Broadcasting Services

I thank the Minister for attending. When I raised this matter previously, he was not present to hear my contribution. I also thank the Cathaoirleach for finally allowing me to raise again the issue of television services. It was frustrating to be refused several times on the basis that the Department had stated the matter had nothing to do with the Minister, that it was one for RTE or another body. Tabling an Adjournment matter was the only way I could circumvent the system to chat with the Minister face to face. Therefore, I appreciate the fact that he is present. It is important that the Department recognises it has a responsibility to ensure there will be television reception at the end of the year on the Inishowen Peninsula, despite the Government's stated policy objective to achieve the closure of Ireland's analogue terrestrial television network by the fourth quarter of 2012.

Concerns are increasing in the north west on the part of those who know about the technological aspects of the transition. Some people do not receive RTE's channels, even though they pay the licence fee; a number receive the signal from the North, while others have a snowy picture on their television screen and have had to seek other solutions. Television coverage knows no borders and many of us have gained the benefits of two jurisdictions. I congratulate those involved on bringing the two sides together. While I am aware of the memorandum of mutual understanding between the two jurisdictions on the island on the transfer from an analogue to a digital service in order that RTE channels will be available to those who want them in the North, I am not convinced by what I have heard to date that there is the same concern for those living in County Donegal who cannot receive RTE's signal. Worse still, those who receive it do not know whether the service will be available after the switchover.

With regard to the work of the North-South Ministerial Council, has the Minister received assurances that the work taking place in the Northern stations will improve the position not only in the Six Counties but also in the nine counties of Ulster? The related issue is whether recent difficulties on the Inishowen Peninsula, in the outskirts of Letterkenny and Milford, in receiving the BBC, UTV and Channel 4 service will be helped or hindered in the switchover. Who is monitoring what is happening, as each side is blaming the other? I have raised specific questions with RTE about the platforms in Limavady. When I have tried to table the matter on the Adjournment in the House, I have been ruled out of order because it is not the Minister's responsibility. It seems no one is responsible for monitoring what is happening during the transition.

There will be a transfer of service. A number of people have spent a great deal of money on trying to find alternative solutions to ensure the preservation of all stations. We are ecumenical in the north, as we tend to watch RTE as well as UTV, and we want to maintain the capacity and facility to do this. We are seeing the demise of some stations, while we are not seeing the advent of the stations for which we are paying the licence fee in many parts of the county. It has been pointed out to me that the Moville television mast is to be closed while the radio mast will remain. The person who contacted me knows a little about technology. What will replace the television mast? If the digital platform was located in Limavady, which would mean upgrading the current analogue service, I would have fewer concerns, but the Minister's recent announcement that the platform would be located on Divis Mountain, Belfast, will do nothing for ensuring coverage in east Donegal. The Inishowen Peninsula in particular may be the loser in this scenario because there was an overspill into our area from the analogue station in Limavady. I assume it is being closed on the basis that analogue services are closing throughout Europe, including the North. If the masts in Moville and Limavady are turned off, from where will we receive a signal? We need this information. We are being promised SAORVIEW — a free service. Some licence fee payers have no or poor reception. People have bought televisions and equipment to overcome the current broadcasting challenges. They want to know how television channels will be delivered free to them. I am not convinced by what I have heard to date that there is a plan to cover every household that needs a signal.

Given that both digital and analogue television services are supposed to have been operating together since 31 October, this simulcast period must give technical experts, North and South, an idea of the experience of households. Are they making inquiries? Where stands the commitment to North-South co-ordination in the digital switchover public information campaign mentioned in October? Has it helped to minimise confusion in Border areas as the analogue switch-off date approaches? Where will the buck stop on the day the analogue service is turned off? This is an international, not just an Irish, event; therefore, it is vital at this time that the matter be taken in hand and people ask probing questions to elicit detailed answers.

Alas, as hard as I try to raise the matter in the House and maintain a focus on it, my few minutes here will yield nothing, unless there is a proper follow-up. While I again thank the Minister for attending, I ask him to demand these answers, as there is much uncertainty and it is unfair to allow it to continue. When I raised the issue previously in October, I was suffering from sunburn in Buncrana, while inside their homes people were looking at snowy television screens. We do not know whether the television — an important device in most households, rightly or wrongly — will simply be a box in the corner or a useful viewing platform in 2012. It will be a great loss in many houses. Others might argue it would be their greatest gain. I will leave the issue of the changeover from analogue to digital television in the capable hands of the Minister and ask for his help in the matter.

I am glad to be present to reply to this matter. I may not have all the details the Senator seeks, but it is right and proper of her to inquire on behalf of her constituents on the Inishowen Peninsula and raise the wider policy issue, on which she has been a strong leader, particularly in regard to the integration of communications systems, North and South. She has been right to persist in this regard. I regret that I was unable to come to the House sooner to discuss the matter with her.

The Government's stated policy objective is to achieve the closure of the analogue terrestrial television network by the fourth quarter of 2012. This means the smooth transfer from analogue to digital will be achieved by 2012. The closure of analogue television networks is happening on a worldwide basis. The deadline is mid-2015 but Europe has set 2012 as the deadline for the switch-off of analogue systems. We have to and will meet that deadline.

The closure of the analogue television network will free up spectrum to develop new business initiatives. It is anticipated that the lease of this spectrum could be worth in excess of €2 billion to Ireland and in these difficult economic times the Government wishes to ensure Ireland reaps the rewards of this spectrum at the earliest opportunity.

As outlined in reply to an Adjournment debate in the House last October, the analogue network is operated and owned by RTE Networks Limited, RTENL, a wholly owned subsidiary of RTE. It transmits RTE One, RTE Two, TV3 and TG4 for reception in households via rooftop or set top aerial. The network is nearing obsolescence and is being replaced by a new digital television network. The new RTE digital television service will provide space for the four 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 televisionchannels.

Last year, I signed legislation requiring RTE to launch its digital television service to approximately 90% of the population by 31 October 2010 and the service was launched on 29 October 2010. RTE has informed me it expects the national digital television network to be in place by the end of 2011. Power restrictions will be in place in some areas, however, until analogue switch-off occurs in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. In this regard, a co-ordinated approach to analogue switch-off between Ireland and Northern Ireland is essential. As outlined to the Senator in my letter of 15 December last, in preparation for the full national launch of Saorview in mid-2011, RTENL is preparing the technical infrastructure and continues to work towards achieving a full digital television network for the population of Ireland.

From the period of 31 October 2010 to the end of 2012, both the digital and analogue TV services will operate together. This simulcast period of approximately two years gives TV households adequate time to upgrade to a digital TV service while ensuring the cost of operating the two services is kept to a minimum. My letter of 15 December also indicated that the analogue TV services in Northern Ireland are also due to be switched off at the end of 2012. In parallel with these developments, therefore, the memorandum of understanding I signed earlier last year with the then UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Mr. Ben Bradshaw MP, will facilitate co-ordination around the roll-out of digital terrestrial television, DTT, and analogue switch-off with Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement and St. Andrews Agreement recognise the importance of the unique cultural and linguistic diversities on the island of Ireland, and this memorandum of understanding helps to promote and protect those diversities. The memorandum of understanding 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 on the digital switch-over public information campaign. This will help minimise confusion in the Border areas as the analogue switch-off date approaches.

The memorandum of understanding 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 the 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 memorandum of understanding 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 service to the island of Ireland, I am happy to report that both RTE and TG4 are fully engaged in the process we have set out.

Officials from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the communications regulators in both Ireland and the UK, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, RTE, RTENL, 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 the technical and spectrum planning issues, regulatory matters and the costs of carriage for RTE on the Northern Ireland digital TV network. I am pleased to report that much progress has been made and there is significant buy-in from all relevant stakeholders, including RTE, RTENL, Arqiva, which owns the TV transmitter sites in Northern Ireland, and Ofcom, the UK regulatory body. The two governments are pleased with the amount of progress made since the signing of the memorandum of understanding in ensuring and expanding the provision of Irish television services, including Irish language services, in Northern Ireland.

Following a broad range of technical work, the two governments agreed at the end of December last that the most effective way to provide for the continuing provision of TG4 is by building a new, low-power TV multiplex in Northern Ireland. In addition to carrying TG4, this multiplex, which will be part of the UK DTT system, will also carry RTE One and RTE Two. It is hoped this will increase further the coverage of these channels in Northern Ireland, enabling approximately 90% of the population in Northern Ireland to receive their services on a free-to-air basis, either through overspill as before or via the new multiplex. The existing analogue signals will be switched off on a co-ordinated basis in Ireland and Northern Ireland at the end of 2012 and much more work needs to be done between then and now to keep the public informed of progress in this regard.

With regard to analogue switch-off in the fourth quarter of 2012, as the Senator can appreciate, the technical and spectrum planning aspects of 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 switch-over process which will provide a clear roadmap to secure a smooth analogue switch-off process for Irish citizens in Border counties.

I thank the Minister for his detailed reply. I had much of the information. Perhaps he will tackle the specific issue of whether the digitalisation of the Divis transmitter is all that is necessary to provide a digital overspill into the north west. I believe it might be necessary to upgrade the Limavady transmitter to facilitate that. I urge the Minister to get that information as early as possible to the households we are discussing.

Currently, a television in one part of my house does not have certain channels while in the other part of the house it does. I do not know if that is a temporary matter due to work that is taking place. If something appeared on the television screens to notify people that analogue has been turned off and that this is the shape of things to come, it would be helpful. People know there are two services working together but they do not know what is causing the problems they are experiencing. The lack of information means they are wondering what they should do. While people advise them to seek new solutions in the two year period, they do not know what solution they should seek. I accept it is a technical matter. I am far from being a technological person in terms of explaining the problem but I hope the Minister and his officials will be able to understand what I am trying to explain and will raise it with people who can respond to it effectively.

I appreciate the Senator's interest in this regard. I will ask my Department's officials to respond on the technical issues regarding transmission from Divis or Limavady. I do not have the technical details with me but I am willing to ask my officials to respond to the Senator on those technical aspects.

The Seanad adjourned at 3.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 18 January 2011.