Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus tá muid buíoch as an gcuireadh a bheith i láthair anseo inniu arís. On behalf of the Commission for Communications Regulation, we are happy to appear before the committee again to address further queries on the national broadband plan, NBP, and specifically in respect of universal service. I am joined today by my fellow commissioners, Jeremy Godfrey and Robert Mourik, and by my colleague, Barbara Delaney, who is the director of retail and consumer services in ComReg. As I stated when we appeared before the committee on 5 June, I have been chair of ComReg since January of this year. My fellow commissioner, Robert Mourik, also joined at this time, while Jeremy Godfrey has now been with ComReg for almost six years.
ComReg is the national regulatory authority for electronic communications. We promote competition and investment in the sector. We uphold end-user rights and we manage the radio spectrum. In our recently-published strategy statement, we confirmed our vision for the sector that consumers and businesses in Ireland have affordable, high-quality and widespread access to communications services and applications that support their social and economic needs.
Our role in achieving this vision is to ensure that communications markets operate effectively in the interests of end-users and society. In the past several years, predictable and proportionate regulation has created an environment that has led to investment in high-speed broadband networks covering three quarters of the premises in the State; at the same time, there has been an increasing choice of service providers. In the next few years, operators plan to make available direct fibre connections to most of these premises.
However, there are parts of the State where the population density is lower and high-speed broadband would not be a viable commercial investment. Consumers and businesses in these areas have not benefitted equally. That is why we welcome the Government’s national broadband plan, which will address this market failure.
ComReg has provided the committee with a detailed submission on universal service in advance of this meeting but in the interests of time, if it is allowed, I will give a summary.
Universal service is a safety net currently used to ensure that voice and other basic communications services are made available at an affordable price to a minority of citizens that may not be able to access those services as they are not commercially available, when the majority of citizens already have access. It also protects citizens where legacy services are in danger of being withdrawn or not provided at an acceptable quality standard when there is no affordable alternative.
With regard to broadband, the current legislative framework does not allow for a universal service obligation, USO, that includes high-speed broadband. Previous Government policy interventions have been used to bring basic broadband to end-users. The NBP is designed to ensure high-speed broadband. The current obligations under universal service, that is, not broadband, were put in place by ComReg to provide a safety net to ensure that end-users can access voice and other basic services.
A new framework has been adopted in EU law. It has not yet been transposed but it is due to be transposed into national law by the end of 2020. This makes provision for member states to use a USO to ensure that adequate broadband is available to all end-users. It is for member states to define "adequate broadband" in the light of various criteria and of national conditions.
This USO mechanism is not intended to replace public policy interventions such as the NBP or a commercial roll-out. Instead, the new framework permits a USO only to be used to ensure the connection of remaining unserviced premises where the commercial roll-out and public policy interventions cannot achieve that. It does not allow a USO to replace a public policy intervention such as the NBP, which must be carried out in advance of the consideration of any USO being required to be put in place, as necessary. If a USO were implemented, there would need to be an open process to select the universal service provider or providers so that all interested parties could be considered and market distortion is minimised.
While transposition of this legislation is required by 21 December 2020, subsequent analysis regarding the necessity for a broadband USO and any subsequent consideration of designation of a universal service provider, if appropriate, would require additional time.
Under the new framework, where the verified net costs are found to be an unfair burden, designated providers could be compensated for the verified net costs of providing the USO. The financing of the verified net costs could come from public funds, industry or both, depending on how it is transposed by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
ComReg’s role under the new framework has yet to be determined.