Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Telecommunications Services

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Robert Troy. I want to raise the growing problem of scam phone calls and text messages, which have become widespread in the past few weeks, as he will no doubt be aware. Fraudsters who claim to be from State agencies, for example, An Garda Síochána and the Department of Social Protection, are pestering people with calls that seek personal and sensitive details, such as personal public service numbers, PPSNs, and bank details. While most people identify these calls as fraudulent and do not engage with them, the convincing nature of some of the newer scams is leading to people lose money. One noticeable development that these criminals have now deployed is the appearance of Irish phone numbers on incoming calls and texts. While most people would be suspicious of an unsolicited call that shows up from a random foreign jurisdiction with which they have no connection, when it appears as a local number it unfortunately gives the call more credibility. This is also happening with landlines that are linked to offices, such as the Office of the Attorney General, or what appears to be a text from a bank. The more sophisticated ones appear in line with legitimate texts from the bank.

I have been in touch with the major mobile phone operators here asking if they can take action to stop the use of their phone numbers and-or network. Unfortunately, some operators have advised that these criminals are not utilising Irish phone numbers or networks but, instead, are using a method called “spoofing”. Even though the call originates from abroad, it appears as an Irish number. This tactic used to require a knowledge of complex telephony, but now open source software that is widely available means that anyone with access to the Internet can spoof calls with minimal cost and even less effort.

The purpose of this criminality is very simple: to exploit people, particularly older people and the vulnerable, and to steal sensitive information and money. There is no data available for the number of people who have been scammed here or, indeed, the average financial loss to people. I wonder if the Minister of State has that information. I fear that this is a hidden problem, as few people want to admit they have been a victim of a scam, and, therefore, we just do not hear about it. However, just because we do not hear about it, it does not mean that it does not happen on a daily basis. Only this week, I heard about one lady in my constituency of Meath East, who lost more than €1,000 to a scam like this. It appears that nothing can be done to recover this money, which is understandably distressing for people. Is that the case? Can anything be done to recover money lost in these scams? What can be done to address this? I have engaged with mobile phone operators. Something needs to be done to address this. Surely, the increase we have seen in recent weeks is not a sign of things to come. Surely, we will not live with this into the future on an increasing level. Are the Government and the Department aware of this? What efforts have they made to ensure that this is stopped in the first instance, and that there are protections in place for victims of these crimes?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue I am taking this matter on behalf of Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who sends his apologies. It is well-recognised how vital telecommunications are to citizens for so many aspects of their daily lives, including remote working, studying and staying in touch with family members. These services have proved essential since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions imposed nationally. They will continue provide critical support in accelerating digitalisation and part of economic recovery from the pandemic. I am aware of phone customers in Ireland recently experiencing an escalated level of such nuisance scam calls. They can cause considerable distress and anxiety, in addition to causing some customers to incur some additional charges. It is very serious. The Deputy mentioned one of his constituents who lost €1,000. The increased frequency and volume of fraudulent attacks over electronic communication networks includes both "smishing", or SMS phishing and "vishing", or voice or VoIP phishing. Fraudulent texts masquerade as texts from banks and smishing frauds are targeted at deploying malware. The phishing activities recently reported are spoof calls, and-or phishing, particularly where numbers appear to be from the HSE or other public bodies.

Several State bodies and agencies, including An Garda Síochána, Revenue and the Department of Social Protection, and other sectors, such as financial institutions, and, indeed, the mobile network operators, have run public awareness campaigns to warn their customers about smishing, phishing and the need to remain continually on alert in assessing and reviewing suspicious messages. The National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, additionally publishes comprehensive advisories and alerts on scams, attacks, or vulnerabilities, engaging users and the public through its website and social media feeds.

The telecommunications regulator, ComReg, has also advised that it has published a consumer information notice on its website which provides advice urging vigilance at all times on the part of consumers and lists suggestions for the proactive steps to be taken by those receiving scam calls.

However, fraudulent activity, such as smishing and vishing, is generally not a telecoms network security or resilience issue as it is part of the traffic transiting the networks which generally does not cause any network operational issues. Where fraudulent activity becomes an operational issue on the network, such as leading to an overload on the SMS system for example, this impacts on the security and resilience of the telecoms networks and ComReg will have a role to play. The fraudulent traffic from criminals that can be carried out on the networks, such as for smishing and vishing, and the investigation of such criminal activities, remain strictly within the remit of An Garda Síochána. However, as the impact of fraudulent activities is complex in nature, no one agency can address the full scope of the impact and, as such, it requires a multi-agency approach.

There is no single technical or other solution to the problem of scam calls, but through the co-operation of State bodies and a continuing raising of public awareness, and I thank the Deputy for using this opportunity to generate public awareness on this issue, it is hoped fewer people will fall victim to this activity. The more public awareness we and relevant State agencies can generate to ensure people are vigilant to what is going on, the better.

The Minister of State mentioned the need for awareness raising and bringing people's attention to these issues, and that is important. I accept it is complex and involves a number of agencies. I would add there is a possibility this could continue, increase and get worse. It is a frustration and a nuisance outside of anything else. I would encourage those agencies to work together to try to address it, stop it, reduce it, and minimise it as best they can because it will be a growing problem if it continues and people are getting one or two nuisance phone calls daily out of a handful of phone call per days. The effort of calling back those missed numbers would be frustrating for people and it does not need to be a sign of things to come. I encourage those agencies to come together, include the phone operators and seek to minimise this activity. They should tackle it and reduce it to as close to zero as is possible. Otherwise, it will be increasingly frustrating for people.

I would also ask the Minister of State to come back to me on the assessment of the level of this activity. How often is it happening? Is it on the increase? Does it look like it will be on the increase? What protections are there for people who have been adversely affected by it in terms of losing money?

I cannot answer the Deputy's question today on the assessment of the level of activity that is ongoing but I will bring that query back to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and ask him or his office to revert directly to the Deputy. The advice to the public is people need to be vigilant as to what is going on. If individuals are receiving persistent missed calls from an unknown number, they are advised in the first instance to contact their service provider and follow the code of practice, details of which are available on the various service providers' websites. In addition, some phones have the capability to block a nuisance number. Individuals are advised to check their phone manual to see if this is a feature of their particular handset, and if it is, they should use that feature and block the number.

ComReg's consumer information notice on its website provides advice, urging vigilance at all times on the part of consumers and lists suggestions for the proactive steps to be taken by those receiving scam calls. In particular, it advises people to keep a careful watch and not to answer or call back any number which they do not recognise or where there is a bland or automated message or no voicemail left. It also provides a phone number for consumers to contact and the regulator offers a text callback service and other facilities to assist consumers.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to identify scam callers in advance, which can resemble normal familiar geographical or international numbers encountered daily. An Garda Síochána's advice has also recommended that people receiving unsolicited and suspicious calls should hang up the call, not engage with the call or return calls, not follow any automated instructions, and not transfer any money or disclose any personal or financial information.

Broadband Infrastructure

I want to draw the Minister of State's attention to the fact that rural Ireland is still being left behind in the provision of a proper broadband network. In doing so, I recognise the amount of money that has already been invested by Government in this area but a far greater efficiency in delivery has to be achieved. Beyond Covid, people will work from home a lot more, bigger companies will establish in rural Ireland a lot more and there will be an expansion of the use of technology and the Internet for doing business and doing it swiftly.

In north Kilkenny, for example, and this is the best way to explain it, there are quite a number of businesses, ranging from large and medium businesses to pharmacies, and they all give good employment to people. However, their potential is being hampered by the fact they cannot get reliable and sound broadband. National Broadband Ireland and Eir will give out some information on specific cases, but much more needs to be done to give proper dates and timing to those who are waiting for broadband so that they are able to plan their businesses. The same can be said in Kilkenny city, where you would imagine that broadband would be available generally, particularly fibre-optic, but it is not. Fibre-optic comes, for example, to the boundary of the IDA Ireland business park in Kilkenny but no one seems to want to take on the task of bringing it to each and every business on that estate and there is significant employment being provided in that area. Likewise, you could take Tinnahinch in Carlow and Graiguenamanagh in Kilkenny. Their pathways were recently dug up but no effort was made to lay the ducting for all of this fibre, which is much needed in that rural location. Carlow has a digital strategy for 2021 to 2024 but many companies there complain to me about the availability of proper high-speed broadband. It is affecting their delivery of services or goods and the potential they have for expansion.

There is a need for someone to take ownership of the areas that fall between National Broadband Ireland and the other providers. Every effort must be made to assist companies with grants or whatever other means possible to ensure they get high-speed broadband to their businesses as quickly and efficiently as possible. As we deliver, the world will again pass us out in the speed of fibre with next generation technology. We are badly lagging behind in rural Ireland and it is having a huge effect on business people and individuals who are working from home and who find it very difficult even to engage in meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

They have breakdowns all the way through. It is not good enough. Given what the Government is spending on this roll-out it should be getting far greater value for money.

I thank Deputy McGuinness for raising this issue and for his constructive input. There is no doubt that this is an issue that affects businesses and people working from and studying at home. It is an issue on which the Government is focused on delivering. The national broadband plan contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland in November 2019 to roll out a high-speed and future-proofed broadband network with an intervention area which covers 1.1 million people living and working in an area of over 544,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms along with 695 schools.

The national broadband plan will ensure that citizens throughout the entire country will have access to high-speed broadband services through a combination of commercial investment and State-led intervention where the State has had to step in as no commercial investment is planned. The national broadband network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500 Mbps from the outset.

I am advised by National Broadband Ireland that as of 1 July 2021, over 230,000 premises across 26 counties have been surveyed. The next step is for it to develop network designs to deliver the new fibre to the home network to these premises. Substantial design work is under way. As of 1 July, over 19,000 premises are available for order or pre-order through local broadband service providers.

There are 48,761 premises in total in County Kilkenny, of which 30,345 are served by commercial operators. Some 18,416 premises will be provided with high speed broadband through State-led intervention. Government investment in County Kilkenny under the national broadband plan will amount to €72 million.

Surveying has been completed and is still under way across a number of areas in County Kilkenny including Grovine, Cuffesgrange, Creenkill, Castlewarren, Cellarstown, Bennettsbridge, Brownstown, Drumerrin, Kilcreen, Lyrath, Tullowglass, Tullaroan, Dicksborough, Sheepstown and Templemartin. I am advised that some premises located in Castlecomer are part of the intervention area and will be provided with access to high-speed broadband under the national broadband plan while other areas are served by commercial operators that are currently active in the area.

Extensive investment plans are in place by a range of commercial operators active in the blue areas. These plans will see improved high-speed broadband access across the country. A number of commercial operators have announced further investment plans in high-speed broadband.

In Kilkenny, approximately 7,300 premises have been passed as part of Eir's roll-out to 300,000 premises. I understand that over 300 of these premises are in the Castlecomer area. In addition, some 9,000 premises have been passed by SIRO in County Kilkenny in recent years. Furthermore, I am advised that some 12,600 premises are passed by Virgin Media in County Kilkenny. Further details on specific areas within County Kilkenny are available through the National Broadband Ireland website.

While substantial progress has been made to date, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network, resulting in delays of a number of months in the delivery of aspects of the programme. Impacts include challenges with the mobilisation of key contractors, with restrictions in operations, supply chains and logistic delays, as well as the recruitment of key personnel as National Broadband Ireland and its contractors scale up including challenges associated with onboarding and training. The full extent of this impact is currently being assessed, but National Broadband Ireland has committed to put in place measures to mitigate the impact as far as possible. Despite these challenges, National Broadband Ireland has made steady progress on initial works. Over 92,000 premises are construction and some 90,000-----

I appreciate the work that has been undertaken by the Government in terms of funding and the private sector in terms of the delivery of broadband. I encourage the Minister of State to look at the country as a whole, draw together all of those that are providing broadband and ensure that the gaps in the make-up of each county are delivered on and there is a plan. When people make inquiries they do not want to hear a load of statistics. Rather, they want to know when their businesses are going to be connected.

Roadmaster in Johnstown is half a kilometre away from a box with a fibre optic cable and cannot understand why it cannot get fibre optic broadband as quickly as it believes it should. Likewise, everything is done by email now through pharmacies and it is difficult for them to carry on their business. The IDA in Kilkenny faces the same issue.

County Carlow took an initiative to have a digital strategy for the next few years. The Government needs to get down to that level to ensure all of these businesses and chambers of commerce that are taking initiatives in their own counties are supported directly where necessary. A lot of money is being spent on broadband, but the Government needs to take an overall hold of the delivery of the projects, regardless of where they are, to ensure that rural Ireland is not left behind and that broadband is as fast and efficient as it is in any urban centre. That would create a level playing field and achieve a lot for the country.

I agree with what Deputy McGuinness has said. He has made very constructive points. One cannot argue with them.

National Broadband Ireland has made available, through its website, an indicative timeframe as to when its intervention area will be rolled out, whether that is in my constituency, Deputy McGuinness's constituency or any other constituency. People need to know when they can expect broadband to come into an area, but unfortunately it will take a period of time to roll out. The programme for Government has committed to an accelerated roll-out, but it will take a number of years. In acknowledgement of that, what has been identified are broadband connection points which are a key element of the national broadband plan. They provide high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of fibre optic broadband door-to-door. In areas where it will be two or three years before intervention-led broadband is rolled out, broadband connection points have been identified. As of 1 July this year, 326 broadband connection points have been installed by National Broadband Ireland. The high speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations over the coming weeks and months. In County Kilkenny, there are broadband connection points in Graine Community Hall, Tullahought Parish Hall, Ballyouskill Parish Hall, Muckalee Handball Club, Crosspatrick Parish Hall and Galmoy Community Centre. They will help and assist, as Deputy McGuinness said, people who wish to work or study from home and need access to broadband. I take on board what Deputy McGuinness has said. I will undertake to relate the points he has raised today to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and come back to him.

Water Quality

I want to raise the issue of the Barndarrig "do not consume" water notice. I raised it on 20 May and on that day the Minister of State said Irish Water is installing equipment at the water treatment plant which will treat the water, reduce the nitrate compounds and safeguard the water supply. That was very good news because it meant that the "do not consume" notice which has been in place for 213 residents of Barndarrig since 9 February would be lifted. The Minister of State believed at that point that it would happen within a matter of weeks once the equipment was installed.

Unfortunately, we have waited seven weeks to no avail. Irish Water has instead stated it will install monitoring equipment at the site, which is a very different thing from treatment equipment. Treatment equipment will prevent the water being contaminated and provide long-term security of supply whereas monitoring equipment will only indicate if there is a problem. It is essentially just a warning system. Why is Irish Water no longer installing treatment equipment at Barndarrig, as the Minister of State indicated it would? Why is it placing monitoring equipment at the site?

I also have questions about the monitoring equipment. This supply has been under consideration for quite some time. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, conduced an audit on the supply and identified that it was an area of extreme groundwater vulnerability and at risk for contamination. It identified historically high nitrite levels at the site. I am, therefore, surprised we do not have a continuous monitoring system in place on this site. There was apparently another audit earlier this year when the "Do not consume" notice was first in place in February. At that stage, the EPA conducted another audit and thereafter recommended that Irish Water install a continuous monitoring system. Irish Water indicated it would be in place at the end of April and it is still not in place. There must be questions as to why that monitoring system is not in place because it should be there as standard on that water supply to ensure immediate notification if nitrite levels exceed the recommended levels.

Why is a drinking water safety plan not in place for that site, considering it is an area of extreme vulnerability? My understanding is that Irish Water has 60 sites at which risk assessments are in place and, for some reason, Irish Water has not placed Barndarrig on that list. I ask for it to be placed on that list considering the situation in which it has found itself.

Why is the water not being treated, as was previously committed to? Why is a monitoring system not in place already on that water supply? Will a drinking water safety plan be put in place?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I know she contacted my office yesterday but, unfortunately, I was in Cork city dealing with a number of issues. Once I got back, I met with the chief executive of Irish Water to raise the issues she quite rightly put forward. There has been confusion on a number of points and I raised those with Irish Water. On foot of my discussions with the company, I can confirm that monitoring equipment is in place at Barndarrig. Irish Water expects to lift the water notice, potentially within the next week or ten days. Irish Water has secured €100,000 to do the capital works that will be required to put in the equipment to prevent and reduce nitrite levels in the water. That work will be commissioned and up and running within eight weeks. We have applied significant pressure to ensure those problems are alleviated for the residents who have been impacted. I apologise to the people of Barndarrig who have had to endure these notices since 9 February, which is a long time ago. It is frustrating for residents and vulnerable people to be going through this.

I understand that Irish Water will use the reservoir and not the treatment plant until the capital equipment is in place. It is possible to top-up the reservoir and ensure the water is safe and fit for human consumption. When the capital infrastructure is in place, which will happen within the next two months, it will treat the water, going forward. I hope those responses from Irish Water will be to the Deputy's satisfaction. Representatives of Irish Water will make themselves available to meet her next week and will arrange a date for that meeting to go through these points. I can understand the frustration she has expressed during the two Topical Issue debates we have had on the matter. I expect the issue to be resolved imminently.

I thank the Minister of State. That is positive news and I am sure the people of Barndarrig will be pleased to hear of the progress. They have been incredibly patient and having a "Do not consume" notice during a pandemic has been incredibly difficult. Following our previous discussion, the people of Barndarrig were eager to see the notice lifted so the news is positive.

The Minster of State has said there is monitoring equipment in place at the moment. Will the capital investment be in place in two months or will the equipment be in place in that timeframe? It is good news for the people in Barndarrig if what he said comes to pass. It appears that once the "Do not consume" notice is lifted, all precautions will be put in place so that those people do not have to endure another period of discomfort and difficulty over their water supply. I thank the Minister of State for the information. Will he give me a little more detail on the capital investment and equipment? Will he confirm that treatment equipment is going in? Will he also confirm the timelines?

I thank the Deputy again. I am advised that the capital line is already there so the equipment will be commissioned and up and running within the next two months. That is subject to the HSE agreeing that the water levels are correct, and testing must be undertaken in that regard. I am assured it will happen and that is the timeframe I have been given this morning. Within the next ten days, Irish Water is confident that the water notice will be lifted. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, it is important to have high-quality drinking water for human consumption in the midst of a pandemic. That is what Irish Water is about and why it has significant capital lines behind it this year. Those capital lines are not only to improve the current supplies but also to unlock the considerable development needed our citizens, going forward.

The monitoring equipment is in place and the water is being monitored. The HSE and EPA will be being engaged over the next ten days and, subject to their reports, I hope the water notice will be lifted. The permanent solution will be the capital infrastructure that will be put in place in the next two months.

Sitting suspended at 9.47 a.m. and resumed at 10 a.m.