Thursday, 11 October 2012

Questions (6, 14, 16)

Michael McGrath

Question:

6. Deputy Michael McGrath asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he will outline the key targets under his newly launched broadband strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43701/12]

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Martin Heydon

Question:

14. Deputy Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources his plans for implementing the new National Broadband Plan to areas now covered by the national broadband scheme provided by 3 Ireland; if he will consider the prioritisation of areas in the country where broadband levels are still very basic and many still rely on dial up services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43738/12]

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Bernard Durkan

Question:

16. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the extent to which he has been able to address the major deficiencies in respect of broadband; his plans in place or proposed to address these issues with a view to making available in all areas throughout the country, urban and rural, the most up to date, high speed broadband; if he expects to bring the standard and quality of the technology here to the best available throughout Europe or worldwide; when he expects such service to be in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43723/12]

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Oral answers (5 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 14 and 16 together.

The Government’s recently published national broadband plan aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring that high-speed services of at least 30 Mbps are available to all of our citizens and businesses well in advance of the EU’s target date of 2020, and that significantly higher speeds are available to as many homes and businesses as possible. The plan commits to high-speed broadband availability across the country and specifies that 70 to 100 Mbps will be available from commercial market operators to more than half of the population by 2015. At least 40 Mbps, and in many cases faster speeds, will be available to at least a further 20% of the population - and potentially as much as 35% - during the lifetime of the Government. Finally, a minimum of 30 Mbps will be available to every remaining home and business in the country, also during the lifetime of the Government. During the preparation of the national broadband plan, the commercial market operators indicated that they expected to provide 70 to 100 Mbps services to 50% of the population by 2015. The precise areas to be provided with those services will be determined by the commercial market operators.

One of the first steps in delivering on the 30 Mbps and 40 Mbps commitments will be the completion of a formal national mapping exercise to determine the exact position with regard to commercial service providers’ existing and planned broadband services throughout the country. Preparatory work has commenced within my Department to expedite this task. The mapping exercise will identify the areas of the country in which there is a market failure in the provision of high-speed broadband services. It will also identify where the market is expected to succeed in the delivery of high-speed broadband over the coming years. This process is expected to take several months to complete and until then, the precise areas of the country which will require State intervention will not be known. It is likely, however, that rural areas, including those covered by the national broadband scheme, NBS, will require intervention. Roll-out will be targeted to commence in 2014, when the mapping, state aids and procurement processes are complete and when the current contract for the national broadband scheme expires.

I reiterate that the Government remains committed to the delivery of the speeds to which I referred, in order to ensure that all parts of Ireland, including rural or remote parts of the country, have access to modern high-speed broadband services.

My party supports the target of 70 to 100 Mbps for at least 50% of the population, as contained in the plan. However, the Minister's reply is high on rhetoric and low on substance and I have numerous questions because of that. How is it proposed to ensure universal coverage at high speeds? Broadband penetration in many rural areas is less than 20%. There is no specific detail as to how the Government might address this in the plan. There is no date for the delivery of the national minimum speed but rather a vague promise that it will be achieved during the lifetime of the Government. I expect and assume that is because, as mentioned within the plan, the indicative cost to the State for its roll-out is €175 million over the period of the plan. The Minister has stated that his Department has commenced dialogue with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and NewERA with a view to identifying funding sources. Has the Minister any update on this dialogue? How is it progressing, when is it likely to conclude and at what point will the Minister be in a position to inform the House of the availability of this funding? Perhaps then he will be able to be more specific regarding the means and methods by which the plan's targets might be met and ultimately give a clearer indication of the exact timeframe for the eventual roll-out.

Deputy Cowen is being very severe. Extraordinary developments are under way at present and I have no doubt that the private telecommunications companies will furnish more than 50% of the population with industrial-strength broadband by 2015, which is ahead of the target set by the Commissioner in Europe. I do not see any point in my replicating that or seeking to spend State money where the telecommunications companies are capable of providing the service.

Deputy Cowen will say, entirely fairly, that the service will generally be provided in the more populous areas - that is, in largely urban areas - and he is right about that. It is for that reason that we opted for the three-tier architecture in the plan. It is hard to say, until the mapping exercise is done, what is the size of the bottom tier but the commitment is that those in that tier will have broadband services of not less than 30 Mbps. At the moment, most of those people would not even have 2 Mbps. The design and procurement process will stipulate that the successful bidders to do the job for the State will have to comply with that prospectus.

We will be ahead of the general European digital agenda targets. The expectation for the lifetime of the Government is 2016 and it is within that timeframe that the commitment to provide the second tier with speeds of 40 Mbps or better and the bottom tier with speeds of 30 Mbps or better lies. That will encroach on the NBS areas, although it is not possible to say where exactly until the mapping exercise is done. The previous Government's contract on the NBS runs until August 2014. In any event, the state aids procurement process is painfully slow. It is not something that is designed to penalise Ireland in particular but is the same across all member states. It is a painfully slow process but one we must go through because the net point about the plan is that it acknowledges that State intervention is necessary where the private sector cannot provide.

I welcome the national broadband plan and the ambitious targets therein but my concern is for areas that lie in the bottom tier. In my own constituency there are areas which are covered by the NBS but most residents there struggle to access the 3 network. In many cases, they are on dial-up for Internet access. However, because they are deemed to be covered under the NBS, they are not able to access the rural broadband scheme, RBS. Villages such as Calverstown and Narraghmore in my constituency are just two that spring to mind. Many residents of those villages work in Dublin and further afield but would have the option of working from home if they had high-speed broadband access. Small businesses in these areas also need a high-quality broadband service. The benefits to the economy would include a reduction in the numbers commuting to Dublin every day and the quality of life for those people would be greatly enhanced.

Will the mapping process take account of the varying levels of cover in those areas that are currently part of the NBS? Will it be possible to prioritise those areas that have little or no cover at present, such as those I have just mentioned?

The rural broadband scheme was intended to pick up premises which did not have a service because of topographical or other issues.

The investment of State money meant that the rural broadband scheme could not apply where a service provider already existed. If there are defects or difficult pockets where the national broadband scheme is not doing its job, I ask that specific complaints be brought to my Department. In tribute to the provider, 3, since the deal was agreed it has co-operated with my Department to address issues in areas where the service is not what might be expected.

As regards Deputy Heydon's question about specific villages in County Kildare, it is difficult to identify the locations where the State should intervene before the mapping exercise is complete. I anticipate that it will have to intervene in parts of the country that are currently the remit of the national broadband scheme. In the case of second level schools, we started to install high speed broadband in parts of the country where the service was weakest so that every second level school in 13 counties in the west of Ireland will be connected by the middle of this month. Similarly, I hope we will have regard for the areas that are weakest and the pockets where issues arise in respect of the quality of broadband rather its availability.