel cable, underground cabling of certain main trunk routes on which overhead lines are overloaded; extensions of equipment in manual exchanges and installations of additional "carrier" circuits on main trunk routes, etc. With the exception of the Erris Peninsula, County Mayo, an area which is at present under special consideration, no important or extensive locality throughout the country is now unprovided with telephone service.

Do I understand from the Minister that it is still the general policy of the telephone service to depend on overhead wires rather than on the underground cable? If so, is that not a matter in which we differ from the general practice in other countries?

The policy of the Post Office, so far as possible, where the overhead lines are overloaded, is to put them underground. It is a very much more expensive method, of course, than the overhead method. I do not think I can state definitely that the general policy will be to go from the overhead to the underground system, because of the very heavy additional cost involved. But, where extensions are found necessary, such as on some main trunk routes like the Cork, Belfast and other routes, we are putting them underground as far as possible. I do not think, however, that we would be justified, because of the extraordinarily heavy cost, in adopting the policy of underground cabling. I do not think it is adopted in England, which is a rich country. In England they are doing what we are doing here, namely, going underground when it is necessary to make extensions; but, generally, I do not think it is their policy to take down all the overhead wires and substitute underground cables.

Apart from that particular point, I dare say we should not measure our standard of telephone service by comparison with such rich countries as England and America; but I think that we ought to measure it by comparison with small countries of our own size approximately and our own wealth. I am afraid that, even as compared with such countries, we here in Ireland are very far in the rear. I do not blame the Minister or his predecessor. A good deal has been done to improve the telephone service in this country during the last few years; but by the universal consent of all I have met who are acquainted with telephone services in other countries, we here in Ireland are about a quarter of a century behind the times. I think it would be a good investment, in view of the very real value that an efficient telephone service is to a country, to spend still more money in developing our telephone service here than the Government is at present contemplating.

I should like to make a somewhat similar remark, but, sitting beside Senator Johnston, I do not like to advocate any heavier expenditure. I think that we can support the Government in doing everything possible to modernise the telephone fully. I think it is not always realised now that in the matter of the telephone we started with a very inefficient service and inefficient instruments. Owing to circumstances which we need not discuss now, I think practically nothing had been spent on the telephone service by the British Government in the period preceding the establishment of this State. In fact, I think hardly anything had been spent on the telephone service from the time it was handed over by a private company except what was necessary to keep it working. Consequently it was inevitable that we would be saddled with considerable expenditure and that we would be somewhat behind the times. I think I can say, however, so far as Dublin is concerned, that while things are by no means perfect there has been a marked improvement. I welcome the further expenditure.

I should like to ask the Minister if he has in mind any programme for the further development of the telephone service in rural areas. At present there seems to be a growing interest in and a growing anxiety as to the tendency of people to leave the rural areas. Every Department of Government should concentrate on that particular problem, and the Department of Posts and Telegraphs could do as much in its way as any other Department. Life should be made more attractive for people in the rural areas, and I believe that the introduction of the telephone would go a long way in that direction. I do not know exactly what would be a workable proposition in this regard—whether it would be the setting up of automatic telephones at particular centres or the making of the telephone service more easily available to people in private houses. I believe that something in the way of automatic telephones, here and there, would go a long way to meet the problem. People in rural areas are now inclined to keep in touch generally with the country, and there is a growing tendency to discharge business over the phone. I appreciate what the Minister has done since he came into office in the way of reducing telephone rates and making the telephone service more easily available to a number of people in the country, but I believe that a good deal more could be done, and I ask the Minister to examine the situation from the viewpoint I have indicated.

I support what Senator Quirke has said in regard to the use of the phone in rural areas. I agree that it would be impossible to have a direct service in all the rural areas, but I think it would be possible for the Minister's Department to arrange to have a public telephone at each Gárda station. That would overcome many of the present difficulties. The Guards are very obliging when sick or urgent calls have to be made at night, but the phone in the barracks is not regarded as a public phone. If the Minister could make some arrangement such as I suggest, it would be a step in the right direction.

I have been speaking to some people who are employed in the Minister's Department, and they complain of their long hours, particularly in regard to attendance at the telephones during the night. I ask the Minister to take this complaint into serious consideration and to bring the conditions of work in this regard up to the required standard.

As regards the point raised by Senator Quirke, the making of a continuous telephone service available in rural areas during the night has always given trouble to the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The question has been under consideration for some time recently. Beyond stating that we are about to experiment in one rural area, where the demand would be greater for a telephone service at night than in many other rural areas—I refer to the Lusk Malahide area—I cannot say very much. We are about to experiment there with an automatic service. A lot will depend on the results of the experiment. That experiment will provide continuous telephonic service to subscribers in that rural district. If it were successful, it would probably be extended to other areas. The question of expense has also to be considered. The expense of installing automatic exchanges is very high. I agree with Senator MacDermot that the needs of the people rather than other aspects of the question should be taken into consideration. So far as humanly possible, that is the manner in which the Department of Posts and Telegraphs approaches most of its problems—from the point of view of the needs and requirements of the people.

I do not think that any problem exists regarding the hours which attendants have to work. The attendants in these exchanges who are on duty at night are actually provided with sleeping accommodation, and a special alarm bell rings when a telephone call comes through to that exchange. The hours are not unduly long. I do not think that they would be any longer than in normal circumstances. I do not think that any hardship is inflicted on any of the employees of the Department who have to do that particular type of work.

We find—to return to Senator Quirke's point—that a large number of requests for longer service at night are made from time to time. Where services cease at 8 o'clock, we have requests to extend them to 10 o'clock and where they go on to 10 o'clock, we have requests to extend them still longer. When we get to the point of examining a particular case—each case is examined on its own merits—we find that the average number of calls in the place from which the request for longer service came is such that it would not justify us in employing an additional attendant. For example, two or three additional calls per night would not justify the Department in incurring further heavy weekly expenditure. We hope that, as a result of our experiment in the Malahide-Rush-and-Lusk area, the problem will be solved by the introduction of the automatic system. If that experiment is successful, I have no doubt the service will be made available in other areas. This Department is highly efficient, in my opinion. I keep very closely in touch with it and I know that those in charge of it are in contact with the specialists of other nations. Quite recently, I was talking to a distinguished American and he complimented me on the efficiency of the telephone service in the Twenty-Six Counties. Sometimes, I am inclined to think that our people have an inferiority complex in regard to some of the services provided by their own State. This gentleman told me that our telephone service here was superior to the service in America. I am only repeating what this gentleman told me when complimenting me on the telephone service. In connection with the arrival of the American aviator, Mr. Corrigan, we were again complimented on the very high efficiency—those were the words used— of our telephone system. I think we should be proud of that. There are complaints—some of them are probably justified—as to our telephone service but I find that most of our people demand a sort of turn-on-the-tap service. If we are to get close to the perfect standard, the user of the telephone will have to perfect his own methods because we find that many of the complaints are due to the shortcoming of the individual using the telephone. Of course, individuals very rarely admit the fact. If the individuals would perfect themselves I have no doubt whatever that the telephone system would be vastly improved in respect of the service and we would have an almost fool-proof service. I do not think there is anything else I need say.

Is the Minister familiar with the conditions in the service, for instance, between Dublin and Dun Laoghaire? I have not used that service myself for the last month or two, but before that I used it in the early Summer months. I must say that my experience of the service was extraordinarily bad. It seemed remarkably bad in a place so near Dublin.

I do not know what the circumstances were under which the Senator was using the telephone, but very recently I had the experience of a Deputy in the House coming down to me in a tearing rage on account of the manner in which he felt he had been abused by the Telephone Department. When I cross-examined him I found that he had gone and endeavoured to secure a trunk call without acquainting himself with the means by which a trunk call could be secured. He rang up the Exchange, told them what he required, then went and wandered away. When the trunk call came through in due course, he was absent. Several people went looking for him. When he was eventually found most of the three minutes had passed, and he was in a range then because he was not allowed to have a full three minutes after he came to the phone. As a matter of fact, he was not at the phone when the call came through, and he was absent during part of the time when he should have been using the phone. Now, that was a case in which the Telephone Department was not in any way to blame. I have no doubt that gentleman will be one of the severest critics of the Telephone Department when the Vote for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs comes up for discussion in the Dáil.

My experience would not correspond with the instance the Minister gave us. What I found was that there was quite an unusual delay in getting through, the sort of delay one would expect to have in getting somebody hundreds of miles away. Secondly, the connection was not very good, and thirdly, in an astonishingly large proportion of cases one was cut off in the course of his conversation.

As a matter of fact, in what I said I was not thinking of the night service at all.

I hope the debate is not going to be reopened.

I only want to say when I spoke of the service in rural areas that I was not thinking of the night service.

Question put and agreed to.

I assume it is proposed to take the Committee Stage to-day.


Bill put through Committee and reported without recommendation.

Fourth and Fifth Stages agreed to.

Ordered to be returned to the Dáil.