ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to present the ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013 for the consideration of Dáil Éireann. The Bill is a relatively short legislative proposal, the purpose of which is to provide an explicit legal basis to enable the ESB to engage, now or in the future, in the installation and operation of electronic communications networks and services, either alone or by agreement with one or more other companies, and to provide for consequential matters. This legislation affords an excellent opportunity to significantly enhance the quality and availability of modern, resilient and future-proofed broadband infrastructure through the use of the ESB's extensive electricity networks, potentially extending the reach of fibre to the home and further enhancing broadband connectivity in Ireland. It is a further important step in the country positioning itself as a front runner in tackling the broadband infrastructure deficit.

The ESB has identified an opportunity to use its electricity distribution network to provide telecommunications services in the Irish market. I understand the company has sought a joint venture partner with a view to providing such services on a wholesale-only basis. I am advised that this, in turn, could facilitate the delivery of high speed broadband services by retail telecommunications operators in the areas served.

This legislation is merely for the purposes of enabling the use of ESB's infrastructure and that it is not specific to any given project. I expect, however, that the ESB will bring forward detailed proposals in relation to the project it is considering. Such proposals and the necessary statutory approvals, where required, will be subject to separate detailed consideration by my Department once a detailed submission is received. My Government colleagues and I consider this to be a very welcome development and very much in the spirit of the national broadband plan. The plan which I published in August 2012 commits to the delivery of high speed broadband across the country. This commitment is to be achieved by ensuring the environment is right to maximise investment by the commercial sector and through a State-led investment in those areas where it is evident that the market will not deliver. The plan also specifically commits to the use of State assets to accelerate the roll-out of high speed broadband infrastructure and services and recognises the role commercial State companies can perform in accelerating the roll-out of such infrastructure.

I remind Deputies that the national broadband plan followed on from the publication of the next generation broadband task force's report in 2011. The task force which I chaired comprised the CEOs of all the major telecommunications service providers in the Irish market, plus representatives of some of the smaller players. It considered in detail a number of policy challenges, including target speeds, spectrum, investment barriers, demand stimulation measures and the role of State assets in assisting broadband infrastructure deployment. The report of the task force and the subsequent public consultation undertaken by my Department laid the foundations for the national broadband plan.

I have advised the House on progress in implementing the plan on a number of occasions and would like to take the opportunity to provide a further update. Of particular note is the ongoing and very significant level of commercial investment taking place in the fixed and mobile telecommunications market. In some instances, commercial telecommunications providers are investing in services and coverage that significantly exceeds the targets to which they committed when the national broadband plan was being prepared. This is good news for consumers and businesses where high speed broadband services are being rolled out. It is also a vote of confidence in the broader economy. However, despite these welcome developments, it remains the case that many towns, villages and communities, particularly in rural Ireland, will see very little of this investment. Ireland's widely dispersed population and topography means that there are some areas where it is simply not viable for the commercial sector to provide services. Intensive technical, financial and preparatory work to define the scope of the State-led investment committed to under the national broadband plan is continuing. This investment will facilitate the widespread availability of reliable and guaranteed high speed broadband.

In parallel, a comprehensive mapping exercise of current and anticipated investment by the commercial sector is advancing. This exercise will identify where the market is expected to deliver high speed broadband services in the coming years and, consequently, the precise areas that will need to be targeted by the State-led investment. In order to progress the State-led investment, a full procurement process must be designed and EU state aid approval obtained. The procurement process for the approved intervention will be carried out in accordance with EU and Irish procurement rules and it is expected that it will be launched in 2014.

As I mentioned, the national broadband plan promotes the use of State assets to accelerate the roll-out of high speed broadband infrastructure and services. The plan recognises that a number of commercial and non-commercial State bodies are already leveraging their existing assets to actively provide infrastructure and services for the telecommunications market. These assets continue to play an important role in improving broadband services and the plan commits to exploiting further opportunities that arise, with a view to accelerating the roll-out of high speed broadband.

The ESB is already providing telecommunications services utilising the electricity transmission infrastructure. The purpose of the legislation being discussed is to allow the ESB to leverage its extensive and robust distribution infrastructure to provide high speed broadband infrastructure in Ireland. I understand from it that it is considering proposals to provide such services on a wholesale, open access basis with a joint venture partner. In August 2012 the company launched a call for expressions of interest in such a joint venture, attracting considerable interest from the telecommunications sector. I await with interest detailed formal proposals from it on the proposed joint venture. It should be noted that the legislation is not project-specific and will allow the ESB's considerable distribution infrastructure to become available to the telecommunications market, even if the current joint venture proposals do not come to fruition. The ESB's detailed proposals are awaited and my Department's assessment will, among other things, include an assessment of the proposal's compliance with detailed and binding EU and national regulatory requirements in the electronic communications market.

I propose to outline the main provisions of the Bill. For the convenience of Deputies, a detailed explanatory memorandum has been published and it provides a synopsis of the provisions. The Bill is relatively short, consisting of eight sections. Section 1 is a standard provision providing for definitions of certain terms and words used in the Bill.

Section 2, if enacted, will provide an explicit legal basis for the ESB to engage in the provision of electronic communications networks and electronic communications services where the company identifies a commercial basis for doing so, either alone or with any other company. The House will be aware that the ESB already operates a fibre network across its electricity transmission system. This network which was developed by the ESB originated to assist the management of its electricity network. Over time, additional capacity on the network has been sold to operators in the electronic communications market. The current proposal differs from the ESB's existing fibre network in that it would be a stand-alone business, with no direct connection to the management of the electricity network, and it might be developed by way of a joint venture. It is considered prudent, therefore, to provide an explicit legal basis to allow the ESB to engage in the electronic communications market in the manner proposed as provided for in section 2.

Section 3 will permit the ESB to agree to provide access to its electricity infrastructure to another company, including a joint venture company, to enable the company to develop electronic communications infrastructure along its electricity network where it is commercially viable to do so and to provide services of any nature to facilitate such development.

Section 4 redefines the meaning of "electric line" in the ESB Acts 1927 to 2004 and the Electricity Regulation Act 1999 to provide a single definition in the Statute Book. The section also extends the definition of "electric line" to include electronic communications infrastructure suspended from the electricity network. This provision also includes a retrospective element to maintain the status of the existing electronic communications network following this amendment.

The ESB's electricity network crosses private land in some places. In recognition of this, the existing Electricity (Supply) Acts 1927 to 2004 provide statutory wayleave rights for the ESB which allow it to cross private lands, subject to the payment of compensation, where appropriate. Section 5 will extend this right to any company authorised by the ESB to install electronic communications infrastructure along its electricity network, subject to the requirement to pay compensation, where appropriate. The section qualifies this right by requiring the consent of the Commission for Energy Regulation in order to exercise the wayleave rights.

Section 5 will extend the wayleave rights currently available to the ESB to construct the electricity network on private lands to the construction of electronic communications lines attached to its electricity network. These way-leave rights include a right to secure fixtures to any wall, house or building. This right is not available to other providers of electronic communications infrastructure. It is not appropriate therefore to make that power available to the ESB or any subsidiary or joint venture in relation to its commercial activity in the electronic communications market. Accordingly, section 6 provides that the authority to secure fixtures to walls, houses or buildings will not apply in respect of the construction of an electronic communications network.

Section 7 is a standard provision enabling the expenses of my Department to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 8, the concluding section, is also a standard provision providing for a Short Title, collective citation, construction and a commencement provision.

As I have stated previously the current Government policy is to deliver high-speed broadband access across the country by creating an environment conducive to commercial investment and by using State assets and commercial State companies where appropriate. Significant progress is already under way in the provision of fixed broadband and mobile data services which is attributed to significant network investments particularly by eircom, UPC, Sky, Vodafone, 02, 3 and Meteor, among others. This investment is delivering both higher broadband speeds and increasing numbers of users opting into bundled communications services to secure better value. In that regard I am especially pleased that the investment programme of Eircom, as pledged - after a period of difficulty - is proceeding apace and it is a particularly welcome element of the improvement that is happening as we speak.

As of September 2013, there were more than 1.67 million broadband subscribers in Ireland, an increase of 1% on 2012. In the fixed-line market, approximately 42% of all broadband subscriptions were equal to or greater than 10 MB per second up from 31% the previous year. In the same period 33% of all broadband subscriptions were equal to or greater than 30 MB per second, up from 20% in September 2012.

In the mobile market the most significant headline in recent times was the €855 million commitment made by four mobile services providers to secure radio spectrum capable of delivering next generation 4G services capable of providing significantly increased data services. In the last year - to September 2013 - data volumes across mobile devices increased by 40% as the number of SMS or text messages sent by mobile users fell by 25% in the same period during 2012 to 2013. The increase in data traffic is reflected in a 17% increase to 2.7 million in the number of smartphones and tablets in use in the year to September 2013.

It is worth noting that the digital part of Ireland's economy is growing at a rate of approximately 16% per annum. The opportunities this presents must be harnessed in order to maximise the accruing economic and social benefits. Reliable connectivity to the Internet is critically important for business growth and development, and is an essential requirement for more flexible work patterns. From a societal perspective, it is an important facilitator of many activities including education, entertainment, business, e-health, e-government and is increasingly used as a simple and effective way of communication through social media.

The exponential growth of digital technologies across the globe is further driving demand for high-speed broadband. Consequently, high speed, quality and reliable broadband as an enabling infrastructure for economic and social development is becoming a critical component of a 21st century society. The Bill is a positive step in facilitating the accelerated roll-out of high-speed broadband infrastructure in this country. It is my view that the ESB's proposal will have positive impacts on the Irish market. We have already seen the benefits competition can bring in delivering commercial investment in electronic communications infrastructure and providing customer access to higher broadband speeds. In the mobile market last year's successful auction of spectrum, following the switch-off of analog television, shows that the commercial operators clearly believe there is a vibrant market.

The national broadband plan is a clear expression of the importance of broadband infrastructure to the achievement of Ireland's economic and social objectives. High speed, quality and reliable broadband as an enabling infrastructure for economic and social development is becoming a critical component of a 21st century society. The potential to use the ESB's considerable network to deploy fibre will contribute significantly to the commercial deployment of high-speed broadband and will be important in terms of meeting the objectives of the national broadband plan. I look forward to hearing the views of the House on the Bill, a constructive Committee Stage debate and your assistance, a Chathaoirligh, in facilitating its early passage into law.

Fianna Fáil welcomes this Bill in principle and believes it is a positive step forward for the provision of high quality communications services in Ireland. The entry of the ESB into this area should increase competition in the broadband and electronic communications market. I hope that will result in reduced costs and an increase of broadband coverage throughout the country. That is what everyone should strive towards because we have seen the difficulties and we have debated them at length in the Chamber.

When in government, Fianna Fáil invested heavily in the provision of broadband infrastructure as the technology developed. Indeed, we committed more than €450 million for the provision of broadband services during the period from 1999 to 2011. The investment was necessary to establish a foundation for the expansion of services in the years to come. The explosion of social media, online shopping and e-commerce in general has resulted in broadband becoming a vital service for homes, schools and businesses. Increasingly, broadband is almost as important as electricity, especially to online businesses but for other sectors as well.

Technological advances in this area are taking place at a rapid pace and in order to be competitive in the world of business, Ireland needs to be at the forefront of broadband provision and speeds. The Government has failed to keep pace with technological advances and the expansion of the service has stalled. The Government’s plan for full broadband coverage in Ireland by the end of 2012 under its rural broadband scheme may technically have been met in 2013, but the quality of the service is often so bad that it simply cannot be used. The publication of the national broadband plan last year, which commits to the delivery of high speed broadband across the country, is welcome, but we need action as people are increasingly worried that a two-tier society could develop for broadband access.

Despite the increased number of service providers in the broadband market and the improvement in quality in recent years in urban areas, many towns, villages and communities, particularly in rural Ireland, will receive little investment, if any, in the expansion of the broadband network from private firms. It has been accepted by these firms that Ireland's widely dispersed population and topography means they do not believe it would be commercially viable for them to provide services in some areas. That is something in which the State must intervene to ensure rural Ireland does not get left behind in the digital revolution. The failure to provide these services is contributing to a two-tier economy where regional and rural areas lose out on investment and business expansion to urban areas. That is not a positive development given the increasing pressures on rural Ireland where State services are being reduced and potential services are being driven away by the lack of resources such as high-quality broadband.

In August 2013, the Irish Examiner ran a story in its features section entitled "Is Ireland Living with a Great Broadband Myth?" The piece carried a story about a small business in Westmeath only one hour and 15 minutes from Dublin city centre which employed 120 but it could not get reliable broadband. The company in question had resorted to both satellite and mobile broadband, which promised speeds of 10 MB download and 4 MB upload but independent tests showed that the actual speeds it was getting were closer to 0.5 MB, upload and download. At one point during the year, the company had to go without broadband for five days due to connectivity problems. During that time it had to despatch staff members to print documents in their own homes. At one point, the company owner had to get into the car and go to somebody’s house near Mullingar to print something off at 11 p.m.

He estimates the company lost at least two customers a day for the five days the satellite was down. Eventually, it had to bring in external IT consultants to try to sort it out. This is simply not acceptable. This is a company trying to compete nationally for business, but it has been set at a massive disadvantage because it is located in an area that does not have reliable broadband. The owner, when asked why he had not moved to Dublin, replied:

It is a fair point. But we have built up a business in a little village, which was a disadvantaged area with no employment. We have recruited lots of people from the farming community, people have moved to the area because of us, and we want to try to keep jobs in the community.

The Minister will agree that this question should never have to arise. The people concerned are trying their best to create employment in rural areas and ensure their businesses are sustainable, yet the lack of reliable high quality broadband is dragging down their entrepreneurial skills and sapping their ability to expand. I hope the entry into the market of the ESB in this area will bring about progress for those communities which face the difficulties I have outlined. Given its widespread electricity network which reaches into every community, it will be possible to improve and expand broadband services in areas which cannot rely on the services currently provided.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is broadband congestion which affects tourist areas, in particular. In County Kerry, for example, when the influx of tourists increases dramatically in the summer months, broadband provision advertised as providing 3 Mb/s speeds drops dramatically to 0.06 Mb/s. This has a significant impact on local businesses which rely on high speed broadband to deliver online services within demanding time limits. Upgrading the coverage in these areas would enable businesses to compete with places such as Dublin for a talented workforce, while keeping the quality of life that comes with living in less built-up regions. It is my intention to bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage in order that the services advertised by the broadband providers with regard to speed and quality would be reflected by the actual speed and quality of the broadband the consumer receives. I hope the Minister will be willing to take it on board. I am open to suggestions from his Department on how best to frame it, if he is willing to accept such an amendment.

Another aspect of the legislation which must be seriously considered is the extension of the extensive rights being enjoyed by the ESB relating to its access to private property to allow the company to carry out its functions. The Bill extends section 53 of the Electricity (Supply) Act 1927 to third party companies with which the ESB may agree a contract to provide electronic communications services. Not all of section 53 applies to these companies, however. Is this a wise decision, given people’s inherent right to peaceful enjoyment of their property? The legislative provisions contained in sections 5 and 6 allowing the ESB and other companies access to private property must be carefully construed in order that works carried out by these companies do not dramatically impact on property owners’ rights in the long term. Any work carried out on private property must also be conducted with care and the least amount of disruption to the property.

We have plenty of experience of contractors who find it very easy to rip up roads at a quick pace, yet find it very difficult to repave them to their original standard. This must be avoided in this area as we are dealing with people’s private property. Some form of complaints mechanism must be introduced to allow a dissatisfied private property owner to request that a company which accessed his or her land to carry out works be compelled to return and restore the property to the high standard it previously was in if the company has left it in an unsatisfactory state on finishing its work. I intend to submit an amendment in this regard which would allow a complaint to be made to the Commission for Energy Regulation where a property is left in an unsatisfactory state. I am interested to hear the Minister’s views on this matter and I am open to any advice his Department might have in this regard.

Fianna Fáil welcomes the Bill and will be supporting its passage through the House. Broadband services are vital for domestic and commercial life in this country. This legislation should go some way towards increasing high quality broadband services and will, I hope, reduce the high costs associated with this service. I hope my suggested amendments will be considered by the Minister on Committee Stage.

Sinn Féin welcomes the ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill which is important legislation dealing with the networking of fibre optic cables that will I hope develop an area of infrastructure in which the country has lagged behind. Sinn Féin has already suggested the ESB network be used as a vehicle to carry the fibre optic network.

Broadband has become an almost essential utility for every household. Many daily functions are now almost impossible without a proper broadband connection. There are many areas, most of them rural, which still do not have an adequate broadband connection. The lack of broadband and poor service levels are increasingly becoming a constraint in accessing services. The range of services being delivered online is continually increasing. Common examples include online travel reservations and online banking, with the latter likely to accelerate with the closure of more bank branches in smaller towns. On the ground, service delivery in many rural areas is contracting, with many services further curtailed in the current economic environment, with the closure of banks, post offices and rural Garda stations. There is near universal acceptance that online access is the norm for some services and, accordingly, quality broadband is an imperative. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has outlined ambitious plans for e-government, including e-health. Access to high quality broadband will be an essential element in this regard.

Proper broadband access is essential in developing a healthy and vibrant economy. The Government must be to the forefront in pushing this agenda if it is serious about the economy recovering to its full potential. International research shows that the Internet contributes up to 6% of the GDP, gross domestic product, in advanced economies. Most of the economic value created occurs outside of the information technology sector, with 75% of the benefits captured by companies in more traditional industries. The research has also found that the Internet created 2.6 jobs for every one lost arising from technology-related efficiencies. The fear everyone had a few years ago was that technology would replace people’s jobs. The contrary appears to be happening, as technology-related efficiencies are resulting in the creation of more jobs. Greater efficiency in a business means that it can employ more people.

I am glad that the ESB will deliver a fibre-to-the-building network. This will allow for the highest speeds in a home, which shows that there is forward thinking in the development of the fibre network. Fibre is one of the optimum technologies, as it is regarded as the most future-proofed and is, therefore, likely to yield better value for State and private investment. At a wider economy level, the OECD has examined the benefits arising in other economic sectors such as transport, health, education and electricity from a national fibre-to-the-building network. The analysis examined the cost of deploying fibre to the building across different OECD countries, including Ireland. It estimated the combined savings in each of the four sectors over ten years could justify the cost of building a national fibre-to-the-building network. Investment designed to deliver next generation broadband should be based on technologies which are future-proofed in the longer term, not just aimed at meeting immediate targets to 2015 and 2020.

While the immediate target is to ensure what is outlined in the national broadband plan is reached, the infrastructure to be put in place should be designed to have benefits far beyond this. Proper investment will not just deliver targets in the short term but will also benefit the State and its people in the immediate and longer term.

Ireland performs badly in broadband connection when compared internationally. We have one of the lowest access levels to broadband in the European Union, which is hardly something that makes this the best small country in which to do business. This cannot be blamed solely on either our size or population density. While Ireland has a relatively low proportion of people living in urban areas when compared with the OECD average, its rate of 60% is broadly similar to that for Finland which has a rate of 60% and for Japan and Hungary which have rates of 65%. In addition, Ireland's population density, at 63 people per square kilometre, is higher than several other comparator countries such as Australia, Finland, the United States of America, Canada and Sweden which have densities of three, 16, 32, three and 21 people per square kilometre, respectively. All of these countries have fixed rates of broadband subscribers. In Australia 93% of premises will have access to fibre to the building that is capable of providing broadband speeds of up to 1 Gbps. Gaining the advantage of high speed broadband in connecting rural areas and delivering online education and health services is a key goal of that country's digital strategy.

The western and north-western region in Ireland which I represent has suffered significantly in respect of broadband access. This has put its inhabitants at a distinct disadvantage when compared with the more populated areas of the country. Government thinking is changing and must change to ensure those residing in rural areas have access to the services available to urban dwellers. The western region is predominantly rural, with almost 65% of its population now living outside towns with a population of 1,500 or more, compared with 38% nationally. More than half the national urban population live in cities, but there is only one city in the western region. Consequently, the share of its urban population living in a city is far lower, at approximately 27%. A larger share of the region's urban population live in small towns. In the western region 16.4% of the urban population live in small towns of between 1,500 and 2,000 people, while nationally, only 6% of the urban population live in such towns. It is clear, therefore, that any strategy rolled out must recognise the distinct population structures in the west and north west and the Government must adopt a policy that recognises this fact. In the western region e-learning is well established as a delivery mode; for example, IT Sligo and St. Angela's College, Sligo have pioneered its use nationally and internationally. Moreover, the Mayo Education Centre has been delivering online courses internationally for the past decade. However, online learning will be hampered in these and other institutions by inadequate upload and download broadband speeds.

The national broadband plan has outlined several targets that are to be reached in the delivery of broadband throughout the country, namely, 70 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps to more than half of the population by 2015, at least 40 Mbps and, in many cases, much faster speeds to at least a further 20% of the population and potentially as much as 35% around smaller towns and villages and a minimum of 30 Mbps for every remaining home and business in the country, no matter how rural or remote. These targets are laudatory, but one must recognise we cannot rely solely on private industry to deliver on all these targets. The Government must take the initiative in aiding with the extension of the broadband network in order that Ireland can truly have a world-class access service. State telecommunications assets are important in helping to bridge the gap between market provision of services and the need for additional State investment. Government policy, in ensuring access to next generation broadband throughout the country, should recognise the range of applications and industries that require next generation access, the ever increasing bandwidth requirements and the long-term value of investment in network infrastructure. These returns will include the wider economic benefits of better positioning in the global knowledge economy, job creation and enterprise development, all supported by quality, future-proofed broadband.

The issue of privatisation must be discussed in the context of this legislation. One of the primary reasons Ireland has such a poor level of broadband penetration heretofore is the privatisation of Telecom Éireann. This move was disastrous for Ireland's telecommunications network, resulting in a severe lack of investment in the area. Ireland is only now playing catch-up with other European countries and, by right, this legislation should have been brought forward in one way or another many years ago. The privatisation of Telecom Éireann and the establishment of Eircom were a disaster for the Irish telecommunications market and we need not go down this route once again. I suggest all fibre optic cables used by the ESB under this legislation remain in public ownership. It is surely the only way in which proper broadband access can be delivered to and assured for all regions of the country into the future and a provision to that effect should be included in the legislation.

Does the Minister know how much Government expenditure will be required before the roll-out of the fibre network on, for example, consultants' reports and other preparatory work? Second, how does he envisage the public sector element being secured in this regard, particularly in rural areas? How can Members ensure everyone in the country, including those in sparsely populated areas, will have the same standard of broadband access because we cannot have a two-speed Ireland? In common with Deputy Michael Moynihan, I believe all Members must give careful consideration to the issue of access to private lands and at least some additional access activity to maintain the network.

To summarise, Sinn Féin welcomes this legislation, wishes it a fair wind and will help the Minister in every way it can to see it established.

I understand Deputy Thomas Pringle is sharing time with Deputy Finian McGrath.

Yes, I am sharing time with him. I am unsure how much time I will take at this point.

In common with other speakers, I welcome the introduction of this legislation. It is a progressive step to enable the ESB to provide fibre on its networks and in respect of broadband, it probably is one of the most progressive steps that could have been taken by a Government to ensure this would happen. As Members are aware, the ESB is a company that already has a relationship with every household and business in the country. Consequently, it is a perfect fit for it to be able to provide fibre-optic broadband by wrapping fibre on their existing networks. I note that the ESB already has fibre wrapped on its transmission network nationwide on the larger lines from 110 kV upwards, which is useful and has linked the metropolitan area networks around the country. While this is useful, the real difference and impact can be made as the company starts to roll out fibre onto the connections to houses and businesses nationwide.

That is why the Bill is to be welcomed. The existing policy up to now on providing broadband has been to rely on the market. That has left many areas behind, including rural areas but also areas where people are trying to operate businesses and create and maintain jobs. They are not getting a service that is in any way reliable or up to standard. Providing a proper fibre optic broadband network could act as a major stimulus across the country, enabling people to create businesses, do their business and access education.

In recent years we have relied on mobile telephony to provide broadband and bridge the gap. It has failed and is not capable of providing the service people need. The provider for the rural broadband scheme, 3, wants to build 160 masts to provide its broadband service across the country. We know everything this invokes in communities across the country when masts are erected. The legislation provides the opportunity to avoid all of that disruption across communities and the country by providing a reliable and resilient service for everybody. That is the way we should go. I urge the Minister to ensure after this legislation is passed it is rolled out to the significant number of households across the country in order that people can access modern fibre networks.

In Ireland approximately 2% to 3% of households have access to a fibre connection. In Estonia over 30% have access, while in Portugal almost 20% have such access. These are countries that would not be seen as the most digitally advanced or progressive. We aim to pitch ourselves at the heart of information technology and information provision through the Internet; therefore, we should aim to have universal coverage across the country. As has been mentioned, Australia began a project a couple of years ago to roll out fibre broadband to every house in the country. When that project is completed, a huge proportion of the country will have access to proper broadband speeds. We should look to go that way and it could unleash great potential.

The Western Development Commission published a report a couple of years ago examining the creative industries. It estimated that the creative industries in the north-west region alone could create approximately 18,000 jobs simply by improving access to the Internet in order that they could sell their wares across it. These businesses are not being thought of at all. We regard foreign direct investment as a way of rebuilding the economy. We can consider the individuals involved in creative industries who could establish new industries that might not have been thought of by having access to a proper telecommunications infrastructure. That is the opportunity this legislation opens up to us. It is like when the ESB set out to electrify the country in the rural electrification scheme in the 1950s. Now it could be used as a vehicle to turn on the whole country and light fibre across the country. That is to be welcomed. As has been said, it is probably a little late but better late than never. We commend the Minister for ensuring this is happening. When he sums up on Second Stage, will he outline his plans, if any, to ensure as wide a roll-out as possible of a fibre optic network? We should look to invest in this as a state to assist the ESB in providing this service because it would pay huge dividends in the long run and, as a stimulus, make a significant difference to people's lives across the country. Given that the ESB is a semi-State company, we would be able to invest in it and provide funding to ensure this happened. I urge the Minister to ensure it will happen to provide access for all to a proper broadband service, with proper download and upload speeds, and open up the innovation and skills available across the country. Jobs and new businesses would come from it and real innovation would take place.

This legislation is welcome and I hope it will go through without any problem and be welcomed across the board. I hope the ESB is geared up and ready to go in rolling out the fibre network that is envisaged and that we will see in the coming years access to suitable broadband across the country. I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward the legislation.

I thank the Chair for givng me the opportunity to speak on the ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013. I welcome this important debate because if we are to get the country back working again, we must change with the times and reform at both local and national levels and in the context of this debate, the communications and electronics sector.

Before discussing the details of the Bill, I commend all ESB staff for their great and magnificent work during the recent storms. They were brave, efficient and very professional. They went out in the cold, wet and windy conditions to restore power for people, small businesses, factories and the whole economy. I thank them and commend them for their dedication. It is important that the State value such persons and support them when they have issues. For example, in the case of the recent pensions row this should never be forgotten, as all ESB staff deserve a decent and fair pension.

I welcome the legislation and commend the Minister for bringing it forward. It legislation I will support. It is not very often that I will support Government legislation in this House, but this is particularly positive legislation. It is welcome that there seems to be a broad consensus in supporting it. The word on the street in Howth, Marino, Clontarf, Raheny, Kilbarrack and Baldoyle is that this is sensible legislation. I listened to the word on the street and the people involved in the sector.

The Bill will allow the ESB to develop an electronic communications network using existing infrastructure to provide electronic communications services. That is a positive development. The ESB has already been involved in fibre optic network development and an expansion of services is proposed, hence the need to establish a legislative basis. The Bill will treat electronic communications networks in the same manner as electricity infrastructure. This includes existing powers of entry onto private land. The Bill will also allow the ESB to partner with a separate company to provide such services. The legislation does not go into more specific detail on such a partner. The ESB started the process by seeking a partner in 2012 with a tender proposal and is to report to the Minister. However, no further information is available.

The Bill does not affect the recent debate on expansion of the national grid, the ESB workers' pension dispute or electricity price increases. That is what the legislation and the future of the country is about and it is very important we take this into strong consideration. We need new ideas and infrastructure to develop the economy. When we have such a high youth unemployment rate in the State, we need projects such as this. In this debate we should not forget our highly qualified young people who have fantastic skills in electronics and communications. Just a few minutes ago I heard on the news about a group of four Irish friends who had got together and started a small company and who already had secured an investment of approximately €20 million.

We need to nurture young talented people and ensure the education system helps to develop their electronic and technological skills to the maximum. Let us not forget we have many highly skilled and qualified people.

In the context of the debate on pylons, GridLink and the expansion of EirGrid, this project has been given much media attention. However, the Bill is not relevant to that debate. It confers no extra powers on the ESB regarding electricity lines, although ESB lines will also be able to be used for the purpose of electronic communications networks, as well as for the carrying of electricity. The stated aim of the GridLink project is the provision of a new high voltage overhead power line, linking Knockraha in County Cork with Great Island in County Wexford and Dunstown, near Kilcullen, County Kildare, that will ensure a reliable and high quality electricity supply for homes, farms and businesses in the south and eastern region for the future. The stated aim of the Bill is to enable the electricity supplier to engage in electronic communications networks and electronic communications.

The debate on pylons is important and we must listen to all sides. On the one hand, we must ensure we get the maximum power and energy supply and modern communications for the country. On the other, we must listen to the reasonable arguments of those who have concerns about the pylons to be constructed. There has been a massive reaction on this issue which is a difficult one to resolve, but we must try to come up with sensible solutions. I am sure there are good quality people who could devise sensible solutions. We must ensure we protect tourism and the environment, but we must also ensure we protect the development of jobs and the economy, particularly in the electronics sector. We must resolve both issues and I am confident people will be able to sit down and come up with a solution.

I support the section of the Bill which suggests the ESB will work with other companies. While this does not necessarily provide capacity for partnership, the ESB and the electricity sector have involved third parties since before the Electricity (Supply) Act 1927. Under that Act, an authorised undertaker was a person statutorily allowed to generate, distribute and supply electricity to the public in a specific area. Under the Electricity Regulation Act 1999, the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, is allowed to grant authorisations to construct electricity stations and access the transmission and distribution system. We need to be creative and if the ESB has new ideas for expansion, we should let it keep at it and doing what it knows best. We have a pool of talented people in the ESB and saw them in action following the recent storms. Not only is the expertise of the ESB recognised nationally, it is also recognised internationally. I have many friends in the ESB who have happy stories to relate of projects in which they were involved abroad.

Sections 5 and 6 of the Bill concern the right of ESB companies to enter private lands. There are already extensive powers in place to allow the ESB to carry out its functions and it is important to ensure this will continue. The issue of rights of way is often raised. In this context, they concern right of way over or through land, for example, for cars to carry gas, pipes, wires and pylons, which has been created by express grant, reservation or statute. While rights of way may be granted, we must ensure we respect the rights of people, in particular in regard to their property.

The Bill extends section 53 of the Electricity (Supply) Act 1927 to prospective companies the ESB may partner to provide electronic communications network services, but not all of the section will apply to other companies. Some of the subsections are relevant such as that which provides the power to place electric lines above or below ground, across any land that is not a street, road, railway or tramway. Notice must be given to the landowner or occupier of such an intention. Where the landowner or occupier agrees with the conditions, within seven days the company may enter to place the lines. Where the landowner does not agree, the company may still enter and place lines, but it must pay compensation under the Acquisition of Land (Assessment of Compensation) Act 1919. This issue can sometimes cause problems, but compensation must be paid.

Under the Bill, the ESB and other companies will not be able to attach anything to walls, houses or buildings. We must respect the rights of people and families and their homes. The ESB has this power for the purpose of supplying electricity, but it is not allowed in the Bill because such powers are not considered appropriate in the development of electronic communications networks, given that existing telecommunications providers operate within these limits. We must provide for the public good, while respecting the rights of people.

In the context of Government targets and policy, the Bill is expected to provide for an anticipated increase in the availability of high speed broadband. This objective complements Government and EU policy as set out in the Government's national broadband plan for Ireland. The Government has committed to high speed broadband availability across the country during its lifetime. Specifically, it has committed to its availability to more than half of the population by 2015, as well as homes and businesses, no matter how rural or remote they are. We need to focus on these issues in order that we can develop the whole economy.

We hear much talk about competitiveness. If we do not have competitiveness, we will not be able to compete on the national and international markets. This is particularly relevant in the context of a company such as the ESB which is already playing in the premiership internationally when it comes to communications and electricity provision. It has a proud record in this regard across the world. Forfás has stated the availability of high quality broadband has been of strategic importance for enterprise. This is very true. We cannot get on unless we have the resources and right strategies and systems in place. Forfás has stated advanced broadband services are crucial in achieving productivity and the necessary growth to improve competitiveness, sustain high level incomes and ensure Ireland captures new opportunities for entrepreneurship and job creation across all sectors. We must focus on this issue. There is only one game in town and it concerns the economy and job creation. Job creation must be our focus in the next two or three years and this legislation can make a massive contribution in that regard. It is welcome when talking about growth and productivity that the Minister is also talking about sustaining high level incomes because those on good solid incomes are the grassroots and engine of the economy. They are the ones who are paying their taxes and spending their money in local small businesses. The regulatory impact analysis, RIA, states the increased availability of high speed broadband has the potential to contribute to Ireland's competitiveness and have a positive effect in addressing the digital divide.

I welcome this important legislation which I strongly support. The cost implications associated with the Bill amount only to administrative costs related to pursuing legislative proposals generally. No additional or recurring costs to the Exchequer have been identified and I do not believe the Minister has consultants hanging around in the background. The legislation has the potential to generate growth in the sector and bring the country into the modern age. It also has great potential to create jobs and develop the economy. I urge the Minister to ensure when he is examining the issues involved that he taps into the high quality young people available who are streets ahead of us when it comes to electronics, technology and communications.

They are the future of the country, but they are in the highest unemployment bracket. We need to focus on them because they can lift all of us and the country by getting into the sector and paying taxes which we could use to develop the State and services, particularly for people with disabilities and those who are least well off. I welcome the legislation, which I support.

I very much welcome the Bill, which will allow the ESB to use its distribution network to deliver fibre services to the telecommunications market and engage in the installation and operation of electronic communications networks and services, either alone or in conjunction with another company. As a rural Deputy from the Cavan-Monaghan constituency, I am very well aware of the huge disadvantage it is for businesses, communities, householders and young people not to have access to high speed broadband.

I have raised this matter with the Minister on many occasions and I am really pleased the ESB's extensive electricity networks will have the ability to extend high quality broadband throughout the country but particularly to rural Ireland which has proved to be very problematic in the past. This proposal makes good common sense and people in rural Ireland will be able to move into the 21st century in terms of telecommunications.

As we know, broadband is now an essential utility like water or power. To survive in today's world we need high speed reliable broadband. I agree that there was extensive investment in broadband by previous Governments, but it did not deliver to rural Ireland in the way it should have and we were left behind. I have lost count at this stage of the number of occasions I have been approached by individuals and businesses regarding broadband services. The problem always seems to be the same; if one is too far from the local exchange, the quality of broadband seems very poor.

The topography of County Monaghan, with its drumlins, makes it very difficult for people to use wireless broadband. I know of one particular business which employs 32 people and the lack of quality broadband in the area causes great difficulties and expense. This business availed of the national broadband scheme, but as it is a commercial enterprise, it was of little benefit to it. While the national broadband scheme may guarantee broadband access, unfortunately, the reality is it is at very limited speeds and for this business, it means that any major software upgrade has to be done on site, rather than by remote access, which results in considerable extra costs. To access broadband the owner must pay €600 a month for an ISDN line which is of only limited ability and use to him. The problem is that fibre optic broadband is available across the Border, only four miles away in Caledon, County Tyrone, and as a result, the owner is seriously considering relocating his business to Northern Ireland, which is certainly not something I would like to see happen. The major issue is that in the era in which we live if rural areas are unable to avail of a high quality broadband service, they will simply not be able to compete when it comes to attracting investment and new businesses. Virtual businesses, online sales and e-commerce are vital amenities for any start-up business. At a time when we are trying to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business, we absolutely need to ensure an adequate broadband service is available throughout the country, not just in the major cities.

Recently I met a lady with an excellent proposal for an online business through developing the concept of a virtual assistant whereby somebody could work from home serving a business in the United States or anywhere in the world. This would be particularly important for women who want to say at home and look after a family. They could juggle their work hours with their childminding needs. What is most important for the business is access to high speed broadband because without it, one could not work from home. Access to the Internet provides huge opportunities. We badly need such innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, but without high speed broadband, it cannot be done.

I came across the case of a mother who had wireless broadband and used to drive her child to urban areas to access broadband on a laptop to do homework or engage in project research. There is a broadband deficit in Ireland along the lines of a rural-urban split. The Bill will allow this to change and bring huge benefits to rural Ireland through the provision of broadband. I very much welcome the Bill and commend the Minister for bringing it forward.

The ESB has identified an opportunity to use its electricity distribution network to provide fibre telecommunications services in the Irish market. It will be able to do this either alone or in partnership with another company. It is envisaged this, in turn, could facilitate retail telecommunications operators in Ireland to deliver fibre broadband services.

The purpose of the Bill is to enable the ESB to attach a fibre network to its electricity network for the purpose of entering the wholesale communications market. The ESB already operates a fibre network across the electricity transmission system. This fibre network originates through the ESB's management of the electricity network. Over time additional capacity on the network has been sold to operators in the telecommunications market. The proposed new network relates to the distribution system and differs from the ESB's existing fibre network in that it would be a stand-alone business with no direct connection to the management of the electricity network. It was, therefore, considered prudent to introduce legislation to provide the ESB with an explicit legal basis to engage in the telecommunications market. It is expected that it will bring forward detailed proposals for this project during 2014. Such proposals and the necessary statutory approval will be subject to separate detailed consideration by the Department.

The ESB is no longer one entity but comprises a group of companies looking after various specific tasks. Electric Ireland manages electricity and gas supply accounts. ESB Networks Limited maintains Ireland's electricity network and infrastructure and the ESB's electricity meters. ESB International is an international energy company investing in energy and engineering projects. ESB Telecoms Limited was founded by the ESB group in 2001 to explore opportunities in the Irish telecommunications market. It built and owns 1,300 km of the national fibre optic network, comprising 48 core fibre wrapped around the ESB's high voltage network which links various metropolitan area networks in major Irish cities. Its national network is constructed in a figure of eight pattern around Ireland, with a spur from Carrick-on-Shannon to Buncrana. It also owns and manages more than 400 telecommunications towers and sites containing substantial installations for all major Irish telecommunications companies. Through its network, it offers bandwidth and infrastructure to mobile phone operators, Departments and agencies, licensed operators and wireless Internet service providers. ESB Telecoms Limited's fibre-optic network forms a key part of the national telecommunications infrastructure enabling broadband connectivity for businesses and consumers. This was significantly expanded in 2012 with the completion of a subsea fibre optic cable directly linking Irish businesses with major UK cities.

This network is augmented by one of the largest networks of independent mobile tower sites in the country allowing customers to support the increasing demand for services delivered through mobile devices and smartphones.

Significant investment is required to upgrade broadband infrastructure at a time when the ongoing global economic uncertainty makes raising capital more expensive. While UPC has invested significantly in upgrading its cable network in our main urban centres, businesses, particularly SMEs, in a large number of medium-sized towns do not have access to competitively price advanced broadband services. Several operators in the market provide a fibre optic broadband and communications service, including eircom, UPC and Magnet. When enacted, the legislation will allow the ESB to use its distribution network to deliver telecommunication services.

I welcome the legislation and acknowledge that it as another part of the Minister's effort to modernise the communications and energy sectors, with a resulting positive impact on job creation. That is the logic underpinning all of the strategies employed by the Minister and his Department. That has to be the ultimate result of any initiative the House approves. It should be about job creation and getting people working. Everything else will follow from this.

I am happy to acknowledge that under the programme for Government, we committed to ensuring 90% of homes and businesses would be provided with next generation broadband. This can only be achieved by delivering fibre optic cables to homes or kerbs. The Bill is a confirmation of that commitment and an expression of how important investment in broadband infrastructure is to the country. It is welcome that a basic broadband service is available in most of the country, but Members who represent constituencies such as that represented by Deputy Heather Humphreys and me want the Government to go one step further and ensure the service is better than this. The Minister is committed to rolling out high speed broadband to every home and business. We are making great strides in the provision of national high speed broadband. Market giants such as eircom, UPC, Vodafone and Meteor have increased the speed of their services and 3G and 4G coverage is available. However, many small towns and villages in rural communities have yet to experience the impact of these services. My constituency is predominantly rural and owing to geographical and commercial reasons, some areas have a poor to non-existent broadband service. While acknowledging all that is good in the legislation, I would fail in my duty if I did not remind the Minister of State of this. However, he is acutely aware of the issue which is of great concern to the people I represent. This puts homeowners, small businesses and farmers in these areas at a severe disadvantage compared to those in other parts of the country.

A regulatory impact assessment of the legislation last year found that if it were fully enacted, it would have the potential "to reduce the existing digital divide between geographic locations" and on that it is in line with the objectives of the national digital strategy, which aims "to address social inclusion by encouraging citizens to engage with the Internet and Internet services". One of the aims of the strategy is to get 10,000 businesses online for the first time and have a further 2,000 small business trading online in the next two years. We need to get into that market. Irish consumers spend €3 billion on average online annually, but, sadly, approximately 70% of that spend goes abroad and we must try to correct this. This legislation is critical in that regard. The Bill will enable many SMEs to tap into the online market, which would otherwise be unavailable to them. For counties such as Cavan and Monaghan, it will also make a difference in the context of inward investment, particularly by large multinational companies, as we do not do well in that regard. The lack of an adequate broadband service is one of the contributory factors to a lack of investment by such companies.

One of the key recommendations in the Forfás report commissioned last year is that significant investment in upgrading the broadband infrastructure is required at a time when ongoing global uncertainty makes raising capital more expensive. While our larger towns and cities have access to quality, speedy broadband, large numbers of medium-sized towns do not have access to competitively priced advanced broadband services, hence the significance of the legislation. One of the ways in which this issue can be rectified is through the prioritisation of the removal of barriers to private sector investment, in parallel with State investment and intervention. As was mentioned, the wireless system is erratic and not universally and uniformly satisfactory in drumlin territory, given the topography of the area.

Section 2 permits the ESB to engage in electronic communications networks and services, either on its own or in conjunction with another communications company. According to OECD reports, Ireland's volume of fibre optic connections is low. Fibre optic cables can provide voice, data and televisual services with enhanced quality and speed. The ESB is seeking a partnership to roll out a €400 million fibre optic network across the State, which is significant. Sections 2 and 3 of the Bill enable the company to enter into such a partnership with a private telecommunications company and give that company access to the ESB's infrastructure, which is a wonderful development. It is a logical step, but it will not happen until the legislation is enacted.

The regulatory impact assessment also found that if a decision was made to retain the status quo and not allow the ESB to carry out these activities, any opportunity for the increased availability of high speed broadband could be negatively impacted on. It is, therefore, objectively established, as well as appearing logical, even to lay people. Furthermore, the assessment found that by giving the company the necessary legislative footing, the increased availability of high speed broadband would be a more likely outcome. This important legislation will tie in with EU proposals and commitments relating to broadband services, provide for market competitiveness, which is crucial, and make good on the commitments laid out in the national broadband plan and the programme for Government.

Section 5 gives the ESB authority to grant wayleave powers to companies accessing electricity infrastructure. This will be vital when the legislation is implemented. The legislation will be important in the context of job creation and enhancing the ability of small businesses to market their products and create an online market. That is where the potential to develop lies nowadays and it is important that small traders can get into the online market. The Bill also has the potential to attract multinationals and large industries to areas to which they were not traditionally attracted. There will be quality of life implications owing to improved access to knowledge and entertainment and enrichment of a range of lifestyle choices.

We are achieving the objective of job creation and modernisation, while also addressing quality of life issues.  Why should we not disperse quality of life and opportunities for job creation widely across the country?  This is progressive and modernising legislation in that respect and we should enthusiastically support its rapid passage through the House as a signal that we are serious about job creation, quality of life issues and modernisation. Broadband is the modern equivalent of the road network in ancient Rome and the trains and other communications developments that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.  It allows for the dispersal of opportunities.

I welcome the Bill and the opportunity it offers us to discuss broadband provision around the country.  It should allow for increased competition in the broadband and electronic communications market, thereby reducing costs and increasing broadband coverage.  During our time in government we invested in broadband infrastructure as the technology developed and it is important that we continue to invest.  The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has issued a number of press releases in the last year to 18 months on extensions to broadband services in rural areas.  This is one of the issues most commonly raised by people who live in such areas.  Businesses are finding it difficult to secure the speeds necessary to develop their operations.  We receive representations from Forfás, chambers of commerce and business associations.

  Problems arise even within urban areas.  The Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation recently visited the Enniscorthy Enterprise Centre which was in danger of losing two of it companies because higher speeds could be achieved in Wexford town.  We have encouraged these companies to remain in Enniscorthy in the light of their importance to the local economy.  It is important that these issues be addressed.

  It is only right that the ESB should be involved in broadband provision and perhaps it is surprising that it has not been involved heretofore, given the success it has experienced in providing electricity services.  It has the broad structures required to provided modern telecommunications services.  It should work with other companies to develop a structure that would enable Ireland to compete with the rest of Europe and the world.  It is one of the better semi-State companies in that it has managed to complete the rural electrification scheme with few complications.  However, in recent times difficulties have arisen in regard to the construction of pylons.  I hope there will be no pylons within the communications service the ESB will be developing.

  The Minister referred to changes in the company's wayleave practices.  I am sure changes will be necessary if it is to provide these services, but I hope there will be engagement with people when these changes are being introduced in order that we do not have a repeat of the situation that has arisen with EirGrid.

The changes will be very limited.

I welcome the Minister's clarification, but it is important that we have dialogue.  In the past five years the number of broadband subscriptions has increased from 600,000 to almost 1.7 million.  Competition in the broadband providers market has begun to heat up in recent months, with eircom emerging from examinership in June 2013, UPC upgrading its current services and the announcement that the ESB is to enter the market.  I hope these changes will result in improved services for urban dwellers and heal the current rural-urban divide.  If the urban-rural divide remains, we will have a two-tier economy in which urban areas will enjoy strong growth, while rural areas will be left behind.

  In recent months companies have gone from door to door to sell television and broadband packages.  There is considerable competition, which I welcome.  However, according to Ookla's household download index, Ireland ranks 43rd internationally for average Internet download speeds, behind Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria. ComReg reported in 2012 that 16,000 Internet users had dial-up connections.  One third of Internet subscriptions rely on mobile broadband, which is expensive, variable in quality and synonymous with small data caps.  Eircom estimates that 6% of the population cannot connect to DSL connections.  If one adds these figures together, one finds that 250,000 people have mobile, satellite or fixed wireless services.  Our patchwork broadband infrastructure makes the service unusable, even for those with DSL connections.  A report by Netflix indicated that Ireland had the second worst spread of the eight countries it had surveyed.  However, I do not put much weight on such reports because they do not always reflect the truth.  Perhaps the Minister is in a position to contradict them.  We cannot always run ourselves down in regard to the services provided because we have come a long way in the last six years in providing adequate broadband connections.  There will be pitfalls and roadblocks along the way, but I hope the involvement of the ESB will help to eliminate the problems that arose previously and go a long way towards providing top of the range services in both rural and urban areas.

  We will be proposing an amendment to section 5 of the Bill to ensure the development of electronic communications facilities on private property will not have a dramatic impact on property rights and ownership and that such work will be carried out with care and minimal detrimental impact on the properties concerned.  Our amendment would provide for a complaints procedure to the Commission for Energy Regulation where the criteria set out are not fulfilled.

  Advertised speeds must be binding on Internet service providers, with the possibility of issuing fines for breaches.  Some providers advertise unrealisable speeds. Ireland's small and dispersed population does not make the economics of broadband roll-out attractive when compared to many other countries.  The major companies that provide broadband services are cherry-picking urban centres and inclined to stay away from rural areas.  The national broadband strategy commits the Government to a range of actions that will facilitate more efficient roll-out of infrastructure and maximise the use of existing assets.

Ireland's broadband costs are among the highest in the OECD, which compared cost and quality of service. I presume that is because of the sparse population in some parts of the country and trying to reach out with broadband.

In many rural areas to which different Deputies on the far side of the House have referred, there are small companies providing important employment. In the rural part of a constituency, two or three such companies can provide perhaps 15, 20, 30 or 40 jobs. Such jobs are important to the economy of small villages and towns through the country and it is important that we be able to provide state-of-the-art broadband services for such companies in the future.

As I stated at the outset, I welcome the fact the ESB is now getting involved. I would have preferred to have seen the company go it alone, but it will be in partnership with some of the major communications companies in this country and throughout Europe. The Minister might outline when he is replying why the ESB could not get involved on a stand-alone basis completely. As I stated, the company was successful in the provision of electrification of Ireland and in providing the service down through the years, through good times and bad, through good weather and bad. We might get an outline of why the company cannot go it alone in providing this infrastructure rather than in partnership with other companies.

Overall, I welcome the Bill. I ask the Minister to continue to take a strong interest in rural areas that are not getting the services they require to enable them to expand, develop and survive in the world of modern technology. When one considers that ten or 12 years ago mobile phones were probably only coming on the market, we have moved so far ahead that all the bookings for flights and for concerts and all of the different areas that people want to access in their day-to-day living are dependent on the speed of broadband. I certainly welcome the Bill. Hopefully, we will see ESB every bit as successful in this area as it has been in the provision of electricity.

The next speaking slot is shared by Deputies Connaughton, Coffey and Kyne.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this Bill.

If citizens across this country are to receive equal treatment, then access to basic infrastructure is vital and what we have at present, in terms of industries and householders reliant on broadband, is a two-speed Ireland.

I welcome the provisions of this Bill, which will provide greater freedom to ESB in terms of broadband infrastructure, which in turn can be used by other providers, but this represents only the beginning of a long process if dwellers in rural Ireland are to be able to access the broadband services they deserve.

One need only look at the percentage of fibre connections as a total of broadband connections to see the extent of the poor performance to date. Ireland ranks above only Greece and below a range of countries, including Korea, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Turkey, Mexico and Chile.

Rural areas all across Ireland are losing out because micro-enterprises can no longer locate in rural areas given the abysmal level of broadband available. Even when one raises this issue in the context of a company that perhaps would create three jobs in a rural area, there is no movement or impetus to ensure that when jobs are at stake all necessary provisions are put in place to ensure that the right level of broadband is available.

In decades gone by, significant emphasis was placed on bringing vital infrastructure such as electricity to rural areas, but I see no such vision in terms of broadband. We simply get the mantra that the aim is to ensure that a set percentage of people in the country have access to high-speed broadband, when this simply translates as having high-speed broadband available in Dublin and its hinterland.

I have made repeated representations to the Minister on broadband availability in areas such as Athenry, Mountbellew, Moylough, Ballymacward and Tuam - I welcome the fact that the necessary ducting has been provided in Tuam - but the repeated mantra is that since market liberalisation in 1999 broadband services are delivered in the first instance through private sector operators. How many homes in Ireland would be able to switch on the lights if the national electrification scheme was left to private providers?

In recent weeks, I was contacted by a company in Headford, County Galway, seeking to double its workforce with the creation of 20 jobs, but broadband is the stumbling block. I have brought this matter to the attention of the Ministers, Deputies Rabbitte and Bruton, and also to the attention of the Taoiseach. I certainly am not happy with the response I received so far from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Unemployment is a major issue in County Galway and all Departments should be working together to secure these potential jobs.

Leaving this vital national infrastructure to private providers will mean that there will be excellent services in the cities, good service in the larger towns, a mediocre service in smaller towns and poor provision in rural areas, or certainly the speed necessary to locate a business in a rural area will not be available. Broadband is not a luxury for rural businesses; it is a necessity. One need only ask any local business person. If rural areas are not to be left behind on this particular highway, then the current framework of leaving services to the private sector will have to change.

Fibre to the building, FTTB, is the level of service that is required in towns such as Ballinasloe, Loughrea, Tuam, Athenry and Mountbellew, and while there has been some movement on this, it has been slow. We remain over-reliant on congested copper cabling and business and home owners in Ireland continue to fall behind in European terms when it comes to bandwidth and the price of Internet services.

I was recently contacted by a businessman in County Galway who can get fibre broadband in his Finland offices for €50 per month and can get the same service in Prague for €100 per month. In Ireland, that costs €2,700 per month. This is having serious repercussions on the competitiveness of Ireland, in particular, on the competitiveness of vast swathes of Ireland that lie outside the major cities.

Another issue I wish to raise in respect of the Bill is the extension of the wayleave rights. Previously, only ESB had the right to enter private property, but this Bill extends that right to companies working in partnership with ESB in the provision of communication networks or services. An extensive information campaign, including letters to every ESB customer, is necessary to ensure that all ESB customers whose lands have a wayleave right for ESB are properly informed of this change. Otherwise, it would give rise to a situation where landowners will confront workers whom they believe are trespassing on their lands when in fact the wayleave right will have been amended through this legislation. It is crucial that this change is communicated to landowners by the ESB as soon as is practicable.

This Bill is a step forward in terms of putting the mechanisms in place whereby improved broadband services can be provided, but the pace of change remains frustrating, particularly for those in small towns and rural areas across Ireland.

I welcome and support the Bill.

Before I speak to the Bill, I should put it in the context of the legacy of the telecommunications that we have been left with in this country. One of the biggest mistakes was the selling of the Eircom infrastructure which, I suppose, became a considerable barrier to the development of quality broadband in this country. For that reason, we have been playing catch-up.

I commend the Minister and the Government for their recent initiatives and the strides they have made in extending quality broadband to schools right around the country. This Bill will be an additional step in the provision of digital infrastructure right across the country. Ireland is uniquely placed in the export of services right around the world in terms of engineering, technology and business support and there is no reason we cannot export this expertise over the Internet from every corner of Ireland.

The Bill is a progressive step which gives the ESB the capacity to reach its full potential in terms of delivering telecommunications infrastructure on the back of its existing distribution networks. ESB has always delivered infrastructure with full public confidence to the highest standard and to all parts of the country, both urban and rural. The ESB is recognised as having the expertise and the personnel to deliver essential infrastructure and no doubt it will continue to deliver it, including essential telecommunications infrastructure, to the regions. As Members have said, the regions must have access to quality broadband and digital infrastructure if they are to have equal access to job creation and development, and the Bill will certainly assist that process.

The ESB has available to it existing transmission networks which it already utilises for telecommunications and now the company plans to expand and use distribution lines which reach into every parish and community in the country. We cannot underestimate the significance of the Bill. Telecommunications technology allows telecommunications cables to be wrapped around the existing lines and this cuts the need for significant capital costs in terms of excavation, wayleaves and ducting across the country. The Bill could be a real game changer in terms of delivery of wholesale Internet to the regions. I am very excited about the news from the ESB on how it plans to invest in this technology with investment partners in rolling out broadband further to the country. This will enhance the telecommunications infrastructure that can link with existing digital hubs and the metropolitan area networks, MANs.

We already know about the Eircom investment announced last year, and all of that will feed into the national broadband plan. It will introduce healthy competition into the wholesale market for the provision of broadband. It will also increase access opportunities for the retail providers who are also investing in infrastructure in the country.

I draw the Minister's attention to the south-east region. As he knows, I come from Waterford. A recent economic strategy for Waterford city and county identified the lack of a dark fibre aurora high capacity broadband network in the south-east region, and that is also identified in a Forfás report. I have a map showing the existing network which goes from Dublin across the midlands to Galway, down to Ennis, into Limerick and then down to Cork, but unfortunately that network does not reach into the south-east region. That is a big disadvantage to us. That is identified by Forfás. I hope the opportunity that this presents might interest the ESB and its investment partners so they can extend into those regions this type of network which will bring balance and the same opportunities for people and businesses in those regions and communities to access the quality network to which we all aspire.

I will be supporting this legislation. These are exciting times. The Minister will make up the ground that was lost through the sale of the Eircom infrastructure and that is where all the focus is, and I wish him well in that regard.

I very much welcome this legislation, the main principle of which is to include electronic communication in the statutory functions of the ESB. Most people would associate Eircom with communications and not the ESB. I am not impressed with the history of Eircom in the provision of broadband, a point Deputy Connaughton made in respect of rural Galway. The previous national broadband scheme certainly looked good and I was a member of Galway County Council at the time it was introduced. We would have had presentations from 3G. The scheme was accompanied by lovely colourful maps but coverage was not factual on the ground in many areas. Many places which would have been deemed to be covered by that scheme in reality were not covered. I am more hopeful of the Minister's new national broadband plan. I know he has initiated a mapping procedure and he is examining European rules in terms of State aid to ensure we get adequate broadband provision. I am more hopeful of that.

It is always important to hear from constituents and to hear citations from them. I have two from constituents in rural Galway who are both business people. One person is living in Tullykyne near Moycullen and he has always been an Eircom subscriber. He wrote that his attempts to obtain broadband at his residence have been resoundingly unsuccessful, with his latest phone call to Eircom having been answered in what he understands to be Mumbai, India, and the operative on that occasion suggested that he contact his public representative. He also wrote that there are many homes in his area without broadband despite it being available in Moycullen and Rosscahill, all areas within three or four miles. He further wrote that the absence of broadband in 2013 is a travesty, particularly when he relies on it for work or for keeping in touch with family. He asked that I make representations to Eircom on his behalf. The second citation, from 2011, is from a businessman who runs a guesthouse near Oughterard. He wrote that for many years he was not able to get any kind of fast Internet connection. He also wrote that the company 3 contacted him earlier this year and said he could get a satellite link which would give broadband connectivity provided through the national broadband scheme. He further wrote that he jumped at this, as running any kind of business without broadband is beyond a joke at this stage. He said that since 3 installed the satellite link the service has been despicable, shameful and hugely time-wasting. He also understands that the State pays a large amount to 3 in order to provide businesses such as his in remote areas with broadband access. He further said the broadband he gets from 3 for which he pays each month is below dial-up speed on many occasions and completely unusable. Those are citations from people living in rural areas who are very frustrated with the quality of service they have received over many years.

I welcome the Bill and believe it will provide great opportunities. With respect to the joint venture between the ESB and another company or companies, it will own the fibre assets and it will pay ESB Networks to piggy-back on its pole infrastructure. Most fibre networks run to roadside cabinets, with copper wire used for the final stretches, and this results in the slowing down of speeds. As others have said, Eircom has initiated a large level of investment and there are plans in Moycullen and Barna to improve the infrastructure and the broadband speed. I welcome that and I have met with representatives there. The ESB joint venture will run fibre directly into the walls of buildings, which is the fibre to the building programme. It will improve competition in the sector, which is important also. I remain concerned and doubtful whether it would be viable for ESB Networks to serve the most rural areas economically, hence the importance of the national broadband scheme and the State intervening where the markets do not.

I have another example from the Knockferry exchange in my area near Rosscahill where I have contacted Eircom in terms of next generation access. It states that for commercial reasons it is not in a position to roll out next generation access to Knockferry at this stage. It also states that while it constantly reviews its business and investment plans, including considering technology and other changes, there are certain areas of the country where the commercial case for investment is exceedingly difficult to justify and, in this context, it is engaging with the Government in the context of the national broadband plan to identify areas where a joint approach between Government and industry could devise solutions to deliver the Government's targets of 30 Mb to all households regardless of location which will not be served by commercial operators.

There are many similar areas where it is not viable economically for Eircom at present and while welcoming this legislation I also welcome the initiatives I mentioned regarding the national broadband plan, the mapping and the Minister's endeavours to ensure that State aid can be provided and that it would be within competition rules. I know from replies to parliamentary questions that the Minister has been in contact with the Commission on such funding.

I welcome the legislation, which is good for jobs, rural areas, those working from their homes in rural areas and the sustainability of a rural economy. I look forward to the passing of the legislation and, more importantly, to the roll out of the important fibre directly to buildings in rural areas across our country.

I sincerely thank the members of the Technical Group and their staff for allowing me some of their speaking time. This is an important Bill and I compliment and sincerely thank the Minister for bringing forward this progressive legislation. It is important from the view of having access to a proper fibre telecommunications service in the Irish market. It is as important as a good road going into a county or up a boreen. The last mile of road up to a person's house is the most important mile of road in the country to that person. Equally, it is important to young people living with their parents and people trying to run a business that they have proper communications and a proper fibre optic network into their homes. It is no longer a luxury. Some years ago it might have been an aspiration of people but now it is a must-have. In doing what the Minister is doing, he, his staff and the people working with him deserve to be commended. The Minister has my wholehearted support with regard to this important legislation and I am glad to be present in the Chamber to speak on it.

It is very important for the State to protect its investment. With respect to any type of services we have, it is important that we protect our ownership of that asset. This Bill is helping job creation. As a small business operator in a rural location, I know how important it is to have proper access and high-speed connectivity at all times. It is not a luxury; it is an essential tool of any small business. Whether it is to a young person at home doing his or her studies after school and needing access to proper broadband or the parents trying to conduct business or do work, it is vital. As to whether I see this move as creating jobs, I certainly do and the Deputy is a progressive Minister in bringing the legislation before the House.

It was neglectful of me at the outset not to pay a special compliment to people in the ESB and in Eircom for the excellent work they did over the Christmas period. A very close friend of mine, Mr. Tom O'Shea, works in Eircom and the Minister will be interested to hear his story.

From the week before Christmas to date, he has had one day off, Christmas day. He has had no other day off. Under the stewardship of his boss, Mr. Pat O'Sullivan, who supervises Eircom in our area, they had up to a thousand faults to deal with. Eircom made a decision that I am not too impressed with, namely, to create a package for the excellent staff to leave on 31 December. Talk about bad timing. It was ironic at a time when the service was crumbling, with hundreds of faults. There are people who still do not have their telephone lines connected.

Can Deputy Healy-Rae imagine the outcry if his friend received a bonus?

He would be entitled to a sound bonus because he has it well earned. Any man who has had only one day off since the week before Christmas is remarkable. Eircom was up against it and it was the height of bad timing that so many people who had a wealth of experience left on 31 December. I do not blame them for going and I know the Minister does not either. If the package is available, people must make up their minds whether it is the right thing for them and their families. Age also affects whether it suits them, but it left us with a massive problem. We are talking about improving fibre-based telecommunications, but some people do not have their phones connected after the storms. It is not the fault of the management or the workers but the fact that so few people are trying to do such a massive amount of work. It is no one's fault, but it is what people must live with.

I refer to the debacle in which Eircom was packaged and sold. It was not the fault of the current Minister but of a previous Government. It was an excellent service at one time, as the Minister remembers, but unfortunately Members travelling the country see poles and wires hanging down because of a lack of investment. It was bad and then it was made good, but now it is in disrepair. The workers in Eircom are struggling and they work morning, noon and night in harsh conditions. They must be up on poles in all types of weather doing very awkward and contrary work, which is very precise and must be done in open circumstances. I thank them sincerely from the bottom of my heart for the work they do. The speed of broadband is vital and ensuring high-speed connectivity is important. The world we live in is very fast-moving. While there is a social aspect, such as holiday bookings or access to information by children, we must have the best service available to people.

Things have changed so much over the past few years, and the advances have been great. The Minister's Bill deserves cross-party support. I am the first person to criticise the Government if things go wrong but when I see something right I am the first to welcome it and thank the Minister and his colleagues. The Fianna Fáil proposals for a complaints procedure are welcome, and I see merit in the amendment, as can the Minister. It may need to be tweaked but the Fianna Fáil viewpoint warrants debate. In any system, a proper system of complaints is important.

Running a small business in rural Ireland is extremely difficult. Every obstacle is thrown at people. Since becoming a Member of the House, I have continuously said that I welcome the efforts of the Minister, who works hard at attracting overseas investment, but we must look at what we have ourselves. We must look at small business people who have created jobs over the years in shops, manufacturing or the service industry. We must look at what they are doing. The Minister is a practical man and in my opinion he is what I categorise as the acceptable face of the Government. He is a person we can all relate to and get on with.

I have been called many things in my time here but never that.

I mean it in the best possible way. I am sure people have said a lot worse to the Minister.

Running a small business is difficult. Ministers should try to look at the business people we have, who are creating a job for themselves, jobs for family members and jobs for their neighbours and friends. This is important. A person who creates between two and ten jobs is every bit as important as Apple or any other company because he or she is the backbone of the country. They were there in the past and their mothers and fathers before them created a few jobs here and there. We should try to make their lives easier and make it more acceptable for them to employ more people. Other Government measures are not friendly towards those people. Decisions taken by this Government have not helped those people, who are the backbone of rural Ireland and urban Ireland. They go without to pay the wages on Friday. The Minister is more experienced than many Members, myself included. He knows what I am talking about. If we can make their situation better, and if every person creating jobs can increase the number of jobs by one or two or three, it will have a massive impact on employment opportunities in our country.

We do not want to see our well-educated and lovely young people having to leave our shores to go to Australia, Canada or America. If we can help keep youngsters at home by creating an environment for work at home, it is most welcome. The worry I have is that when we lose young people, although a certain amount of them will come back - I hope they do - statistics over the decades show that a large percentage will not return. It is very sad because we do not lose just that generation but also the children they will hopefully have. We lose several generations, which is sad. In bringing a Bill before the House and in his work, the Minister is playing his part in the creation of jobs in rural and urban Ireland.

I represent places that are disadvantaged because of their location. While I am a Member, I hope I am doing my best to highlight the plight of places such as the Black Valley, Sneem and Glencar. They are disadvantaged through their location but a proud group of people live in those areas and work very hard with very little to create a livelihood for themselves and their families. The legislation will play a role.

It is important, as I stated already, to protect the State's investment. We have seen the debacles that have happened in the past, such as with the sale of State assets. I am thankful the Government took on board the Opposition's opinion on the sale of State assets like Coillte. There was a U-turn on that.

Will the Deputy adjourn the debate as it is now 7.30 p.m.? He will resume in the morning.

I will. There have been recent U-turns by the Government, including opening the embassy to the Holy See, and they are all welcome. We appreciate the Government taking our views on board.

There have been a few U-turns over there.

Debate adjourned.