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

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

I spoke to the Minister earlier after the debate on the legislation was adjourned. I could paper his house with all the representations I have sent to his office on the broadband issue over the years. He knows well how patchy broadband service is in the midlands. The Bill's primary function is to provide a legal basis enabling the ESB to engage in electronic communications networks and services such as the provision of improved broadband services. High-speed, high-quality and reliable broadband has become a critical component of modern society and the use of the ESB network to provide broadband will help with the roll-out.

Considerable progress has been made in recent years in both the coverage and the speed of the national broadband infrastructure. Ireland's telecommunications market, which was liberalised in 1999, has developed into a well-regulated market supporting a multiplicity of commercial operators providing services over a diverse range of technology platforms. The State is not a service provider in this market and can only intervene in cases of demonstrated market failure. A combination of private investment and State intervention, including the national broadband scheme and the rural 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. The focus must turn to accelerating the roll-out of high-speed broadband.

The Bill, hopefully, will enable the use of ESB's infrastructure to speed up the roll-out of broadband across the country under the national broadband plan. The plan was published in August 2012 and commits to the delivery of high-speed broadband throughout the country. This commitment is to be achieved by ensuring the environment is right to maximise investment by the commercial sector and through 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 semi-State companies can perform in accelerating the roll-out of such infrastructure. It is essential, therefore, that the plan be fully implemented by 2015 as planned, and I intend to monitor this closely to help ensure full delivery for the Longford-Westmeath area, where broadband service is extremely patchy currently. The Ceann Comhairle is smiling, because he has had experience of this.

Ireland's small and dispersed population makes the provision of competitively priced broadband more challenging. This can be helped by timely implementation of the national broadband plan and prioritising the removal of barriers to enable private sector investment and parallel State intervention by the Department. While UPC has invested significantly in upgrading its cable networks in the main urban centres, businesses, particularly SMEs, in a large number of medium-sized towns do not have access to competitively priced advanced broadband services, and this is affecting the provision of badly needed jobs, particularly in the midlands and the west.

Children and adults in rural areas who do not have access to a high quality broadband service are currently disadvantaged and will become even more disadvantaged as all of our educational provision is slowly moving onto a digital platform. The future prosperity of economic and social life in peripheral and rural areas depends significantly on high-speed broadband availability. Broadband deficiencies have militated against potential investment in our peripheral and rural areas. Almost 90% of the EU is covered. Ireland is close to the bottom of an EU league table for broadband availability in schools, as we rank 20th out of 27 member states. Local rural communities will die as young people are leaving broadband deserts. The lack of modern services and broadband roll-out is leading to rural depopulation, with young people leaving to access urban facilities. Young people in rural Ireland are suffering huge educational disadvantage due to the lack of broadband access. They are experiencing difficulties doing homework and projects due to the lack of Internet availability. More schools from the midlands participated in the Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition ten years ago than do so now because of the lack of broadband, and this issue needs to be examined. Several schools in rural areas are making repeated applications for broadband services, to no avail.

Young people without broadband are also disadvantaged in terms of social interaction. They are unable to socialise with friends on websites such as Facebook, which can provide a major social outlet for those living in remote areas. I am concerned that there will be a two-tiered society in the context of broadband access.

Ireland's widely dispersed population could deter some providers from supplying broadband in rural Ireland and fears have been expressed that rural Ireland could be left behind. Under this Bill, the involvement of ESB will bring about the upgrade of broadband services in rural areas. The national broadband plan for Ireland should facilitate the provision of high speed broadband to every home and business in the State, no matter how remote, but according to the chief executive of BT Ireland, the construction of a national rural broadband network faces intractable difficulties. He stated: "from a network point of view, the Irish rural housing stock is a nightmare...You might have a [broadband] cabinet that services 30 homes and some of those homes could be up to 6 km from the cabinet. But once you get 2 km from a cabinet, it becomes very hard to deliver high-speed broadband." I ask the Minister how he intends to tackle this issue.

There is potential for increased competition in the electronic communications networks and services market. Vodafone and BT Ireland are seeking to partner ESB in building a €400 million super fast fibre network. A more competitive market will increase consumer choice and reduce prices. A significant development has been the entry of Sky to the Irish retail broadband market with very competitive retail offers. We are on the cusp of a new digital era where we are strategically placed from a geographic, infrastructure and knowledge perspective to herald the dawn of the next phase of Ireland's economic growth. It is important that we receive a consistent and competitive electricity supply, along with technological connectivity. I welcome this Bill, which will speed up the provision of broadband in rural areas by allowing ESB to use its existing infrastructure.

I wrote to the Minister on several occasions regarding the dreadful situation in the midlands in regard to broadband access. I do not want to be personal but my own home is not serviced by any form of broadband. I have to travel 16 miles to my office to access broadband. I fully understand the plight of small businesses in the midlands but I am confident this Bill will help them.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. We should not underestimate the importance of broadband to the future development of this country. It is probably as important to us now as the Shannon scheme was to rural electrification between the late 1920s and the 1950s. It is a pity the Bill has not received the amount of media coverage it deserved. As previous speakers have noted, rural areas are at a significant competitive disadvantage when it comes to the delivery of services and carrying out commercial activities. This is the case even when it comes to basic levels of online services, such as those provided by the Government, or educational facilities.

The Bill will help by allowing ESB to use existing national infrastructure. It is relevant to speak about national infrastructure because the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, would not be introducing this Bill were it not for the botched sale of Eircom by a previous Government, whereby everything from the service to the infrastructure was disposed of. Had we retained the infrastructure in State ownership we probably would not need this legislation. We are, however, lucky that the infrastructure of poles, lattices and pylons, even if the latter is a dirty word at present, in every parish, electoral division and townland that can remediate the damage done by the botched sale of Eircom.

Most of the people I represent live in rural parts of County Limerick. My constituency has a network of small towns and villages but there are now urban centres of the 20,000 or 30,000 people scale. The population base I serve is dispersed and topographical features such as hills, mountains and castles can interfere with wireless signals. This puts businesses, schools and private individuals at a disadvantage. However, outside everyone's door there is an ESB pole which can potentially carry a fibre-optic cable. Whether one lives in Ballsbridge or Ballingarry one should be able to access the same level of service. A new utility, Irish Water, has recently been established. The Bill before us should not apply solely to the ESB. Every company or body involved in laying infrastructure, be it Bord Gáis, Irish Water, the National Roads Authority or Irish Rail, should be encouraged to develop joint ventures that take advantage of existing infrastructure to roll out broadband. This would also increase competition.

The benefits of broadband access are obvious. Certain primary schools in my area have difficulty accessing basic broadband speeds for use with interactive white boards. Last Monday I had a discussion in Limerick Institute of Technology with a company that uses new technology in a games based environment to teach basic principles of maths and science to students at primary level and junior certificate level. The new junior certificate will make the child an active agent in his or her own education. What better way to be an active agent than to have access to high speed and reliable broadband? I refer to the broadband service that is currently available in many parts of the country as "bogband" because of its slowness and unreliability. We can expand children's horizons by allowing them to interact with children in schools in Ireland and around the world so that they can draw on the experience of other teachers and schools. If one can access high speed broadband in Ayer's Rock, in the middle of Australia, why is it not available in rural parts of Ireland?

I note that the Fianna Fáil benches are empty. Deputies from that party have been critical of the speed with which this issue is being addressed. The Minister's focus has been on clearing up other messes but the delivery of a service that is currently unavailable to many communities will be a legacy project for this Government.

There are other big benefits that can be gained. One of the issues of concern to me, as someone who comes from a rural area, is that of rural isolation. In the recent past there have been questions asked about, for example, alarm systems for those living on their own. A high speed quality broadband system that allows safe access and is reliable will provide the infrastructure for those living on their own to be protected, including man-down alarms, closed circuit television systems or basic communication methods. Recently I met a woman in her 70s who informed me that she had received an iPad from her daughter who was living in Australia and that she now used FaceTime. That is the type of technology that is of importance to such persons. They might not have people calling as frequently as they did because we are living faster lives and do not have the time we used to have years ago to spend with our neighbours, but if they at least had this infrastructure on which they could rely, it would provide a safety net for many of those who feel isolated.

Retail businesses all over the country are finding it difficult owing to the collapse of the economy. Access to a quality broadband system would also enhance their capability to carry on business online that they might not necessarily have done to the degree it can be done in other countries. The Irish retail sector is lagging behind that in other European countries when it comes to online business and e-commerce. There is an opportunity for the Ministers, Deputies Richard Bruton and John Perry, and their Department to encourage such companies to engage in more retail activity online with a view to reaching out to those who cannot be reached at present.

I had the great pleasure of visiting Ardnacrusha to mark the 75th anniversary of the River Shannon scheme, on which my grandfather had worked. I was delighted to meet the former Taoiseach, Mr. Liam Cosgrave, whose father, Mr. W. T. Cosgrave, had laid the scheme's foundation stone. This shows how far we have come in the building of infrastructure. At the time it was said they did not need this and that they were "happy out", but technology has evolved. The one critical point that has been proved since the 1920s concerns the importance of the ESB in the provision of national infrastructure. The use of that infrastructure in the future cannot be underestimated, which is why I believe that in any change in governance of the ESB it must be clear and categorical that the infrastructure is sacrosanct and must be maintained for posterity in State hands. We see in this Bill the potential of that infrastructure to do more than merely switch on a light. As a stated, in the future high speed quality broadband will be every bit as important as water and electricity in how we go about our daily lives. This is a simple but empowering Bill. In some ways it is probably reflective of the yardbrush mentality that we as a Government have where we have to sweep up what has been left behind following the botched sale of eircom. However, it is being done, and at a time it will be welcomed. From my point of view, as someone who represents a constituency that has been put at a major disadvantage in terms of infrastructure, I welcome it.

I will make one final comment. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív who is not in the House spoke about his commitment to the provision of broadband, which I do not for one minute deny. In fact, at a meeting of a group once upon a time in the Devon Inn Hotel in Templeglantine, County Limerick when I was a member of Limerick County Council and he was Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs he bemoaned the fact that there was not a broadband scheme in west Limerick, from where I come. At the time I challenged him, asking him if it had anything to do with the fact that the Government had sold off eircom and the infrastructure, but I did not recevie an answer. Perhaps he might like to revisit that issue and indicate why that sell-off has left the people at such a disadvantage which we are trying to remediate.

This is good legislation which is badly needed. In terms of the needs of education, business and members of the community who are trying to go about their daily lives, it will be welcomed.

I would like to make one final point.

The Deputy is over time.

For many communities that have experienced emigration, with family members living in Australia, England and elsewhere, this is another development that will enable emigrants to keep in touch with those at home at what is a difficult time for many. As a Deputy from a rural area, this is to be welcomed.

On behalf of Sinn Féin, I welcome the Bill. Ireland has been far behind in the provision of broadband services compared to other European countries, a fault that can be traced back, as has been referred to by previous speakers, to the privatisation of eircom in the late 1990s. Since that time, Ireland has being playing catch-up with our European neighbours in providing broadband services for all citizens.

It is welcome that the ESB is entering the telecommunications market, which can only be seen as a positive step. The ESB has a wide number of skilled staff who have developed a trusted relationship with households over many years since the formation of the company in the 1920s. It is a valuable State asset in terms of the Government's coffers and I hope its extension into the telecommunications market will ward off any thought of privatisation the Government might have.

Broadband is extremely important in developing an indigenous economy that is vibrant and competitive. It has enabled innovation and growth. It is estimated that the Internet contributes up to 6% of GDP in advanced economies and generates significant employment growth. Through online activity, the potential for participation in global trade is largely unlimited by location. Access to quality broadband can make distance much less relevant and be a catalyst in dispersing economic activity. The small and medium-sized enterprise sector is particularly important, accounting for 72% of manufacturing and services employment in Ireland. However, poor upload speeds have prohibited the use of video-conferencing, which is a particularly useful tool for businesses located on different sites and can significantly reduce business travel costs, especially for those located in more isolated areas.

In the national interest, growth in all regions should be optimised. To do this, all regions need to have a strong infrastructural base enabling them to compete, as well as to attract and retain investment and jobs. Arising from the liberalisation of the telecommunications market, private investment has been driving the roll-out of broadband infrastructure and services, nationally and internationally. Just like other types of infrastructure provision, population density is a determinant of the cost of delivery and potential returns. In County Kerry, for example, there is poor or even no broadband coverage in the more sparsely populated areas. While there is broadband in my area, it is very slow and does not enhance the prospects of small indigenous industries of being able to compete from there. County Kerry has often been the last to benefit from the provision of Government infrastructure, with those living in the Black Valley only receiving the benefits of electrification in the 1970s. The campaign for proper broadband access is the same as that fought 40 years ago by those who campaigned for running water and electricity. It seems to be a long time ago, but when one looks back, it is recent. With many services being rolled back in rural areas, including banking, post offices and Garda facilities, it is becoming increasingly important for households to have access to adequate broadband services. Unfortunately, it is also the case that parents need a functioning broadband connection when trying to communicate with their children who have emigrated to Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere, never more so than in the past five, six or seven years when many young people, particularly from more isolated areas, left their homes to work very far away. The most effective and, probably, intimate way people can keep in touch with each other is through a good broadband service.

County Kerry is one of the main tourism spots in the country. Broadband is now a staple that any visiting guest expects when he or she books into bed and breakfast accommodation or a hotel. What message does it send to visitors to the country if broadband does not come as standard? The Bill is a step in the right direction.

Semi-State companies investing in broadband access is a positive move and, hopefully, this will help correct the mistake of selling off Telecom Éireann and other mistakes of the past.

We in Sinn Féin will support this legislation.

With Ireland's digital economy growing at 16% per year, it is vital that we vigorously pursue the implementation of the national broadband plan to deliver high-speed broadband throughout our entire country otherwise rural areas, in particular, will not be able to compete for investment in jobs in this mushrooming sector and people and families in rural areas will not be able to enjoy the benefits this 21st century technology can bring to our daily lives for education, commerce and leisure purposes.

I welcome the Minister's multifaceted approach, challenging and encouraging, first and foremost, commercial broadband service providers to invest private moneys in broadband infrastructure development, with State intervention only as a last resort in the non-commercially attractive rural areas, which is predominantly the case. Therefore, the thrust of this legislation, which provides expressly for ESB laying fibre optic cable alongside power lines which crisscross our country, is a very practical step to provide the geographical reach of broadband to these rural areas, and I compliment the Minister on it.

The recent announcement in my home county by Emerald Networks, a private company, that it intends to proceed with its plans to develop a high-speed and high-capacity, fibre-optic transatlantic cable called the "Emerald Express" between the United States and Ireland and, ultimately, on to the United Kingdom, and that it has confirmed its preferred landfall site as Killala, has generated a great deal of excitement, as the Minister can imagine. This is a project I have supported since it was mooted in 2011.

This is a massive opportunity for Mayo and for our country. It will facilitate the provision of state-of-the-art, high-speed broadband infrastructure and connectivity for Mayo and will open the county up to attract investment and to develop industry and jobs based on the information and communications technology sector, which has been identified as one of the main pillars for current and future growth in our economy and has proven to be so with job announcements nationally on a regular basis.

To operate and compete in the global village the world has become, communications infrastructure such as this is critical. While it is imperative at this point that the company sets out its plan for the route of the fibre-optic cable when it hits land and how the communities it will pass through will be affected and benefit, it is equally imperative that the Minister's Department, in conjunction with the county council, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, under the auspices of the Action Plan for Jobs, together with private broadband service providers such as Eircom, BT, Vodafone, O2 and others, put in place plans to maximise the benefit to as much of the county as possible and in particular towns such as Killala, Ballina and Crossmolina, which immediately adjoin the landfall site, and Belmullet where it was originally thought the cable might land. We already have fibre-optic cable in the ground in parts of the county, which was laid along much of the gas pipeline and we have metropolitan area networks in towns such as Ballina and Kiltimagh, which can be connected to the transatlantic fibre-optic cable.

I note the Government has recently obtained the consent of the EU Commission for the use of existing publicly-funded, fibre-optic cable for such a project. These are exciting possibilities especially in the old Asahi brownfield site in Killala in the realm of cloud computing and data centres where it is also proposed to develop also a biomass - combined heat and power - power plant.

In a nutshell, in light of the announcement by Emerald Networks that it would develop this transatlantic cable, I ask that we immediately examine where this cable will go once it hits land, how the benefit can be maximised for the towns surrounding it - Killala, Ballina, Crossmolina and further afield - how it can be part of a solution to improve connectivity for the county and part of the realisation of the Minister's plan, namely, that there would be high-speed broadband connectivity and infrastructure throughout the country under the national broadband plan. I ask that the Minister work with Mayo County Council and the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, under the Action Plan for Jobs, and commercial broadband service providers to map out how we might achieve this connectivity and use some of the existing fibre, which can complement what is provided in this legislation, which would see the ESB putting in place fibre-optic cable along distribution power lines. This is part of that formula and it is something to which we need to address our minds for the maximum benefit for County Mayo and for the country.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. In essence, it will allow the ESB to install and operate electronic communication networks and services. This is quite an easily understood concept. If it is effective, it will lead, in part, to Ireland finally achieving a modern fit-for-purpose future-proofed broadband infrastructure, something to which we have only aspired in the past. This is a very fast moving area. Therefore, the Bill is certainly very welcome.

The ESB has the infrastructure, a skilled workforce and, equally important, the organisational structures to deliver on this concept. ESB Networks also has an excellent history of communicating properly with the relevant stakeholders. I note it has a prominent position every year at the ploughing championships and it puts significant people and resources in there to discuss with landowners any issues that may have arisen. Over the years it has built a very trusted position, and that is a welcome development. I have dealt with it over many years and I have found its approach to be second to none. There is a willingness to engage, identify the areas of concern and deal with them. I wish I could say the same for EirGrid but we will monitor it and hope that it will prove as capable of following the manner in which ESB has communicated.

Due to the fact that the ESB has physical connections to virtually all homes and businesses in the State, the opportunities here are vast. One of the aims should be to get as many fibre connections to homes as possible. The Minister mentioned that the ESB had identified this opportunity to use its electricity distribution network to provide telecommunications services to the Irish market. The challenge for us in government is not to wait for others to identify possibilities but to identify novel areas of potential ourselves. The challenge to all of us is to examine what can we offer in this area. We need to take a fresh look at all State assets and to critically assess them in a holistic manner. This needs to be broken down in a number of subsections, namely, what is the social benefit these assets could deliver and what are the entrepreneurial possibilities with regard to how can we encourage businesses, both small and large, and, ultimately, how can we provide new jobs.

This legislation will allow the encouragement of joint ventures, pooling our resources and seeing how can we create something novel where nothing else existed beforehand. These are all challenges but we are up to them. We have a well educated workforce. It is testimony to our excellent education system that in the course of only two generations has delivered people from primary education to fourth level - it is a staggering transition. The best thing one can deliver to one's children is a good education and this country has allowed us to do that. I look forward to more open discussion on how we can maximise and use the possibilities of our State assets.

This Bill fits perfectly with the national broadband plan, which was published in 2012 following on from the next generation broadband taskforce report in 2011, and this report identified five main areas, some of which include target speeds, spectrum and the role of State assets. We can see the development from those thought processes into legislation, which is very welcome. We also need to reflect on the reason we have lost ground with regard to our broadband infrastructure. Why did that happen? As many Deputies have mentioned, this all goes back to 1999 when Eircom plc was floated on the Irish Stock Exchange, in London and in New York.

A lot of first-time investors were encouraged by the Government to buy shares. It was a classic stock market bubble where many first-time investors like myself lost out. Unfortunately, it was not just a private loss. Since privatisation in 1999, the company was loaded with debt and asset-stripped. It was quite a shocking situation and another malaise like many others in the country. Since coming into government, we seem to be rolling back layer after layer and tidying up a mess. People realise what we are doing and the fact we are doing it in a methodical fashion.

The necessary investment to deliver proper broadband services never materialised. Ireland lost out, especially rural Ireland. I have regular calls from constituents frustrated by the lack of service. There is nothing more annoying than a connection freezing. One wonders sometimes if one should continue at all. The Minister fully realises that it is hindering the development of many SMEs and their potential for online sales, which could deliver many jobs.

The ESB has suggested it will deliver a 100% fibre network and that it will connect directly to 500,000 homes offering speeds in excess of 150 Mbps. These are guaranteed upload and download speeds because it is a fibre network. These upload and download speeds are, if Members will pardon the pun, light years away from the current speeds, which are sometimes lower than 2 Mbps. Being in business, it is frustrating to pay for 7 Mbps and find, after speed checking, that one gets a fraction of this. There are no winners. The Government, through its Action Plan for Jobs, is providing many support to SMEs, including promoting Internet sales and businesses growth and infrastructure development, but this will really help. The area is developing at such a phenomenal rate that what we regard as standard today will be completely different in a few years. Over Christmas, I saw one of the old Star Trek movies in which the characters were talking on little phones. That was futuristic back then. Where will we be in another 30 years?

We must be flexible. Due to our climate, we have huge opportunities in the development of data centres. For a small, open economy such as ours, infrastructure such as this is as essential as water and electricity. The legislation will allow our highly educated workforce to blossom. We have a cluster of people who can display their talents to the world as they have not have the opportunity before. This will increase rural employment, lessen travel and bring about better lifestyles. It will help to regenerate rural communities because it allows people to live close to where they work. In conclusion, I welcome the Bill and I congratulate the Minister on its introduction. It is a sensible measure and I look forward to seeing its benefits over the coming months and years.

I propose to share time with Deputies Frank Feighan and Anthony Lawlor. I welcome the publication of the Bill and I acknowledge the presence of the Minister in the House. Prior to the sale of Telecom Éireann, as it was, it was no secret that we had the cutting-edge technology of the day. It was the leading information technology network in Europe. If the network had been allowed to make remain in public ownership, we would not be debating this Bill today.

It is strange, yet inevitable, that we are depending on an electricity network to help us deliver an information technology infrastructure, particularly to the more rural and peripheral areas. I welcome the initiative taken by the Minister to provide legislation to allow the ESB to look at partnerships and joint ventures to provide access to its network to companies that will provide, ultimately, broadband through fibre to the home. It is a lot to ask and a massive potential investment but the investment must be examined as a long-term dividend for many parts of the country. The information technology network is as critically important today as road, rail and water infrastructure was in previous times. Its importance should never be underestimated. Around 90% of the network, particularly the fibre network, is not challenging to deliver. The market will ultimately deliver it. The remaining 10% is in difficult areas and each additional 1% is infinitely more difficult to deliver than the previous 1%. That is the challenge for the Department and the Minister. The initiative will go a long way towards providing for it.

Provision must be made for compensation from companies to the ESB. It is too easy to overlook the point. I submit that the compensation offer to the ESB should not be weighted on the capital costs alone but in respect of the number of houses, companies or units that the service provides for. If we are going to achieve fibre connections to homes in more rural areas, it is not fair to allow compensation to the ESB of the entire capital costs where they can be offset against less challenging delivery projects in more densely populated areas.

At the meeting of the select committee yesterday, which the Minister attended, I mentioned a successful school broadband scheme delivering 100 Mbps per second to second level schools throughout the country. It is a major success and will have a huge results for students. Now, it is time to take a jobs and economic focus. Some second level schools have access to 100 Mbps per second while a small business park, industrial unit or commercial centre less than 1 kilometre from the school has a broadband service that is not fit for purpose. The inevitable conclusion is that it will close and that businesses cannot compete. We should change our focus. A new scheme should look more closely at those issues, including the economic benefits of rolling out 100 Mbps per second to the areas that do not have it.

Another issue concerns the available information on the advertised speeds companies say they can provide. This applies particularly to the DSL network and the satellite system. Companies offer from 1.5 Mbps up to 6 Mbps from the DSL exchange. I live in a small town less than 1 km from the exchange and, although I am routinely told speeds of 3 Mbps are available, when I test the speed it is rarely over 300 kilobits per second. That is okay for personal and domestic use - to look at Facebook, send e-mail and look at YouTube - but it is not acceptable to deliver jobs or drive economic activity. It is not okay for companies to say one thing while customers are getting something entirely different.

I can see the potential to access the ESB's networks in order to provide for a fibre exchange to the home or business service, which will be critical in driving the economies of local areas. That should not be underestimated.

In talking about providing a broadband service, particularly a rural broadband service, we must grapple with the idea of insisting on a minimum service. We can do this on a contract basis, but I would prefer to see it being placed on a statutory basis. This service should be at least 10 Mbps. Perhaps there could be a public service obligation in that regard for rural areas. If we do not give ourselves that challenge, we will be grappling with the issue of delivery of rural broadband services for the next 60 years; it will be similar to the experience of electrification in the Black Valley in County Kerry. We would all like to avoid that scenario.

There is a good example of the challenges we face and it can be highlighted in the context of further negotiations with the ESB. Approximately 18 months ago people, including Councillor Mary Hegarty in Bantry, approached Amazon about a very exciting initiative. The company would provide 26 jobs in rural areas in Bantry and the peninsular areas of west Cork in a support service to what was a very successful company. It provided training, support and equipment with the jobs, as promised. The problem was that although the minimum 5 Mbps minimum service required was achieved at times, some people had to give up their jobs because the service was inconsistent. That was very disappointing and it sends a very negative message when we are trying to attract jobs for the likes of architects and engineers. The people concerned could return to their native areas if they could use a service, leading to what would almost certainly be a better quality of life. Unfortunately, we are meeting these obstacles in trying to deliver jobs, which is very disappointing.

According to the 2011 census, in my constituency of Cork South-West there were approximately 30,000 homes, over 18,000 of which had a broadband service. That is all we know; we do not know the quality of the service provided, the consistency of the service or the challenges being faced by these households. It is 2014 and we could probably increase the 18,000 figure by 50%, but we still lack the knowledge and mapping information when it comes to quality and consistency of service. That is replicated throughout the country. In negotiations between the ESB and the Department we must get the most up-to-date information on what is happening on the ground. Without this information, we could lose much of the initiative to be gained from the Bill.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport will be familiar with the development of the Wild Atlantic Way from County Donegal to west Cork. One of the initiatives being discussed is the development of a phone application to explain or interpret the various parts of the route. I am sorry to say the application would be largely redundant in the pockets of most travellers as the telecommunications service would not be up to delivering it. That is a good example of the challenge facing the Minister.

I know the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has appointed Mr. David Puttnam, a constituent of mine, as information czar for the country. It is wonderful to see his achievements from his studio at his home in Skibbereen. It is a global communications effort. However, 2 km from his house it is like living in the Black Valley. I hope the Minister will face up to these challenges and deal with them in the new contracts. I welcome him and wish him well.

I very much welcome the Bill from the Minister which will ensure the ESB will be able to set up its own communications network. There will be a legal basis to ensure the distribution of infrastructure to provide high speed broadband services in Ireland. Where have we been for the past ten or 12 years, when all of these promises were made and Ministers told us Ireland would be the gateway to the European communications sector? Unfortunately, we have had to pay through the nose for broadband services and been second to last in OECD ratings in the provision of broadband.

More than ten years ago in my home town of Boyle we were very anxious to receive broadband or more effective telecommunications services for the town. As other speakers have stated, the break-up of Eircom certainly did not help. We were told no broadband service was available and in order to avail of the services of another operator, we sought funding from one of the Leader companies. Approximately ten or 12 businessmen, members of the community and politicians had to take modules twice a week for six months on how to draw down the funding. They were both extensive and difficult. Approximately two weeks before we were due to receive the funding, Eircom announced that the broadband service exchange had been activated and would be enabled. That was a crazy process. When the electrification process was ongoing, the Government of the day felt private companies could not deliver the service because the private sector would pick and choose the services it would deliver, determining if there was something in it for them. That is why the public sector must become involved. I congratulate the Minister on his innovative thinking. This will certainly help smaller towns and rural areas. There are significant challenges and these areas are under severe pressure from the bigger population centres. They need every tool in the box to compete effectively, including online services, Internet banking, retailing and other services. Once again, the Minister is doing, instead of talking. Unfortunately, the last Government talked for too long.

This process is comparable to the provision of electricity. I do not think I am that old, but I remember many times going to houses as a young man and even as a teenager and finding that some in my area did not have electricity. Even if most had electricity, some did not have fridges. My house did not have a fridge until I was ten or 12 years old. That was the way it was and it is amazing how much we have moved on. It is incredible that in September 2013 there were more than 1.6 million broadband subscribers in Ireland. This is the way of the future and not just for businesses and entrepreneurs. These services are for citizens who demand the best possible connections, which should not be too costly. Unfortunately, some of the utility companies would have thought of a price and doubled it, thinking the Irish taxpayer would pay it. We will not do this any more.

I thank the Minister for bringing forward this innovative Bill.

It is interesting to see that only Government Deputies are present and none of the Opposition Members. It demonstrates that this is a good news story. Whenever there is a bad news story, plenty of Opposition Members caw away on the other side of the House. Today happens to represent a very good news story. The strange point is that it would not have been if we had not sold off and privatised Eircom, particularly Eircom networks, a number of years ago. The sad part is that perhaps ten or 15 years ago we could have had broadband in all rural areas throughout the country. I welcome this initiative. This is an exciting time. We may bitch and complain about the ESB and ESB Networks but this is definitely a very positive and welcome story.

Only yesterday I received a communication from an individual who was having problems with broadband. I am from the constituency of Kildare North, which people will say is very urban. However, there are places within my constituency where people find it extremely difficult to get broadband. This initiative will certainly help to combat the problem.

The Government is encouraging people to get back to work. People like to work from home. As highlighted by Deputy Harrington in respect of west Cork, people in rural areas, including west Kildare and along the Kildare-Wicklow border, have very poor access to broadband communications. Commercial entities, including Eircom, mainly target areas of population where they can make a quick profit. That the ESB is coming on board is very much welcome for those in rural areas. It is in the business of providing a service rather than generating a profit. Being involved with a commercial partner, it may be driven by commercialisation. It is said the service will be rolled out in urban areas first, but it is most important that it be rolled out as much as possible in rural areas. This is one of the pillars of the Government's broadband strategy.

It is important that ESB Networks and its partner engage with the agricultural community. The quicker they do so, the quicker we can get the broadband structure put in place. I urge the Minister to encourage in any way he can the management of ESB to engage with the IFA and various farming bodies so we can put the structure in place as quickly as possible.

It is important that the Bill be passed as quickly as possible. When it is passed, the timescale for the rolling out of broadband by the ESB will be important. It will be vital for industry that it be rolled out as quickly as possible. We should encourage the ESB along these lines.

I welcome this initiative. It is great that we are using existing infrastructure for another purpose. It is a pity previous Governments did not examine this idea. I support the Bill but I am disappointed that no members of the Opposition are present to listen to a good news story today.

I am glad to have the opportunity to welcome this good news story, as Deputy Lawlor called it. I commend the Minister and ESB for acting so swiftly on this matter. In the 15 years I have been a public representative, broadband provision has been the main issue, apart from the economic problems of recent years and the issues that arise continually in the health service. As with other Members, I constantly receive communications from individuals and businesses with broadband issues.

I agree with Deputy Anthony Lawlor that emphasis should be placed on rural areas when the system is rolled out. While displacing existing services in urban areas might be commercially advantageous, it is most important that the legislation enable the large tracts of the country that do not have any operational broadband service at present to enjoy the prospect of its becoming available. I agree with previous speakers on the economic importance of rolling out broadband. A great number of people work from home in rural areas. If there were access to high-quality broadband services, more people would be able to work from home. I have been struck by the number of people in my part of the world, south County Kilkenny, who travel to work in Dublin. If high-quality broadband were available in their area, they would be able to work from home more often.

There is a social aspect to be considered. The economic difficulties of recent years have required so many to emigrate all over the world. This affects families in every corner of the country. Daily and weekly, they try to keep in contact with their children in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, for example. Owing to inadequate broadband facilities, making contact is very problematic for some. Therefore, it is not just a question of business, although business is vital if those who emigrated to far-flung places are to have something to come home to.

I remember my first interview as a national politician, a member of the Seanad, in 2002. I happened to be on a talk-show on a leading national station with two Seanad colleagues at the time, Senator David Norris and former Senator and Minister Mary O'Rourke. I brought up the privatisation of Eircom. As the current Minister will appreciate, this evoked a rather strong response from Ms O'Rourke. I had forgotten - I was a second level student at the time of privatisation – that she was the Minister in charge of what was ultimately to be the most disastrous privatisation in the country. There was a disastrous decision to separate the network from the telecommunications business. The privatisation of the telecommunications network across the country led to circumstances in which much of Ireland still does not have an adequate broadband service.

Deputy Noel Harrington stated that the really important aspect of this legislation is that it promises definitive action. The predecessor of the Minister, Mr. Eamon Ryan, launched with fanfare two or three initiatives to roll out broadband to rural areas by satellite or other means. Mobile broadband companies entered into agreements with the Department at the time but broadband did not seem to penetrate rural areas. The ESB network, the existing network, extends to every corner of the Twenty-six Counties. The possibility that the ESB has unveiled - that is, that the network could be used to establish a new 21st-century telecommunications network for broadband - is to be greatly welcomed. The Minister's speedy introduction of this legislation is to be greatly welcomed also. I hope the ESB, with whatever commercial partner will come on board, will be in a position as soon as possible to ensure this initiative is rolled out across the country.

Areas currently without adequate provision are of the utmost importance. These areas are often not in the big urban centres. Obviously, commercial issues will arise in that the partner of the ESB will be seeking maximum volume. However, the most important aspect of this legislation is that it has the potential to ensure broadband will reach everywhere in the country. It is important that the rural areas that do not have a proper service at present be served. Deputy Harrington's example of the fate of the Amazon jobs on the peninsulas in Cork is a shocking indictment of the network as it currently exists across the country.

There are many people who have good ideas and who might be in a position to open their own business in their own home but cannot do so because adequate broadband facilities are not available to them. This legislation is really welcome because it presents the definite prospect of those particularly rural communities having a decent broadband service, and for that reason I wholeheartedly welcome it.

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.

Question put and agreed to.