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.