Senators will be aware generally from the discussion in the Dáil and from Press reports of the purpose for which this Bill is introduced. No doubt, however, they will be desirous of some detailed information on the main aspects of the Bill, and, in furnishing this, I wish to take the opportunity to correct certain misapprehensions which the debate in the Dáil showed to exist.
First, I should like to say something about the present state of the telephone service, which is frequently now the object of severe criticism. I know that the standard of service generally is not as high as we would wish. Trunk calls suffer heavy delay; calls in the Dublin automatic area are often difficult to obtain and when obtained sometimes break down; there is at times delay in answering subscribers dialling "O" or "31." This deterioration is due to the fact that for more than six years it has been almost impossible to obtain supplies of equipment in the quantities needed and during that same period traffic has grown at a phenomenal rate. Between 1938 and 1945 trunk calls increased from 3,300,000 to 7,118,000 and local calls in the same period increased from 30,000,000 to 48,000,000. Extra traffic on such a scale could not be carried satisfactorily without an enormous expansion of our telephone system all over the country. We entered the war period with what then represented three years' reserve supply of equipment, but the huge demands for military and Gárda circuits, coupled with the growth of traffic, soon swallowed up this reserve. From then on every extra call meant an extra load on the existing system and as calls continued to mount at an unprecedented rate the standard of service was bound to suffer. The surprising thing is not that the standard deteriorated under these conditions but that it was possible to avoid a breakdown. I say with confidence that there is not a single other commodity or service depending almost entirely on imported raw material which has been supplied to the public in quantities equivalent to double the pre-war supply, even with a reduction in quality. That it has been possible for the telephone service to do this is due to the foresight shown in ordering reserve supplies before the war; due to the ingenuity of our engineering staff in prolonging the life of items of equipment long since due for replacement and devising new methods to make it carry a heavier load; and due to the whole-hearted co-operation of the operating staff.
This staff has been working under difficult conditions with outworn and inadequate equipment striving all the time to give the public the very best service possible. I would say to the staff to respond to criticism and unfair abuse as Cuchulainn did when abused in battle by his charioteer and to maintain their efforts to cope with a very difficult situation.
While on this subject I would like, if I may, to correct a common misapprehension regarding delay which subscribers sometimes experience when they dial "O". Many subscribers are under the impression that because they do not get the engaged tone there is no lack of equipment and that the delay is due therefore either to neglect by the staff, or to lack of staff. This is not so. When a caller dials "O" a lamp lights on a number of switchboards in the Trunk Exchange and an operator at any one of these switchboards can answer the call. But our trouble is that frequently so many lamps are lighting together that all cannot be answered quickly. Clearly, the number of operators that can be employed answering calls is limited by the number of switchboards; and until we can get more switchboards for the Trunk Exchange delay in answering cannot be avoided at busy periods. Contrary to the view sometimes held by people with inadequate knowledge, there is no effort whatever to stint staff. Staff is provided on the most generous scale, the only limiting factor being the capacity, with limited equipment, to train them.
The trouble being experienced by users of the Dublin automatic system is due purely and simply to the facts that a load is being imposed on the automatic exchanges which they were never intended to bear and that many parts of the equipment in the exchanges need renewal.
The position at other exchanges is similar; equipment is in need of extension or replacement at almost every exchange of any size throughout the country.
I have dealt at some length with the present state of the telephone service so that the volume of work to be carried out before universal improvement can be effected may be appreciated. To any reasonable person the causes of the present unsatisfactory conditions are self-evident and sufficient, and it is equally clear that the deficiency of five years or more cannot be made good in a day or month. What can be expected is that nothing will be left undone to speed the work of renewal and extension and to bring the service to a high pitch of efficiency in the least possible time. This is our object and it is for this purpose, as well as to provide for a huge increase in the number of subscribers, that a sum of £6,000,000 is now being sought which we expect to spend in the next four to five years. The total cost of the scheme which has been planned will be not less than £10,000,000 but, in accordance with practice, only the amount estimated to be spent in the next four to five years is asked for in this Bill. As a measure of the volume of expansion which it is intended to carry out, I may remark that the total outlay hitherto on the telephone service since it was taken over from the National Telephone Company in 1912 has been £3,500,000.
The annual charges on the capital expenditure proposed will, of course, impose a heavy burden on telephone revenue for many years ahead but I am confident that revenue will rapidly increase, and although a loss may be incurred for a few years it will quickly be overtaken as more plant becomes revenue-earning.
The development scheme planned provides for trebling the number of subscribers, but plant and equipment will be so laid out that a much bigger number can readily be catered for if the demand exceeds our expectations. While this will be done we shall, like all telephone administrations throughout the world, guard against providing plant too far in advance of its being required. Obviously, there is no advantage to the users of the service in having extensive equipment lying idle for many years with heavy charges for interest and depreciation throwing an unnecessary burden on telephone revenue and perhaps preventing tariff concessions which might otherwise be possible from being given to subscribers.
I fully recognise that the best advertisement for the service will be to give satisfaction to existing users and this we intend to do. We shall give "demand" service on trunk calls; that is, almost every trunk call from any point to any other point will be connected without the caller having to leave the telephone. Kiosks and call offices will be provided extensively on a most generous scale; continuous service will be given at all but the very smallest exchanges and for this purpose automatic exchanges will be installed instead of the present manual ones.
The size of the programme of work which must be carried out in order to effect these improvements and to cater for new subscribers in the numbers expected can be gathered from the figures of cost which I have given, and from the following details:—
New underground cable containing subscribers' circuits will have to be laid in every city and town; and more than 600 new automatic and semi-automatic exchanges as well as about 50 special manual exchanges to deal with trunk calls, inquiries, etc., must be installed. To house the large automatic exchanges, about 130 new buildings will be needed, and accommodation for the manual exchanges will involve either the extensive alteration of existing premises, the acquisition of additional premises or the erection of new buildings. The trunk network must be increased six to eight-fold and this will involve laying underground trunk cables extensively. To give a satisfactory service on cross-Channel calls a new submarine cable will be laid.
The main headings under which the £6,000,000 asked for in this Bill will be spent and the amount under each heading are as follows:—New exchanges and buildings, £2,072,000; trunk circuits, £2,400,000; subscribers' circuits, £1,360,000; kiosks and call offices, £275,000; other works, £245,000, giving a total of £6,352,000, which has been rounded down to £6,000,000.
The works programme for buildings alone is a huge one and in order to secure the utmost speed in executing it the Commissioners of Public Works, who are, of course, responsible for buildings, have set up a special section comprising experienced technical staff to deal with Post Office buildings alone.
As regards plant and equipment, I must explain that major improvements will take a considerable time to effect. Apart from the building problem, manufacture and installation of a major automatic exchange takes, under the most favourable conditions, about 18 months; a trunk cable from Dublin to Cork will take two to three years to manufacture and lay. I should say, too, that, contrary to the view of many people, the supply position is as yet far from satisfactory. Lead required for cables, and steel pipe to house the cables, are scarce and difficult to obtain in the quantities we need. No effort is being spared to secure the maximum supply available, and representatives of our engineering branch and stores department have paid frequent visits to England with a view to securing the earliest possible delivery of materials required.
Accordingly, while the various phases of our works programme will so far as possible be advanced concurrently, some few years must elapse before the service can be made universally satisfactory.
Considerable progress has already been made with the Department's plans. Extensions of all the Dublin automatic exchanges are at present being carried out and will, we hope, be completed by next summer. Contracts have been placed for new exchanges in Cork and Waterford. Automatic exchanges are on order for another 20 towns. Arrangements are being made for laying underground trunk cables, which will permanently eliminate delay to trunk calls on the routes concerned. Sites are being obtained for new exchanges in various towns. Arrangements have been settled in conjunction with the British Post Office for laying a new cross-Channel cable next year which will enable a "no delay" service to be given on cross-Channel calls.
In proceeding with long term plans which cannot fully mature for many years, the Department is not overlooking the need for giving earlier temporary relief where possible. Pending the installation of the 600 automatic exchanges proposed, which will take many years to effect, a better service must be given to existing subscribers and new subscribers must be catered for. To meet this situation the existing manual exchanges are being replaced or enlarged to the utmost extent possible. Already 18 large manual exchanges and numerous smaller exchanges have been dealt with. To improve the trunk service in advance of laying cables, 30 three-channel carrier systems have been obtained recently and 30 more are on order. When the necessary overhead wires are erected and these systems installed, a substantial reduction of the delay to trunk calls in many areas will be effected.
In Dublin, the work of erecting the new trunk exchange buildings in St. Andrew Street will begin next year but it will be some years before the building is completed and the elaborate equipment required is installed. In order, therefore, to take time by the forelock we have placed an order for a large part of the equipment intended for St. Andrew Street exchange and this will be installed temporarily at other premises in Exchequer Street which during the war housed the censorship staff.
I should like to say something about the possibility of giving telephones to the thousands of people whose applications we hold. During the emergency we had to impose restrictions on the connection of new subscribers although we did succeed in meeting all really essential demands for service by public authorities, doctors, etc., as well as a substantial proportion of applications for business lines. I may mention that most if not all other telephone administrations had to apply similar restrictions; and it is of interest to note that in the United States of America, which is one of the largest manufacturers of telephone equipment, there were about 2,000,000 people awaiting telephone service shortly after the end of the war.
The time which must elapse before all applications can be dealt with varies from place to place according to the plant position in different areas. Already waiting applicants have been dealt with in those areas served by small exchanges which can be fairly readily enlarged. In Dublin, all applications for business lines in the Dún Laoghaire, Rathmines and Terenure areas will be dealt with shortly and when the extension of the automatic exchanges is completed next summer, we shall make rapid inroads on the arrears of applications. Other areas will be dealt with as rapidly as new exchanges can be installed or the present exchanges enlarged.
In conclusion, I may say that the plans are ready to provide a first class service for all subscribers and to encourage and cater for an extension of the telephone system on the widest possible scale. The money asked for in this Bill is required to carry out these plans. In the five year period we propose to have installed (a) a telephone call office in every Post Office. This scheme includes 900 new call offices and (b) we propose also to have installed within that period all equipment required to deal with any public demand that is likely to arise.