Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Questions (24)

Pat the Cope Gallagher


24. Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his strategy for dealing with households in County Donegal which form part of the national broadband strategy specifically under the rural broadband scheme; the timeframe by which all households in the county will be connected to high-speed broadband as part of the rural broadband scheme; the number of households within the county that will be directly affected; if a guarantee can be provided that no further delay will occur and the 2023 deadline will be achieved for all rural households; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7259/18]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I ask the Minister the practical implications of the decision by a company to withdraw from the procurement process last month. Will there be a long knock-on effect as a result? I am being parochial in thinking of my county and the implications for Donegal. It is a very rural county; parts of it have the lowest population density in all of Europe. Perhaps the Minister might give us some solace.

I am anxious to get to Question No. 33, as is the Acting Chairman, so we can talk about the constituency of Roscommon-Galway.

The overall objective of the Government's national broadband plan is to provide access to a high-speed, future-proofed broadband service to every premises in Ireland. This will be achieved through a combination of commercial and State investment and remains a key commitment of mine and of the Government.

Nearly 46,000 premises in County Donegal do not currently have access to high-speed broadband connections. Every single one of these rural homes, farms and businesses will be served under the Government's national broadband plan, some 12,000 by commercial investment and the remaining 34,000 by the State-planned intervention scheme.

My Department is in a formal procurement process to engage a company that will roll out a new high-speed broadband network in the State intervention area. As the Deputy will be aware, one bidder, Eir, publicly withdrew from this procurement process last month. While its withdrawal is regrettable, it is entirely a commercial decision made by that company.

My Department's specialist national broadband procurement team will continue to engage intensively with all the relevant stakeholders in the process, including the SSE-Enet consortium, to ensure the earliest possible achievement of the Government's objective of providing reliable, high-quality, high-speed broadband to every one of the homes, farms and businesses I spoke of, in County Donegal and every other county. My Department will also engage with the bidder to ensure the most efficient deployment as part of any contract.

When the procurement process reaches a satisfactory conclusion for Government, a contract will be awarded and the network roll-out will commence. Through the said combination of commercial investment and State-led intervention the national broadband plan has already provided high-speed broadband connections to thousands of homes around the country, ensuring that today seven out of ten premises can access this vital service. By the end of this year this figure will be eight out of ten and by 2020 nine out of every ten premises will have access to a high-speed broadband connection.

I do not have to impress upon the Minister, as a Deputy from rural Ireland, the urgency and necessity of this. It is vitally important to my county from an economic, social and cultural viewpoint and will contribute greatly to the development of the area.

Children in doing their homework are trying to access information. People working in high-tech companies can now work from home and companies are anxious that they do so, but they do not have that opportunity. In addition, many people I know are using medical devices that are connected to hospitals via broadband. It is critical for them that they have access, but if they do not have broadband in their area, they have to go to the hospital. It would be so beneficial to have it. This is as significant a project as electrification was in the 1950s. I wish the Minister well and hope he can achieve his goal to have it provided for all homes in the county by 2020, but there are some suggestions that as a result of the recent decision, it could be 2023 before it happens. Perhaps the Minister might clarify the position.

I know the issues involved because I am dealing with them on the ground. One of the Acting Chairman, Deputy Eugene Murphy's constituents, my mother, is at me continually and persistently in that respect. She is less than one mile from the existing fibre network and within a few yards of the local primary school. My own nieces are missing out on it. I am, therefore, very conscious of the impact on a personal as well as a political level. The Deputy is right; it does not just affect young people. There is massive potential for the provision of medical services in isolated rural communities which would avoid putting additional pressure on health services. An issue was raised by a county-man of the Deputy on a series of radio programmes broadcast in the last fortnight. His solution to the broadband challenge was the roll-out of 4G broadband to rural areas. Adrian Weckler in his article in the Sunday Independent last Sunday clearly made the point that this would not solve the problem, not only because of the monthly caps that applied but also because of the excessive cost that would be involved. It would discriminate against people living in rural areas. The only long-term, sustainable, future-proof solution is mainly fibre based, which is what I am determined to deliver to ensure we do achieve the future equivalent of the rural electrification scheme through broadband provision.

I would like to be seen to be positive. Eir is providing fibre broadband of excellent quality and with excellent speeds for homes in rural areas. However, there are areas where there are gaps. I ask the Minister to speak to Eir to see if there is a possibility of bridging these gaps in the meantime. I have some very practical examples, although I cannot give them to the Minister now. I do not have high-speed broadband because I am too near to the cabinet. If I were further away from it and the town, it would be much better. I do not know what the answer is to that problem. The connection passes by the doors of many. Perhaps the Minister might consider how in the interim the gaps might be filled. Perhaps eir might consider filling them.

On 30 August last I specifically raised this issue with the chief executive of eir, Mr. Richard Moat. We agreed that we would ask the broadband officer in each of the local authorities across the country to look at the anomalies where a cluster of houses has been left out. The example I gave earlier is within 1 km of the local school. Such examples were submitted by the broadband officers at the back end of last year and it is my understanding eir is going through the proposals to see if it can fill in the gaps as an interim measure. On foot of the release of the 3.6 GHz spectrum, I would expect to hear major announcements quite soon on the roll-out of wireless services which will help to meet the shortfall in some rural areas in the immediate future.