Broadcasting Services

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise again the issue of television services. We are familiar with the concept of the move from analogue to digital broadcasting but I reiterate that there is a concern in the north west on the part of some people who cannot get RTE. I am aware that a memorandum of mutual understanding was signed between the two jurisdictions on the island to work to maximise on the transfer from an analogue to digital service in that RTE would become available to those who want it in the North yet we have people in Donegal who cannot get RTE.

Two issues arise. The first is to do with the work going on at North-South Ministerial Council level to ensure the work taking place in the Northern stations will improve the position not only for the Six Counties but for the nine counties of Ulster. The related issue that arises is that recently a number of people are having great difficulty with the BBC, UTV and Channel 4 service, but particularly BBC. That is not something they have had a difficulty with until now. I have been in touch with the authorities in the North and they say that any work they are doing on their stations has not impacted on signals and that it is not their issue. I have been in touch with RTE also and they say they have no responsibility for BBC, therefore, they could not have been doing anything either.

We are in a difficult position because we are not sure why this is happening. We know there is no snow outside — I got sunburn in Buncrana on Monday — but we are definitely getting a snowy image on our television screens and coming into the winter, we want to reverse that trend and get rid of the snow, so to speak.

It is very simple. There is a transfer of the service. A number of people are very anxious about this issue. A number of people have spent a good deal of money trying to find alternative solutions for the preservation of all stations. We are ecumenical in the north west. We tend to watch RTE as well as BBC and UTV. We want to maintain the capacity and facility to do that. There are many questions about what will happen. We see the demise of some stations whereas we do not see the advent of the stations for which we are paying the licence fee in many parts of the county. There is no information whether if one buys a box at this time it will cover the position when the changeover takes place or whether a person should pay for a satellite service or some other interim solution. There is no sense that we will know, until the switchover takes place later this year, the exact scale of either the success or demise of the television service in my county.

I tabled this matter on the Adjournment because the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has had a number of interactions at the North-South Ministerial Council. I have raised this issue in the Seanad and although I did so specifically about Inishowen, since then people from Milford and other areas outside Letterkenny have asked to be included because they are in the same situation. It is important, if we are having interactions at North-South level to improve the quality of television coverage for those in the North, that we deal with those who are even further north than the North and ensure they are accommodated as well.

I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would outline any information that has become available at North-South level. I would also appreciate receiving, if it is available, an information note outlining the current situation, the timeframe in which the changeover will take place, the system under which the service operates and how the new system will impact. There is much uncertainty and it is very unfair to let that uncertainty remain. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources should be working with the service providers and with its counterpart in the North, given there is a North-South dimension and the signal knows no border inasmuch as we do not know much of a border either. A little information would ease minds. Whatever about people fiddling with remote controls and trying their best to hang off the satellite as it were, others are not in a position to do that which is unfair on them.

I thank Senator Keaveney for raising this matter and affording me an opportunity to speak on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The Government's stated policy objective is to achieve the closure of Ireland's analogue terrestrial television network by the fourth quarter of 2012. The closure of the analogue television network is occurring worldwide. The worldwide deadline is mid-2015 and Europe has set 2012 as the European-wide deadline. The closure of the analogue television network frees up spectrum which can be used to develop new business initiatives. It is anticipated that the release of this spectrum could be worth in excess of €2 billion to Ireland over 15 years, and in these chastened economic times the Government wishes to ensure Ireland reaps the rewards of this spectrum at the earliest opportunity.

The analogue television network is operated and owned by RTE Network Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of RTE which transmits the television channels RTE ONE, RTE TWO, TV3 and TG4 for reception in households via rooftop or set-top aerial. This network is nearing obsolescence and is being replaced by a digital television network. The new RTE digital television service will provide space for the four national channels and additional public service channels. In the event of spare capacity, it can be used by RTE on a commercial basis to offer carriage to other commercial television channels.

Earlier this year, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources signed legislation requiring RTE to launch its digital television service to approximately 90% of the population by 31 October 2010. RTE has advised the Minister that it will achieve 92% population coverage from 24 sites throughout the country by then and that this service will initially include the existing four Irish channels. RTE has informed the Minister that it expects the full national digital television network to be in place by the end of 2011.

In the period from 31 October 2010 to the end of 2012, both digital and analogue TV services will operate together. This simulcast period, as it is called, of two years gives television households adequate time to upgrade to a digital television service while ensuring the cost of operating the two services is kept to a minimum. The analogue television services in Northern Ireland are also due to be switched off at the end of 2012 so, in parallel with these developments, the memorandum of understanding, MoU, signed earlier this year between then UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Mr. Ben Bradshaw MP, and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will facilitate co-ordination with Northern Ireland of the roll-out of digital terrestrial television, DTT, and the analogue switch-off. The Good Friday Agreement and St. Andrews Agreement recognise the importance of the unique cultural and linguistic diversities that exist on the island of Ireland, and this MoU helps to promote and protect those diversities.

This MoU marked the culmination of a very successful period of co-operation on broadcasting issues between the Governments of Ireland and the UK and its benefits will be manifold. It provides for co-operation between the Irish and UK Governments to ensure,inter alia, North-South co-ordination in the digital switchover public information campaign. This will help to minimise confusion in Border areas as the analogue switch-off date approaches. The MoU also provides for the carriage of TG4 on Northern Ireland’s DTT platform and facilitates the possibility of RTE being transmitted over DTT in the North and for BBC to be carried in the South.

While many viewers in Ireland and Northern Ireland watch the other country's free-to-air TV channels through overspill, perhaps most significantly the MoU allows the possibility of broadcasting RTE on an all-island basis for the first time in the history of the State. While the BBC has not engaged in the process for the delivery of free-to-air BBC services throughout Ireland and has no legislative remit to offer a service to the island of Ireland, both RTE and TG4 are fully engaged.

Officials from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the communications regulators in Ireland and the UK, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, RTE, RTE Network Limited, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Northern Ireland Office have been meeting over recent months to agree arrangements for the carriage of RTE and TG4 in Northern Ireland. These meetings have mainly concentrated on technical issues, spectrum planning issues, regulatory matters and the cost of carriage for TG4 and RTE on the Northern Ireland digital television network. These discussions are ongoing but much progress has been made and there is significant buy-in from all relevant stakeholders, including RTE, RTENL, Arqiva, which owns the television transmitter sites in Northern Ireland, and the UK regulatory body, Ofcom.

In regard to analogue switch-off in the fourth quarter of 2012, as the Senator can appreciate, the technical and spectrum planning aspects of the analogue switch-off require in-depth discussion and technical considerations of transmission, both North and South. These discussions are ongoing but all parties are keenly aware of the timelines and are working together to ensure a co-ordinated analogue switchover process which will provide a clear roadmap to secure a smooth analogue switch-off process for Irish citizens in Border counties.

Much work is being done, which I welcome. My two questions remain. When we talk about an all-island RTE service, are we doing anything to minimise the 8% of the population that is accepted as not being covered? We can broadcast to all the Six Counties but we cannot cover Donegal, even though people there pay the licence fee in this jurisdiction.

My second question relates to an issue on which I need advice. I assume we are receiving the BBC on the overspill from the Six Counties. When there are discussions about technical North-South matters, is there any way this issue can be raised to find out why the reception of the other stations has disimproved since the RTE signal has improved in our area? I assume it has not disimproved in the Six Counties. The Minister of State will not have the answers to my questions, as these are technical matters. However, I hope the Department can refer back to me on them.

I will pass a note to the office of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, on the questions the Senator has raised and ask that a response be issued to her.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 October 2010.