ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I, again, thank the Technical Group for allowing me some of its speaking time on this important Bill, which I welcomed last night.

The ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013 will be a major benefit, particularly to rural areas. With the ESB entering the broadband market, and the Government's decision to allow it to use the electricity distribution network to provide telecommunications services, the Minister is doing a good service to the countryside. By putting forward this opportunity, the ESB, in seeking joint venture partners to provide this much needed service, is certainly moving in the right direction. The introduction of this Bill, which will allow use of the electricity network for communication purposes, is most welcome and I look forward to further details being published by the ESB with regard to what exactly will be its next move after the introduction of this Bill.

I certainly do not want a situation where commercial telecommunications providers will cherry-pick service areas in Ireland, as we must have fair distribution of telecommunications services throughout the entire country. Whether one lives in Valentia Island or Blackrock, in my book one must have the exact same type of services if we are to give fair and equal employment opportunities to all.

At present, many townlands and villages, and even towns, have poor services and commercial operators are not willing to invest the funds required to improve these services. I stated last night that having an adequate broadband service is now as essential as the road going up to somebody's house, and that is no exaggeration. People would have never believed that such is the way the world would go, but that is a fact. Having proper telecommunication services and fibre-optic capacity going to areas is as important as the road network.

I welcome the proposed amendment by Deputy Michael Moynihan, as it is only right that the speed and quality of services advertised by broadband providers are reflective of the actual speed and quality of the broadband the consumer receives. In many instances, and this comes back to the issue of cherry-picking, service providers like to give the impression that they are providing a service to all, but they are not. For example, in south Kerry, there is an excellent fibre-optic cable going to Caherciveen which was put in place for the great company, FEXCO. I take this opportunity to compliment and thank FEXCO for the significant amount of jobs it has provided, not only in County Kerry but throughout the country. It is a great employer. We are proud that it is a local businessman who started that business many years ago and has really done his best at all times to keep jobs in County Kerry in places such as Killorglin and Caherciveen. Surely it is not beyond the realms of possibility to put loops off of the fibre-optic cable going to Caherciveen which would provide an excellent service to all of that area. There are employers in Valentia, Ballinskelligs, Portmagee and Mastergeehy. In all of these places, residents want to run small businesses from their homes and cannot do so because of the lack of proper broadband facilities.

It is very nice to live in these rural locations which have a great deal to offer. While the tourism business was good last year and the Gathering was particularly successful, we need sustainable jobs because we cannot eat the scenery. We want our young people who are going to school to have the same facilities as those living in cities and larger towns where there are excellent broadband services.

I take the opportunity to thank the Minister for being here again today to take the Bill. I want to speak briefly about the Shannon LNG project. I welcome very much the statement made by the Minister last night, albeit belatedly, given that when he was asked on many previous occasions to intervene in this matter, he said he could not do so, but now he has said he can. I genuinely look forward to his intervention which, to me, is a no-brainer. Jobs can be created in the Ballylongford area and I would like to see this happen under the Minister's watch. I would like him to become more involved and take a leadership role. Obstructions are being put in the way of the company in that it is being asked to pay for something it is not going to use. That is not fair; it is not right and would discourage any person from coming to that location. The Minister knows that we desperately need these jobs which would offer a lifeline to County Kerry. The Government should intercede and intervene in any way it can. This would happen in another country if there was a fear of a loss of jobs, particularly in an area like County Kerry. The people living in the Ballylongford area have been crying out for this development to go ahead for many years. The only reason obstacles are put in the way is for people to remove them and use their heads to think of a way around them. What the Minister said yesterday was quoted on our great radio station, Radio Kerry, this morning. I thank him for what he said, but now I want him to act on it. Surely there are mechanisms whereby a Minister can intervene to allow this project to go ahead. The difference this would make to the local economy in terms of a spin-off from the project would be massive. If it was to go ahead, we would nearly put up a statue to him.

That is putting it up to the Minister and it would not be the first statue to be put there either.

With all the praise the Minister is getting, he can be sure the Deputy is looking for something.

I am; I am looking for jobs in north Kerry.

I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill before the House, as it is important and worthwhile.

It will be very hard to follow the Deputy because I cannot outdo him in the course of this debate in what the Minister might do to be canonised. I concur with the sentiments expressed on the importance of this infrastructure in the modern era. I compliment the Minister on bringing the Bill before the House. It is a recognition of the need to ensure there is long-term planning of vital infrastructure for the foreseeable future. One of the problems that has bedevilled our society since the foundation of the State relates to our inability, for some unknown reason, to plan sufficiently ahead. We tear our hair out, beat our breasts, bemoan emigration and ask ourselves questions as to why people emigrate when there is an economic downturn, but we should recognise that unless we have the basic infrastructure now required for the future, this will become a very difficult place in which to provide jobs and employment opportunities for a new and emerging generation. We can live in the past, pretend we are all right and say to ourselves we do not need any of these things when, in fact, we do. If we do not have them and sufficient investment in technology, we will not be in the marketplace.

It was only 15 years ago when a number of member states of the European Union did not have a basic mobile phone service, but now they have a better service than we do. That is one of the issues that determine the reasons people invest here, particularly where they invest. If there is one thing that is basic to industry and economic expansion, it is communications. I recall learning at a conference held in Brussels many years ago of the huge benefits fibre optics would bring, but, for some unknown reason, we never got on the train. There are many places in this country where one has to move around one's own home to get a better mobile phone or broadband signal. I said recently, rather jocosely but intentionally, that some broadband speeds could be compared to waiting for a kettle to boil. It is appalling that we failed to recognise this necessity in times past. We failed to plan ahead and because we failed to do so we now have an emergency.

It is hugely important that the Minister has grasped this nettle and decided to deal with the issue in a way that is consistent with best policy. We will avail of an existing service and the assistance of a major service provider in the country. In that regard, those who know me well know that I am not and never have been a great supporter of removing basic utility services from the public sector. They have done a great job in service delivery. I compliment the ESB on the work it has done in the past. Even during the recent emergencies throughout the country its workforce were out day and night in appalling conditions to try to restore services against the odds. They have a tremendous record to such an extent that they have assisted in other jurisdictions on numerous occasions. A tribute should be paid to them for being ready, willing and able to provide services, sometimes at great risk to themselves, in the most atrocious of conditions.

The potential in utilising the ESB as an anchor in the provision of this service is immense and I hope there will not be too long a wait before it gets off the ground. As Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said, there are countless parts of the country that urgently need a reasonable broadband service. There is not much point in saying people will have it in ten years time, as opportunities pass. We cannot wait for things to happen; we have to make them happen. The way to do this is to show encouragement by providing the basic infrastructure required. Apropos the parliamentary questions we have just finished, great emphasis was placed on the need for modern technology and modern communications systems and the numerous other options that open up in areas that have access to such services.

The provision of telecommunications services is not as easy as it is in smaller countries or bigger cities. There are countries smaller than this one, despite what some might think. In bigger cities it should be possible to provide a good service. We are now competing in a global economy and those involved in industry here have to complete with everybody else worldwide. The world is now a much smaller place. There are people in Canada, the Middle East, Australia, South Africa and elsewhere in the world who are all competing for the same product. We now recognise that exports are our business. We can export from the food, technology and pharmaceutical sectors to a huge extent. In that context, it is obvious that we require top-mark telecommunications, particularly broadband services, which are of huge benefit to industry, in medicine, hospitals, elsewhere in the health service and education.

High-speed broadband is available almost everywhere, except here. The difference between that and a top-of-the-mark service is chalk and cheese. Those who wish to invest will go for the best place and those who wish to export go for the best place. Those who wish to receive communications on a global basis may achieve this if they happen to live in a good broadband area. Digressing for a moment, I have often raised questions in the House about broadband and mobile telephony, as have other Members. In my house, if I move around I get different quality reception and sometimes I get none if I move too fast or if I do not move fast enough. With our scale of hope and ambition over the past number of years, and having come through a boom that led to a bust, it is crazy that we are back with the rabbit ears to get the best reception. That used to be the way with the old black-and-white television when people used to put a coat hanger on top of it to improve reception. It is of utmost importance that we achieve the best quality of service in this area in the shortest possible time. I am not blaming the Minister because what has stymied mobile telephony was people's serious concerns about how masts were damaging to health. There were concerns, but other countries have the same system and have embraced it, and they are progressing as a result. If we do not do that in this country we will suffer as a result of our leprechaunism.

We need ongoing development in mobile telecommunications because we are in a changing situation and what suffices today may not be sufficient tomorrow. It is hugely important to recognise the need to invest in this area. From time to time I listen to various commentators talking about matters, and I heard someone announce that we do not need infrastructure and that we have enough. How foolish. If we continue with that attitude, in 100 years we will still have the same problems and we will be exporting our population. We will not have sufficient to meet our needs and we will not be able to have a long-term economic plan because we will not have the basic infrastructure.

The purpose of the Bill is to allow a major company such as the ESB to engage, now or in the future, in the installation and operation of electronic communications networks and services, either alone or in conjunction with another company. The benefit of the ESB is that it has the expertise. It has worldwide renown and has proved the point many times. It provides a very effective and efficient service, although people carp about the cost and the alleged preferential wage structures. The ESB provides a service in all conditions and circumstances.

The enabling legislation is very much in the spirit of the Government's national broadband plan. It will provide high-speed, modern broadband services throughout the country without exception. Deputy Healy-Rae mentioned various spots throughout the country that suffer deficiencies in that area, as they always have done. That should not be the case. Modern technology should enable us to bring the most modern telecommunications technology to all areas of the country at the same time. Things have moved on. We can communicate with the moon and with people in space. What prevents us from doing the simple things we can do at home, which are of huge benefit to the economy?

It is not before time that the legislation comes before the House. The Minister made reference to the "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". The Minister rightly indicates the importance of this step. If this had happened ten years ago, it would not have been too early. It would have been hugely beneficial in the drive towards economic recovery for which we now have responsibility. The country, the people and the Government are responding to it. It is no harm to recognise the huge deficiency and the fact that, if it had been addressed some time ago, we might not have had the difficulties we had during the downturn. It might even have been possible to be more competitive at an earlier stage and to prevent the downturn.

I do not want to digress into other areas, but we need to carry out assessments from time to time to ascertain the areas in which we are most deficient and most likely to be challenged in the future, which may be mobile telephony, broadband, telecommunications or transport. Not so many years ago, people were tying themselves to trees to prevent roads from being built. The roads are there but if we did not have them we would be further back down the ladder in terms of competitiveness. All of these things add up. The provisions in respect of telecommunications are such that everyone recognises they will play a huge role in the future of our economy and the global economy. Some countries are more aggressive and competitive in the area than others and they will gain an advantage. The Minister is fully aware of this and supports the proposal. We need to identify each sector and element in the communications sector where deficiency exists and we need to identify areas of the country with specific deficiencies. We need to address this and invest in them now. Most of all, we need to be able to say to ourselves that we have a modern telecommunications service that is efficient and fast and available to everyone and all sectors. That will also have the benefit of providing a capability in areas that may be deficient in other infrastructural respects. In today's world, not everyone has to work in the workplace all the time. People can work from home or in smaller communities but only if they have the proper telecommunications.

We have all responded to people in our constituencies complaining about an inability to access an adequate broadband service. Some people want to use a home computer but the complaint also comes from small businesses. They find themselves at a disadvantage, which is hugely frustrating. The speed of broadband is painfully slow and frustrating. People have sent us e-mails, texts and messages to tell us about it. It is hugely frustrating to watch the band moving along the line, stopping and breaking down in the middle of a transmission. I have had to wait a couple of hours to get an e-mail.

We have a serious deficit in the area.

The next generation broadband task force report, which was published in 2011, identified the various provisions required to progress to meet future market demands. The Minister referenced the various towns, villages and communities throughout the country which may not be able to gain access to investment. The ESB has a network that reaches every part of the country, with one or two notable exceptions that we hear of from time to time. Generally speaking, it goes everywhere, meaning the company is in an ideal position to be able to carry alongside the cabling a system that will facilitate this piece of technology.

As the Minister has indicated, the national broadband plan recognised that a number of commercial and non-commercial State bodies are already leveraging their existing assets to provide infrastructure and services to the telecommunications market. These assets continue to play an important role in improving broadband services and the plan commits to exploiting any further opportunities that arise with a view to accelerating the roll-out of high-speed broadband.

I will conclude on that thought. Accelerating the rate of roll-out for high-speed broadband is crucial to our future existence. If we do not have that element of communication at our fingertips, we will lose out on investment, global communication and international stature. This country has been beset by emigration over the years, so it would be nice if we could get a good quality of service to communicate with emigrants, of whom there are very many. I do not wish for us to have to live with the prospect of constant emigration and the introduction of a proper telecommunications system could be the way forward in ensuring adequate job opportunities at home. Instead of having young people going to Australia, Canada or New York, they should be able to do the same job here in their own communities. They need access to a proper communication system in order to do so.

At the outset I congratulate Deputy Feighan on his apparent appointment to the Government. That is not before time.

I am delighted to be the first person to be able to congratulate the Deputy in the House.

I am delighted to play a part.

Before speaking on the legislation, I commend the staff from Eircom and the ESB networks who were out right throughout the Christmas period, along with local authority and emergency staff. They did a tremendous job during the severe weather we experienced over Christmas.

The piece of legislation before us today is not the most important piece of legislation we will deal with this year but is probably the most important piece of legislation that will be dealt with by the Parliament in this decade. The significance of the legislation cannot be underestimated. It is not just because it will be responsible for extending the fibre network to an extra 500,000 homes in Ireland or because it provides for the potential of "wireless" fibre networks in order to provide decent broadband to people who do not live in those 500,000 houses. There is potential for broadband connectivity within electricity cables, and getting the ESB involved will help drive forward that idea. With that process, we would not need to install extra physical infrastructure, and we could bring broadband to every home in Ireland that is connected to the electricity network.

We cannot underestimate the importance of broadband. Internet connectivity today is as important for employment and the needs of Irish society as electricity was 60 years ago. There is a demand for greater bandwidth and speed, which is the main issue. Everybody who spoke earlier mentioned rural broadband, which faces problems with speed. I have been trying to formulate an analogy to help explain to people what we are talking about in that respect. We can imagine trying to travel from any part of rural Ireland to Dublin without being able to use the motorway or the national road network. That means we would have to drive a rigid-body truck with a trailer, for example, on icy roads. That is what the broadband service in many parts of rural Ireland is like. If fibre networks were brought to the door, however, instead of driving the rigid-body truck on an icy back road, it would be like driving a luxury car with cruise control on a 36-lane motorway with nobody else on the road. That example brings home to people what we are talking about and the potential of the provisions being debated in the House today.

People can probably survive with current speeds if they are surfing the Internet or sending e-mails. Contention - or in plain English, congestion on the line to Dublin - continues to be a problem. Current broadband speeds are grossly inadequate if people are using Skype, submitting online documentation such as that required for the single farm payment application or using the Internet as a study tool. I acknowledge the efforts of the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, in bringing industrial-strength broadband to every secondary school in Ireland. He is to be commended because he started on the west coast and worked backwards to Dublin; every initiative up to now has always gone the other way. We now need to ensure that when those students leave school and go home they can have decent broadband speeds to do tutorials or submit homework online.

The current Government target of ensuring every rural home in Ireland has a broadband connection of at least 30 Mb per second will be difficult to achieve, and we must redouble our efforts in that regard. The target set out by the ESB on foot of the passage of this legislation will bring super-fast broadband to those currently within the catchment of the fixed-line broadband network. People should not think that we are currently discussing will resolve the problem for rural broadband. It will not do so, as the objective is to bring fibre broadband to an extra 500,000 homes in Ireland, meaning that rural communities are still excluded.

Work to address the issue of rural broadband connectivity must continue by focusing not just on getting the connection working but on issues of contention as well. Technologies exist that provide broadband to people, but the difficulty is that although speed is achievable, it may only be after midnight because of congestion. That is not much good if one is trying to operate a business from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Satellite technology can address some of the problem, and its use is a major step forward. There are some very good operators that can deliver up to 20 Mbps, but they do not provide a long-term solution.

Wireless technologies in conjunction with a fibre network can address the immediate problem and provide 30 Mbps. This is known as wireless fibre. The ESB already has a network of masts and sites around the country that could be used if fibre lines are connected to the sites. Wireless fibre could be produced by these networks. As an incentive, the Minister should hand over the semi-State broadband network to the new operator.

That would act as an incentive to roll out fibre to the transmission sites in order that wireless fibre could be available throughout the country. Much of it is unlit.

Let me give an example of the problem we face. Monksland, the second biggest town in my county, is located at the edge of Athlone which has an eircom fibre network with an excellent service. It has WiMax, 4G and UPC services and a number of fibre backbones passing through it, including the BT fibre backbone. The State fibre network is also coming into the town, yet the people of Monksland do not have a basic broadband service. Within a few hundred yards of that community, there are the Irish Rail and Bord Gáis fibre networks, the MAN fibre network and the ESB transmission network that has been providing an Internet service up to now. Much of this is unlit. Since there is no connectivity between the networks of the various semi-State companies, they are all competing against each other, instead of sweating the asset in the interests of the State and consumers. I urge the Minister to intervene in this regard. This initiative would ensure people could use a number of devices in their homes, be it to watch television online, operate an iPad or computer, or play a video game. It would provide a reliable service. Probably the three main beneficiaries are businesses, younger people and older people. Previous speakers have spoken about business. Whether one is working in Tokyo or Tulsk, County Roscommon, one could be on an equal footing, with needed supports provided for rural businesses and enterprises.

One area of rural enterprise is agriculture, in respect of which broadband connectivity and penetration is only at about 53%. Farmers could make applications online if they had access to broadband. With the Minister's proposals for the new GLAS scheme, farmers will have to gain access to online tutorials, but they will not be able to do so if they do not have broadband. The reality is that most of the people who will apply to join the scheme are in the more disadvantaged parts of the country where there is no broadband access. I hope the Minister can redouble efforts to ensure that, in tandem with the introduction of the GLAS scheme, people will be given access to the relevant tools to allow them to avail of the online tutorials.

As I stated, the Minister has brought industrial strength broadband to schools, but it will not reach its full capacity unless it is available in homes for pupils. Remote access for children outside school would ensure they could connect to the school server and gain access to texts and library resources. If children were sick and absent from school, they could learn what was covered in their school on the day in question. They could still do their homework and this would prevent many students from having to go for grinds. They would be available to avail of grinds online. A child's family’s financial resources will be irrelevant if children can access resources online, thus putting them on an equal footing with every other pupil in the country.

In smaller secondary schools pupils who are not taking chemistry or agricultural science could actually take their course online from home or sit the leaving certificate examination in the same way as anyone else. The same applies to adult education that requires access to online courses.

The initiative has the most significant potential in addressing the issue of rural isolation and the needs of the elderly. In the next few years one in four will be over 65 years. That is a significant cohort. Owing to economic circumstances, many of them will be living alone and they will not have the family supports or networks they require. In my constituency one third of all pensioners living in County Leitrim are on their own. In County Roscommon the figure is 31%; in County Mayo, 30% and in County Cavan, 30%. The figure for Galway is 27%, while those for counties Westmeath and Offaly are just slightly lower. Some 60%, or almosts two thirds, of older people believe technology has left them behind. Technology would provide them with much greater potential than anything else in society. If they could be provided with fibre broadband of a sufficient speed, we could ensure they could be stimulated educationally and kept more active. Furthermore, tele-care and health care services could be provided. High blood pressure, for example, could be monitored on an ongoing basis.

There is a very good initiative in Wales whereby an older person can actually speak to a health profession in the local hospital through a video link on his or her television if he or she is concerned about his or her blood pressure reading or not having taken his or her medication. The same applies in the case of diabetes in that a blood sample can be put on a reader connected to an iPhone and the results fed back to the local medical centre, the staff of which can say the patient needs to increase his or her insulin intake because of a particularly high blood sugar level, for example. There is great potential to develop tele-health services by putting sensors in homes and linking them with remote servers connected to hubs where medical professionals can monitor large numbers of people in rural areas. This would reduce rural isolation and significantly reduce the cost to the health sector. One would not have to send an ambulance to bring a very sick patient to an accident and emergency unit if the illness could be diagnosed and treated much earlier. This might mean that the local public health nurse would have to call out to the individual, but it would make it less likely that he or she would have to go to the general practitioner or hospital. We could have a genuinely connected society, but to achieve this we need to go one step further than is envisaged in this proposal.

Connecting 500,000 houses is very welcome, but there is great potential to go further with wireless fibre which should be brought to rural homes in order that residents may, for the first time, be given a level playing pitch. People had to fight hard to receive a public water supply. They received an electricity supply 60 years ago and it turned society around in rural areas. Broadband could do the same, but the Minister needs to ensure this. He could be the Noël Browne of this generation. I urge him to take that suggestion and run with it.

Like Deputy Denis Naughten, I very much welcome the introduction of the Bill which will, for the first time, allow the ESB to become involved in the area of fibre optic broadband which will be delivered straight to people's homes and businesses. The involvement of the ESB in the market will help consumers and encourage more competition in the market. Having multiple providers such as UPC and Sky has ensured service of a better quality, better coverage and, crucially, lower prices for consumers.

The issue of broadband is raised regularly in this House. Multinationals ask the speed of broadband in particular countries and regions. It is measured regularly by the National Competitiveness Council. It is important for businesses, particularly those that are constantly on the move, to have proper connectivity. To date, broadband has been patchy in certain parts of our constituencies.

I would be very hopeful that over time, between the targets in the national broadband plan and what the ESB is planning to do, we will be able to deal with the deficit that exists. In my constituency of Dublin Bay North, there are parts of Raheny, which is only four miles away from the city centre, which have significant problems. Broadband speed in some parts of Raheny is only at 3bps while in other parts it is 48 Mbps. This problem has occurred because of the refusal by Dublin City Council to give permission for the installation of cabinets by Eircom to improve its broadband service. Such barriers should not exist if we want to improve the situation for businesses and households and enable them to get instant connectivity. From the consumer's point of view it is unacceptable because they are being charged the same price for a lesser service. They want to have access to a decent, fibre optic broadband service.

The Government has been very proactive in this area and the Minister has announced a number of initiatives to improve the situation. The national broadband plan outlines the Government's objective of ensuring that at least 50% of the population will have access to broadband speeds of between 70 and 100 Mbps by 2015. Some might argue that such a target is merely aspirational but it is important to set targets so that everyone knows what we hope to achieve.

It is good to see that the ESB is moving with the times and is willing to diversify, to move into a new area and offer new products and services. I wish the company well and join Deputy Naughten in thanking the staff of the ESB for their good work over the Christmas period when they reconnected so many homes affected by the storms. I am also delighted that the staff did not go on strike in the run up to Christmas. That could have caused a lot of reputational damage to the country and huge inconvenience to consumers.

I wish to share time with Deputies Kevin Humphreys and Anne Ferris.

I pay tribute to the work force in the ESB for the sterling work it did during the recent storms to restore supply to the communities that were affected. Indeed, tribute must be paid to it for the work it does all year round, 365 days a year. This Bill provides a legal basis for the ESB to engage in the business of installing and operating an electronic communications network and to provide electronic communications services in the future, either alone or in partnership with another company. The Bill makes appropriate provisions in respect of the ESB's existing powers in the context of its operation in what is a fully open and liberalised telecommunications market. This is important for the State, as it is also a competitor in this market. The costs associated with the Bill are purely administrative, relating to the legislative proposals themselves and pursuing them. No additional or recurring costs to the Exchequer have been identified as this legislation is merely providing for something that will occur in the future.

The Bill is straightforward in that it merely points the way forward and is not actually setting up an electronic communications network at this point in time. The legislation gives the ESB an explicit legal basis to engage in the business of electronic communications networks and services, either alone or in conjunction with a partner company. The Bill also enables the ESB to provide any company with access to its electricity infrastructure for the purposes of developing electronic communications networks and services. Care must be taken to ensure that ESB infrastructure is kept in State ownership. Sustainable financial gain must be made by the ESB in return for the use of its assets or services. Due to the nature of the electricity network, elements of the ESB infrastructure are laid out across private land. As we are seeing at the moment, this is a fairly sensitive political issue. In that context, great care must be taken to ensure that local communities are not only informed as to what is going on but also genuinely give their consent to it. The existing Electricity Supply Acts provide statutory way-leave rights to the ESB which allows it to cross private lands, subject to the payment of compensation where appropriate. Given that the ESB proposes to utilise its existing electricity distribution network for telecommunications purposes, such way-leave rights across private lands will be necessary, where the ESB provides access to its infrastructure under this Bill. For that reason, the legislation extends the ESB way-leave rights across private lands in instances where access to infrastructure is granted by the ESB to another company. This section has been modelled on section 49 of the Electricity Regulation Act of 1999, where such powers are subject to the consent of the Commission for Energy Regulation.

In conclusion, this Bill is a positive development. As legislators we are often accused of having too much concern for the short term and not enough for the future, an accusation that has some merit. However, this Bill is a welcome demonstration of making provision for future developments. It opens the way for the State to become involved in what is a profoundly important area of commercial activity, as technology develops and society becomes even more connected than it is already.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It must be very nice for the Minister to sit in the House and hear very clear support for this measure from all sides. What is rare is wonderful. Some of the investment in infrastructure over the last decade was very poorly planned. Our population is projected to grow into the future and we face clear infrastructure deficits in terms of water, broadband services, transport, electricity and so on. There are serious problems in these areas and we must face up to them.

This Bill allows for the smarter use of current infrastructure. It will result in increased competition and will allow for the provision of broadband services in areas which currently have no access to such services, particularly in rural Ireland. Deputy Terence Flanagan referred to a lack of competition in Dublin and I hope this Bill will go some way towards addressing that issue. The Deputy also spoke about the difficulties surrounding the erection of cabinets and the requirement to seek planning permission for same but that did not happen by accident. In the past, contractors erected such cabinets in inappropriate and in some cases dangerous locations. While the requirement to seek planning permission for cabinets may slow things down, it is far better to get it right than get it quickly.

I very much welcome the involvement of the ESB in this because the company has a fantastic record. The ESB's extensive network of overhead lines penetrates practically every part of the country. Deputy Naughten spoke about the positive impact that access to broadband can have on rural Ireland and I agree with him in that regard. Broadband access also has a positive impact on those who are known in my area as "silver surfers" - elderly people who use the Internet. Across the inner city and in other deprived areas, elderly people have taken to using the Internet in a big way. While rural isolation is well documented, urban isolation also exists and the Internet is a fantastic tool for breaking down such isolation. It enables elderly people, for example, to interact with grandchildren who are not living nearby and so forth.

The ESB runs those cables into areas of Dublin that the commercial sector has never looked at. I do not want the exercise to be considered as a purely rural experiment, as urban areas present real possibilities also. I congratulate the Minister on the initiative.

We have been dealing with legacy issues. When the Government came to power it looked at the poor extent of broadband in schools across the country. Deputy Naughten said we needed to roll out the programme more quickly. When the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, came to power there was no broadband in the vast majority of schools. In spite of the mess that had to be cleared up, the matter was corrected in a short period through his initiative with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn.

This morning I read in the newspaper that the only criticism of the Bill is that it is not moving fast enough. I say in response to the Deputy who advanced the opinion that if we did not have to clean up the unholy mess that was created over the past 14 years we would be much further down the road. Every committee meeting that has taken place since Christmas has dealt with legacy issues - the lack of broadband services, the lack of transport, the fact that the water infrastructure is dying on its feet - yet all we hear is criticism.

Fianna Fáil promised a constructive Opposition. All I can ask is this: where is it? In fact, where is the Opposition? It has been extremely poor and lacking in ideas. The only thing it can manage to do is criticise. As the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, has discovered, even when he comes up with good initiatives the Opposition scratches around and comes up with the complaint that the roll-out could be quicker. We have an extremely poor Opposition.

The legislation before the House today is about giving the ESB a legal basis to engage in the business of electronic communications services. Instead of using the wires, poles and pylons that form part of the national grid just for the provision of electricity, the legislation will enable the ESB to use the same infrastructure for telecommunications purposes - in other words, the business of mobile phones, computer data and television broadcasting. The Minister has already spoken about proposals to expand the remit of the ESB into broadband provision.

I welcome the potential broadening of the commercial scope of the ESB. Ireland's electricity distribution system has come a long way. I doubt if the engineers who back in 1915 first investigated the possibility of generating power from the waters of the River Shannon could have envisaged the scale of the technological advances that have occurred since. Allowing the ESB to compete fully in this growing sector and to facilitate competition by opening access to infrastructure is a good thing for consumers and also for the future of the ESB in what has become a technically and legally complex sector.

However, in considering today's Bill it is nigh on impossible to ignore the proposal by the ESB's sister company, EirGrid, to double the capacity of the national grid by 2025. Such a significant change to the capacity of the future ESB network will have a significant bearing on the commercial scope of the ESB within the new parameters set out today. It would be by all means right and correct for ESB management to take this new legislation and to make commercial plans based on the existing capacity of the national grid. However, the ESB would be well advised to exercise caution in terms of any commercial agreements for broadband or any other form of telecommunications which relies on the expanded national grid infrastructure proposed under Grid25 and Grid Link.

Before Christmas I made a personal submission to Mr. Fintan Slye, the current CEO of EirGrid. Among other matters I requested the most up-to-date analysis EirGrid has of the technical need for the Grid Link portion of the €3.2 billion Grid25 project. I asked if he could show me the calculations behind the recommendations to build Grid Link. I got a surprisingly swift reply enclosing a link to a 400-odd page report called the Ten Year Transmission Forecast Statement 2013. It is about the same thickness as an old telephone directory and, to be frank, just about as interesting to read. Perhaps Mr. Slye thought I would not read it. In fact, the EirGrid report just confirmed what I already knew. The reason for the proposal to spend €3.2 billion of taxpayers' money to double the capacity of the national grid is to support a massive increase in renewable energy, mainly from wind power. Only a fraction of the wind energy generated would have anything to do with keeping on the lights in the State. EirGrid wants to double the capacity of the national grid mainly for the purpose of facilitating the export of wind energy abroad.

The numbers are very revealing. I am not an electrical engineer so I have no intention of getting technical but, very simply, according to EirGrid's calculations Ireland needs approximately 3,500 MW of wind energy to meet our EU renewable energy targets. We all know that a lot of wind farms have already been built and operate in this country, particularly in the south and west. Approximately 1,800 MW of generating capacity are already in place. Since 2010, according to EirGrid, the regulator has approved a massive 5,500 MW of wind turbine capacity. Even more surprising is the number of new wind energy applications currently before the Commission for Energy Regulation, CER, awaiting approval, amounting to an amazing 23,000 MW. In order to meet the targets Ireland only needs 3,500 MW. The regulator has already approved twice what is needed and has another staggering 23,000 MW waiting in the wings. The only reason that is happening is because EirGrid is proposing to invest billions in the national grid for the purpose of exporting power abroad - in theory, to the UK and France.

In my submission to Mr. Slye I also asked for the market analysis that had been carried out to confirm that the UK and France actually need this power. According to the Irish Academy of Engineering there are many doubts about the existence of any market for this power. It appears there is enough wind in Scotland and nuclear energy in England to meet UK needs. EirGrid declined to make any comment on its market analysis for exporting power. I am beginning to wonder whether it exists at all.

I will conclude with one final point that was recently made to me by a constituent in County Wicklow. The wind energy for export strategy that has such a significant influence on EirGrid's €3.2 billion plans was conceived during the reign of its previous CEO, Mr. Dermot Byrne, who departed the company in September 2012. Barely a year after he retired from the position of EirGrid CEO, Mr. Byrne was appointed to the board of Element Power Ireland, one of the companies that have plans to carpet large swathes of the Irish countryside with wind turbines for export. It is time we had a second opinion.

Despite what Deputy Kevin Humphreys had to say, the Minister is aware that I have had a long-standing interest in broadband. I have tried to be constructive in what I have said, even if I have tried to push the boat out and see a vision the Minister would ultimately share with me - that we be known as a small island with the ultimate in broadband connectivity. Barriers exist which frustrated me in government and which no doubt frustrate the Minister.

The Minister comes from a background of union involvement. Unions were traditionally very supportive of the view that where basic infrastructure was involved, there was nothing wrong with the State getting involved and ensuring that ordinary citizens had basic services. That is a very old view in this State. It is one that has served us well, particularly in the area of electricity supply. I refer to the idea of a universal service provided at an equal standard right across the nation. It is strange to say that if we go back 100 years the postal service went to every house without question for the same value stamp.

When telephones were introduced, no matter how far up the hill one lived, so long as one was willing to pay the connection charge, one could make and receive telephone calls from anywhere. After the Second World War, a decision was made to bring electricity to every building in the country. In my time as a Minister, I was delighted to finish off the last of that programme in bringing electricity to very isolated areas. It is time now, despite European rules, that we made it absolutely clear that Internet connectivity, essentially connectivity to the world, should be universally available.

When we discuss this issue we must acknowledge increased mobility and that for high-end people the office is often wherever they are. I congratulate the Minister on the web summit held in Dublin last autumn. When our guests from Silicon Valley were here, there is no doubt they were accessing the Internet through fibre optic connections to continue their worldwide business, taking into account that Tokyo and Singapore are so many hours ahead while west coast America is so many hours behind. A fair number of these people wound up on Achill Island for the weekend of the summit and I can testify they had a tremendous time there. However, it remained that when they were on Achill Island on Friday afternoon, it was early day on the west coast of America, and on Monday morning when they left, Japan, Singapore and the Far East had nearly finished Monday. These people would have been anxious to plug in to do business across the world and expected the same level of connectivity as they had in Dublin. That is their lifestyle. However, as well as catering for high-end Internet users, good connectivity is important for the convenience of those of us who live in rural areas. Access to broadband is important. No matter where one is, one should be able plug in.

I remember having endless arguments when we were in government - arguments the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, had when he was in government before - about broadband roll-out. I know the Minister has the target of 30 Mbps as being good enough broadband provision for rural areas. I also know that is probably not his choice but that he has been forced into this corner by some ridiculous European rule that one cannot specify the type of broadband provision one wants. We all use smartphones all the time and I am a great believer in radio broadband whether it is in an urban or rural setting. I believe we need 30 Mbps everywhere but it is not a substitute for having access to 100 Mbps in one’s home. With the development of technology, the idea is ridiculous that we will continue to live in a two broadband-speed world where people in Dublin will have several choices for getting their television, telephone and limitless Internet access through a fibre optic cable to their house while those living further from urban centres will have to be satisfied with multi-providers.

These days fibre is cheaper than copper. If we were able to run copper to every premises in the country, then surely, with new technology, it should not be beyond our ability to run fibre to every house. The Minister claims there will be an enormous cost to this but it might not be. I understand that 90% of the cost of rolling out fibre underground relates to ducting while only 10% relates to the actual fibre cable. One could hang it along the electricity transmission lines without having to plough it underground. Now, there is the possibility of the ESB using a machine to run the fibre cable along its main transmission cables. Running fibre out is much cheaper than running a copper line out. This is a good step forward by the ESB.

When we look at broadband penetration in other countries, we see they opted for fibre over copper because it gives limitless Internet access, maintains good speed and does not interfere with the quality of television reception or Skype, for example. We should set the target to be the first country in Europe to bring fibre to every premises. We should look at the barriers associated with cost, technology and European Union rules and overcome each of them. Working out much of this will happen commercially but there will be areas that will require subsidies. It should be remembered, however, that the areas of the most dispersed populations tend to be the areas of greatest community effort and co-operation. Many of them have all sorts of social schemes that have delivered from footpaths to streetlights. There is also the new rural development programme coming on stream that could be tapped for funding.

If it were decided to underground the fibre roll-out, then it should be remembered ducting will make up 90% of the cost. There could be self-help schemes providing the ducting to a national standard. Then the Minister could ask the telcos to provide the fibre.

I welcome this Bill and the probable entry of a very successful semi-State company into the telco industry again. I hope it will provide good competition and that through commercial forces it will roll out fibre with ever better and cheaper technologies as far as is possible on a commercial basis. I believe our vision has to go further, however, and that we should use the same vision and common sense that in 1944 saw the roll-out of electricity to every house. As Deputy Naughten said, fibre is today what electricity was in the 1940s. There were many in the 1940s who did not believe electricity would play such a part in their lives. When the ESB was canvassing people on the roll-out in the 1940s, it had a great difficulty in getting people to accept it. Once they got it, very few said they no longer wanted electricity and could live quite happily without it. The same is true for fibre. In this small island that only measures 150 miles by 130 miles, I believe our ambition should be fibre for all.

Debate adjourned.