It is not often in the House that a measure being introduced is so warmly welcomed by Deputies from all sides. I thank colleagues who have contributed to this debate from all of the political parties and groupings in the House. That measure of consensus demonstrates that there is an awareness and appreciation in Dáil Éireann of the significance and capacity of broadband technology in continuing the modernisation of this country. It is an essential tool in continuing to transform the economy and aid economic recovery. I thank, in particular, Deputies Michael Moynihan and Michael Colreavy, the main Opposition speakers, and I am very glad that so many Deputies chose to contribute to the debate.
The fact that there is such a broad welcome for the Bill would indicate that we will be able to see it pass through Committee Stage relatively speedily. I hope the Chief Whip will be able to accommodate it in the schedule as soon as Members have had a reasonable opportunity to examine the Bill in more detail and to advance amendments to it should they see fit. In that regard, I acknowledge that Deputy Moynihan indicated that he would want to table two amendments, the first relating to the installation of a complaints mechanism in the context of access to private property. While I am not trying to deter Deputy Moynihan - nor would he be so deterred - from bringing forward any amendment that he wishes, it is important to say that it is not envisaged that intrusion on private property is going to be a major issue, or, indeed, an issue at all. What we are talking about here is using the existing supply structure of the ESB to roll out fibre-optic broadband to different parts of the country. In that sense, new incursions onto private lands ought not to be a major issue.
The second matter raised by Deputy Michael Moynihan related to ensuring that the speeds advertised by telecommunications providers generally are complied with. In other words, when a company undertakes to provide a service at a particular speed, it should be obliged to do so. We can tease that issue out further on Committee Stage but my initial reaction would be that it might be inhibitive to seek to enshrine that in primary legislation. It might cause difficulties because there are, as some speakers have adduced, particular reasons that promised speeds in different circumstances cannot always be achieved, for reasons of contention ratios, among other things. At the same time, I understand where the Deputy is coming from.
It is clearly the case that many Deputies in the House appreciate the significance of this legislation in terms of meeting a need in rural Ireland. A great many Deputies have criticised the existing service in parts of rural Ireland. However, it is important to note that Ireland has met the target set by the Digital Agenda for Europe in terms of providing a basic broadband service to all citizens by 2013. While I accept that basic can mean very basic in some circumstances, I would argue that there are two facts that are inescapable in this context and once we accept that, we should move on. One is the fact that the we suffered a decade of lost investment following on from the manner of privatisation of Telecom Éireann. As a result of what happened subsequent to that privatisation, investment that might have taken place at a critical stage did not take place. The second fact is that there are parts of the country that constitute a considerable challenge in terms of connectivity of any speed. I take the points that Deputy Seán Kyne, who has the good fortune to live in a village like Moycullen, made but they are not true of his Galway West constituency generally. Undoubtedly, there are pockets in the Galway West constituency where, for topographical and other reasons, the problems highlighted by Deputy Kyne are real. I am very conscious of that fact. Several other Deputies referred to similar problems in their constituencies, including Deputies Michael Healy-Rae, James Bannon and others. These are not problems that are unique to Ireland, however. One must accept that we are where we are, in the cliché of the day. What happened in the case of the privatisation of Telecom Éireann has happened and is behind us now. Other countries with similar population dispersal patterns to ours are encountering precisely the same difficulties. The targets fixed in the Digital Agenda for Europe for 2013 in terms of a basic broadband service to all have been met here.
We are taking this exciting initiative to improve connectivity in rural Ireland because the Government, from day one, has acknowledged that there are parts of provincial Ireland where the service is not nearly as good as what is required today. I was very struck by the contribution of Deputy Heather Humphreys, who made the point in passing that immediately across the Border from her home there was, in County Tyrone, an excellent broadband service. She argued that if the issue was not addressed in terms of the topography of the stony grey soil of Monaghan, businesses would relocate out of Monaghan to Northern Ireland. The approach taken by the Northern Ireland authorities back in the day in terms of the job done there by BT was entirely different from the one taken down here.
There is no doubt that at the time the job done by BT for Northern Ireland was superior. A lot of the investment in this country, however much criticised, was necessary at the time. It has provided a service in parts of the country where there would not otherwise have been a service.
The investment in the metropolitan area networks, MANs, has been justified as they have come into their own. When I came to the job less than half of the MANs were lit and now only three or four remain to be lit. From memory, there is a total of 88 MANs and of those, 83 or 84 are functioning. Without the access provided by the MANs, major industry in Wexford town, for example, would not have been able to function.
I accept that the national broadband service has not worked perfectly everywhere but it has provided a basic service in parts of the country that would otherwise have been deprived. Many Deputies, including Deputy John Browne, raised the significance of the scheme in rural areas. I acknowledge the thoughtful and comprehensive contribution by Deputy Denis Naughten who gave us his vision of a connected society and what it might do for rural isolation. He adduced the figures for living alone in such counties as Roscommon, Cavan, Mayo and Kerry. He set out the capacity of the technology to deliver services that could transform the lives of the way people live now. I agree largely with the analysis he advanced but I disagree with his conclusion that we should hand over in its entirety to the ESB the task of meeting the challenge in rural Ireland based on an initiative such as this and that we should build out extra infrastructure, as he put it, to accommodate that. We live in a market economy and we are governed by certain rules that are supervised by the European Union. It would not be possible to do what he and some other colleagues in the House suggested. One cannot intrude in that fashion into the marketplace in an exclusive way. This is a wholesale, open access initiative that will be a significant additional player in the market. It will provide more competition but European rules would apply in terms of the solution with which Deputy Denis Naughten concluded his submission. It is important to say this.
The target of half a million homes is a significant one in the context of the number of homes in Ireland. Between commercial investment and State intervention we have pretty much full coverage of a basic broadband service at this stage. What we are doing in the Bill will significantly improve that. What we are doing must also be seen in the context of the national broadband plan. The plan, in its analysis, has concluded and acknowledges that the commercial sector is providing a service comparable to anything in any other urban conurbation in Europe. Urban Ireland, by and large, has a service that competes with the best. There is no gainsaying that. The problem relates to the more thinly populated parts of the country. In the national broadband plan it is acknowledged that the situation can only be tackled through State intervention. It is that process in which we are engaged, because if there is to be State intervention there must be European clearance. We must get clearance in respect, for example, of State aid and we are in the middle of a detailed mapping exercise, the purpose of which is to secure European approval to get on with the implementation of the national broadband plan.
I compliment the private operators in terms of the ongoing investment programmes they are following. That is making a huge contribution to improving the situation obtaining in Ireland now. Notwithstanding the rocky times that it recently endured, eircom has maintained a significant investment programme and continues to do that.
In terms of my replying in particular to the points raised by Deputies who used certain data, I would find it very difficult to do that because nobody gave me references or the particular reports to which they referred and I would need to have such information in front of me.
The international study which is published quarterly by Akami, acknowledged by the telecommunications sector as a leading service provider, measures connection speeds in real time. Its report for the quarter up to June 2013 ranks Ireland 16th globally and 10th highest within the European, Middle East and Africa region for average connected speeds at an average of 8 Mbps. That is marginally behind countries such as the United Kingdom, which has an average speed of 8.4 Mbps and is ahead of Germany, which is ranked 22nd, and Spain, France and Portugal which are ranked 35th, 37th, and 40th, respectively, in the global comparison. I ask Deputies to reflect on the very considerable progress that has been made in recent years in terms of both coverage and speeds of national broadband infrastructure. A combination of private investment and State intervention, including the national broadband scheme, means that Ireland has met the European Commission digital agenda target of having a basic broadband service available to all areas by the 2013 deadline.
I accept there is universal agreement that the focus must now turn to accelerating the roll-out of high speed broadband. I am pleased to advise the House that since the publication of the Government's national broadband plan there is evidence that industry is investing beyond the targets to which it originally committed. In that regard, eircom has extended its plans for the roll-out of high speed services with speeds of up to 100 Mbps to be delivered to 1.4 million homes. UPC has also increased its minimum and top speed products to 120 Mbps and 200 Mbps respectively. Additionally, mobile operators are rolling out enhanced product offerings with Meteor and Vodafone having launched 4G mobile broadband services. Vodafone is also upgrading its 3G services to provide nationwide 3G coverage. Just this week, 3 Ireland also announced its plans for imminent 4G roll-out. Other operators continue to invest and Sky has entered the broadband market, offering services over the eircom network.
When one adds the investment in the MANs, the ongoing investment in high speed broadband in second level schools, the money put into the national broadband scheme, as well as the very firm commitment of the current Government to again intervene to ensure high quality broadband services are available to anyone who wishes to avail of it, irrespective of location, it is fair to say the picture is not lacking in positivity.
In an effort to address the unacceptable digital divide between rural and urban areas, my Department is engaged in intensive technical, financial and preparatory work to define the scope of the State-led investment which 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.
I accept the view expressed by several colleagues that we are, to a large extent, playing catch-up. I have dealt with that issue in the context of the experience of my friend, former Deputy, Mary O’Rourke’s tour of Moore Street selling Telecom Éireann shares one time. That is now history.
Several Deputies asked about timelines and were of the opinion that the Bill was more of a futuristic plan. That is not the case. I would be disappointed if the ESB were not in a position within the next month to announce which telco partner had been selected from the invitations for expressions of interest process. Immediately thereafter the work envisaged by the Bill will get under way. It is not futuristic but an immediate, practical and exciting initiative.
I accept the points made by several colleagues on rural isolation and the capacity of this technology to help to combat it.
Deputy Michelle Mulherin raised the question of international connectivity and the role of Emerald Atlantis Limited. The Government is anxious that this project to develop a high speed and high capacity fibre-optic transatlantic cable, the Emerald Express, between the United States and Ireland commence. Where the cable might emerge from the Atlantic in County Mayo is of secondary importance. The Government will facilitate this project in any way it can.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív’s contribution ought to be studied by newer Members. The tenor of it was immensely constructive and I do not disagree with much of his vision. The sting is in the tail, however, when he told me to get on with rolling out fibre to every home in the country, as that is a tall order for reasons of cost and so forth which people will understand. The Deputy admitted himself that, even after 14 years in government, he had not managed to achieve it either. We will give it a go and see how far we get.
Deputy Anne Ferris made a contribution about EirGrid which had nothing to do with the Bill. One has to say fair play to her if the Chair let her get away with it. I have done it myself in the past with varying degrees of success. I do not know the source of the statistics she used and other arguments she made. They are not in my possession. I reassure her there is no question of the ESB relying on extra transmission build-out to deliver this project. It is not being delivered on the transmission system but through the supply infrastructure.
I agree with Deputy John Browne on the capacity of this initiative to deal with the problem of broadband provision prevalent in rural areas. He was one of the Deputies who queried why the ESB did not go it alone. I have explained this in the context of the market restrictions on us. He requested that we be sensitive in the matter of wayleaves. This matter is constrained in the Bill and ought not to be a problem.
I agree with Deputy Joe O’Reilly that the issue at stake, fundamentally, is about job creation. Quality connectivity offers parts of regional Ireland the capacity to develop employment and retain people in the regions in opportunities unheard of before.
I am sure I have omitted to respond to some colleagues who raised other points. We have a record of them all, however, and there has been a high measure of consensus and agreement. We will have the opportunity on Committee Stage to tease through all provisions.
Deputy James Bannon raised concerns about broadband access for schools in Longford-Westmeath. I know there are pockets that are difficult to access, but this does not apply to second level schools. Every second level school in the Deputy’s constituency has been equipped with broadband of at least 100 Mb/s, which is almost industrial strength. In the arrangement agreed with the Minister for Education and Skills, my Department will continue to bear the running costs of this measure for 12 months and, thereafter, the Department of Education and Skills will take over responsibility for them. I am only mentioning this because the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is beside me.
I do not want to be dragged into the latter part of Deputy Michael Healy-Rae’s speech about the Shannon LNG project. It is a separate issue, but I assure him it is the Government’s wish that the LNG project contemplated for Tarbert would proceed. It would be an additional string in our bow in terms of energy security while providing badly needed employment in north Kerry. I am subject to the European regulatory framework in this regard. It was the company, not me, which took the matter to the High Court. There is a High Court judgment that explains why the regulatory framework operates as it does in the interests of consumers and pricing. Having said that, I am more than willing, as I have said before, to be of assistance to the company if, after 31 January, it decides it will not appeal the judgment, in continuing this project.
When Deputy Finian McGrath says they speak of little else on the streets of Marino, Raheny and Clontarf than this Bill, I am in no position to contradict him and I am glad to hear it. I join him and various colleagues who paid tribute to the work done by ESB workers during the difficult weather conditions over the Christmas holiday period and in acknowledging the contribution of other groups of emergency workers such as eircom and other workers. It was good to hear such praise from some Deputies for these workers because some Members have joined others in very unfair criticism of workers employed by Bord Gáis, for example, and Irish Water, talking about a bonus culture and other nonsense. There is no bonus culture in Bord Gáis and Irish Water. In fact, the contrary applies.
In 2012 an agreement was entered into by management and unions in Bord Gáis that brought in a pay freeze until 2016, abolished increments, terminated allowances and other plus payments, shut down the defined benefits pension scheme, opened a defined contribution scheme for new employees, installed a performance-related element in respect of employees' basic pay, as well as doing other things. It is little wonder that workers are appalled at some of the commentary they have attracted recently about the bonus culture in these companies. There is no bonus culture in it and like the ESB and eircom workers, they have made an important contribution in recent times.