I propose to take Questions Nos. 92, 96, 106, 116 and 146 together.
The development and roll-out of telecommunications technology is primarily a matter for the industry itself in a liberalised market. In comparison with other European countries, broadband service providers in Ireland were slow in launching competitive, affordable broadband. However, the situation is improving rapidly. In late 2004, the Government set a target of 400,000 broadband subscribers to be achieved by the end of 2006. I have, however, challenged the industry to strive for 500,000 subscribers by that stage. The Government's broadband target is to be within the top half of EU countries by the end of 2007.
The rate of broadband uptake is dependent on a combination of factors including access by the private sector service providers to suitable infrastructure, as well as competition between broadband service providers and demand conditions for broadband in the economy. Since 2004, broadband subscriber numbers have more than doubled and the current take-up for broadband is in the region of 10,000 per month. Latest ComReg figures for broadband subscribers are 250,000.
In addition to setting challenging targets to the telecommunications industry, the Government has taken a number of policy and investment initiatives to improve broadband availability. In March 2004, a number of policy directions were issued to ComReg relating to competition, broadband, wholesale and retail line rental, interconnection-leased lines, and national and cross-Border roaming.
The direction on broadband required ComReg to use regulatory and enforcement tools, to support initiatives to develop broadband and to remove regulatory barriers, if any exist, to such initiatives. One significant barrier to the delivery of broadband services is the slow pace of local loop unbundling, LLU. Responsibility for LLU is a matter for ComReg. I have no powers to issue instructions to service providers in this matter.
The Government is addressing the lack of investment by the sector by building high-speed open access fibre-based metropolitan area networks, MANs, in 120 towns and cities nationwide, on a phased basis in association with the local and regional authorities using European and Government funding. Phase one of this programme has so far delivered fibre optic networks to 27 towns and cities throughout the country. This programme has been extended to over 90 towns in various locations nationwide. These networks will be completed during 2006 and 2007. They allow the private sector to offer world-class broadband services at competitive costs.
My Department also offers funding for smaller towns and rural communities through the county and group broadband scheme. The scheme is technology-neutral, allowing the community to select the most suitable broadband delivery platform for the area. To date, over 150 projects have been approved for funding under this programme. A joint industry-Government fund of €18 million has been established for the broadband for schools programme, which will provide every school in the country with broadband during 2006.