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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 Jul 1956

Vol. 46 No. 6

Telephone Capital Bill, 1956—Second Stage.

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

Senators will no doubt have read in yesterday's newspapers that this new Telephone Capital Bill is intended to provide a further £6,000,000 to be raised as required for telephone development over the next four years. This is not as much as I would wish to spend if money were freely available but I must look for funds to the Minister for Finance and he has many other demands on the amount of capital he can borrow. As we all know, he has been unable to get sufficient money for all the desirable capital services which are normally financed by the Exchequer. The needs of the telephone service have had, therefore, to be weighed against those of the other capital services, such as housing, sanitary services, hospitals, etc., and it has been decided that, since there must be a general pruning of State capital expenditure, the telephone service should bear some share.

It is not, however, proposed to effect any drastic scaling-down of the amounts we have been spending on telephone development in the past; in fact, over the past three financial years, the average rate of expenditure has been of the order of £1,500,000 and it is at that rate we are proposing to provide for further expenditure under this Bill. Naturally, with the increasing demand for telephones and higher costs of materials we would in the normal way spend more but I cannot reasonably expect telephone development and particularly the extensive installation of private telephones to be met in full at the expense of housing and the other capital services to which I have referred.

The last Telephone Capital Bill, that of 1951, was for £8,000,000 and enabled us to carry out an extensive programme of development and improvement of the service. Over 35,000 exchange lines and 50,000 telephone stations were provided, and we now have some 120,000 telephones in service. The capacity of the trunk network was greatly expanded, particularly by the provision of coaxial trunk cables between the larger centres and delays have been eliminated over a large part of the system. The actual mileage of trunk circuits was more than doubled. In Dublin the automatic system was greatly extended, both by additions to existing exchanges and the establishment of new exchanges. In the provinces automatic exchanges were openeded at 21 places including Dundalk, Waterford, Athlone and Mullingar. In most other centres of any size the equipment was either enlarged or renewed. Hours of service were extended at many exchanges and some 97.5 per cent. of our subscribers now have 24-hour service. The scheme for providing public telephones in all post offices has been completed apart from two offices which are at present being provided with telephones.

Like most other telephone administrations, we still have a waiting list —now about 4,000—for telephones, despite the fact that we have been steadily increasing the number of new telephones installed. This has been due partly to a steady increase in demand particularly for private telephones; for instance, for the first five months of this year we received 44 per cent. more applications than in the corresponding period of 1954. The difficulty in overtaking this growing demand which has now reached a level about four times what it was pre-war has been aggravated by the general shortage of engineering staff which affects most organisations requiring staff for engineering and electronic work.

As I have said, the £6,000,000 will not be enough to meet completely the anticipated needs of the service over the next few years. It will, nevertheless, enable us to carry out a reasonable measure of development and there will, by and large, be no material variation in the volume of employment given. Broadly, this is how the money will be spent: Exchanges—new and extended (including buildings), £1,250,000; trunk service, £1,450,000; subscribers' installations (including underground development work), £3,300,000.

The provision under new exchanges will cover new automatic exchanges at Dublin, Drogheda, Sligo, Limerick, Galway, Longford, Naas, and a number of the other places. It also covers extensions to existing exchanges. In order to conserve capital expenditure it is proposed to defer the conversion of manual exchanges to automatic working in cases where there is no compelling need for conversion.

We will aim to continue the improvement of trunk services particularly on routes on which there are delays at present, but the programme will have to be a restricted one as compared with that which would be undertaken if there were no capital difficulties. We will, for example, try to substitute less expensive short-term relief works for more costly permanent schemes.

The amount of money to be spent on subscribers' installations and associated underground development work will be limited by the necessity to preserve a balanced overall programme. A big difficulty here is the substantial arrears of underground work still remaining in the Dublin. Although in certain areas long delays in providing service will be unavoidable, and there will probably be an increase in the waiting list, it is hoped to keep up the intake of subscribers to what approximately it has been in recent years.

To conclude, I should like to say that within the limited money available we will try to do the best we can for both urban and rural areas. Although it has been considered prudent to provide for a restricted programme over a four-year period, that does not mean that if there is a substantial improvement in the position, we will be tied to this programme. The Bill lays down no limit—long or short—within which the money should be raised or spent. The position will be kept under continuous review so that normal development may be resumed without avoidable delay as soon as circumstances permit.

Níl morán le rá againn ar an mBille ón dtaobh seo den Tigh, mar tá a fhios againn go bhfuil éileamh agus éileamh mór ar an gcóras telefóna ar fud na tíre le roinnt ama anuas agus go bhfuil mórán daoine— lucht gnótha agus eile—ag cur iarrataisí isteach chun an seirbhís sin d'fháil. Déarfainn gur cóir don Aire, agus don Roinn atá faoina chúram freastal a dhéanamh ar iarrataisí lucht gnótha ar dtús. B'fheidir gurb é sin an modh oibre atá aige. Dob é sin an modh oibre a bhí ann le blianta anuas ach ní fheadar ar leanadh leis í gcónaí.

There is not very much that can be said on this Bill. The Minister is seeking £6,000,000, which will be spread over a period of four years. He has not given us any idea of the number of claims that will be satisfied by the time that amount of money has been expended. I think it is a healthy sign, in a way, to see so many people looking for telephones. It shows that they are adopting modern ideas in the conduct of their business. Everybody knows now that the telephone system is most essential for people who want to conduct their business well and expeditiously.

I do not know exactly what order of priority the Minister and his Department are pursuing in relation to the installation of telephones. I take it that the applications of business people are the first to be considered but, there again, as between the various business elements in the community, there must be, I suppose, a sub-division of priorities. One thing I would recommend to the Minister is that, where his Department is engaged in the installation of a telephone system in any locality, care should be taken to attend to all the claims in the locality so as to obviate unnecessary administrative cost. I do not know whether that is being done in all cases. I have some doubts about it. I make that suggestion to the Minister so that it may be borne in mind by those concerned with this business in his Department.

The Minister has indicated that he would look for more capital if the financial position of the country would warrant it. I suppose that could be said about many schemes. Even yesterday, there was a discussion here on the roads and one of the reasons given by the Minister for Finance for not having more money to spend on the roads was that he thought the money could be utilised for more productive purposes. The same can be said, of course, about the telephone system, that the money could be utilised for a better and more urgent national purpose.

We welcome any attempt that is made to improve the telephone system and we look forward to the time when the claims of all applicants for telephones will be satisfied.

May I say how pleased we are to see the Minister? This is his first apearance before the Seanad since taking up his post as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs.

The Bill before us is very welcome on all sides of the House. We are all glad to know that the development work of the telephone section of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs will progress. It is marvellous that there are still people clamouring for service from a State monopoly and we would all agree that it is giving very excellent service.

I happen to use the telephone a great deal for business purposes and I must say that the service which is now given is very good. A caller can get any part of Ireland, North or South, within a few seconds in most cases and can hear the person at the receiving end very distinctly. The trunk service has been improved considerably. There are still people clamouring for connection with the telephone system. We are all in agreement that it is good to see that the work is to progress, that, in spite of financial difficulties, certain capital work will be undertaken and that the people at present awaiting connection can hope to get it within a few years.

The demand is growing all the time. I think that is an indication of the improving standard of living in this country. Some years ago, there were many people who would not have thought of having a telephone installed in their homes. Now people of moderate means regard a telephone in their homes as essential or very desirable. The number of subscribers and the still growing demand would seem to indicate that we are improving our standard of living.

I would again express our welcome to the Bill and our personal welcome to the Minister.

It is unfortunate that work on the telephone service, which apparently has shown a profit over the years, is now to be curtailed. The Minister stated that the expenditure will be the same as it was in previous years, but agrees that, with the higher cost of material and wages, the actual amount of work will be reduced somewhat. I appreciate that capital expenditure must be carefully considered and that it is quite likely that the development of the telephone service should not have the same priority as, say, agricultural development. At any rate, the expenditure on the telephone service over the past few years has been amply justified by the excellent services now being provided and by the great demand there is for the service.

Having a rather rural bias and being particularly anxious that the Department should cater for rural areas, I appeal to the Minister to consider especially the rural areas in the expenditure which it is proposed to incur. One notices in passing through the part of the country which is not at the moment under our jurisdiction the excellent telephone service provided there. One is impressed by the number of kiosks placed all along the roads in the rural areas and by the fact that an automatic service is provided from those kiosks. A number of villages in that area are linked to a central telephone exchange. I wonder if the Minister could do something to speed the development of the automatic telephone service in the rural areas in this part of the country. Would it be as expensive as the present system? Would it not save a considerable amount of time? There is still considerable delay involved in some of these areas.

It is said that there are three types of lies, the third being statistics. When the Minister states that 97.5 per cent. of people have continuous service, I should like to state that that has no relation to large areas in the country where a continuous service is not provided. In the area in which I live, the telephone service in the surrounding villages is disconnected at 10 p.m. and does not reopen until 8 a.m. On Sundays and bank holidays, the service is provided only for one and a half hours in the mornings and for two hours in the evening, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. In small seaside resorts, which are frequented by British and Six-County people, who are used to automatic services, the Minister should endeavour to cater for such tourist traffic. Even if he only arranged to provide a continuous service during the summer months, some profit would accrue to those districts in the development of the tourist traffic.

In connection with the rural services generally, we all agree that agricultural development is essential and that if anything can be done to reduce country people's travelling, through a better telephone system, or if it is going to benefit agricultural production, then the Minister should do his best to provide these kiosks in strategic places in the rural areas, at the earliest possible date.

I should like to say that I am in wholehearted agreement with this Bill because the installation of the telephone system in sub-post offices throughout rural Ireland has been of great advantage. It saves the people a good deal of expense and journeys where they may have long distances to go for the doctor, if there is an urgent case involved. It also saves them journeys to the county and district hospitals. I join with Senator Walsh when he says it would be advisable if these kiosks could be placed here and there in the rural areas. At the same time, I realise that everything cannot be done at once.

The Minister has adopted the wisest course by steering in the middle of the road. I do not think he is being immoderate for he is continuing with the same expenditure as was the case for the past three or four years. We are all glad to know that the telephone service is paying for itself and people appreciate the service already given to them. When times improve and more money is available, these kiosks, with longer services, would be desirable. Speaking for my own part of the West, I know that what has already been done by way of providing telephone services has been highly appreciated and has saved the people considerable expense in the way of bus fares and the hiring of cars.

While it is the first time I have seen the Minister in the House, I have troubled him in his office on a few occasions on behalf of people who have approached me and I would like to pay him tribute that on every occasion he gave the matters his immediate and personal attention. I thank him for that.

This is a Bill which commends itself to all of us. It is certainly a large sum of money to ask for, but, in my opinion, if justifies itself fully. In the world in which we live to-day, the installation of a telephone in any home is an absolute necessity, as well as an amenity. Business people especially must have one. I realise that the telephone services in the rural areas cannot be provided as quickly or effectively as they can be in a town, but I would ask the Minister to pay special attention to the farming community. I have had a few cases in my own area in which I have approached the Minister and his Department and they have been very helpful. I realise that where a vast network of communications has to be laid down, it cannot be done overnight, but in the part of the country I come from—East Cork— the busiest people I have seen are those laying telephone cables.

This country has certainly become more modern in recent times, for 15 to 20 years ago the Post Office would offer telephones to people and they would not accept them; but hardly a week now passes without people coming to seek your help and influence to have a telephone installed.

With the other speakers, I congratulate the Minister and pay him tribute because any time a request is made to him he gives it his personal attention.

I want to raise what may be a somewhat parochial matter. I have been approached several times in Clonmel and asked to see if the automatic telephone system could be installed there. A very large number of people in the town in which I live are engaged in the sale of perishable goods—food and drink factories. These people require the telephone, both local and trunk services, as a matter of business. They are large users of the telephone system and it has to be used quickly during the working hours of the day, and there are only seven or eight hours in the day to use it. They are making the utmost use of the time they have. The modern automatic system does help in the handling of business with much more despatch and I would ask that the claims of our district be met as soon as possible.

I wish to thank the Seanad for its reception of this measure and Senator Murphy for the welcome which he gave me on my first appearance.

Senator Kissane dealt with priorities. As far as we can do it, all applications from business executives and involving industrial development get first possible attention. That does not mean that rural claims have been neglected. There is, of course, a definite list of priorities set out here for the guidance of the Department for years as policy—Government service, Garda, Deputies, Senators, doctors, veterinary surgeons, chemists and so on but, in the ordinary course, the Department will give first attention to places of industrial development over applications which are less essential.

Rural areas have got reasonably good satisfaction in recent years. We have installed the telephone in each sub-office in the entire country. There are just two offices that have not been completed, but they are being installed at the moment. We have not had very wide use of kiosks in the country districts, for fairly obvious reasons. They are not so easy to use and to protect. You have to have centres of population and use for them. They are fairly costly in erection and maintenance, and you must have someone to use them. It is not considered good business to set them up in unprotected rural areas. We are concentrating rather on putting telephones into the sub-offices, and all the sub-offices in the country have now been equipped. There have been some kiosks, but there must be a reasonable guarantee that they will be properly used and protected.

Senator Walsh mentioned that some areas have not continuous service. In my opening remarks, I said that 97.5 per cent. of the people connected now have 24 hours' service. There are areas which the Senator referred to where they have not got continuous service. That is to be regretted, but there is the difficulty of the enormous expense. We are concentrating at the moment on setting up small exchanges, such as in Mullingar, to link up with those remote areas and in that way to penetrate into the dark fastnesses that have not been penetrated. That will probably be deferred slightly, because I am not looking for enough money, but we are not going to abandon any scheme we have on the programme. It will be truncated, but we are not going to depart from our ideas. We believe in the policy of extending the service for our people throughout the length and breadth of our country.

Senator Walsh mentioned that it was unfortunate to have to cut down on a service which was so productive. It is regrettable from our point of view. Personally I would have liked to look for £2,000,000 more, as I told the Dáil. When the last Telephone Capital Bill was introduced, it was for £8,000,000, and covered a period of five years. I am looking for £6,000,000 over a period of four years. I would certainly have looked for £8,000,000, if the money was going. We could have made splendid use of it, but that does not indicate that there will be any dropping down in employment. We may possibly lose a few casuals here and there, but the staff will still be fully employed. What I am regretting is the additional employment that we might have been able to give, had we been able to do the further development contemplated.

On the question of kiosks, the settled policy of the Department under different Governments is not to provide uneconomic public telephones or telephone exchanges. The only exception was made in respect of the 900 rural offices which have now been connected. That is good progress in recent times. We are not in a position to go ahead with the putting up of kiosks everywhere. There must be some guarantee that they will be used and that they will be near centres of population, and that they will not be used for purposes other than those for which they are intended.

Senator Burke asked for speedy installation of an automatic exchange in Clonmel. Owing to the shortage of capital, the installation of fully automatic exchanges will have to be slowed down, but as regards Clonmel we hope to install there the latest kind of manual instrument equipment, which does not involve turning the handle like the old-fashioned gadget.

Self-starter, instead of a crank.

As soon as the financial position permits, we will consider an automatic exchange at Clonmel, but meantime it will get a more modern instrument with which, when you raise the receiver, you will have contact made instead of having to use the handle.

Thank you.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining stages today.
Bill passed through Committee, reported without recommendation, received for final consideration and passed.