UHF Television Licence Scheme: Statements.

I wish to announce today my intention to introduce a new short-term licensing scheme for the provision of multichannel TV on the ultra high frequency band using analogue technology. This new scheme, the UHF retransmission scheme, will operate in addition to the Cable Relay and MMDS scheme already in place for the provision of multichannel television.

Before I go into any detail I want to refute Deputy Brennan's silly allegations about the timing and circumstance of the arrangements I am about to put before the House.

How could they be silly when I have not heard of them?

Let us hear the Minister out.

I will remind the Deputy of the trouble he got himself into.

Who writes this stuff?

Last week the Minister promised he would introduce a Bill.

Deputy Brennan will have an opportunity to speak shortly.

The Chair should tell the Minister to stop provoking me.

This matter has hunted successive Governments for years. It has been acknowledged to be legally and technically complex.

I note that since last Wednesday the Fianna Fáil Party has rallied to the position of principle set out by our Taoiseach, Deputy Bruton, in November 1994 and carried through into the Government's policy programme in December 1994.

We saw the video.

It gives me considerable satisfaction, just over four months after taking office at the invitation of the Taoiseach, to be able to put forward an equitable and practical resolution of the problem.

Where was Deputy Lowry in all of this?

The South Coast case resulted in one of the longest judgments ever given by the High Court, testimony, if it were needed, to the technical and legal complexity of all this. Following that, my predecessor, Deputy Lowry, commissioned internationally renowned experts nominated by the European Broadcasting Union to look at the technical aspects of the South Coast application. They did so and after considerable time and effort produced a report. I will put the report before the House having deleted material that is confidential to South Coast.

That is disgraceful.

I am deleting that material at the express wish of a company that has a commercial interest in that information.

I have heard that one before.

I insist that we have an orderly debate.

What the report tells us is that it is now easier to gauge the requirements of the national broadcasting services more precisely as to time and extent and that, even though frequency space is getting scarcer, it is still possible to exploit certain spare frequency capacity. The report takes the view that it should be possible to grant a limited form of licence for UHF broadcasting for a short period of time between now and the end of the century. The consultants were mindful, as I am, of the need to provide for the advent of digital television. Before that time, therefore, it will be necessary to undertake a full review of the means for the delivery of multichannel television from a frequency management and technology point of view. I will be consulting with the incoming Director of Telecommunications Regulation with that end in view.

The report is a complex one. I have had to give it the fullest consideration and I have taken it into account in arriving at my decision. In looking at the wider deflector issue, I have had to have regard also to the inputs from other interested persons and bodies. I have also had to take legal advice on the implications of the court case for the wider deflector issue. The integration of these considerations has been a long and painstaking process and it has only recently become possible to bring the result of all of this effort to fruition. All in all, I think it is not unreasonable that I have taken the trouble and the time to solve this issue. So much for Deputy Brennan's silly allegation that I am making this up as I go along.

The Minister is doing that.

Quite the contrary, it is the outcome of very careful reflection. Clearly the same cannot be said for his utterances. If there has been prevarication, it has been by the party opposite while in Government. I have chosen to act and I will set out for the House what I have decided.

Before I do that, I should say there has been a great deal of ill-informed comment about the MMDS industry. The MMDS technology has been variously described as unsuitable and out-moded. Nothing could be further from the truth. MMDS technology has proven itself to be eminently suitable and adaptable to Irish conditions, and as to the future, the use of this type of service for broad band delivery holds out some very interesting prospects. The system has performed very well. I would be happier had the MMDS companies been able to roll-out their services to a greater extent geographically.

Licensees under the scheme which I am announcing today will operate their service on a secondary basis which means their systems will not be allowed to cause, or claim protection from, interference, in particular in relation to national television services. The new systems will be licensed to operate in those parts of the country where appropriate frequency space can be identified by suitable applicants. Because of the shortage of frequency space the UHF scheme is not intended for, and will not provide, coverage to all parts of the country.

The new scheme is intended for use only in the non-cabled areas of the country. Unlike the services provided on Cable relay and MMDS, the new scheme will provide a very basic service. It is envisaged at this stage that there will be provision for the retransmission of a maximum of four television programme services in any one place. Licences, when issued, will expire on 31 December 1999. Current deflector operators will be eligible to apply as will MMDS operators, Cable Relay operators and those not currently providing any such service.

This scheme will operate in the television broadcasting range of the UHF band. As in other parts of the radio frequency spectrum, the number of frequency channels available within this range is limited. Up to now frequency channels within the range have primarily been licensed to, or reserved for use by, the national television programme services. There are currently three such services on air and a fourth one is planned. It should be noted that two of these services. RTE I and Network 2, are not yet operating on an all UHF basis. Having fully investigated the matter it would still appear to be the case that only four programme services operating to the highest quality standards on a nationwide basis can be planned within the UHF band allocated for television broadcasting.

The work of frequency planning and the implementation of the national stations has been carried out over a number of years and can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Each stage of development leads to a clearer identification of further network requirements. In this regard, Teilifís na Gaeilge is a good example. It is the first national programme service to be broadcast solely on UHF and now that the main transmitters are in place we can identify more clearly the requirements for lower power transmitters. When these are operational, we can then identify any further requirements and so on. I make this point to stress the fact that both the frequency requirements and the actual roll-out of the national services will continue to expand over time. I am also mindful of the fact that TV3 is planned to broadcast solely on UHF.

The new scheme which I am announcing today will at all times have to take second place to the national programme services when it comes to the use of any frequency channel. The frequency assignments that are or may be licensed to or reserved for national services will have primacy as regards protection from interference from the new services. National programme services will be given priority at all times over the new scheme in the regulation of frequency channel usage. This is a proper and prudent measure and is a provision that would be made by any Administration serious about protecting its national interests.

The new scheme will be operated in compliance with Ireland's obligations under international broadcasting agreements. In particular, consultation on the proposed characteristics for each transmitter will have to be undertaken where necessary with the UK Administration. This is required to ensure the principle of equitable access for both countries to available spectrum provided for under these agreements is maintained. Where such international co-ordination agreement is required, licences can be granted only when this has been achieved. Co-ordination can be a lengthy process and no guarantees of a successful outcome can be offered.

Available space in the UHF band is extremely limited and will become more so over time. Applicants for licences under this scheme will have to take account of that. The band will become progressively more congested as the national services are rolled out. It is not possible at this stage to anticipate the consequences for prospective licenses but it is likely that the quality of service provided to their subscribers will deteriorate over time. The licences will specifically state that neither the Minister nor the Department accepts responsibility for quality of service and licenses will be obliged to inform their subscribers of this.

Two licensed systems are currently in place for the provision of multi-channel television programme services — MMDS and cable. Between them the companies concerned provide service to approximately 500,000 subscribers. The roll-out of cable relay has been particularly successful with a high penetration rate by international standards, while MMDS accounts for about 80,000 subscribers. However, a substantial number of rural dwellers does not receive multi-channel television services or, if it does, receives them from unlicensed providers. This cannot continue. There are thus two reasons for the development I am announcing today: I want to increase the number of people who can receive multi-channel television and I want it done on the basis of fair competition which is legitimate and in keeping with good frequency management.

It is essential that any new scheme should be technically feasible. The consultants retained by my Department have identified a number of factors which led them to believe that spare capacity in the UHF band could be used for the provision of a limited licensed system of television re-transmission between now and 31 December 1999. These factors include developments in analogue technology over the years and the fact that the State can identify more clearly the frequency spectrum requirements for the national services. In addition, however, the type of licensing envisaged by the consultants could work only if the State does not apply to the scheme all of the normal quality and coverage standards usually applicable and, accordingly, I do not intend to apply them here. While the consultants carried out a detailed analysis in respect only of the application by South Coast Community Television Ltd., there is no reason, in principle, to doubt the proposed scheme could not operate in other parts of the country.

The Government's policy programme of December 1994, A Government of Renewal, sought to allow competition between community television deflector systems and existing MMDS franchise holders in a way that would be in compliance with proper frequency management and our international obligations.

While it is illegal and unlicensed, there isde facto competition in the market for the provision of multi-channel services. I am announcing a process which will create the conditions for fair competition as far as it is possible in the sector. It will be open to deflector operators, MMDS, cable and others to apply for these licences. The market has been characterised by unfair competition in that the licensed companies are obliged to meet all the costs appropriate to the provision of their services while unlicensed operators are in a position to avoid many of them. My proposal will put that to rights. Those who will be licensed in the UHF band, and that could include MMDS companies should they be successful applicants, will have to bear the full business cost of providing service.

The unlicensed operators are currently in a position to provide the service at a price that is significantly lower than that charged by MMDS companies. I refer, in particular, to the payment of royalties to the programme makers and the payment of licences fees to my Department. These are not insignificant costs and they will become fully applicable under the new scheme. Questions have also been raised about the compliance of unlicensed operators with tax and planning laws. These matters will have to be fully regularised before any licenses are issued.

Much has been made of the fact that because digital television will need to use significantly less frequency space to provide the current range of programmes, its advent will free up a great deal of frequency space. Nothing could be further from the truth. The advent of digital television will create significantly more pressure on the use of the UHF band in the short to medium term. This arises from the need to broadcast simultaneously on analogue and digital technology during a transition phase which could last for anything up to 20 years.

Furthermore, to stimulate the development of digital television, it may be necessary to increase the range of programme services. It is partly because of the need to reserve enough spectrum capacity for digital television that my proposals will have a life span of less than three years and any licences issued under it will expire on 31 December 1999. The advent of digital broadcasting with its enhanced capacity for delivering additional programme services could impact on conventional methods for multi-channel television distribution. As regards a timescale for terrestrial digital television broadcasting, I understand that the UK authorities are planning for the introduction of such services in the early part of next year.

My officials will start drawing up the legislative basis for this scheme. I envisage regulations for the new scheme will be drawn up under the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1926. Responsibility for the administration of the scheme will pass to the incoming Director of Telecommunications Regulation when the appropriate functional responsibilities are transferred to that office. Applicants should be aware that fees will be payable and a substantial bond will have to be lodged to ensure compliance with the terms of the licence, including any directions that may be necessary regarding the use of frequency channels.

A substantial amount of preparatory work is required but I hope it will be possible for applications to be submitted in autumn 1997. A separate application will be necessary for each proposed transmitter site as each licence will be issued in respect of one site only. If more than one site is to form part of a proposal, then each must be the subject of a seperate application. There will be no objection to different organisations pooling their resources for the purpose of forming a single entity for the provision of services. Multiple applications from a single entity will be accepted. Applications will be confined to those parts of the country not covered by cable and each application will be judged on its merits. Furthermore, where two or more applications are submitted for a specific area, an adjudication process will be undertaken, if necessary, to determine which of them proposes the better use of the radio spectrum. Depending on the applications received it may be possible to issue more than one licence in any one area. Applicants will have to be legal entities and comply with planning and tax legislation.

My Department will publish a national frequency list as soon as possible, to be updated at regular intervals, which will include the national frequency plan for the existing and envisaged frequency needs for the national programme services in the UHF band. It will be each applicant's responsibility to propose the frequency channels it will use, in a way which must respect the primacy of the national plan at all times. In all likelihood, a radio frequency interference analysis will need to be carried out by each applicant before submitting an application in respect of the selected channels. If, in the context of any application, it is found that the proposed channels would have the potential to cause interference then that application will be refused.

The date from which applications for licences may be submitted will be specified as soon as possible. There will be a further date after which unlicensed activity will not be tolerated. Licences will not be issued to those who are operating illegally beyond that point.

Applicants will be obliged to show that they have entered into arrangements for the payment, in the event of a licence being issued, of appropriate copyright and royalty fees in respect of the programme services they propose to re-transmit. The Department will publish a list of all licensees and will make them available to all relevant authorities.

Applicants will be obliged to forward a tax clearance certificate with their application along with a certificate of incorporation in the case of a company. In addition, applicants will be obliged to forward with the application a certificate to be issued by the relevant local authority stating that the applicant is operating in compliance with the planning laws or a certificate that an application for planning permission has been lodged in respect of all developments to be used in the provision of the service. Failure to provide these certificates will invalidate the application.

Licensees will be obliged to comply with all statutory regimes governing their activities and with all legal obligation imposed on them under Irish and European law. Licences will contain terms and conditions, including strict power output limits. Licensees will have to comply with the appropriate international guidelines regarding the limits of exposure to electromagnetic fields. Failure to comply with the licence terms and conditions will result in loss of the licence. These terms and conditions are required in order to ensure that the system operates fairly at national level and complies with our international obligations. In providing for these terms and conditions, I am taking at their word various spokespersons for deflector groups who have expressed their preparedness to conform to the requirements of good practice.

As part of my general powers under the Telecommunications (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1996 I intend consulting with the incoming Director of Telecommunications Regulation regarding a complete review of all multi-channel re-transmission licences in the period up to the year 2000 with a view to facilitating the formulation of a comprehensive policy for the assignment of frequencies and standards for television broadcasting and re-transmission appropriate to the digital era.

I ask all those who are directly concerned with this issue to take time to consider carefully the proposals I have outlined today. The scheme is not simple. It has many elements and needs to be examined carefully. I am confident reasonable people will agree with me that it provides the basis for a balanced and equitable resolution of the current position.

I am sure there is a wide consensus that the current situation is unsatisfactory to all sides. I urge that, in assessing this scheme, those who have been to the forefront on either side would have regard to the wider interest of the community at large in having a properly ordered approach to the planning and use of the broadcasting bands for the future. These measures represent the best framework for ensuring competition while respecting the terms of licences already issued. There has been an unhappy and sometimes violent history to the roll-out of MMDS services. I hope the measures I have put forward will result in peaceful co-existence and a wider choice for viewers.

The scheme the Minister has announced is at best a sticking plaster solution.

The Deputy's argument is, at best, porous.

When one reads the small print, one sees it is designed to squeeze deflector operators out of business over a three year period. It raises more questions than it answers and is clearly designed for the election. I call it a sticking plaster solution because it is obvious the Minister is trying, not too effectively, to reconcile a number of factors.

Let Deputy Brennan tell us his better formula.

The leader of my party has already objected to the manner in which this ambush has been planned by the Minister. He has brought proposals to the Cabinet and expected them to be debated here on the same day. Nonetheless, we will give him that debate and I look forward to him answering some key questions.

These proposals make a bad situation worse. He has not solved the problems of the MMDS operators, far from it — he has made their position much worse. Neither has he solved the problems of the deflector operators. He is squeezing them out of business. At least he honestly admitted that the quality of the service will deteriorate over a period, for which the Department will not take any responsibility.

Deflector operators have heard the Minister promising three year licences but MMDS operators may apply for licences in the same areas. I thought MMDS operators already had licences for some of these area. He said the licences would expire on 31 December 1999 and that current deflector operators will be eligible to apply, as will MMDS operators. The latter will be reapplying to cover areas for which they already have licences. If they do not already have licences for these areas that is one matter, because the deflector operators would not be there in any case. However, if the MMDS operators are being asked to re-apply——

The Deputy has lost the thread.

——for areas in which the new UHF bands are being made available, the position is made considerably worse.

The supporters of the deflector system will see they are being asked to apply against MMDS operators in certain areas and that they are being pushed out on cost grounds. The Minister said:

Applicants will be obliged to show that they have entered into arrangements for the payment, in the event of a licence being issued, of appropriate copyright and royalty fees in respect of the programme services they propose to re-transmit. The Department will publish a list of all licensees and will make them available to all relevant authorities.

He also spoke about taxation, planning permission and other matters. He is offering the deflector operators immediate massive economic costs, three year licences, no guarantee thereafter, deteriorating services and no right to renewal. If the Minister was operating a deflector system and was offered this, he would call it a sticking plaster package, a con trick designed to get the Government through the election. Deflector system operators will know they have three years and that, according to the Minister, their system will deteriorate because the national broadcaster and other companies are entering the airwaves. They will face huge economic costs, which are immediately applicable, and they have no guarantee of renewal. This scheme is a big deal and it is not designed to solve the problem.

Last week, the Minister undertook to bring legislation to the House.

I never said anything of the kind.

We never mentioned legislation.

Mr. Moore mentioned legislation in his briefing.

Let us hear the Deputy in possession.

Instead of that, we get a scheme to bring him to the far side of the election. The Minister offers the deflector operators immediate economic costs, deteriorating service, no guarantee of renewal and short-term licences. That will not and should not be acceptable to them. When I say it makes the matter worse all round, what does it do for the MMDS cable companies?

Nowhere in this do I see the advice of the Attorney General. If the Attorney General was professionally free to give advice in this case to the Government, what advice did he give on compensation? It is disingenuous of the Minister to read a 13 page script to the House without referring to the compensation claims possibly available to the MMDS companies which have been given licences which, as one company said on the national airwaves this morning, could be as much as £100 million. It is not fair to the House to bring changes before it which are of little or no good to the deflector groups, while not commenting on this key legal difficulty. It is a smokescreen which is dressed up in technical gobbledygook about the requirements of the UHF band and warnings that companies will be pushed off the UHF band in a couple of years when the big guns arrive.

It was put in very simple language for the Deputy's benefit.

The Minister has made the situation worse. What was the Attorney General's advice on compensation? The Minister has said he is now releasing the technical report on South Coast community television. We have been asking for that report for months but the Minister refused every time. He has now sprung this debate on us, demanding an immediate response and questions from the Opposition.

The Deputy does not have to respond — he can sit down now if he so chooses.

He hopes to package the matter away in one day. He then hopes to get a couple of newspaper write-ups about finding an innovative, creative solution, how he disposed of the whole matter in one afternoon, how cool Deputy Dukes has done what Deputy Lowry could not do and what a great fellow he is.

Deputy Ray Burke made a good job of it.

Deputy Ring is not a real Fine Gael man.

Deputy Ring should read the fine print.

I predict this will make the situation worse. Will the Minister tell us which parts of the country will get coverage on this basis? He referred to a basic service of four television channels — RTE 1. Network 2, Teilifís na Gaeilge and another channel. Which channel does he mean?

Dear, dear.

He has also said it can be taken off the air at any time to give second place to the national programming services.

First place.

Yes, first place. We need to know more about that. Does this require legislation?

I said it did.

Deputy Brennan was talking to Deputy Cowen at the time.

I listened to the Minister but I just want to be sure.

It requires regulations.

The Minister says so much in the House that at times it is not clear what he is saying. This document is a clever electoral smokescreen which only plasters over the situation. It will make matters worse for the deflector systems and the MMDS companies. Will there be legislation on this matter before the House next week? Will we have time to debate it?

It will not be next week.

Will it be before the election?

That depends on when the election? is.

In other words, no.

In the autumn.

I remind the House there is provision for a question and answer session for which these questions might be reserved.

The Minister's political tactics are very transparent. They seem to be the only part of the policy of openness and transparency which is working these days.

How can it be a smokescreen and be transparent?

The Minister's hesitation was very transparent.

I can see behind the Minister's smokescreen, as can most observers. He has made a statement to this House which he hopes will get him past the election. He has just promised legislation but it is clear he has no intention——

The Deputy should read the speech.

The Minister has said that legislation will not be introduced in the House before the general election.

I did not say that.

We will not be able to test the Minister before the general election. A couple of hundred thousand television screens around the country are blank at the moment. What will the Minister say to all those homes which now have no multi-channel television service? Are we to wait until the Minister goes through this lenghty procedure to give dubious licences for short-term periods for deteriorating services at enormous cost before the screens are switched back on? If that is what the Minister is saying, no screen will be switched on until the election is over.

That will allow the Minister to travel around the country saying he brought an innovative scheme to the Dáil which will solve the entire problem. Meanwhile, the screens are blank and multi-channel television is not being made available to people who require it and have had it up to now. The Minister should tell us what he is going to say to those people and when the channels will be switched back on. That is important.

The manner in which the Government is trying to deal with the licences is unfair. I have already asked for the consultants' report. We have been told in the middle of this debate that it will be released after the debate. It is no good for this Parliament to be told that a consultants' report will be made available after the debate on the scheme proposed by the Minister. He will be able to say he answered all the questions put, but there are questions we cannot ask because we do not have the report. The Minister is being extremely disingenuous in promising to issue a consultants' report after the debate. It is dishonest to release a report after it has been debated in this House.

The Attorney General's advice has also not been made available to the House. The Minister has been silent today on the major legal question. He is asking us to have a debate with no consultants' report or legal advice. Why are the details of conditions and sums involved in the licences and whether universal coverage is required not available to the House?

I object in the strongest possible terms to the Minister's withholding from the House of information pertaining to this debate which he has introduced. It would be more honest of him to release the Attorney General's advice, the licence conditions and the consultants' report and tell us about the compensation. We could then debate the matter in the House rather than being provided with an insult of a document which offers dubious licences at enormous economic cost and which will squeeze out the deflector systems by stealth over the months and years ahead, in the hope that that will get the Minister past the election. The Minister's statement today is a dishonest con trick of which he should be ashamed.

The Deputy did not sound too impassioned.

I listened to the Minister and read his speech. I am not an expert on these matters. The Minister stated that the report he received from the consultants, which he has not let us see, is a complex and lengthy document. I do not doubt that if it was made available to me I would require the advice and assistance of experts who are knowledgeable in this field in order to decipher its real meaning. It is somewhat unfair that the Minister did not circulate the document which he read to the House to the Opposition to enable us to consult people who are more qualified on this matter than Members.

One can only conclude that this temporary legislation, as the Minister described it, is being rushed through the House because we are facing a general election. The deflector systems have been shut down to highlight the problem and seek some action from the Government. The Government's response, as outlined by the Minister, appears to be a rather pathetic effort to cloud over the issue until after the election. If the reference to the arrangements for these new proposals being ready for implementation, perhaps by next autumn, is anything to go on, I presume that excludes the autumn as a potential general election date and we shall have one this side of the summer. I witnessed many attempts at obtaining electoral support on the basis of dubious commitments and actions by successive Governments. The Minister's present ones appear very dubious indeed.

There are approximately 250,000 households receiving multi-channel television reception from deflector systems, all of which are illegal and have been allowed to operate by successive Governments despite MMDS licences having been issued on the basis that they would be the only legal transmitters of multi-channelled signals in non-cabled areas. This raises a legal question as to where these proposals would stand in respect of such contracts entered into by the State with those companies awarded MMDS licences? Will there be enormous legal wrangle for those licensees, leading to delay in their implementation?

The Minister says he can implement these proposals, limited and extraordinary though they be, by way of regulation but that it would take him up to the autumn to have them in place. In addition, he spelled out in great detail — lest it ever be thrown back at him later — that there are very limited spaces only on the spectrum for any successful applicant, if issued a licence, to provide a signal. The Minister has given no indication of which areas would carry a signal from which an applicant might successfully transmit multi-channelled stations. It is incumbent on him to supply the House with a map indicating in which non-cabled areas it would be possible to obtain the multi-channel signal. For example, would it cover all of those covered by the present deflector systems?

Everybody studying these proposals who had received a television signal through a deflector system will want to know whether they would enable them receive a signal in their area. From what the Minister has said, that appears very doubtful in very many instances. The Minister said he did not know whether a signal would be available. This is a nice political ploy, a nice kick-to-touch, an attempt to put this issue beyond the date of the next election, when the truth will emerge. It allows the Minister's Government colleagues, when canvassing or attending various meetings, to point to what the Government did and say the Minister is doing his utmost to resolve the problem.

While observing the Minister's political contortions to overcome his electoral difficulties about this matter, I do not deny there is a problem or that none of his predecessors succeeded in solving the matter of getting multi-channel choice into non-cabled areas. Clearly, for one reason or another, the MMDS system, perceived by the then Minister, Deputy Raphael Burke as the best method of bringing multi-channel choice into all non-cabled areas has not worked, possibly because the State allowed deflector systems to continue when MMDS licensees were unable to proceed with the transmission of the signal and deflectors were there at a much lower price.

I want to correct some press reports on the position of the Progressive Democrats in this matter. We were in Opposition when the MMDS proposals were mooted by the then Minister, Deputy Raphael Burke. We opposed them and questioned the value of that system. Former Deputy Pat O'Malley emphasised that this technology might very quickly go out of date and a point was made about the health aspects of the MMDS system. When it came to the discussions flowing from the last general election, I participated on behalf of the Progressive Democrats, with then Deputy Pat Cox, in discussions on the programme for Government. One matter that concerned us was the MMDS proposal. We were unaware of how far down the road it had travelled. We wanted to include a clause in the programme for Government calling for a review of the overall MMDS system. The Minister of the day, Deputy Raphael Burke, while not one of the negotiators, attended those discussions and informed us that the matter had proceeded beyond the point at which the MMDS arrangements for contracts could be reviewed. At this point I am not clear on what date the contracts were signed, but that was the position as explained to us. This meant there was little the Progressive Democrats could do. We were told matters had moved to a stage at which commitments had been entered into. Therefore, any press reports to the effect that the Progressive Democrats, jointly with Fianna Fáil in that Government, were committed to the MMDS system would not convey the correct position. I wanted to put the record straight in that respect.

What year was that?

The discussions took place in July 1989.

I should like an opportunity to study these proposals further and revert to them again. It is a very unusual way in which to present anything; we have often had Bills introduced, which were a lot simpler, but we were given more time to scrutinise them.

From what the Minister said, my general impression is that this is a pathetic effort to get this difficulty about deflectors off the political agenda, to remove it as an obstacle, with the threat of candidates being put forward by deflector groups. That threat and the anger to which Fine Gael Members have been subjected around the country — because of commitments and rash promises made by the Taoiseach in the course of previous by-elections — mean that those not very pleasant chickens for the Fine Gael Party are coming home to roost.

While scrambling together this kind of solution might meet the needs of some, it is a rather poor effort. That there are so many conditions, "ifs" and "buts" built into this statement renders it a most surprising and extraordinary document. Time will tell whether what the Minister proposes will represent a satisfactory solution over the next three years.

While it is only right that the Minister should refer to the kinds of obstacles encountered, this will allow him to look back at a later stage and say "I told you so." It leads one to believe the Minister is not making very strong commitments, or really saying these proposals constitute the answer, that every deflector system nationwide will be able to obtain a licence. I am glad to see the Minister shake his head in agreement. For example, the United Kingdom Administration must be consulted. In the course of his remarks the Minister had said:

In particular, consultation on the proposed characteristics for each transmitter will have to be undertaken, where necessary, with the United Kingdom Administration.

It is part of our existing rules.

I am only highlighting the difficulties, about which the Minister has warned us, which strengthen the conviction that what is being done is not of much use. To whom will it be of use? Who will get a signal? What will be the legal positionvis-à-vis the current MMDS licence holders?

The Minister said co-ordination of the UK and our position could be a lengthy process with no guarantee of a successful outcome. This whole matter could be one big ball of smoke.

The Minister stated it should be clear that the available space in the UHF band is extremely limited and will become more limited over time. He went on to say "it is likely the quality of service provided to their subscribers will deteriorate over time". He gave no assurances they will ever get a signal or that there will be a satisfactory picture. He said it will be poor in most cases and will get worse. We all remember the days when there was only "snow" on our television screens. People who have been used to crystal clear images on the deflector system will not be happy to return to poor quality, snowy type transmissions.

A Deputy

It is definitely a snow job.

At least they are moving on.

It is an attempt to get over it. If the people are vulnerable and swallow all of this, I will be surprised.

It is a transparent smokescreen.

The seasons are moving on.

The Minister is not convinced this is technically feasible. The language here includes words such as "could" and "should". The Minister has not stated anything categorically.

I thought the Deputy's party liked the truth and honesty.

This is the most cautious document I have ever seen. It sought to give an impression but it also contains language which protects the Minister. It is essential that any new scheme should be technically feasible. The Minister said:

The consultants retained by my Department have identified a number of factors which led them to believe that spare capacity in the UHF band could be used for the provision of a limited licensed system of television re-transmission in the period between now and 31 December 1999... In addition, however, the type of licensing envisaged by the consultants could work only if the State does not apply to the scheme all the normal quality and coverage standards usually applicable and accordingly I do not intend to apply them here.

Nor do they apply to deflector systems as the Deputy well knows.

If they are getting a perfect picture from the deflector, what will they get from the Minister's proposal?

The Deputy is only hoping the Minister cannot solve it.

No, I have every sympathy with the Minister.

Questions and answers will be taken later.

I am only trying to point out my impressions of the Minister's proposals. I did not write this document. I agree the document is pathetic.

The Deputy does not have to be pathetic, it comes naturally to him.

Let us hear Deputy Molloy without interruption.

The Minister cannot give an indication as to when the applications for licences can be submitted. Given all the doubts mentioned in the document, one does not know whether it will be ready by the autumn or even if one can apply by the autumn nor do we know how long the unlicensed activity will be tolerated. One of the difficulties with the granting of the MMDS licence was that there was no specific date for the termination of illegal deflectors and no termination date is proposed here in regard to the unlicensed activity and how long it will be allowed continue. It is unsatisfactory. I hope the Minister will be able to tighten up on some of these issues later but I do not have much confidence that it will meet the needs of those who today are looking at blank screens. I do not think the Minister is going so far as to state they can be assured of a picture. Where it is clear that there is no signal and no licence can be issued will the Minister state what will be the position for those people? Will he close down those deflector systems permanently? They cannot get a signal under the new system and probably will not get it until next year. Even if they could get it then, when will he close them down? Given that he has stated these regulations cannot be in place before the autumn, what will happen between now and the autumn with the deflector systems? Will they be allowed back on the air? Will the transmission sets seized over the years be returned to the owners? I have been informed by way of reply to a parliamentary question that the Department did not want to be party to an illegal act by returning transmission sets to what would continue to be illegal operators. Since he has introduced the new system, is it proposed to allow the transmission sets to be returned to them so that they can get back into business while the Minister is waiting for his proposal to come to fruition in the autumn?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

The Minister will now take questions for not longer than 30 minutes.

When will the first licence be issued? Can the present deflector systems stay on the air until the Minister issues that first short-term licence?

I cannot say when the licences will be issued. I refer the Deputy to the text of my speech. I hope we will have the system in place by the autumn and that we will then be able to announce the dates when applications can be made for licences. I would like to have it in place sooner but it would be unwise to say it would be in place sooner because a good deal of preparation has to be done.

On the question of what happens to deflector systems in the meantime, I will not be proceeding against deflector operators between now and the time of the closing date for making applications for licences. That is my intention.

Is that the——

I am answering the question I was asked.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

A number of Deputies are offering and I want to facilitate them all.

I will not be proceeding against deflector operators in that period. When I announce the period during which licence applications will be accepted, I will be open to accept applications from current deflector operators. MMDS operators, cable operators if they wish to apply and people who are not operating any system. I will put a closing date on that and anybody who continues to operate past that closing date, without having applied for a licence, will be operating illegally and I will take action against those operators, if there be such at that time. I would like to be able to tell Deputies the precise dates we will have all these things. I am not in a position to do that yet but what I was concerned to do today was to give the House and the public, who has an interest in this, an outline of what I have been able to put together as a result of all my reflections on what I believe is the best way we can get an equitable system in place. That is what I have done. When we come to proposing regulations they will go through the normal process in the House. If, at a future stage, any further matters need to be debated in the House I will come in here with that in mind.

Will the Minister publish a map indicating the areas where he expects a spare signal will be available?

No. That is to misunderstand the system. The new system I propose will operate only in non-cabled areas.

With regard to the provision of signal, it will be for operators applying for a licence to seek the appropriate space on the waveband for the service they wish to provide and to notify that to my Department, having undertaken the necessary interference analysis on it. If it appears that the service can be carried without causing interference to the national services and to another established service, the applicant will be licensed.

It will also be necessary, depending on the kind of proposal being made, to examine the situation with regard to the UK to see whether the proposed signal is of a power that interferes with the UK. We cannot allow that to happen under the terms of international agreements into which we have entered.

It is not possible, therefore, for me to provide the Deputy with a map of where signals can be provided. It would be for the operators, the applicants, to provide me with a technical proposal as to how they would provide a signal in an area they will designate.

Given that the Minister's former colleague in Government, Deputy Jim Mitchell, agreed to the recommendations of his officials in the then Department of Communications 11 years ago that the MMDS system was the proper system for the country and that this recommendation has been consistently made to successive Ministers, and given that the Minister and his officials have the advice of the Chief State Solicitor and the Attorney General available to them, is it not the case that the purpose of his statement is to protect the legal advice available to him which is not available to this side of the House? Does he propose that the licences he will grant will be exclusive to the successful applicants or does he propose that MMDS and deflector operators co-exist in the same territorial area in view of the fact that MMDS operators have licences for parts of rural Ireland to which they cannot deliver a service?

MMDS operators will be entitled to apply for licences under this scheme, as will deflector and cable operators. I envisage UHF retransmission co-existing in certain areas with MMDS systems, with the protections I have mentioned regarding non interference by these deflector systems with the principal national services.

I have outlined the importance and value of the MMDS system, about which there has been much misleading comment. It was selected at the outset because it is the kind of service that can provide rural areas with the same quality and range of signal and reception that is available in urban areas from cable systems. While it is not possible to cable rural areas, the MMDS provides a similar kind of service in many rural areas, including County Kerry, where it provides a good service in a mountainous country.

The Minister indicated that the secondary service will not interfere with national coverage. Will he guarantee that RTE will not boost its transmitters, which it has done in Arranmore and which has put the deflector systems off the air? Will he advise whether those providing MMDS in an area could block a secondary system? While I appreciate that legal action has resulted in the closure of deflector systems, will he clarify the position regarding the litigation taken against many deflector providers?

I have made it clear that we are giving primacy to the national services — RTE, Telifís na Gaeilge and, eventually perhaps, TV 3 — and it is appropriate that we should do so. My proposed system will be treated as a secondary system and will not be allowed to interfere with the principal services.

The prospect is the quality of service that will be available from deflector systems will deteriorate as more and more of the UHF band is taken up by licensed services. That would happen even if I were to take no action. It is important that Members of this House and the public should understand that broadcasting waveband is a finite resource. The more of it that is taken up by a user the less space there is for others. While the situation is more complicated than this, the reality is that it is a limited resource. As the quality of UVF operations is improved by our national services and as RTE migrates from VHF to UHF, as is envisaged, the amount of space left available for deflector operators will diminish and the quality of service they provide will deteriorate, irrespective of anything we do.

The advent of digital television is expected by some to solve much of that problem; it will not do so, at least not for a long time. As the range of services available on digital television is expanded, a different technology is employed from the one now in use. At the very least, there will have to be a period of overlap during which broadcasting continues on the analogue system while the range of broadcasting is expanded on the digital system, given that not everybody can be expected to buy the new sets, equipment and decoders that would be required to pick up the digital system.

Things will get worse before they get better, which is an extra difficulty that will arise irrespective of whether we take the action I propose. The matter is much more complicated than putting an aerial on the nearest convenient hill to rebroadcast a signal. I am not a party to any of the current proceedings and have no influence on them.

Does the Minister not agree that this is a general election trick which he has dressed up in "Star Trek" language when he refers to "spectrums", etc? The Minister will tell us in the autumn when licences can be applied for.

I will advise the Deputy as soon as I can.

The Minister said that licences could be applied for in the autumn.

I said I would like to tell the Deputy sooner than that but it may not be possible. I am only dying to give the Deputy good news.

If licences can be applied for next autumn, I presume the first licence will not issue for at least 12 months from now because of the rigorous tests involved.

The Minister said they should all be off the air by December 1999. However, he is telling the House that he will give 18 months or two year licences in eight or nine months' time during which the service will deteriorate. Does the Minister expect a deflector company, which has waited 12 months for a licence, to accept that the service will deteriorate and that it will be off the air by the end of 1999 because the Minister has made no provision for it to stay on air after that time? Is this not a silly election arrangement given that the first licence will not be issued for at least 12 months?

I seem to have puzzled Deputies Brennan and Molloy by producing what they regard as complex language. I assure the Deputies this is presented as simply and unemotionally as it can be.

Can we ask questions about it?

Deputy Brennan said this was an election trick dressed up in Star Trek language. Perhaps the Deputy could advise me on the name I should give it. I quote fromThe Examiner of 10 April 1997.

Deputy Brennan said afterwards that Fianna Fáil in power would favour competition between the deflectors and the current licensed service. The party would work to resolve the current legal and technical difficulties to bring this about.

That is what I am doing.

The Minister ran immediately.

It flushed the Minister out.

The Minister is making a joke of a serious issue. This is no time to be flippant.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Let us hear the Minister's reply. There are Deputies waiting patiently to ask questions.

In the opinion ofThe Examiner, which I do not attribute to Deputy Brennan——

This issue is more serious than that.

——"However, Deputy Brennan stopped short of saying Fianna Fáil would license the deflector operators".

I could quote other newspaper articles which show what the Minister said.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Let us hear the Member in possession.

Deputy Brennan is like Deputy Harney in that when he is in a hole, he starts digging furiously.The Examiner quoted him as saying: “It is time for the Government to stop prevaricating about this issue and sort it out”. I am delighted I have done that.

The Minister is wasting time. There are questions to be answered in a short time and we want serious replies.

The Deputy will get a serious reply.

The Minister should take himself seriously for once. We want to ask serious questions about this issue. This type of clowning around is not good enough. People have made big investments and they want important questions answered.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

There are only 12 minutes remaining and a number of Deputies want to ask questions. Let us hear the reply without interruption.

What is the compensation?

Deputy Brennan has complained about the rigorous tests I am applying to the issue of these licences and the cost of compliance. I am applying rigorous tests because we owe it to the people who will buy the signal from these operators. We must ensure they provide a reasonable signal for those who buy it, although I will not accept responsibility for its quality, and that they will not interfere with the signal being received by others.

Deputy Brennan also complained about the cost of compliance. Is he saying I should not require people who get licences to pay royalties,——

The Minister is not giving out any licences for one year.

The Deputy should listen to the answer.

——to pay a modest fee to my Department for the cost of providing the service or to act in compliance with the law?

It is all fiction because the Minister is not issuing licences.

I am putting the people who will be providing this service on the same commercial footing as others who are already operating in the market with licences.

In one year's time.

It is called levelling the playing field.

When the Minister's party was previously in Government, it seized wireless telepathy apparatus. On 22 February 1984 it seized apparatus at Mallow, County Cork; on 27 April at Keeper Hill, County Tipperary; on 1 June at Keeper Hill, County Tipperary; on 20 September 1985 in Athlone, County Westmeath; on 1 October 1985 at Carrigaline, County Cork; on 28 November 1985 in Monavullagh Mountains, County Waterford and on 28 November 1985 in the Galtee mountains, County Tipperary. After the change of Government in 1987, further equipment was seized on 5 March 1987 in the Comeragh mountains, County Waterford' on 21 May 1987 in the Slieve Bloom mountains, County Laois; and on 2 March 1989 at Lehenaghmore, County Cork. What does the Minister propose to do with this and the other equipment voluntarily surrendered to Department officials in County Cork in June 1993 in view of his announcement today?

The Deputy asked me that question on several occasions and he also asked my predecessors. I do not have definitive legal advice on the issue but when I have, I will convey it to the Deputy.

I was glad to hear the Minister say he will not be proceeding against existing deflector systems. Can I assume this also applies to deflector systems which came off the air recently and will now be back on again?

On what legal basis?

Has the Department carried out an examination to ascertain which deflector systems meet the non-interference criteria?

When I said I would not be proceeding against deflector systems between now and the proposed closing date for the receipt of applications, I meant all deflector systems without exception.

Does that include past and present deflector systems and those closed down by the High Court?

My Department does not carry out any examination of the signals being provided by deflector systems or of interference caused by those signals. However, operators who apply for the licences I am proposing must carry out a radio frequency interference analysis and identify the wavebands on which they propose to operate. Those proposals will be inspected and assessed——

The Taoiseach got the Minister into this mess.

——to ensure they do not interfere with any other signal and that whatever co-ordination is required with the UK will be looked after.

What about court orders?

I should not be surprised by what Deputies Brennan and Cowen say——

I have not spoken yet.

——but I am taken aback that Deputies on the other side of the House, who should know better, see something new or particularly obstructive in co-ordinating our signal with the UK. That is a matter of international agreement.

Nobody said it was not. Nobody is questioning it.

It was questioned.

Not by me.

It is a matter of mutual obligation.

I want the Minister to answer a few specific questions. It is not the case that he is seeking to suggest that it would be possible to allow for deflector type systems to be brought back into operation, albeit for a limited period, without there being any prospect of interference with or further subscription from existing cable or MMDS areas? I am sure he will be aware that it is impossible for any deflector system to confirm the level of subscription, who is taking the signal from whom or how many are taking the signal and that has been the bane of the Department's attempts to monitor it in the first place. Does the Minister not realise that to go ahead with a short-term licensing system such as he proposes will lead to serious legal confrontation with the copyright groups who will be seeking, as they did with the legalised MMDS system, to obtain retrospective payments for copyright? It was six years in relation to MMDS systems, which subsequently had to pay separate supplementary fees for a further four year roll out period as a result of the legal stand of the copyright groups, such as AGICOA. They will insist on compliance in that respect. That being the case, is the Minister seriously asking this House and me, as a former Minister in that Department, to believe, in the absence of the most serious increase in resources within his Department to monitor and police the frequencies and conduct of new licensees in the system,——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

Four minutes remain and other Deputies are waiting.

——that it will be possible for him to monitor in full the activities of even the short-term licensees given the nature of the licence which is about to be issued? Will he indicate the commercial damage which will result for existing MMDS licensees and cable companies? Does it not fly in the face of the information society report, under the chairmanship of Ms Jupp, which was being trumpeted here by the Taoiseach earlier this afternoon, by confirming that this is going in the opposite direction as far as the provision of internet services through MMDS type services in the future is concerned? Is that not the information which is available from his Department?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle

That will be adequate, Deputy.

Will the Minister confirm that it was his personal view at all times to insist that the MMDS system go ahead and that it was the Taoiseach's millstone around his neck which has brought about this attempt at legalising a system which will not work in the circumstances I outlined?

As the Chair can see, I do not feel that there is a millstone around my neck. I can stand straight.

With a straight face?

Get Mr. Pádraic White.

I conclude from the tenor of Deputy Cowen's questions that he does not approve of my proposal to license deflector systerms in the manner which I have put it forward.

Now we know the truth.

Answer the questions about the copyright.

Deputy Cowen wants to know the damage which will be done to MMDS and cable operators from my proposal to license deflector operators. My considered view is that the system of licensing which for the first time requires deflector operators to pay royalties and a licence fee——

Where is the Bill?

——and conform with the law is, in fact, more in the interests of MMDS and cable operators than the present situation. What I am proposing will produce a better organised market than that which obtains at present.

I question the workability of it.

The Deputy asked if I expect a repeat of the difficult confrontation which arose in the past over claimed back-payment of copyright fees. It is not my job to sort out a commercial argument between two companies.

It is a legal issue.

The existing bodies which have the right to collect these payments will be in a far better position when they will be told which operators are licensed and operating in the market than they are at present.

No, they will not.

In fact, according to my information, they are not doing anything at present because they have no information on which to base it and they have no legal personality to approach for this payment. The system I am proposing will improve the situation in that regard also.

Deputy Cowen is right to point out that it is not possible from the outside to check the number of subscribers to deflector systems at present.

Will they be encrypted?

In a system where we require deflector operators to meet the criteria and the terms and conditions of licences which I set out here, it would be in the interest of those systems to get a far more accurate picture for themselves.

Will the Minister license South Coast Community Television?

This is undemocratic.

The Minister will destroy the system. It is crazy.

We have delivered.