Electronic Communications Markets: Commission for Communications Regulation

The purpose of this morning's meeting is to engage with representatives of the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, on its regulatory role in the sphere of electronic communications markets, including broadband markets and the quality of mobile phone coverage in Ireland. On behalf of the joint committee, I welcome the chairperson, Mr. Jeremy Godfrey, and the other ComReg commissioners, Mr. Kevin O'Brien and Mr. Gerry Fahy.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also advise them that any submission or opening statement they have submitted to the committee may be published on its website after the meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I understand all three commissioners will make presentations.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I thank committee members for giving us the opportunity to appear before them to discuss ComReg's regulatory role in connection with electronic communications markets in Ireland. I know that they are particularly interested in issues relating to broadband and mobile coverage. As the Chairman said in a statement yesterday, high-speed broadband for every home, school and business is necessary to stimulate social development and commercial investment.

I am joined by my colleagues and fellow commissioners, Mr. Kevin O'Brien and Mr. Gerry Fahy. We aim to inform members of our role in these important matters and answer questions they may have.

There has been significant progress and development in broadband roll-out and increasing mobile coverage in recent years. However, advanced services are not available everywhere and work remains to be done to extend coverage to areas not currently served. As committee members are aware, ComReg commissioned and subsequently published a study of broadband speeds based on measurements made by consumers. The survey examined the experience of end-users and gave useful information on how the speed experienced was affected by factors within the customer's environment. However, it was not designed to measure the coverage of different broadband networks or to identify black spots. ComReg collects aggregate data about the market, but it does not collect data for individual counties or regions. The best, most accurate and up-to-date information on the geographical coverage of broadband networks is contained on the maps available on the website of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. They identify the locations and premises where high-speed broadband is provided by the commercial sector or where commercial provision is planned by the end of 2016. They also identify the areas where the State plans to intervene to ensure high-speed broadband is provided.

We are happy to answer questions members may have about the matters raised and look forward to the discussion. We have prepared a presentation on the key developments in the broadband and mobile markets. I understand it has been circulated to members. I will begin with a brief overview of ComReg. Mr. O'Brien will deal with broadband issues, while Mr. Fahy will deal with mobile phone matters.

The role of ComReg and the reason regulators have been established in Ireland and other EU countries is to regulate communications markets and ensure they operate effectively in the interests of end-users and society. ComReg was founded in 2002 under the Communications Regulation Act and has a number of statutory objectives, including promoting the interests of end-users, facilitating investment and competition and ensuring efficient use of the radio spectrum.

All of these objectives are very important for the broadband and mobile services that the committee is interested in.
I shall now talk a little bit about what we do. The functions that ComReg has are derived from both Irish and EU law, probably rather more from EU law than from national law. I have listed some of the important functions on the slide. One thing we do is regulate operators with significant market power. That means we make sure that competition works effectively and that the operators that have a dominant position in the market, which is mostly Eir, are unable to squeeze out competitors and there is room for people to offer choice.
ComReg upholds consumer rights. We make sure that all operators in the market treat consumers fairly, provide accurate bills and so forth. We also manage the use of the radio spectrum. In other words, we make sure that the mobile operators and other operators that want to use radio communications are able to do so and that the resource is used in the most efficient way. We ensure the delivery of the universal service obligations both in telecommunications and post. For telecommunications that means basic voice services must be available at every fixed location in the State. We have a number of other functions that are related to specific aspects of the communications markets.
I wish to point out a couple of things. I believe that when one says what one does, it is also useful to say what one does not do. First, we do not tell operators what technologies to use or where to invest. It is up to them to make those decisions in the light of the market and their regulatory obligations. Second, we are not a policy maker. That means we do not spend public money on making sure that socially desirable services are provided. That is a matter for the Department. As members of the committee will be aware, the Department has a significant initiative, under the national broadband plan, to do precisely that.
The last slide that I shall present before handing over reminds us about some trends in the marketplace. From the user perspective, the uses that are being made of communications are very different now from what they were three, four or five years ago. There is a lot more use of video streaming. Some people may be watching the proceedings of this committee through video streaming, which is a very big use of the Internet and broadband networks. People use social media a lot, not just at home but when they are out and on the go. People are mostly accessing these services through their mobile phones, smartphones and tablets rather than traditional computers. The access is largely at home or, after that, either through WiFi or through mobile networks. Far fewer phone calls and traditional voice calls are being made, particularly on fixed networks, and less text messages.
I shall discuss the networks side. Network operators, to support such usage, are putting fibre deeper into the networks. Where traditional networks were mostly copper, between the exchange and the customers' premises, we are seeing fibre being used to support the higher speed services. We are also seeing much better wireless connections, faster connections through 4G and also more connections as mobile operators are able to and permitted to re-purpose spectrum for other purposes. Having said that, people use communications in different ways. Many people have benefited from such use. We acknowledge that there is still work to do to make sure that those benefits are spread to everybody in the State.
I shall hand over to Mr. O'Brien who shall talk about fixed matters.

Mr. Kevin O'Brien

Good morning, Chairman and members of the committee. It is good to meet everyone again today. As my colleague has mentioned, I shall talk about fixed networks. I shall describe what networks are on the ground and who is building them. I shall then talk about how those networks are being sold to consumers. I shall give the committee an overview of what is happening in that regard.

My first slide shows information on household broadband penetration. It shows the current take-up of household broadband in Ireland. There is nearly 100% availability of basic broadband in this country. Satellite, for instance, will cover virtually every house. High speed broadband is a separate matter that I shall discuss shortly. The graph on page 5 captures where we are in terms of actual households with broadband. As members can see from the graph, take-up is improving all of the time. At the moment Ireland is slightly ahead of the European figure of 80%.

The next slide is fairly busy but I shall use it to explain how networks are being built in Ireland. The graph shows broadband subscriptions by platform and is colour coded. I shall start by explaining that navy represents the cable network. One can see that the cable network in Ireland passes around 800,000 houses. It is owned by Virgin Media which used to be called UPC until recently. Cable networks are used more in urban areas but not so much in rural areas, and it is historic in terms of its footprint. We have seen massive increases in the speeds that Virgin Media is putting on the market. Its most recent advertising campaign talks about 359 Mb. Traditionally, this network sold TV but for the past six or seven years, it has invested in high speed broadband. This is entirely separate from the Eircom network. It is the traditional cable network. There has been a take-up of the cable network in urban areas. Of the 800,000 that are passed by this network, more than 300,000 now take broadband from this network. There are approximately 2.3 million premises in the country so a figure for roll-out can be judged against same.

On the same graph, one can see that the yellow bands turn into light blue and represent the Eircom network which has recently been rebranded Eir. Traditionally, the Eir network used the copper cables that go into all of the houses. In the past two to three years, Eircom has aggressively rolled out high speed broadband by installing fibre into these networks from the local exchange out to the cabinet placed at the end of the road or the end of the housing estate. Putting the fibre into part of the path to the house means that broadband speeds have increased greatly. The graph shows the declining volume for yellow which is the more traditional copper-only broadband which has a maximum speed of up to 30 Mb. The light blue piece depicts the fibre-based higher speed broadband that Eircom has invested in.

The grey band represents what we have called fixed wireless operators and Imagine is one of the well-known providers. Over the past ten years, these operators have made a huge contribution, particularly in rural Ireland, and before fixed networks arrived, in providing service. One can see on the graph that there has been a decline in the number of people using the technology as it uses lower speeds. We have various plans for spectrum releases which may benefit this market. My colleague, ComReg Commissioner Fahy will talk about those in a while.

The bottom of the graph shows a green band which represents mobile broadband. Traditionally, this would be the dongle at the back of a laptop taking broadband off the mobile networks for fixed purposes. This technology has been very substantial and successful in Ireland. The graph shows a decline in its usage as fixed networks are rolled out further.

The next slide shows the total fixed broadband subscriptions by speed in Ireland and the red piece represents speeds greater than 30 Mbps, which is an important figure. The European Commission has set a target for the Continent that by 2020, everybody should have 30 Mbps which shows it is seen as a minimum for the future. With 30 Mbps, one can pretty much do everything that the modern household wants to do today. The graph shows there has been a significant increase in the red piece and represents where we are above that speed in Ireland. The graph shows how broadband speeds have improved.

With this graph, I will briefly talk about competition in the marketplace. The blue piece at the top shows Virgin Media, the cable network, which has invested in its high-speed network, is gaining customers and has increased its market share. In recent years, we can see the entry of Sky, and we can see the Vodafone market share in red in the middle. Sky and Vodafone provide fixed broadband into people's houses off the back of the eir network. This is where ComReg's regulation is central to the story. By regulating eir in various ways, we allow other operators to use its network, which would not happen otherwise. This brings competition and choice and affects prices. In green, we can see eir, formerly Eircom, with a declining market share in broadband as competition increases.

The next slide captures, for two different speed baskets at a point in time, some prices in the market. Rather than concentrate on any detail, the slide shows that for different baskets of broadband speed, a large number of operators are offering products at different prices. Approximately 30 entities are selling broadband in the Irish market. Some of them are very big players. This shows the choice the consumer has in price and product.

My next two slides summarise what I have been talking about. Through the cable company and investment by eir, there has been significant roll-out of high-speed networks. The total number of premises in the country is 2.3 million, and eir has passed 1.3 million premises. According to its quarterly financial reports, published this morning, eir has passed 1.4 million premises and according to its public statements, it will reach 1.9 million premises with high-speed broadband. Virgin Media covers almost 800,000 premises with its cable network. The joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB, known as SIRO, is putting fibre onto the electricity networks around the country with a target of 500,000 homes. Members will be aware of this, given that legislation to allow the establishment of the joint venture was passed by the Oireachtas.

There are three players in the country - eir, Virgin Media and the SIRO project - with significant ambitions around high-speed broadband fixed networks. Our coverage for high-speed broadband measures well against the EU average. Wireless continues to play a very important part as wireless technologies develop in high speed. As members are aware, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has set out plans for a State intervention to cover the remaining part of the country that does not have a market-delivered high-speed network.

The networks are all competing and, due to regulation, many companies compete using the eir network. The way they are competing is changing. More and more, they are selling bundles. Last week, Vodafone launched Vodafone TV. We now have eir, Vodafone, UPC and Sky all selling TV, broadband and telephony together, and many of them also include mobile services. The way they try to attract new consumers is changing with these new technologies and new investments on which they are trying to recoup a return.

Mr. Gerry Fahy

I thank the Chairman and committee for the opportunity to meet them I will give an overview of the mobile industry and how consumers perceive the services they get.

Slide No. 12 describes the market shares of the mobile operators in Ireland over the past five years. At the top of the graph,there is a small, but growing, segment of customers who are on virtual operators. Virtual operators do not have their own networks but sell services on other networks. In 2014, there was a large merger of Three and O2, which resulted in O2 exiting the market and reduced the number of operators with networks from four to three. The merger was considered and approved by the European Commission.

At the time of the merger, ComReg expressed considerable concerns about the effect the loss of a network competitor might have on competition. As part of the merger, Three gave commitments to the commission that it would facilitate the launch of an additional two virtual operators on its network. These virtual operators have launched in the past six months, and it is difficult to know whether they will have a significant competitive effect. The intention is that they will. At the time of the merger, ComReg expressed concerns that the competitive effect may not be sufficient. We are waiting to see the degree of competitive effect and whether the competitive intensity returns to where we believe it should be.

One of the proofs of competition is how price evolves in a market. The next slide shows how, over a number of quarters since 2013, both contract and pre-paid customer average revenue, which is a proxy for price, has changed. During the period, it has declined by 8% for both contract and pre-paid customers, which is positive. Over the past two or three quarters, this progress has slowed and reached a plateau. This is not due to lack of competition but to the fact that people are using more data services than before. More than 80% of customers have pre-paid phones, which are excellent at providing access to data services.

The next slide dramatically shows how data services have taken off during recent years. The green line, which rises from the bottom left to the top right, shows that during the past five years, data services have increased by 500%. It is a very significant and rapid increase. The blue line on top shows how voice minutes on the mobile networks have changed in that time. They have increased slightly, probably because people are switching off their fixed networks and depending on mobile more as their sole means of voice communications. The dramatic feature is the data service.

In 2012, ComReg instituted a multi-band spectrum auction, which released new spectrum into the market and repurposed the existing spectrum to be allowed to be used for higher-speed data services. This led to the launch of 4G services in 2013 and the wider proliferation of 3G services. From then, data growth has taken off significantly and represents the usage that the commissioner, Mr. Jeremy Godfrey, talked about in terms of social media, watching videos and doing all sorts of things online with one's smartphone.

The slide shows that spectrum is the lifeblood of the mobile and wireless networks. We give them capacity and coverage by assigning them spectrum. The next slide shows how spectrum assignments will develop over the coming period. On the left, a box represents the amount of spectrum available for the operators, and all 5 million mobile users today are camped on this amount of spectrum and use their services using this spectrum. With the rapid growth in data, ComReg sees it as essential to release more spectrum into the market. It is also under significant obligation to the European Commission to do so given that mobile broadband usage, and broadband usage generally on wireless, is seen as a very high-growth area for society. The evidence of this is on the previous slide.

This year, we will increase the amount of spectrum available for high-speed, broadband wireless services by 86% by instituting a new auction for spectrum to be assigned into the market. This spectrum will be suitable for both higher-speed services in cities and through our regionalised structure, for regional operators who want to offer fixed wireless broadband services in rural areas and offer services that are very competitive with the higher-speed services available on fibre.

Over the longer term, we hope to add another 52% to that tranche of spectrum which will, again, uplift the capacity and increase the potential coverage opportunities in rural areas. A significant amount of work is under way in ComReg to add more spectrum to the pool to allow the market operators to choose where to use that spectrum, how to use it to compete against each other and offer better services to consumers.

ComReg does much research into how consumers perceive the services they receive from the market. Between 2013 and 2015, we tracked how customers think about mobile phone, home landline services, fixed broadband services and mobile broadband services. Across the board, between 2013 and 2015, customers expressed increased satisfaction with services with up to 90% in the case of mobile services and 74% in the case of mobile broadband services. While this is positive, one must bear in mind that 10% of mobile customers are still not satisfied. What does that represent? That represents approximately 500,000 people nationwide who may still be less satisfied than they should be or dissatisfied with their service. That obviously is a concern.

When we look behind the data and ask what would make somebody move operator, the most pressing issue that makes people most dissatisfied is price. This outweighs every other issue when it comes to service. When we examine how a basket of telephony services has fared against the overall consumer price index, consumers of communications services have fared quite well with an 8% price improvement against the overall consumer price index. That is a good example of how competition, regulatory action, etc., have improved the lot of the customer.

Price is not the only issue in which the customer is interested. ComReg, ensuring customers get the best service, has a call centre function through which it tracks customers which raise issues. From tracking the statistics, we note year-on-year overall contact issues with ComReg have come down 15% from between 2014 and 2015. This breaks down into various issues. The major issue raised is around billing and disputed charges, an issue which does not change much year on year. Contractual issues raised with us have come down 22% year on year and service issues down 15% year on year. Customers are seeing improved interaction with operators. ComReg now publishes complaint levels by operator and will be doing so quarterly from now on. We hope this will cause operators to get even more concerned about the service they offer customers.

We also take a lot of actions in the market to support the customer getting the best service, ensuring they get proper services and the service they have been promised. We have undertaken various court actions against operators in this regard. They have received fines and pleaded guilty to various offences such as charging people for services not delivered. Over the past several years, we have ensured customers have received rebates of €1.6 million and operators have received fines and court fees of approximately €3 million. This is a lot of good work in support of the consumer.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

We have learned how the market has delivered a much better experience for many people. Of course, that is no comfort to any individual who lives in a mobile blackspot, who cannot get high-speed broadband coverage where they live or work or who drives though a mobile blackspot regularly on their way to work. I remember the last time we were before the committee hearing members’ stories about constituents who had those problems.

I will outline what we can expect to happen over the next several years to make this better. The most significant initiative has not been taken by ComReg but by the Government through its national broadband plan initiative. This is an ambitious programme, the aim of which is to ensure everyone not getting high-speed broadband coverage from a commercially rolled-out network will get it as a result of the Government’s intervention. While it is a not a matter for ComReg but for the Department, it will make a big difference to the market that we need to regulate.

We expect continued investment by the commercial sector, both in mobile and broadband networks. From our regular contact with mobile operators, they have no wish to have blackspots. They wish to improve their coverage and make significant investments in order to do that. They have to compete with one another to differentiate themselves in this respect. We expect that continued aggressive competition to continue, both in the fixed markets and in the mobile market too. To facilitate this, ComReg will release more spectrum so that wireless operators can roll out new fixed wireless networks, improve mobile coverage and mobile network capacity.

We will continue to uphold consumer rights, as well as the important, if less glamorous task, of ensuring fair competition rules are optimised and upheld.

I thank Mr. Fahy and Mr. Godfrey for a lot of information on this, along with their unusual presentation.

The one statistic that jumped out at me was that the service satisfaction with mobile phone services has increased from 76% in 2013 to 90% in 2015. I have long stated, along with other members, that we want broadband to come on stream as quickly as possible but it will only happen incrementally until 2020. However, with mobile phone coverage, we used to have very good coverage but now there are so many extra blackspots. I do not agree with that statistic on mobile services. Constituents keep coming to us about this issue. I have experienced it as everybody else here has. What role has ComReg in dealing with the issue?

Mr. Gerry Fahy

While 10% might seem like a small level of dissatisfaction, it represents 500,000 users. If some people are dissatisfied with price, some will also be dissatisfied with coverage. It is easily the case that there are thousands of customers in every county who still have coverage issues.

Everybody around this table has coverage issues.

Mr. Fahy is living in a fantasy world if he thinks problems do not exist right around the country.

I just wanted to kick it off, not start a revolution. It is a real issue for all of us and the people whom we represent. I am not saying ComReg has the solution to it but what frustrates everybody is that nobody seems to know why it has happened.

Mr. Gerry Fahy

Perhaps I can give some possible insights. Operators of mobile licences have coverage objectives.

ComReg monitors those coverage objectives very carefully. Every six months, we do a 5,500 km drive test to verify whether the coverage is meeting the licence conditions. Just last month, we published that drive test and have now shown the coverage outcomes per operator. One can see the variation in the different operator outcomes. Invariably, we find that the coverage objectives are met.

Does Mr. Fahy have that data with him today?

Mr. Gerry Fahy

I have it in my pack. It is on the website.

With the greatest of respect - I do not want to jump in - that is what the witnesses are here for. It is not to give us the glossy overview of what ComReg intends to do with spectrum release and all of that good stuff. The reason we wanted the witnesses here today was to address the absolute failure of coverage across the State. There are parts of the country where people could get good-quality coverage with the old analogue service, but now they cannot.

Can I say one thing?

We will keep it moving.

Mr. Gerry Fahy

Let me be clear. We recognise our issues. There are a couple of things happening that may be contributing to that. I would just like to talk about those. One of the things that has happened that has changed very rapidly, as we explained in the presentation, is that the uptake of smartphones is a dramatic feature of modern life. Smartphones are wonderful instruments. They can do video and the Internet and can take pictures but they tend to suffer in that they are jack of all trades and master of none. In some cases, smartphones can be relatively poor as phones. Although people think they should have the same service, the smartphone antennae are less sensitive. In some cases, tests in Denmark have shown that they can be up to ten times less sensitive, which is to say they have only 10% of the sensitivity of the old Nokia phone that we all used to rely on. Even if the coverage has not changed, the ability of the phone to interact with a network may have changed. That is one factor. If one is on fringe coverage, that will affect one's ability to benefit from that coverage.

Another thing that is happening is the roll-out of 4G services, the expansion of 3G services and the merger of O2 and Three. There is a lot of network work going on at the moment. It is a bit like the Luas roll-out in Dublin, which is very disruptive. While it is happening, it is very disruptive but at the end of the process things will be much better. There is a definite impact from rearrangements of the network and activity on the network which will cause disruption. Hopefully, it will not cause permanent disruption, although that is a possibility if someone is just on the edge of a cell. However, it can cause temporary disruption which will be alleviated over time as the network roll-out is completed.

The third major factor is planning issues. The operators all know, as do the members here, where the black spots are and have been for many years. The ability to address those black spots probably comes down in many cases to getting planning permission or permission from landowners to place masts. In some cases, it has happened that a landlord has refused the extension of a lease that has run out. I understand that happened, for example, in Spiddal in the last couple of years and the mast had to be removed. Coverage definitely suffered in that area. There are a number of factors that can cause coverage issues.

I want to make a proposal.

Deputy Moynihan is first on the list. If he wants to make a proposal, he can.

This meeting was called so that the good gentlemen opposite could deal with issues relating to mobile phone and broadband coverage throughout the State. Am I correct in saying that? With the greatest respect to the gentlemen, what I have heard for the last hour is the greatest balderdash I have heard at an Oireachtas committee for quite some time. There is no mobile phone coverage in 45% of the State, whether it is the iPhone, the technology or broadband services. I doubt one would get a 90% satisfaction rate if one asked people on O'Connell Street, not to mind if one asked people in Cork, Leitrim, Roscommon, Clare, Meath, Limerick or any of the other places represented by the members of the committee. There is a savage crisis out there.

With the greatest of respect, I ask that the meeting be suspended and that the witnesses go back to get the correct information and not the balderdash that has been put before us for the last half an hour. We do not have mobile phone coverage. The figure of 5,500 km was mentioned. I travel between here and north Cork on a weekly basis and can tell the witnesses all the places on that journey that have no mobile phone coverage. The places that had no mobile phone coverage in 1997 are exactly the same places that have no mobile phone coverage now. The technology has increased no end. If ComReg is charged as the consumer authority and watchdog to protect the consumer, may heaven help us. It is disgraceful what has been put before us. We should suspend and allow the gentlemen opposite to come back with the facts and to address what was supposed to be the content of this meeting.

I second that proposal. The proposal has been made and I want to second it. I concur with everything that Deputy Moynihan has said. ComReg has carried out an analysis of the failures in the system. Can it put together a presentation that sets out the problems it has identified and a path to resolution? The witnesses talked about the objectives of the various network providers. Obviously, under their contracts in terms of having bought the spectrum, they have obligations, which it is ComReg's role to police. Can ComReg set out how it has engaged with the various operators where they have failed to meet their obligations, what sanctions, if any, it has put in place where obligations have not been met, to provide a metric across the level-----

I ask the witnesses to respond to what has been said.

-----and, to finish, set out the engagement from the consumer? Obviously, ComReg is receiving communications from people who are dissatisfied with the networks. Can ComReg set out the number of people who have identified problems and how it has tried to address them with the operators? A lot of this stuff is the stuff we know.

I ask for a response before we take any further questions.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

Operators have coverage obligations and, as Mr. Fahy said, we police them with drive tests four times a year. What we find when we do the drive tests is that they significantly exceed their obligations and that there is coverage for over 90% of the population, which is well in excess of their obligations. The drive tests are based on engineering measurements of signal strength. There is no evidence from the drive tests that the signal strength has got any worse over recent years. We acknowledge, absolutely, that notwithstanding what we see on the signal strength measurements, individual consumers and people who travel along these roads sometimes have a worse experience than they previously had. We ask ourselves why, when the network signal is just as strong as it always was, people have a worse experience. The main reason we can identify is not that the signal strength has got worse but that people are using phones that are less sensitive. As Deputy Moynihan does, I also travel to Cork very often and sometimes experience dropped calls on the journey. The reason is that there will be some black spots along the road. The drive tests we have just published will enable people to identify for the first time precisely which operators have the best coverage on their journeys. The drive tests cover every national primary and secondary route and all of that information is available to help people make decisions.

The Deputy asked what we have done to police the obligations. We check them four times a year and we have not found any lack of compliance with the obligations.

ComReg needs to get a new driver.

An unusual situation has arisen at the meeting in that there appears to be just one overriding question. I am going to allow members to speak so that they can make their points. Deputy McEntee is next. I ask her to speak just on the mobile phone coverage issue. I ask members to confine their questions to two or three minutes, because I want to let everyone in.

I have raised the issue of smartphones and basic voice services before with people within the industry and they have agreed that it is an issue. However, while the witnesses refer to road testing on national roads, people do not live on national roads.

I carried out my own survey last summer and of the first 110 people who responded, 45% of them lived on local roads. ComReg needs to start testing local and regional roads where people in rural areas live. Mr. Godfrey said fines worth €3 million were levied where people did not comply. An average telephone bill in County Meath is €30, which seems small, but if one considers the number of people who live there and that some will have two phones, that means more than €50 million a month is going to service providers or €600 million a year. Fines totalling €3 million for the entire country are not much for a failure to provide the service. Will ComReg consider testing the other routes again? Does the organisation have the finance or the capacity? It cannot do its job properly if it is only testing regional roads.

I thank the officials for attending. There is a huge gulf in our understanding of the level of coverage, because every public representative receives many complaints about the quality of coverage, particularly in rural areas. Is the drive test informed by data from ComReg's complaints database or is there a set programme? I become concerned when people use statistics and then say the antennae are less sensitive than they used to be in the old Nokia handsets, because if I were to make that assumption about a product, I would probably stop searching for any other potential cause. It is not healthy to make assumptions about the sensitivity of the antenna being the source of the problem. If it is, then it is a problem in every country. The companies do not insert less sensitive antennae into their products for the Irish market. I seriously question the assumption that ComReg has made.

Yesterday I received information about the Stiles report, which apparently addressed some of ComReg's operations. I have not seen the report. I do not know who commissioned it or what was in it but the incoming committee probably needs to examine the report and bring the officials back again.

Absolutely. I want to confine the debate to this issue.

I am looking online at the route map that ComReg used for the assessment of mobile network operators' compliance with licence obligations in 2015. Huge swathes of the country were not tested at all. Only a tiny fraction of my constituency was assessed because it has only one national primary road and one national secondary road. Given the demographics of my county, I find it remarkable that the organisation's testing guidelines are in direct conflict with the national spatial strategy and the county development plan. People are prohibited from constructing houses beside a national primary road or a motorway in County Limerick and it is almost impossible to construct a house on a national secondary route. ComReg is, therefore, testing coverage on routes along which people are prohibited from building houses. The bulk of the road network is regional or local and there is no testing whatsoever, as is the case in huge swathes of other counties in Munster. Practically all of Deputy Moynihan's constituency is excluded as is the case in Cork South West. Only a tiny proportion, therefore, of Cork North West, Cork South West and County Limerick has been examined. The results are flawed on that basis.

Is advance notice given to operators of these drive tests? Are they conducted on the same dates every year? Mr. Godfrey said they were conducted four times a year. Are they done on a quarterly basis on the same date? Does he accept that ComReg's testing is out of kilter with where people reside?

It is fine for the officials to come here and paint a lovely picture, but there is a different reality on the ground and they need to get real. It is scandalous to come out of with some of the stuff they have come out with when every one of us has raised this. This is not just an issue in one part of the country. Why is it that in some areas of the country people cannot talk on their phones in their houses today, when they could five years ago?

The municipal area I come from has 500 km of road, which is one quarter of the area. The officials said they had tested 5,000 km. They should go down back roads and byroads to see what is going in different parts of the country. When I drive along the N4 past Leixlip, by the time I reach the toll bridge, I cannot hear what anyone is saying to me on the phone. Why is that not being sorted? There is no signal past Kinnegad and there is no coverage on back roads. The officials need to get real about the picture they are trying to paint. They are not accountable to people who have mobile phone accounts and who are not getting what they are paying for. A person came to me about this. He had been talking to service providers who said that once they go outside Dublin, it is not attractive commercially to give the same coverage down the country. ComReg needs to get up to speed about what is going on.

I agree with everything that has been said. I suffer increasingly from dropped calls in areas where there was never a problem on both national and secondary roads. There are black spots that have been there since the introduction of mobile phones and they have not been addressed. I travel up and down the N4 and I can tell the officials where they are. They have been there since I first used a mobile phone. The officials are not doing their job; it is as simple as that. Somebody is fooling them. To come in here and say what they have said is impressive, but they have heard about the reality on the ground.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

The licence obligations that operators have are to provide coverage to a certain percentage of the population. Our drive tests are there to police those obligations. In terms of the proportion of the population that lives within the vicinity of national roads where coverage can be verified through driving down the national road nearest them, the drive tests we do are adequate to police that particular obligation and, as a result of those drive tests, we can see that the obligations are significantly exceeded. That is, of course, not the same as saying that everybody in the State can have coverage, particularly the people who live in more remote areas. We understand that, and that is an issue that mobile operators seek to address by rolling out their networks further - as Mr. Fahy said, there are logistical issues for them in doing that - but it is their responsibility to provide better coverage in response to the needs of their consumers.

What is the percentage? Mobile phone companies say they have 99% population coverage. Obviously, 99% of the population does not live in 99% of the country. What is the percentage that ComReg is basing its figures on? If it is 99% of the country, that does not make sense.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

We are seeking to verify their compliance with licence obligations that relate to population coverage and not percentage of geographical coverage.

I will let everyone in. I want to give an opportunity for a full response.

This is the most important point though.

Every point is important. Has Mr. Godfrey concluded?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I also wanted to comment on a point some of the Deputies raised when they said there were people who could use a phone in their home five years ago but who cannot do so now. Our evidence is that this is not due to any reduction in the signal strength being provided by the operators. It does not mean there is not a problem. The problem is possibly a result of changes to phone technology or it may be the result of different-----

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

If I could finish.

I want to maintain order.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

We do not have evidence that there is a difference in signal strength. We have evidence that there is a difference in the performance of phones. We also have evidence that the technology people are using in their homes may also be making it harder for the signal to penetrate. Some operators offer boosters and other devices for within-home coverage. Under the spectrum strategy we published recently, we will also consider whether we can do things to extend the use of those boosters.

I will attempt to sum up what we are hearing. Mr. Godfrey is clearly telling us that his office is fulfilling its remit. In that context, he has said that types of phones and so on have changed over the years. Based on what he has heard today, does he agree that if his office is fulfilling its remit and change is taking in place in the types of devices being used, there needs to be a change in the office's remit because it is not matching what is happening on the ground? Will Mr. Godfrey comment on that matter?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I agree absolutely that as users' needs change, the service they are provided must also change to meet those new needs. It is part of our remit to ensure that operators are given the tools and incentives to do that. Let me run through some things ComReg can do to improve matters. Mr. Fahy spoke about spectrum for rural broadband. I do not want to get too technical but there is also the possibility of releasing more spectrum in a band at 700 MHz. This band is particularly suitable for providing wider coverage of services in more remote areas. Managing the spectrum is not something that can be done overnight. It will take a little time to free up that spectrum from its existing use. When the spectrum is released, it will give mobile operators a tool for improving coverage. We will consider the licensing of amplifiers to enable individuals, through their mobile operators, to improve the coverage within their homes.

We uphold consumer rights. I know coverage is a big issue for Deputies and Senators. However, it is not the biggest issue that people raise with our complaint line. If people have complaints-----

We can tell Mr. Godfrey the complaints.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

Please do. Please tell us now or encourage constituents to call our helpline. If they call, we can raise those issues with the operators. The operators can then address them. The final thing we do is to try to ensure competition. One of the things that drives operators to invest in and improve coverage is competition. There are a number of things ComReg can do and I absolutely agree with the sentiments expressed by members that we should do whatever we can to improve the experience of individuals who have had a poor one.

What is holding this up? What is the reason for the delay? Mr. Godfrey has outlined what the office can do and what it is looking at doing but why the hold-up? There is huge frustration. Many delegations have appeared before the committee but people are almost screeching across the floor at the witnesses. I challenge the witnesses, when taking their scenic drive around the country on the national primary and secondary routes, to take seven Members of the Oireachtas - regardless of who is here in a month's time - to plan the route. They will come back with evidence of 3% satisfaction or 3% penetration and not 90%. It is very frustrating. Mr. Godfrey makes the point that smartphones and other devices are the problem but we are talking about mobile phone coverage. The coverage is to connect to a mobile phone. That is how I understand it. The witnesses are now saying the device at the other end is not picking up the service; that the mobile phone is wrong and not the service. I do not buy it.

If doing a circuit of Ireland rally in a month's time, ComReg should ask the politicians going to the doorsteps over the next four or five weeks about it because they will tell the witnesses exactly what is happening. There is an outcry about mobile phone coverage. What the witnesses put in front of us this morning, with the greatest of respect, bears no relation to the reality on the ground. I am glad to see colleagues from all over the country are rowing in on this matter. The witnesses have outlined what ComReg can and should do. Why is it not being done? Why the delay? What is the issue? Why are those things not being done to improve mobile phone coverage? Look at every local radio station in the country. I will go back to the point about the complaints. A community group in Ballinteer in County Cork has contacted the witnesses' office continuously about the broadband service and how operators are charging for a broadband service when there is none. That group has received very little hearing in respect of its compliant. ComReg has to see the reality. What the witnesses are saying is not based on fact.

I disagree slightly with Deputy Moynihan. That a person can now watch a movie on a smartphone in a car travelling down a motorway but may not be able to make a phone call is becoming an issue. However, if the issue is with the mobile phone provider, there needs to be a health warning with mobile phones that they do not actually do what they are supposed to do. ComReg needs to do its job in the first instance and identify if that is the case. Why can ComReg not test on the other roads? It is a simple question. What happens if we discover that phones and devices are not doing what they are supposed to do? Surely ComReg has an obligation to service users to test all the routes. Why is it not testing them?

I wish to mention two matters, one of which follows on from what Deputy McEntee said about the issue of the smartphone not being as capable of engaging with the networks as older technology. What discussions has ComReg had with the network operators to enhance their broadcasting capacity to make contact with the new devices which, as indicated by the witnesses, are less sensitive? We have heard that before from the operators. Is there any debate on improving the communication between the base station and the phone?

The other point is the kernel of it all. Mobile phone network operators have service obligations with ComReg. These are set out in the licence agreement. The witnesses are telling us that ComReg polices and verifies it on an ongoing basis through a drive test. ComReg seems to believe the drive test shows that in all instances the performance of the coverage is above and beyond what is set out in the service obligations. That, to me, says one of two things. First, the obligations are irrelevant or too low. They certainly do not meet the needs of service users. Alternatively, the drive test is not an adequate method of checking the level of coverage. In light of this discussion, it seems that the latter is probably the case. Has ComReg examined any other method of verifying the obligations set out in the licences other than the drive test?

I suggest it is no different from polling that is done on consumer behaviour where there a scientific methodology is deployed. Would ComReg look at it in the context of scientific face-to-face contact with members of the public and conduct its own checking of the coverage and service levels within or around the curtilage of homes rather than merely this continuous drive test in a loop around roads?

The questions I asked were never answered. I asked whether advance notice of drive tests was given to the operators. Are they told when these drive tests take place?

In fairness, ComReg's maps are clear. It is carrying out drive tests on roads where people do not live. No one lives on the M6, M7, M8, M9 and M1, and no one lives within 300 m either side of the motorway network. The motorway network now encompasses a significant amount of the road network that ComReg covers. After that, its drive tests are on national primary roads on which, like national secondary roads, one is prohibited from constructing houses. It is not only about dropping calls in a car and the meeting should not focus only on those driving around the country. My concern is that ComReg is carrying out no testing whatsoever on the roads on which, under the national spatial strategy and the planning guidelines, people are allowed to construct one-off houses in rural areas and it is not a representative sample.

I have two queries. As Deputy McEntee asked, why does ComReg not test on roads where people actually live? Does it give advance notice to companies of a drive test?

Obviously, there is a gulf in the understanding between ComReg and ourselves. According to page 16 of the ComReg presentation, consumer satisfaction with mobile phone coverage, which was 76% in 2013, has increased to 90% in 2015. That would indicate that everything is rosy here and getting better. I do not know the source of these data. Either that is misleading us, wittingly or unwittingly, or we are misleading ComReg, wittingly or unwittingly. Perhaps what we should do every time there is a complaint is, instead of getting on to the operators, get on to ComReg and that should be used as a database.

Similar to Deputy Colreavy's questions, I note it is Red C that carried out ComReg's analysis. How many people did Red C poll, what was the methodology used and what was the question asked about mobile phone satisfaction? I am sure Mr. Godfrey has that information because he would have commissioned this poll. It is always about the question asked.

Who sets the guidelines? Is it ComReg who sets the guidelines for the suppliers on the level of coverage they should supply? Who is ComReg answerable to? Is it answerable to the Minister? If it is, it needs to consult the Minister and change the guidelines.

ComReg mentioned houses changing. For the information of the witnesses, I live in a house that did not change for the past 12 years and in a 20-mile radius, the mobile phone coverage has gone from very good to zero. Do not tell us that we are changing our houses.

If hand pieces are responsible, is it ComReg's responsibility to make it clear that a particular hand piece is no good if one wants mobile phone coverage or that it is very good if one wants to get data or whatever?

I have one final question. Mr. Fahy mentioned a phone mast that was not renewed which could have affected coverage in Spiddal. Are there many such instances throughout the country? What we all want is to get to the root cause of this. Is this a widespread issue or is it merely in one case? Mr. Godfrey might respond to all the questions and we will see where we can go from there.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

With some of the questions about the details of how the market research was carried out, perhaps it would be better if we wrote to Senator Mooney to give the exact detail.

In that case, will Mr. Godfrey send it to the clerk to the committee in order that all members will get it?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

Yes. I am told the sample size was 1,000. I think we had better write to provide the committee with the full details.

That was not the question asked.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

We need to give the committee the exact questionnaire. It makes more sense.

A number of questions were asked and I will try to deal with them. First, I will address the question of our perception here. There is no question that we understand there are people who are not able to use mobile phones in certain locations and in the way they want to use them. The members are hearing that from their constituents. We sometimes hear it from the complainants.

The frustration is that they are not able to use them in a way they were able to use them.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

Yes, in the locations where they were previously able to use them.

One of the members asked why, when we say will do something, does it take so long to do it. One way this can be improved is through the release of the additional spectrum at 700 MHz. That spectrum is currently being used for broadcasting. The broadcasting network could be reconfigured to release that spectrum in order that everybody can continue to watch Saorview, but it will take time for the policy decision to be made and for the broadcasting network to be reconfigured. That sort of matter is not an overnight fix.

I wish to make a point. While we were talking, I put a message on Facebook about what we are doing here and I got two quick responses. One stated that coverage in Doolin is fairly bad. The other told me about Whitegate in County Clare, which I know a lot about, stating that Vodafone Ireland says the coverage is classed as fair but the responder has two phones, one of which is the older type and one is a smartphone, neither of which has coverage most of the time. It is clear that the methodologies ComReg uses to establish whether the coverage is up to a standard are not working. I need to hear from Mr. Godrey, or perhaps he can come back to us, that he is prepared to look at the methodologies ComReg is putting in place to check these service obligations.

There is a vote called in the House. At this stage, I suggest we suspend and Mr. Godfrey can answer the questions that have been put to him when we resume. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 11.08 p.m. and resumed at 12.08 p.m.

I invite Mr. Godfrey to respond to some of the questions put.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I will respond to the question Deputy Patrick O’Donovan asked twice about whether operators received notice of drive tests. They know that they happen twice a year but not when or where.

Members have made the point very well that users of mobile services expect to be able to use the voice or data service where and when they want to use it. They want to be sure that if they used to use it in a certain way, they will be able to continue to use it in that way. There are several reasons these expectations are not always met. We have discussed several initiatives the industry and ComReg could take to improve matters. Members have also made a raft of other suggestions to improve the position on which we need to reflect.

It is already part of our consultation on spectrum strategy, which is currently open, to ask for input on what can be done to address these issues of customer experience and the mismatch between the customer experience and the expectations of customers. We would like to reflect on what the committee has said and the feedback the Deputies have had from their constituents. We would be very happy to come back and respond, having reflected on that, to the committee or to its successor in a few months' time.

That is really important. Obviously, the witnesses can give some answers today but it is important that whatever committee is in place in a month's time would get answers on their reflections on the actions taken. If the remit ComReg has at present is not matching the demands, then something needs to change. That is a reasonable assertion.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

That was really all I was going to say in response. A number of points have been made and we have responded to many of them. However, we will reflect on everything and incorporate that into our thinking on this issue.

I thank the witnesses for their responses. On the drive-testing, if it says one has to have a higher percentage, is it the case that ComReg will just travel more national roads or is it willing to re-examine the system? At present, it is not fit for purpose. Is ComReg willing to examine the position and suggest to the powers that be that it will change the methods employed?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

One of the issues is how we get better information about the actual experience of users in a way that may be unrelated to the licence conditions but which is designed to enable us to understand what is happening on the ground and to better inform consumers so that they can make more informed choices. We will have a look at whether one of the things we could do is to extend drive tests. Many of the points that have been made have been about indoor, not just outdoor, coverage. We will need to reflect on the best way to measure that and provide meaningful information for us, for the committee and for users. We would not rule out having more drive tests on other roads for that purpose. However, it is something we need to reflect on to make sure we design that in a way that is meaningful, produces valid results people can rely on and is also cost-effective.

Does Mr. Godfrey think, on the basis of what he has heard, that there is a need to change the guidelines relating to licensing and that suppliers of mobile phone coverage should be obliged to meet more stringent tests throughout the country? Who finances ComReg?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

In terms of the need to change the conditions, the current methodologies used for measuring coverage are set through European standards. The issue we discussed is that they were set at a time before there were smartphones so the issue of what the standards should be is currently being discussed. That is something we would follow. It may well be that when we next assign spectrum, say when we assign spectrum in 700 MHz band, the nature of the licence conditions will be different to reflect-----

When would that be?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

The timing for the 700 MHz band is not yet set but it will probably be 2019 or 2020.

Is Mr. Godfrey stating that the problems people have with their phones at present will not be solved until 2019?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I am saying there are many things that can be done. The particular issue around 700 MHz will take that time but obviously we need to reflect on what can be done in the shorter term.

In terms of the question about who funds ComReg, it is funded through a combination of levies and fees for the use of spectrum. Those are paid by the industry and there is a legal obligation on it to pay them.

Does it compromise ComReg?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

It does not compromise us in the slightest. We are required by law to operate independently. We have core values of independence, we follow the law and the operators have no choice but to pay the fees. It gives them no influence whatsoever on what we do and the Deputy will see that we regulate without fear or favour. We have no problem prosecuting the people who pay those levies if they have broken the law, we have no difficulty imposing or taking regulatory action against them and we are not in the slightest bit compromised by the method of funding.

There are two final points I want to make in respect of questions asked earlier that, perhaps, the witnesses could come back on. They are issues on which to reflect. Regarding the Red C poll, what question was asked and is there any breakdown on the level of dissatisfaction? Did that relate to the coverage or was it costs? Is there any further breakdown that could be given on that?

Second, regarding masts, we are all aware that a number of years ago there were many objections to masts. How widespread is the non-renewable usage of masts? On what basis was their use not renewed? If that is an issue, the public needs to know about it. If the issue is that there are many areas where their use is not being renewed, the solution probably lies with the communities involved.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I can certainly respond on the Red C poll and we will give the committee whatever information we have on masts. We will also ask the operators to provide the clerk with their experience on masts because they are the ones at the sharp end.

I have a question on broadband, a matter on which we have not really touched. ComReg published a survey last year in respect of broadband speeds and it was acknowledged that an expectation is created because companies talk about their highest speeds and what they can provide if everything is perfect. Obviously, the latter is not the case. It was stated that ComReg's view is that consumers should have the information before they sign up and that it was considering the next steps and options available, so that people would know before they sign up that they will not get what they think they will. Where stands ComReg in respect of that matter? How far has it taken that and should we expect to see something of that nature coming down the line soon enough? Will the witnesses indicate what they perceive will be ComReg's role in respect of the national broadband plan in the future? I think this committee, if it is in the same form after the election, would have to take an active role in monitoring the plan and ensuring that there is accountability in the context of the timeframe relating to the plan and its roll-out. It would also have a role to play in ensuring that the commercial investors are held accountable for their plans. We will all have roles in that regard but what will be ComReg's?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I will answer the Deputy's question on the national broadband plan and I will then ask Mr. Fahy to respond on the follow-up in respect of the broadband speeds pilot. The national broadband plan is a Government initiative, so it is the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources that makes all the decisions. We engage with the Department and share expertise and experience that the Department might find helpful in coming up with the plan. However, it is really the latter's responsibility to put a plan in place and to make all the decisions about its extent and how it should be shaped.

ComReg is supposed to be for everybody and Mr. Godfrey said that it has responsibility for ensuring that consumers of broadband services are appropriately protected and informed. Regardless of whether the State has responsibility, it should apply to everybody. We do not want to put people who are under the State in one category because if that fails, where do they go?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

Deputy McEntee is quite right. Once the national broadband plan intervention has happened and operators are providing service, those operators will be regulated by us, just like any other operator. Any consumer protection rules that apply to operators, wherever they are in the State, will be enforced by us.

Mr. Gerry Fahy

In response to Deputy McEntee's other question, it had been our intention to undertake a detailed examination of what we could do to address those issues. However, it transpires that, thankfully, the European Commission has also been concerned about this.

In the recent network neutrality regulation, which was produced in November, a section was added at the last minute which requires operators that provide internet services to have a clear and comprehensible explanation of the normal minimum and maximum download and upload speeds and to advertise these. Therefore, the obligation has been placed at the European level, which we can now deploy at the national level. It requires enforcement regulations to be enacted at the national level, but there is also some work to be done among the European regulators at the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications, BEREC, to agree a standard way of interpreting and measuring performance under that particular clause and the types of remedy and actions of enforcement to be taken-----

What stage is that at?

Mr. Gerry Fahy

This obligation on operators is in force as of November. We expect the enforcement regulations in the next quarter from the Department, and the BEREC work will take place between now and the third quarter of this year. It will therefore not have immediate effect, because we will not be able to deploy it immediately, but it will happen much more swiftly than our capabilities would have allowed if we were to implement it ourselves. I think it is a very positive development and will mean that we can accelerate the process whereby people will be able to expect and rely on commitments given by their operators on the speed and the performance of broadband services.

It is similar to mobile phone coverage. I have witnessed numerous examples in different households in which the broadband connection was a certain speed, the family knew that that was the speed that they were going to get and they were not expecting a higher speed, and it was then reduced. I heard from somebody who would know what they were doing when it comes to technology that the speed was actually turned down intentionally. Whatever about not getting the top speed, if a person is happy with the average speed but it is suddenly reduced, how is that monitored?

Mr. Gerry Fahy

It is not something that is monitored today because that is not the process that exists and, unfortunately, heretofore there were no regulations or laws that applied obligations on operators to quote and maintain an average or minimum speed. Now that that obligation exists, those measurement processes can be developed and a monitoring process can be rolled out. That will all be part of what we hope to be involved in with our European colleagues and will ensure that consumers can see which operators are quoting which speeds, make an informed choice on that and, having bought that particular product, be able then to rely upon the measurement process to see that they are still getting what they paid for.

With regard to broadband, has ComReg done any analysis in the west of Ireland? Are broadband speeds in the west of Ireland as a region lower than in the east, in Dublin and so on? Reference was made to the number of houses getting better broadband; the number mentioned was 2.3 million, which I believe includes businesses. How many of these are in Dublin and the east coast, and what is ComReg proposing to do about towns outside Dublin and rural parts of Ireland? Some of the operators - Eir, Vodafone, etc. - have not yet reached the targets that they set out. What does ComReg propose to do with them to make sure that smaller towns, in order to survive, will have proper broadband coverage, and can the witnesses make a statement here and now on the matter? I believe that there must be a specified speed of broadband per house in the EU by 2020. What speed rates will ComReg guarantee for every house in Ireland within five years?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

To answer the Deputy's question about speeds in the west of Ireland versus those in areas on the east coast, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has on its website maps which show the areas - I believe they are in blue - where high-speed networks providing speeds of at least 30 Mbps are either already deployed or planned to be deployed by the end of this year. There is also an amber area, which is the rest of the country, and I think the Deputy will see if he looks at the maps that Dublin is all blue and most of the west of Ireland is amber. What is to be done about this? That is precisely the focus of the Government's national broadband plan. I am not the decision maker on that, but the Government has said that it is its intention to intervene to deliver a network that is capable of speeds of at least 30 Mbps throughout that amber area, and in fact it is already in the procurement process to choose the contractor or contractors that will deliver this. The detailed questions the Deputy raises about the timing and guarantees are matters for the Government, but our understanding of it is that the minimum speed requirement in that procurement is 30 Mbps.

Mr. Godfrey says that ComReg has the best interests of people at heart, tries to get better coverage and makes sure that everything is done right. However, what he is basically saying to me is that it is the hurler in the ditch - that whatever the Government does, it does; that ComReg cannot guarantee, or will not force or oversee, the suppliers or the Government in providing coverage to all houses in Ireland within five years. Mr. Godfrey cannot guarantee that.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

Our role is to make sure that the commercial sector is able to deliver everything that is commercially viable and that, when there is a failure in the market, the Government has a plan to address that failure. The Government is saying that that plan will deliver a speed of 30 Mbps to all the places in Ireland which are not covered by the commercial sector on the basis of commercial investment. As we said to Deputy McEntee, once that plan is deployed, if operators using that network were then to make a promise to consumers that they will get speeds of at least 30 Mbps, it would be up to us, through the operation of consumer law and the provisions referred to by Mr. Fahy, to take action if those promises are not delivered under the general regulatory regime, just as we would in any other part of Ireland if a promise was not being delivered.

How many people work in ComReg?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

About 110 people work in ComReg.

I have a technical question. How does ComReg test a private internet service provider? How does it test whether the provider does what it says it will do? While there was no obligation stipulated in that regard, there is now, so how does ComReg test that?

Mr. Gerry Fahy

All European regulators are trying to figure out together the best, most efficient and most common way of doing that, so we do not have that answer today, but it is being worked on at the European level.

I believe Deputy McEntee asked what sort of mechanism ComReg uses to test this along the way.

Mr. Gerry Fahy

The broadband speeds pilot that was referred to earlier was a pilot to see how feasible it would be to test that and whether we could enlist customers to help us to test it. It turned out to be quite difficult to get enough people to collaborate in downloading software onto their PCs and leaving them turned on for long enough for the test to run, so it turned out to be somewhat difficult on a practical level to get sufficient information. However, now that we have this new regulation from the European Commission, and part of that is the obligation on the regulator to enforce it, we have a joint responsibility at a European level to come up with viable and practical methods to test for this particular performance.

Is Mr. Fahy telling me that the document we read last year may or may not be accurate?

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I am not sure which document the Deputy is referring to.

We got a document a few months ago telling us how broadband provision had improved in different areas and how strong it was. It referred to a pilot scheme. That pilot scheme may or may not be accurate; is that correct?

Mr. Gerry Fahy

The information we quoted in the pilot scheme is as much as we could say accurately.

There is no point in writing something unless you are 100% sure.

Mr. Gerry Fahy

We said what we could say with the information we had gathered. We had hoped to say many more things but we could not say them.

We need to be clear on this, because people read this stuff and tear their hair out when they see that their broadband connections might get worse.

We need accuracy in all of the frilly documents issued rather than something that makes someone look good. We need reality and to know what is happening on the ground. If something is not accurate, it should be pointed out and people should be told that we do not have a mechanism to make sure information is accurate. ComReg would be better off not bringing something out rather than bringing out something that was not 100% accurate.

Mr. Jeremy Godfrey

I agree with the Deputy 100% that it is important to produce accurate information when we can. There are two ways of measuring broadband speeds. One is to get consumers to download some software, while the other is to provide a piece of dedicated hardware in the consumer's house. We ran the pilot test based on the downloading of software. It enabled us to understand its limitations and benefits. The report we published was clearly intended to set out the limitations. We have no interest in making people look good if they are not. We may be a little ahead of the game within the discussion in Europe about what is the best and most accurate way of measuring broadband speeds for the net neutrality regulation. We are completely at one with the Deputy that it is important before consumers sign up, that they be told what they can expect. It is important that there be a verifiable way of measuring whether it is actually happening. We are working with our colleagues in Europe to put it in place. One of the pieces we can give will be our experience of the broadband speeds test.

We have had a fair discussion. I thank Mr. Godfrey, Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Fahy for coming before us and fielding all of the questions put. There was a crescendo on one particular topic and I thank them for coming back. I also thank them for agreeing to attend future meetings of the committee to discuss a number of other issues and explain the way ComReg could improve what it does to benefit consumers.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.35 p.m. sine die.