Broadcasting Bill 2008: Committee Stage (Resumed).

Debate resumed on amendment No. 85:
In page 84, before section 78, to insert the following new section:
"78.—(1) The Authority shall not conclude a satellite content contract with a person for the purpose of material being supplied for its transmission as a broadcasting service (intended for reception in the State) by means of a satellite device unless satisfied that recipients of the service will be in a position to receive by satellite device each free to air service provided by RTÉ, TG4 and the television service programme contractor as a basic programme service.
(2) This section applies to satellite content contracts whether concluded before or after the passing of this Act.
(3) In this section—
"basic programme service" means the programme material made available to persons by means of a satellite device at the lowest rate in any scale of charges that are made for the reception of such services by means of a satellite device;
"free to air services" includes such free to air services as are available at the date of passing of this Act.".
— (Senator Michael McCarthy)

I want to put this matter in simple terms. If we do not make progress, I will bring it back on Report Stage in more technical terms. I will speak as simply as I can.

This concerns broadcasting and has much to do with the fact we are changing from medium wave to long wave. While this is not the business of the legislation, it is what prompted me to bring this issue forward. When RTE decided to kill medium wave and change over to long wave, I supported that approach because long wave is a clearer and better signal than medium wave. At that time, I recognised it would be better.

There was a huge issue for emigrants in Britain in particular, who felt they could no longer listen to GAA matches on a Sunday and various other programmes during the course of a weekend. Although long wave is clearer and one can listen to it on a car radio throughout the UK, the problem is that at night time it is subject to greater interference. I was in the UK some months ago and noticed that in parts where I should have received long wave on my car radio, I could not receive it. I raised this at the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and with RTE.

Since then I have discovered something which has made me quite angry, and it is an issue of importance to the GAA, emigrant groups, cultural groups, Irish language groups and so on, namely, reception. I discovered we have capacity to broadcast on long wave at 500 KW. That is the power output that was being sent from the Summerhill transmitter when it was operated by Radio Tara and owned by an independent music broadcaster based in London. Nowadays, apparently, it is only sending out a 250 KW signal which, consequently, cannot be picked up in parts of London. I tried it last weekend in north London and I could barely get a signal although it should be easily received.

I will explain why it should be easily received. The station which is interfering with RTE long wave at night is Radio Morocco or Radio Algeria — I have forgotten which.

It is Radio Algeria.

It is cutting across RTE. Radio Algeria is broadcasting at full strength but we are not. I could go on.

I feel let down by RTE on this issue. I argued with those who argued against the elimination of medium wave and I stated that long wave was better. Long wave is technically better as long as we are using our output, which we are entitled to do.

I do not want the Minister to come back and tell me that under the terms of the current licence we are only allowed to broadcast at 250 KW. That is not the issue. I am not asking him to be responsible for RTE. I am insisting that we broadcast at full strength where we can.

I feel I have been misled by RTE on this issue. Other groups feel the same. No one has been told until now about the reduction in the transmission output.

This is not a problem for which the Minister should be answerable and that is not the point of my amendment. Its point is to take it from the hands of RTE that it could reduce output at its own discretion. I want us to use our full output. I want the Irish message to be received as widely as possible. If we were broadcasting at 500 KW or more, we could be received in Brussels and all of the UK, never mind London. There is a big issue. I know Senator Donie Cassidy shares my view about the importance of long wave being received here.

I have outlined the issue in simple terms and can outline it in technical terms also, if that is required. What is happening at present is unacceptable. Our message is being diluted and not received, and all because we are not using what is available to us. I ask the Minister of State to concede to us on this point.

I call Senator O'Reilly.

I will allow Senator Norris to speak.

I thank Senator O'Reilly for so graciously yielding because we are both on exactly the same wavelength on this issue, so to speak. I am happy to know that had I not been present, the Senator would have been able to move this amendment for me.

Our amendment is similar to Senator O'Toole's amendment, with some additional elements such as the maintenance of the proper equipment and taking on board the fact the Government may be persuaded by argument on all sides of the House to use the maximum transmission power. This is important.

Like many of my colleagues, I have had extensive briefing from a variety of groups on this issue. I wish to put on record the view of a senior engineer with an interest in the area of broadcasting engineering techniques. He states:

What does concern me is the capability of the Government in times of crisis to reach the entire nation in a broadcast. I do not believe that there is national coverage with FM transmitters. Sky's own figures will show that they do not have national coverage and experiments have shown that coverage from the long wave transmitter is not adequate at present. Listening to it with a battery powered radio will verify this. If we were to experience an event similar to the blackouts in north-eastern US or Italy [we remember the electricity blackouts there] in the autumn of 2003, the Government would potentially be without an effective means of communicating with the population.

That happened in the life of the publication of the recent booklet about how to cope with emergencies. The situation at present contradicts this because RTE is operating the long wave transmitter on less than full power. Long wave has been downgraded. It is not being managed or maintained to cover needs in case of emergency. We know the Tullamore transmitter has been closed and, as we have learned, the FM service does not provide seamless coverage.

I recently travelled by train to Limerick and found that on certain parts of the journey there was no signal, although one can get the commercial stations, including those from Dublin. I was able to listen to Newstalk 106 but I could not get RTE Radio 1. Members should try it on the Enterprise to Northern Ireland. Half of the time, the signal is lost. Why is this? Why do we not care about these people?

Senator O'Toole referred to emigrant populations in London whose service is interfered with by Radio Algeria. In Australia where there was a similar problem, they permitted the radio stations to double the strength of their transmissions. While they double it, we are halving it, although we face the same situation. It is idiotic.

There is also the question of weather forecast broadcasts to the fishing fleet at sea. The current level of power is not adequate to reach our fishing fleet in all emergency situations. Our brave fishermen, God knows, have been hammered, clobbered and sold out by successive administrations and are now getting whacked by the European Union, but we are not even providing proper cover for emergency services. This is all in the context of a decision for some reason, presumably economic, to downgrade the power output to approximately half strength. This unquestionably must reduce service.

Let us consider the question of preparing for a nuclear emergency and major emergencies. We know that people will be taking shelter, perhaps in a building that has poor reception. Most modern buildings are insulated due to environmental considerations, heat loss and all the rest, and foil insulation in particular will effectively block out a large part of the signal. The booklet tells people to use battery powered radios, presumably because of possible failures in commercial power output. If one is using a battery powered radio, one is using a weakened receiver and receiving a weakened signal. How can that possibly be satisfactory?

The long wave transmitter is not managed and maintained. In the days of the commercial radio station, Atlantic 252, to which Senator O'Toole referred, it used its full allocation of power. This transmitter, which is now used to broadcast the national station, is being downgraded to half power. Reducing power reduces the service and it is not in keeping with the needs of an emergency or our emigrants.

Turning to a technical area, electromagnetic pollution has increased in recent years and according to the predicted levels contained in the ITU-R p.372 figures — this is a technical matter which I do not fully understand — these high levels of magnetic pollution have been in existence for 30 years. This is the reason Australia has permitted its stations to double their power output.

A long wave transmitter needs four times the power of its medium wave counterpart to provide a protected service but RTE has made the questionable decision to reduce the power of RTE Radio 1 on long wave 252 KHz. BBC Radio 4 Droitwich, which is only 100 km away, requires a booster from London on medium wave. That offers some idea of the matter. Since the medium wave closure, London, the south east and near Europe suffer interference at night time from a station transmitting a signal which is 30 to 40 times the strength of long wave 252 KHz. At night, medium wave travels further and overleaps long wave into Europe, which is how Radio Luxembourg was once received in Ireland.

This policy is contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which pledged to serve the entire island. The Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007, to which I contributed, makes provision for Irish communities overseas. Radio services were introduced into that Act by an amendment I made. The original measures in the Act pertained to television services but radio broadcasts were left out until I proposed their inclusion. I have, therefore, a particular interest in this area.

Broadcasting to our own people in emergency situations is a serious matter. I was recently on a television programme with Brian Keenan, who was held hostage in Beirut. He kept himself going partly because he was able to hear RTE broadcasts. The question also arises of our fishing fleet.

The Minister has a menu of amendments from which to chose, including Senator O'Toole's, although he might concede that the amendments proposed by Senator O'Reilly and myself go further in terms of securing the methods and technical aspects of transmission. I urge the Minister to use this legislation to close the gap created by the discontinuation of medium wave and to ensure a proper service is guaranteed throughout the island, to emigrants and, if I can make my own little case, to my house in the mountains of Cyprus. I would dearly love to receive RTE once more.

In regard to the emergency booklet, it was slightly farcical in the first place and was wonderfully mocked in a musical performance on RTE. The intention behind it was serious but one has to question its application in a situation where people who take the Government's advice to listen on battery powered radio would probably hear nothing. Perhaps, if they are lucky, their final moments would be comforted by a broadcast from Radio Algérie.

For the purpose of clarifying the amendments Senator Norris and I have proposed, "ITU" is the International Telecommunications Union. It is the equivalent to the planning authorities in that it puts order on international frequencies.

I do not understand the numbers.

I am not sure about that.

I have been advised by a range of interest groups and technical experts that RTE is operating the long wave transmitter at just above half its power capacity. Reducing power clearly reduces service, so the move has had a detrimental effect on broadcasts to emigrants and Northern Ireland.

The issue is particularly serious for our emigrant communities. One of my greatest privileges in public life, both as chair of my local authority and as a Senator, has been my visits to the Cavan associations of Luton and London, where I met a range of people and saw that our vibrant emigrant community has retained close cultural ties with this country. These emigrants dearly love Ireland and its people and they revel in its success. They have every right to receive clear broadcasts of RTE programmes. That should not be negotiable. Anybody who has met emigrant communities in England could not but be inspired by their kinship with and love of this country and their desire to maintain links. We should not be equivocal about that.

Serious problems could arise in an emergency. Who, for example, can be brave enough to say a nuclear accident will never take place? A nuclear accident would require people to take shelter in buildings with poor receptions, so maximum power would be needed to broadcast instructions. These problems would be exacerbated where shelters are located in mountainous areas. RTE's long wave transmitter is not maintained with this in mind.

Electromagnetic pollution levels have increased and they are causing a buzzing sound on radios in the south east, London and in near Europe. A long wave transmitter needs four times the power of its medium wave counterpart to protect a service from this interference. However, RTE has made the questionable decision to reduce power on RTE Radio 1 long wave 252 KHz by approximately half. Since the discontinuation of medium wave and the reduction of power, RTE broadcasts to the south east, London and near Europe suffer interference at night from a signal 30 to 40 times more powerful than RTE's. At night, medium wave travels further and overleaps long wave in the same way that Radio Luxembourg used to reach Ireland. That brings back memories of my childhood, when I listened to that station in my bedroom with my radio under the bed clothes.

Closing medium wave transmitters and reducing long wave power by half results in a poor service for Northern Ireland and the UK. That is a serious matter in the context of the Good Friday agreement and our kinship with and moral responsibility for our emigrant communities. It is also serious in the context of the quality of life of the people in the south east who are affected. I empathise with Senator Walsh in that regard.

This is a serious issue. We have been approached by interest groups and by highly skilled technical personnel. As Senators O'Toole and Norris stated, we can forward to the Minister of State or to his officials, privately, the technical material we have received. It would be ludicrous to read that material into the record. Suffice it to say that this is critical in respect of the quality and area of coverage of broadcast signals and the rights of emigrants and citizens in this country. The Minister of State must be reasonable and accept the amendment. I have no doubt he will do so. Irish emigrants will be watching carefully to see how we deal with this issue.

Section 114(1)(d) provides, for the first time in legislation, an obligation for the national broadcaster to assist and co-operate with public bodies regarding the dissemination of information “in the event of a major emergency”. It is important that the transmission capacity be available in order for this obligation to be honoured in an effective manner. Studies have been carried out by people who claim the signal has diminished to a significant degree since the change from medium wave. Given that major emergencies are covered in the Bill, one could argue that there is a requirement on RTE to ensure it has the capacity to broadcast effectively in the event of an emergency occurring.

As previous speakers stated, those in the maritime industry, particularly fishermen, depend on radio broadcasts for weather forecasts, which are extremely important in the context of their work and for ensuring their safety. It is important that these people should be able to receive radio signals from the national broadcaster.

It was also stated that emigrants abroad should be able to receive these signals in order that they might remain in touch with what is happening at home. The position with regard to citizens living here is similar. It would be a pity if we were to move in the opposite direction.

I spent a holiday in France in 1981. I remember it well because my daughter — she was only a year old at the time and we did not bring her with us — keeps reminding me about it. She refers to it as the holiday when she was left at home. We travelled through Normandy and Brittany in France and had no difficulty tuning in to Raidió Éireann, as it was then, and listening to the news and other programmes. Almost 30 years later, it appears we are going in the wrong direction and moving away from a position where people might tune in to the national station when abroad.

I understand the Tullamore medium wave transmitter could operate, both day and night, at a capacity of up to 500 KW and that the long-wave transmitter is limited to operating at 62.5 KW at night. This means the capacity is reduced by eight times, which must have some impact. People are campaigning strongly in respect of this matter. Was the change from medium to long wave carried out in order to save energy? I do not know whether that was the case. However, a compelling case is being made to the effect that this matter should be assessed independently of RTE. Perhaps the Department could carry out such an assessment in order to be satisfied as to what is the measurement. If the anecdotal information we have received is correct, there is a case to be made for RTE to restore the medium wave service. Questions have been raised in respect of RTE and its presentation in respect of this topic.

We are currently focused on developing an all-island economy. In such circumstances, it is incongruous that the radio signals provided by the national broadcaster are not available on all parts of the island. The latter should be one of the criteria used to assess the acceptability of what is on offer at present.

I agree with Senator O'Toole's views on RTE. We should not be going backwards. Some 30 years ago I had a radio programme on RTE and it was received widely across Scotland, on the Welsh coast and in Liverpool, Manchester and Coventry. Even when there was a full-blown medium wave service, it was always difficult to broadcast a signal to the north London area.

What is happening represents a retrograde step on the part of RTE. The station published its accounts earlier today and these indicate that its radio service is showing a profit. At a time when the backs of those who run companies are to the wall, the national broadcaster is not playing its part. That never happened in the past. Cathal Goan, the chief executive of RTE, is one of the greatest Irishmen I have ever known and he should intervene immediately.

I suggest that the Minister of State give serious consideration to investigating this matter before Report Stage. The House would then be in a position to make a decision in respect of it. While I agree with the majority of Senator Walsh's remarks, I am of the view that this matter is far too serious to be left to an independent inquiry. Immediate action is required. If we can promote Irish products abroad by means of advertisements on RTE radio, why are we not using the transmitter in the Slieve Bloom mountains, which has huge capacity, to send signals far and wide across most of Europe? RTE has been granted a licence to broadcast such signals. What is happening is that pennies are being saved but euros are being lost, which is completely unacceptable.

Previous speakers referred to the fishermen and radio broadcasts. We are all concerned about the fishing industry. The marine is a valuable national resource. The Gaelic Athletic Association has made a tremendous contribution to society for many years. However, we are turning our backs on these interests. People in the UK have for many years listened to broadcasts of Gaelic games each Sunday on RTE. As a result, Ireland and its culture have been promoted in that jurisdiction since 1926.

I am concerned with regard to the broadcast of mass and the services of other denominations on Sunday mornings. It is a disgrace that we are obliged to listen to particular programmes each Sunday morning. Why in the name of goodness do we not switch our attention away from the commercial world on Sundays to allow those unfortunate people who are confined to their homes and who may not be fit enough to attend church to listen to religious services? Why are such services — Catholic, Protestant or whatever — not broadcast for the benefit of those to whom I refer?

The national broadcaster has certain duties and obligations. This is the Oireachtas and, in the context of this legislation, its Members should stand up for the people to whom I refer. Enough is enough with regard to commercialism. For at least two hours each Sunday morning, the religious services of the various churches should be broadcast on all wavelengths.

What is happening is unacceptable. As Leader of Seanad Éireann, I must make the strongest protest to RTE, its chief executive and the chairman of the RTE authority, who has a direct responsibility to the Oireachtas in respect of matters relating to the majority of the members of the public who pay their licence fees. Before the House takes Report Stage of the Bill next week, I want RTE to provide an assurance in respect of this matter.

We want to support RTE in every possible way. The station has done tremendous work for generations. It should not, however, take its eye off the ball and reduce its broadcasting capacity, particularly at a time when pleas are being made in respect of the need to support Irish industry and products.

I call Senator Mullen. There are 30 seconds remaining before we suspend our consideration of the Bill until 7.30 p.m.

In that event, I will defer my remarks until later. I wish to support what Senator Cassidy said but I will not comment further at this point.

Progress reported; Committee to sit again.