Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2006: Second Stage.

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

The Bill before the House today has two principal objectives, the first being to amend the public service remit of RTE to allow it to broadcast to Irish communities living outside the island of Ireland. The second is to amend the Broadcasting Act 2001 to allow for the development of digital terrestrial television and digital radio services in Ireland. I propose to address each objective in turn.

First, I will address the proposed amendment relating to broadcasting abroad. RTE's public service remit is set out in sections 16 and 17 of the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960 and section 28 of the Broadcasting Act 2001. Section 28(1) of the 2001 Act provides that the

national television and sound broadcasting service required to be maintained by the Authority under section 16 of the Act of 1960 shall have the character of a public service, continue to be a free-to-air service and be made available, in so far as it is reasonably practicable, to the whole community on the island of Ireland and the Authority shall have all such powers as are necessary for or incidental to that purpose.

As such, RTE's statutory mandate does not extend to the provision of television services to Irish communities living outside the island of Ireland.

Section 28(8) of the 2001 Act limits the use by RTE of public funds drawn from television licence fee income to its public service remit. As a consequence RTE may not use the proceeds of the television licence fee to provide television services in Great Britain or elsewhere. Until 2001 a private channel, Tara TV, provided a means for the Irish community in parts of Great Britain to access some of RTE's programming. This was not an RTE service but a private company in which RTE contributed its programming as a means of investment in a commercial venture. Unfortunately, Tara Television did not manage to attract sufficient revenues and ceased to broadcast in 2001.

The report of the task force on policy regarding emigrants, presented to the Minister for Foreign Affairs in August 2002, noted that the issue of contact with Ireland and the desire for information about contemporary Ireland is critical for Irish communities abroad. The loss of Tara TV was greatly regretted by many Irish people in Great Britain, particularly the elderly. Members of this House, including me, have relatives in the UK who miss the service and have contacted public representatives about it. The task force recommended developing the role of television as a contact point for the Irish abroad and making funding available for the provision of such a service. With a view to implementing this recommendation the Government agreed that the draft general scheme of the broadcasting Bill should include provision to amend the existing public service remits of RTE and Teilifís na Gaeilge to allow them to develop broadcasting services for Irish communities abroad. It also agreed that public funds could be deployed for such a purpose. Given the scale and scope of the draft general scheme of the broadcasting Bill, and ongoing work under the e-Consultation initiative, the Government has decided to extract and progress this small element by means of the Bill before the House. This follows requests from Members of both Houses.

Sections 3, 14 and 15 outline the legislative amendments necessary to affect this change. Section 3 amends section 16 of the 1960 Act to require the RTE authority to provide a television service to Irish communities outside of the island of Ireland which is representative of the programme schedules of the existing public service channels RTE 1, RTE 2 and TG4. While ultimately a matter for RTE, it is likely that the programme service provided will consist primarily of domestic programming commissioned or produced by RTE and Teilifís na Gaeilge. Section 3 also places a statutory duty on Teilifís na Gaeilge to supply some of its programming to RTE for the purposes of the new service at a level to be agreed by the two public service broadcasters. The provision is intended to define such supply as being of the nature of a public service duty rather than an arms length commercial arrangement.

Section 14 amends section 28(8) of the 2001 Act to allow RTE to use public funds drawn from television licence fee income for the purposes of providing the new television service. Section 14 also amends section 28(10) to require the RTE authority to report to the Minister on its use of public funding for such a purpose. Members may express views on whether direct Exchequer payments should be made rather than using licence fees revenue. I look forward to hearing the views of Members during the debate. Although the Bill does not provide for it at present an amendment could be introduced to effect this.

Section 15 amends section 32 of the 2001 Act to empower the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to direct the RTE authority to maintain a special account of its use of public funding regarding the provision of the new television service. While the Bill is just the first step in the process of getting this service on air, it is an important step. The issue is dear to the hearts of many in the Irish community in Great Britain and I commend the efforts of Irish community organisations in Great Britain and the Deputies and Senators who worked on their behalf in promoting this issue.

I now propose to consider the elements of the Bill that deal with digital terrestrial television, DTT, and digital radio broadcasting. The roll-out of DTT in Ireland is imperative in ensuring the continued availability of free-to-air Irish public broadcasting to Irish television viewers. Satellite, cable and MMDS will offer extensive and differentiated services to the Irish consumer into the future. However, none of these platforms will provide the near universal, free-to-air digital offering regulated under Irish law that DTT can provide. Given changes in technology, analogue terrestrial transmission will become obsolete over a short period, particularly as most European countries move to digital provision. DTT is a technology upgrade necessary to maintain free-to-air availability of Irish television broadcasting into the future. Regarding television service level, DTT will allow for the provision of more channels and services to citizens. New and enhanced Government and public services may be provided across DTT, and possibilities will be created for additional private sector investment and product offerings.

Current estimates indicate that approximately 29% of TV licence households use analogue free-to-air terrestrial television only, and that up to 90% of households use analogue free-to-air terrestrial television on at least one television set. The future roll-out of DTT will be particularly important for these households in providing a viable alternative to analogue television with increased quality and range of broadcasting services. It will also serve to meet the requirement that all TV licence holders will continue to receive public service broadcasting on a free-to-air basis.

I am conscious of the need for Ireland to keep ahead of developments in digital broadcasting across the EU. With this in mind, I launched my Department's digital terrestrial television pilot project in August. This will encourage stakeholder and public interest in DTT and bring momentum to the development of DTT in Ireland. The pilot project, which is set to run until 2008, is to provide insight into the issues associated with the roll-out of a national DTT system and the potential impact on the analogue television network.

Digital transmission is more efficient than analogue transmission with regard to spectrum-planning. A move to DTT and a subsequent analogue switch-off will free up spectrum that can be made available for additional broadcasting or telecoms applications. The release of additional spectrum is a key consideration in the move towards digital broadcasting across Europe. While demand for additional spectrum is not as significant a factor in Ireland as it is across Europe, Ireland wishes to, and will be expected to, plan for the use of spectrum in an internationally compatible way. The European Commission has suggested 2012 as a target date for switch-off of analogue services. Consequently, there is a pressing need to publish amending legislation in order to facilitate the activities that will lead to analogue switch-off.

The DTT elements of the Bill amend one part of the Broadcasting Act 2001. The basic policy objectives underpinning the 2001 Act remain in place. The licensing model set out in the Broadcasting Act 2001 required an all or nothing response from the market which was not attractive and proved to be unworkable. The proposed legislation seeks to establish a more scaleable model which allows public service broadcasters to migrate to DTT and private sector operations to seek DTT multiplex licences as they see fit.

Without amended legislation in place, the DTT pilot project currently being run by my Department would come to an end in 2008 with no further basis for DTT roll-out. It is essential to ensure continuity for parties who wish to further develop commercial services on the DTT platform. This Bill offers a degree of flexibility in the take-up of multiplexes which will prove more attractive to private sector operators than previous legislation. The proposed framework also puts in place a mechanism to implement analogue switch-off, which has not been developed before.

Under the Bill it is proposed that six multiplexes or frequencies would be dedicated to DTT, allowing for approximately 25 to 30 standard television channels. However, flexible allocation of the frequencies thereafter could mean further DTT multiplex allocations if required by market players. It is also proposed that the first multiplex be allocated to RTE and will also contain TG4, thereby ensuring a foundation level of Irish broadcasting services on the DTT platform. TV3, if it so desires, will also be allowed on this particular multiplex. A second multiplex could be allocated to RTE, subject to consultation. This is likely to be for high-definition television, as it requires more spectrum.

The next four multiplexes will be left to open competition run by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland. It is expected that TV3, as the fourth analogue terrestrial licensee, may be on one of these four multiplexes. The framework will allow for multiplexes to be added as the market requires, with spectrum for these four multiplexes guaranteed. The response from the market in the context of the DTT pilot suggests these multiplexes will be in demand. However, the framework will allow for a gradual take-up of multiplexes over time if that is the market response.

A similar process will be run by the BCI on the allocation of sound broadcasting multiplexes for Digital Audio Broadcasting, DAB. Although DAB is not as well-established across the EU as digital terrestrial television, it has been established successfully in the UK. RTE is currently running a DAB trial which will allow issues around a national roll-out to be explored. In that context, this Bill allows for the establishment of DAB multiplexes and provides a model for licensing by the BCI of DAB in the future.

With regard to the specifics of the Bill, section 1 provides for the short title, collective citation, construction and commencement, which are standard provisions in any legislation. Section 2 provides for interpretation and definitions for a number of terms used throughout the Bill.

Section 3 provides for the RTE authority to establish and maintain multiplexes, and it makes provision to ensure that the RTE and TG4 channels are carried on the first multiplex. It also ensures that consideration will be given to the carriage of TV3 on the DTT platform in the event that measures under section 4 do not bring this about. It provides that TG4 and TV3 may make payments to the authority in the event that the authority carries these channels on a multiplex.

Section 4 outlines the functions of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland with regard to arranging contracts with multiplex contractors to provide additional multiplexes of programming. The BCI will be required to ensure compliance by contractors with the provisions of this Act. It also sets out the conditions to allow for provision of the analogue commercial licensee — TV3 — services on the DTT platform, and for any Northern Ireland service that could be designated for carriage in the future.

Section 5 provides that the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, is required to make available licences for DTT services for both RTE and other multiplex service providers. Under this section, ComReg may allocate further licences for DTT, to be contracted by the BCI, and also other services. It also provides ministerial powers to make provisions for the use of services under section 5 in the event of a declared emergency.

Section 6 provides that the Commission for Communications Regulation is required to make available licences both to RTE and other providers in a similar arrangement to that of Section 5 but for digital sound broadcasting. Section 7 provides for ComReg to levy fees by regulation on various broadcasting licences, including multiplex licences.

Section 8 provides that the BCI should run a competition for the awarding of multiplex contracts, both television and radio, which should be publicly advertised. The competition can be initiated by the commission as frequencies become available. Under this provision the BCI has discretion to set the coverage area for any multiplex service and services can include regional and local digital services. In the context of this section I would be interested in hearing the views of Members on whether there should be a time limit on the initial competition at least, in order to ensure the process is concluded sooner rather than later. Depending on the contribution of Members and the discussion as a whole, we may bring forward amendments if necessary.

Section 9 sets out the criteria to be considered by the BCI when awarding contracts to multiplex contractors and additional criteria can be added at the discretion of the BCI where necessary. Section 10 allows the BCI to set out the terms and conditions for multiplex contracts and also a number of possible terms and conditions to be included. In addition, it provides that the commission may suspend or terminate the contract under certain conditions, that the contractor may pay fees to the commission and that each multiplex contract shall be open to inspection by the public.

Section 11 sets out the provisions to allow consideration by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources of a date for analogue switch-off, having consulted with all relevant stakeholders. It provides for the Minister, following consideration of a report from the commission or the authority, or at any stage, to issue a policy direction in this regard.

Sections 12 and 13 give effect to various minor amendments to the 2001 Broadcasting Act with regard to DTT and the new licensing model proposed, in particular electronic programme guides and the application of BCI codes and rules. There may be some technical adjustments to some of these sections on Committee Stage.

Sections 14 and 15 relate to RTE's public service remit, to which I referred earlier. Section 16 provides for an analogue broadcasting licence for TG4 after TG4 is separated from RTE on 1 April 2007. Section 17 provides for the repeal of sections of the Broadcasting Act 2001 so the new alternative licensing regime can apply. Section 18 allows for the Minister's costs in the administration of this Act. The Schedule sets out the sections of the Broadcasting Act 2001 that are repealed by section 17, so the new alternative licensing regime can apply.

Extensive consultation has taken place on the proposed legislation with a wide range of public service and private sector bodies, including the BCI and ComReg. In addition, both ComReg and the BCI will have a role in the issue around the allocation for spectrum for DTT purposes. My Department has also been in communication with the European Commission in the context of analogue switch-off.

The DTT pilot being run by my Department has provided an opportunity for full engagement with regulators, broadcasters and all other stakeholders on issues concerning DTT roll-out, both for the pilot and in the future. It is planned that this pilot will continue over a two-year timeframe, which started last August, during which time DTT broadcasts will transmit from the Three Rock site in Dublin and the Clermont Carn site in County Louth. Although digital television is currently available on a number of platforms, such as cable, MMDS and satellite, this is the first time digital television will be available from terrestrial transmitter systems in Ireland.

One of the objectives of the pilot is to introduce the concept of DTT to Ireland and test the feasibility of developing a national DTT platform and the attractiveness of digital services. In addition, the pilot will provide an opportunity to review the impact of the DTT service on users and to consider issues surrounding a progression towards analogue switch-off. The establishment of a DTT pilot stakeholders' group by my Department has provided a forum within which stakeholders can raise and discuss issues associated with the pilot and long-term DTT strategy.

Key discussions were facilitated with a range of public service and commercial broadcasters on the issues arising out of participation in the DTT pilot. This allowed for engagement with set-top box manufacturers on the issues relating to assessing and adapting equipment standards for the Irish market. Consultation with other private sector operators has also taken place on a range of technical issues involved in DTT.

The Government will play a key role in informing citizens of changes taking place as a digital switchover is planned and implemented, and of the reasons for these changes. Timely information regarding a switchover date will allow people make better informed decisions when purchasing equipment. All stakeholders will have a role in informing viewers of the likely changes. For the viewer, the reception of DTT will involve limited additional costs as a set-top box will be required to receive DTT signals for each television. However, Irish viewers will benefit from a roll-out of DTT through a greater choice of channels and services available free-to-air.

This Bill presents an opportunity to ensure the Irish public continues to have access to new and improved broadcasting services on a universal and free-to-air basis. I believe a national DTT platform is a prerequisite for maintaining and developing a vibrant and relevant broadcasting sector, while meeting our commitments to the EU switch-off target date of 2012. Consequently, I commend the Bill to the House.

I am indebted to Cathal Goan of RTE who sent me a briefing document on this matter. I was unfamiliar with a great deal of the terminology used and it gave me a opportunity to familiarise myself with it.

Fine Gael welcomes the Bill, for what it is, and welcomes the opportunity to discuss broadcasting in Ireland generally. The Minister stated a new framework will be established to allow for the licensing of digital terrestrial television, DTT. The Minister also stated this new framework will amend the existing framework set out in legislation, make it more flexible and allow for consideration of the licensing of digital sound broadcasting services in due course.

The Minister went on to state that building on the experience of the DTT pilot, Ireland will proceed to upgrade the analogue network to a digital terrestrial network. We all support this. Digital means many more television channels, better picture and the provision of high definition and interactive services.

Once DTT is rolled out and viewers swap over to DTT or other digital platforms such as cable, satellite and IPTV, it will be possible to switch off the analogue transmission network. When will all of this happen? Will the Minister give us a guarantee that digital will be rolled out in a set timeframe? What measures will be put in place to ensure no slippage? What infrastructural deficits must be overcome? Where are the bottlenecks?

I am uncertain about subsequent transmission. Will we have another plethora of masts? Will existing masts be piggy-backed, assuming a mast requirement exists? As the Minister and I well know, the mast issue tends to be contentious.

What public education and information process will be put in place to let the public know about DTT? I understand and appreciate the publicity aspect. If we roll it out for operation in 2012 it would be premature to provide information to the public now. However, the public would like to know we are progressing on the digital concept and moving away from analogue. I am interested to learn what information is available to the public on what is happening.

It is gratifying the Bill covers the important area of reaching out to the emigrant population. The way we treated those who, through economic necessity, were forced to leave their country is not something of which we as a nation can be particularly proud. Fine Gael and the Labour Party are committed to implementing the recommendation of the Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants. Despite the report being accepted by the Government in August 2002, many key recommendations have not been implemented in full.

The progress made since 2002 has come about largely as a result of pressure from the Opposition parties and various organisations representing the Irish abroad. The task force recommended the provision of €34 million in official government funding for emigrant services by 2005. However, a year after this deadline, only €12 million was provided for 2006, representing slightly more than one third of the amount promised. Fine Gael and the Labour Party are conscious of the generosity of our emigrants during the lean years of the 1950s and 1960s, when they sent home the equivalent of €3.5 billion to assist those left behind. It is about time we expressed our thanks in a tangible form.

We note greater linkages between Irish-born emigrants and their home country was a key recommendation of the report of the Task Force on Policy Regarding Emigrants. The provision of Irish radio and television services to Irish emigrants plays an important role in maintaining such connections. The Minister referred to a decision by a private broadcaster to no longer provide RTE television. Following that decision, RTE TV broadcasts are no longer available to Irish emigrants based in the UK. RTE has an all-Ireland remit to broadcast within the island of Ireland. We support the legislative expansion of this remit to include the UK. This would give Irish emigrants access to domestic programmes.

On a related note, I welcome the decision by RTE to use the long wave 252 frequency to relay RTE Radio 1 to those outside the State. This service replaces the "Atlantic 252" pop music service, launched in the late 1980s to considerable opposition from many who felt the service did nothing to nurture RTE's reputation as a public service broadcaster, providing as it did nothing but pop music and inane chatter all day long.

I take this opportunity to address an important issue for television audiences, namely, the growing trend by digital and satellite broadcasters to impose special pay-per-view charges for specific events, mainly sporting events. This should be guarded against and I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that RTE and other Irish-based broadcasters will not move into this dangerous territory during and after the switch over to digital.

In particular,the Department's woeful failure to secure free-to-air rights for the Ryder Cup comes to mind. Information released last year to my colleague, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, showed that €15.7 million of taxpayers' money was spent on developing the Ryder Cup project. One would think with this level of investment the Government should have ensured the event was broadcast on free-to-air television. Instead it ensured it was only available on subscription TV, which reduces access to only one in five households in the country.

Legislation was already in place to ensure key sporting events such as the Ryder Cup were made available on free-to-air television. It would have been a simple matter to add the 2006 Ryder Cup to this list. Above all, it would have been in the national interest. It was grossly unfair to the Irish taxpayer who only saw deferred highlights of the event, diluting the excitement and attraction for sports fans who could not afford to pay for the privilege of seeing the event live.

While many people would welcome the developments, it is significant that although every household can get television in one form or another and receive the Irish channels free if they wish, more than 250,000 families have free access only to the Irish channels. This is because they are outside the areas in which free multichannel reception is available, houses cannot be cabled or they cannot or do not want to pay satellite or cable charges. Most of these viewers do not want to pay future subscriptions to receive what they currently enjoy without additional costs. People want reassurance that during the changeover from analogue to digital they will not face extra costs. They already pay for a TV licence. RTE has plans to ensure this will not happen and will probably follow the example of the BBC in this regard, which I welcome.

This legislation is urgently required. Based on current figures, in two years' time 88,000 families in the Leinster area who receive free multichannel television, including the Irish and UK stations, will be cut off instantly when UK services in the west of England and Wales go digital. A further 115,000 Irish households, including many viewers who receive overspill signal from BBC and TV transmitters in Northern Ireland, will lose free multichannel reception in a stage process as other UK areas are switched off.

In conclusion, I wish the Minister well in this challenge. What is happening is futuristic. I wish the BCI and RTE the best of luck in proceeding in this venture.

Debate adjourned.