Broadband Infrastructure: Discussion

No apologies have been received. We are continuing our discussion on access to the Internet, particularly in relation to rural and regional locations but also some urban locations and satellite Internet access. This is part of the committee's ongoing work on broadband. On behalf of the committee I welcome the following to today's meeting: from the National Space Centre, Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick, CEO; from Poynting Europe, Mr. Hugo Carvalho - I hope I am pronouncing the name correctly - sales account manager, and Mr. Tjeerd Huitema - he might tell me also if my pronunciation is correct; from Novatel Communications, Ms Niamh Cullen O'Reilly, managing director; and from Digiweb, Mr. Declan Campbell, managing director, and Mr. Brendan McGahon, head of operations. They are all most welcome. When they come to speak, Mr. Carvalho and Mr. Huitema might confirm whether the pronunciation of their respective surnames is correct.

Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or to otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. If the witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identified person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending the meeting remotely outside of the Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses physically present. Witnesses participating in this committee session from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should also be mindful of how their domestic law might apply to the evidence they give.

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 House, or an official, by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members of their constitutional requirement that members must be physically present within the confines of the place which Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House or the Convention Centre Dublin, in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate where he or she is not adhering to this constitutional requirement. Any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. I ask any member partaking via Teams to confirm that he or she is on the grounds of the Leinster House campus or prior to making a contribution to the meeting. I welcome anyone watching the meeting online. Oireachtas Members and witnesses are accessing the meeting remotely. I, as Chair, and staff essential to the running of the meeting are physically present in the committee room due to these unprecedented Covid times and circumstances. A large number of people are attending the meeting remotely so I ask for everyone's forbearance should any technical issues arise. I invite Mr. Fitzpatrick to make his opening statement. He has approximately five minutes. I thank the witnesses for their forbearance.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

I thank members for the opportunity to come before the committee today to present on the topic of access to the Internet, particularly in relation to rural and regional locations and satellite Internet access. I am CEO of the National Space Centre Limited, NSC, a private Irish company operating in the satellite and space sector in Ireland for the past ten years. We operate Ireland's only carrier grade teleport at Elfordstown Earthstation in Midleton, County Cork. We are an Enterprise Ireland client company. The company delivers ground station infrastructure and services for many of Europe's biggest satellite operators as well as many new US space companies. We host many on-site ranging stations, satellite positioning services and launch vehicle telemetry and control systems. Services provided by our clients include both geosynchronous satellite broadband and low Earth orbit satellite broadband services. I will go into those in more detail shortly. The NSC has provided communications systems and services to both the Army and the Naval Service and is currently tendering for the multiple tender the Defence Forces are evaluating. I have more than 20 years' personal experience in the satellite and broadband industry in Ireland, which gives me an in-depth understanding of broadband infrastructure and how it is impacting the current market.

The national broadband plan which is the Government's initiative to deliver high-speed services to all premises in Ireland and which is currently being rolled out in phases, is a monumental undertaking. When complete, it will see the majority of premises served by commercial broadband or broadband with State intervention in areas where private companies do not invest. Despite this coupling, there will remain outlying segments that pose delivery challenges. These challenges are caused by the fact that it is cost prohibitive to deliver fibre-based infrastructure to remote regions. This is due to low population densities, ribbon development and legacy issues inherited from deregulation. In short, and as always, there will remain a last-mile segment that is inefficient to serve via standard fibre networks, whether commercially or through State intervention. Delivering access to broadband to these outliers requires a multifaceted solution of which satellite is a critical part. I wish to outline to the committee how satellite can assist the Government in delivering its broadband obligations and how NSC can contribute to the delivery of this solution, and the additional bonuses that can be leveraged for the State through the use of satellite networks.

Satellite broadband can deliver broadband anywhere. Whether in the middle of the ocean or on top of a mountain, it can deliver speeds of up to 200 Mbps download, with the only requirement being that there is a power connection to power the system. The difference between a satellite broadband system and a fibre-based broadband system in the context of the national broadband plan delivery is the price difference, which results in a feeling of inequality with which the public affected is not happy. Since the fibre network cost is subsidised and not passed on to the consumer, the consumer cost of fibre broadband appears lower than a satellite solution. With satellite solutions, equipment takes the place of infrastructure, but it is not subsidised. The challenge to the Government is to put all consumers on an equal footing. This can be easily addressed via a grant subsidy in place of infrastructural investment for outlying premises.

Regarding geosynchronous orbit, GEO, versus low-Earth orbit, LEO, satellites, NSC partners with a number of companies that offer both types of solution. I will go into them briefly to give the committee an idea of the approximate costs of a suitable technology. GEO satellite services have been available since circa 2000. A geosynchronous satellite sits at approximately 35,000 km above Earth at the equator and provides broadband to the end user via an associated network with a 600 millisecond, ms, delay, known as satellite latency. This is an important part of the issue because the delay makes such satellites a last resort to modern consumers, given that they do not fulfil the demands of gaming and management systems and also fall short on voice telecoms such as Zoom, which have become a critical part of our broadband infrastructure requirements.

LEO satellite broadband services are brand new to the market and operate without any latency issue. LEO satellites move in an orbit much closer to Earth - approximately 1,000 km - and provide broadband via a network of satellites and ground stations, achieving speeds of up to 200 Mbps. More LEO services are due on the market from OneWeb, Telesat, Amazon and other providers, but SpaceX's Starlink platform was the first to the market and is currently in beta phase and awaiting licensing. Its estimated retail cost is approximately €500 for the equipment and €99 per month for the service.

NSC offers co-location, management and consultancy services and is in a position to advise and assist in the delivery of satellite services to bridge the broadband gap and make high-speed broadband available to every premises in Ireland.

I thank Mr. Fitzpatrick. I ask Mr. Carvalho to make his opening statement. He might confirm whether I have the correct pronunciation of his name.

Mr. Hugo Carvalho

The Chairman does. May I share my screen?

Mr. Hugo Carvalho

I thank the committee for this opportunity. Poynting Antennas and Novatel, which together have thousands of happy customers, believe that fixed wireless access is the true answer to overcoming the digital divide in Ireland. We believe it to be the most cost-effective way of providing all of Ireland's population, regardless of where they live, an equal opportunity to learn, work and be closer to information and their loved ones. Since fixed wireless access is capable of such achievements, it must be perceived as a vehicle for economic growth and one that will help close the gap on digital inequality. This pandemic has proven that people were, and many still are, in need of faster and more reliable Internet. Fixed wireless access is the fastest way to do that.

Fixed wireless access is a technology that is used to provide broadband connectivity without the need to install wires. It relies solely on broadly available cellular technologies like 4G or 5G. It is fairly simple for anyone to get connected. First, a person gets a SIM card with a data plan from a provider that provides service in his or her area of choice. According to the websites of the three providers in Ireland, this should be fairly easy because all of them claim that they cover 99% of the population. Second, get a cellular router, for example, 4G or 5G, and an external antenna. The external antenna is crucial to the performance of the system. Third, set up the router and install the antenna on a rooftop. If someone has any doubt about how to do that, a better option is to rely on a certified installing company like Novatel or any of its partners. Once everything is set, that person can enjoy his or her new Internet connection, which will be more stable, more reliable and more consistent.

Fixed wireless access is not only good for rural or remote areas, even though that is the topic and why we are meeting today. I do not have enough time to go through all of the use cases, but it can also be used to meet temporary demand for broadband in urban areas as backup or main access to the Internet, the Internet of Things, IoT, projects or in any kind of moving vehicle, be it an ambulance, police car, boat or so on. How is it better than any of the alternatives on the market, especially in connecting rural and regional locations like the ones we are discussing? First, it involves a lower cost on deployment. Cellular networks are already broadly available. The last mile of wired access accounts for most of the deployment costs of alternatives due to civil works. Satellite is also pretty expensive to set up. Second, unlimited data plans start from €25 per month, which would already be cheaper than a fibre or satellite connection. Third, the overall cost of the hardware needed to set up the user's side - a very good domestic router, a very good antenna and the install - places it on par with fibre-optic plans when divided by 24 months. When all of the costs and subsidies that go into fibre-optics and the cost of deploying satellite services are taken into consideration, the total cost of ownership with fixed wireless access is the cheapest.

Another important aspect is that fixed wireless access can be deployed quickly. It has a faster time to market, given that the infrastructure is already in place. This has been shown during the pandemic. It also provides freedom of choice. All three providers in Ireland provide areas with services already, and it is a flexible technology. It caters for a number of situations and, when the time comes, the antenna does not need to be replaced. Neither does the cabling - the install, per se - or the SIM card. Only the router needs to be replaced.

It also provides high speeds. With 4G broadly available and 5G picking up pace, cellular can provide fibre-like speeds now. For 4G, this is typically 50 Mbps to 40 Mbps of download and 30 Mbps of upload, with 30 ms of latency. It is a technology that has redundancy built in as a feature. After I connect my cellular router and put my antenna outside, if the mast that serves my router goes down but there is a second mast that provides coverage to the same area, I will still be able to go online.

It is a proven technology. A few years ago, the Norwegian Government was facing the same challenge that Ireland is facing today. It brought committees like this one together and ended up choosing fixed wireless access. Poynting became the provider of antennae and, working with Telenor, the mobile network operator, MNO, in Norway, we have installed more than 30,000 antennae. TDC, an MNO in Denmark, also offers this system to its clients. We have installed more than 20,000 antennae in Denmark. In the UK, we have zero agreements with MNOs or other providers, yet we have sold more than 50,000 antennae for fixed wireless access installs throughout the country.

Last but not least, and if we give it a thought, it is the greener choice. A cellular router consumes more or less the same energy - 10 W at peak - as a fibre one, but the fibre option has many more civil works attached and, hence, a larger and heavier environmental footprint.

If we need to compare it with satellite options, research shows that standard satellite hardware has an average consumption of 70 W while newer systems, such as Starlink, range from 100 W on average to 150 W on peak. If we consider that, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, in 2018 more than 65% of Ireland's energy was coming from natural gas, coal or oil, meaning polluting sources of energy, we can see how much of a difference this will make to our environment. Fibre and satellite also have their pros and cons. We truly believe that fixed wireless access and providing broadband resorting to cellular technology outweighs the advantages when making a comparison.

This is nothing new globally, as the committee has seen, but it is nothing new to Ireland as well. We have some case studies that Novatel has been conducting in Ireland in recent months. For example, outside of Dublin, not far from Sandyford, which is a big enterprise centre in Dublin, there was a couple who could not get good, proper Internet and they were relying on a digital subscriber line, DSL, link with 3 Mbps download and 2 Mbps upload. It is impossible to have a Zoom call on such a link. After Novatel deployed a cellular router and a pointing antenna, we improved the performance tenfold. If we go outside Dublin to Cork, we find the same, namely, a DSL with 2.225 Mbps download and 1.2 Mbps upload. With only a router and an antenna - a proper install - we again improved the performance tenfold. In other regions, day in and day out we have been able to outperform DSL or line-of-sight, LOS, technologies - LOS is a different radio technology for a private network - not only for private individuals but for businesses as well. A slide in our presentation shows a Ford dealership garage that has changed from a DSL to a Poynting system as well.

Until now, I was only talking about going from DSL or LOS to 4G, but you can also see it when it comes to 5G. This was done in the Netherlands, where the initial test results with a normal 4G router were allowing 4 Mbps of download and 2 Mbps of upload. Once we changed to a 5G router, we multiplied these by a considerable number. This was all from our side.

I thank Mr. Carvalho. I now call on Mr. Campbell to make his presentation.

Mr. Declan Campbell

I would like to begin by thanking the Chairman and the committee for the invitation to attend the meeting. Mr. name is Declan Campbell. I am the managing director of Digiweb. I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Brendan McGahon, who heads up Digiweb's operations.

Digiweb is headquartered in Dundalk, County Louth. We are a 100% Irish-owned broadband provider. We are a proud member of Guaranteed Irish and we are the top-rated Internet service provider on Trustpilot. We are passionate about providing excellent customer service along with state-of-the-art broadband technology to all of our customers. Digiweb Group employs more than 150 highly-skilled individuals in its Dundalk, Blanchardstown and Limerick locations.

Digiweb has been providing broadband services in Ireland for almost 25 years. We have used a variety of different technologies, from satellite to fixed wireless, DSL and, more recently, fibre-to-the-home, FTTH, broadband through providers such as SIRO, Open Eir and National Broadband Ireland, NBI. We are a retail provider for NBI and we are adding NBI customers on a weekly basis as the service is rolled out and becomes available in their areas.

There is no doubt that FTTH broadband is the gold standard in connectivity. We are supportive of the Government's drive to roll out FTTH broadband to rural Ireland. That said, the national broadband plan is an ambitious five- to seven-year plan. We believe that satellite broadband can play a role in providing a stop-gap solution to homes and businesses throughout rural Ireland that will not be passed for fibre broadband until the later end of the national broadband roll-out.

Digiweb has nearly 25 years' experience in managing satellite broadband networks in Ireland and in other European locations. We believe that Digiweb's satellite broadband industry knowledge and international contacts can help the Government. Like all technology, satellite broadband has improved in recent years and the industry has been transformed, both by new purpose-built high-speed satellites and hardware and software developments at ground level. Satellite broadband offers many advantages. It is available nearly everywhere in the country - all you have to do is see the sky above you. It is quick to deploy. It takes approximately two hours to install. It will offer broadband level speeds of up to 100 Mbps. We believe it is a cost-effective solution. As we move forward, new technologies are allowing us to pinpoint capacity to specific areas where the demand is high.

Previously, a satellite would have covered all of Europe. We can now, with the technologies that are available, focus that satellite footprint or coverage area into the south east or the south west. It is going from an entire European footprint down to that type of local level. As for the future of satellite, over the next 18 months or so, two planned GEO satellite launches will transform satellite capacity and availability over Europe. These new satellites will feature steerable beam technology meaning that bandwidth and coverage can be focused on areas where capacity requirements are strong. Dedicated capacity on these satellites can now be pre-booked.

One of the two GEO satellites I am referring to is owned by an EU company, Eutelsat. It is due to launch at the end of this year. It will offer a combined capacity of 500 Gbps. To put that in context, 500 Gbps of capacity is the same as all of the capacity available today on the GEO satellite broadband services over Europe. One satellite due to be launched at the end of this year will provide the same capacity that is available to all of the GEO satellites that are up there at present. The second satellite being deployed is from an American company, Viasat. It looks like the latter is planning to trump Eutelsat because it is offering 1,000 Gbps as the total capacity on its satellite, which is due to launch in mid-2022. Both of these future generation satellites will offer the end user speeds of more than 100 Mbps. The dish that will be deployed on their premises will be approximately 74 cm in size - similar to the size of a Sky television dish.

While there is no doubt that full FTTH technology is the gold standard in terms of broadband connectivity and Ireland's five- to seven-year national broadband plan is ambitious, some homes and businesses within the intervention area will not be passed by fibre broadband for several years to come. The pandemic has shown that those citizens living on the wrong side of the digital divide have suffered in terms of access to education and their access to high-speed fibre.

Satellite broadband services have delivered Internet access to more than 10,000 premises in Ireland over the years. While it is historically known as the option of last resort, it provides these homes and businesses with a much-needed service as opposed to no service at all. In the next 18 months, satellite broadband will take another leap forward in terms of capacity and the benefits it can offer. We believe that those end users in the intervention areas who will not gain access to fibre broadband in the near future would benefit from installing a temporary satellite broadband service.

Given that these future generation satellites will focus additional capacity on those countries in Europe where demand is high, we believe Ireland needs to act now to secure its share of that capacity before other European countries take it for their own needs. There are several ways the Government could assist here to provide many end users with a modern satellite broadband service for a modest cost and on a temporary basis. Digiweb would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further because we are keen to help advance Ireland's new national digital strategy.

I thank Mr. Campbell. We move now to members' questions. The first slot is for Fine Gael, which I will take. I do not know if our guests have had the opportunity to look at our previous interactions, particularly with NBI but also with Eir. The issue of the intervention areas is coming up for us in constituencies, especially in rural ones but also in those with some urban areas. Mr. Campbell referenced it already. I want to take up that specific topic. Mr. Campbell suggested that satellite technology could offer something here. The one issue that has come up is that in terms of the current roll-out with NBI, there may be areas where people could be looking over a ditch and seeing where Eir has got to up to now and yet NBI may not come their way for two to five years. I will begin with Mr. Campbell and then go to Mr. Carvalho and Mr. Fitzpatrick to hear how they see this. We have raised the matter with NBI and it is looking at ways it can interact with Eir and others on those gap intervention areas. Technically, how good would it be with respect to speed capacities for end users? How long would it take to be up and running? What would be the cost? How would it compare with fibre broadband? This is a very specific question because one of the key reasons we have the witnesses in today is to address those gap intervention areas.

Mr. Declan Campbell

I thank the Chairman. There are satellite broadband services available today but we are focusing on the fact that in a very short period, around the next 12 months, satellite technology is going to take a step forward. The speeds that are going to be available to the end users are going to be greater than those available today. I will give the Chairman two answers, namely, what is available today and what will be available in approximately 12 months' time. If I recall correctly, he asked what sort of speeds are available now. Satellite technology today will offer the end user speeds of about 50 Mbps. The time it takes to deploy that is the time required for an installation engineer to go out and fix a satellite dish on the side of somebody's premises. Typically, the operation takes about two hours to complete.

On the cost, today we have satellite services available for less than €100 for installation and the monthly fee is probably €45 or €50. Thus, it is relatively comparable to a low-end DSL service you would get in terms of price and probably trumps it where speed is concerned. However, there is an issue with those satellite services. If the end user wants to visit,, for example, the signal goes from the dish on the side of his or her premises, up to the satellite in orbit and back down to Mr. Fitzpatrick's teleport or ground station. It receives that signal as, it sends it back up to the satellite and back down to the customer's premises. Naturally, that takes a little bit too long for certain applications. That said, people can watch movies, browse the Internet, use YouTube, and so on with the technologies available today.

The technologies which should be available in the next 12 months are going to take a step forward from there. These are classed as geostationary satellites. They will still have the same latency issue but the speeds will increase. Customers will now be able to use up to 100 Mbps. It will still take a couple of hours to deploy the dish on a customer's premises. The costs will be reasonably similar. We are talking about a set-up fee of probably less than €200 and a monthly fee of approximately €50. Those services will not compare favourably with fibre broadband to the home as is being rolled out by the national broadband plan. That is the gold standard. However, these services will compare with services available to these premises at the moment, be that a mobile solution or a DSL-type solution that is a copper service to the customer's home. In addition-----

Very quickly, just to complete the circle, how much higher are the speeds going in with the fibre roll-out?

Mr. Declan Campbell

Typically, we are seeing customers ordering 1 Gbps services now. That is ten times faster than one gets with the satellite service.

I refer to the new service that will come on stream, such as, the Eutelsat very-high-speed, VHS, satellite. Is it fair to say it doubles the speed of the existing service?

Mr. Declan Campbell

Yes. Customers are going to get in the region of 100 Mbps on that service.

Although that is still probably one fifth of what fibre offers.

Mr. Declan Campbell

Yes, it is well below it.

All right. The final question I have is what would be the involvement of the Government in securing capacity on that satellite.

Mr. Declan Campbell

There are different ways. What we are finding in the market is that people are reluctant to take up a satellite service in that sort of intermediate position because they do not know when the national broadband plan is going to be rolled out. They are holding back on spending the €200 installation fee because they do not know if NBI is going to arrive in six months' time or six years' time. They remain in the position they are in, frustrated that they have no broadband or really poor broadband. One thing the Government could do is subsidise the capital expenditure cost, namely, the equipment cost, subsidise the capacity that is used to serve those customers with their broadband service, or both.

Okay. I am going to move to Mr. Carvalho and Mr. Fitzpatrick to get their views on the intervention areas and develop around the questions I posed which Mr. Campbell answered.

Mr. Hugo Carvalho

I touched lightly on the issue of quality in my first intervention. Today we have something between 30 Mbps and 40 Mpbs for download and 30 Mbps for upload. If we look into the future and 5G, we will be looking at 250 Mbps. That is what we actually achieve in the Netherlands. That is not a manufactured number, it is from real tests by system integrators, that is, a person installing an antenna and a router. It is 250 Mpbs for download and 100 Mpbs for upload. If the Chairman is asking whether the technology is there to do much more than that, the answer is "Yes", but it will be in cities where higher frequencies are used and where more data can be passed as a result of the way radio frequencies work.

I hope I have addressed the first question on quality.

In terms of time to deploy, I do not live in Ireland but I have visited it approximately three times. If I am to believe that 99% of the population is served with 4G, the time to deploy infrastructure is zero hours and the time to deploy customer-premises equipment rather than antenna is a couple of hours. A 4G router typically has a small antenna. If you wish to continue with those, it is 15 minutes. If you do not wish to keep these, you would need to run a coaxial cable to the rooftop and put up a little antenna, which should be about the size of my hand - my hand measures 25 cm from finger to finger - which is fairly small.

What would be the cost?

Mr. Hugo Carvalho

On cost, I believe you can get unlimited data plan in Ireland for €25. To deploy a good system, that is, a good antenna, a good router and install servers, the cost would be, more or less, €400.

I thank Mr. Carvalho. I invite Mr. Fitzpatrick to respond.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

This is an interesting area. It is an area in which I was involved 20 years ago, as was Digiweb. If you look at the sector across the board, the big problem is ribbon development. We have never got away from it. It is a structural problem built into the society that makes it very expensive to get a fibre or any service to the person who lives on a headland such as Galley Head or wherever. Because of the way we have operated our planning and how we have allowed people to build, we cannot get away from that.

On the wireless side and services, as Mr. Campbell stated , Digiweb is already delivering this into the market. It is one of the better telecoms companies in Ireland doing that. The problem is that there is always a small group on the edge of the network that you cannot deal with. That is just to expensive. Earlier, I mentioned the Starlink system. This is a game changer. I had a Starlink system installed in my house in January. I live in a weird place in that I am located between all of the exchanges in the south of Cork city. I live just outside the city boundary in Carrigaline, but my house lies between Douglas, Carrigaline and Passage and each exchange is too far away from me to get broadband. As a result, I have had huge issues with broadband. I live close to the city in a blue area. I bought the Starlink system in January. I took it out of the box, connected it and switched it on. I am getting speeds of between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps. The big deal about the Starlink system is the latency. It is a game changer. It will be available once the licence is secured. The product is available and it works. It is not 100% at the moment because only 1% of the fleet is up. Approximately 1,600 of the potential 12,000 satellites are up. The latency issue that has been the bane of satellite forever and made it a problem for end users and consumers is gone. I am getting 26 ms latency. Mr. Campbell and his colleagues will know that the real sweet area of satellite is in television because it can beam out to tons of people. In the longer term, I suspect that we will end up with a layered network whereby local wireless, fibre and satellite will integrate into a single platform which the consumer will purchase from whoever provides it.

I have two questions for Mr. Fitzpatrick. What do you mean by latency?

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

It is the time it takes the signal to get up to the satellite and back.

It is what Mr. Campbell spoke about as well.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

Yes. I will give an example. When a broadcast unit is televising an outdoor racing event and you are watching it on television, you will note a time lag between the person speaking and the outside broadcast unit coverage. That is satellite latency. There is a problem with it and it is a big issue. For example, if my son, who does a lot of gaming, is playing Fortnite or some other game against a guy who has better latency, he is likely to be killed quickly because the other guy has a quicker trigger time. For those who need to engage via Zoom calls that cannot be done on a satellite because the time lag makes it impossible. We previously had problem with web tunnelling software as well.

Does Starlink overcome that problem?

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

It does. The difference is the GEOs are floating 35,000 km out. Starlink has managed to gets its licence changed and is now only 550 km out. It is very close. Effectively, Starlink has built a floating wireless network that covers from 52o N to 52o S.

How much will it cost?

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

You would need to talk to Starlink about pricing. The pricing that is being bandied about is €500 for the box and kit and €199 for-----

Am I correct in stating that Starlink is not licensed yet?

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

It is awaiting a licence. There is beta testing going on in Ireland at the moment. There are 20 or 30 being tested. I am not sure of the exact number. We have one of them in Cork and one in Tralee that we have been testing. What is fascinating about it is that I took the system out of the box, pointed it north, switched it on and four minutes later it was connecting to satellites and beaming away.

On the question regarding the edge of the network for the national broadband scheme, Mr. Campbell and others have experience in this regard because they have dealt with consumers. Consumers want to be treated equally. If they think someone in Dublin is getting 100 Gbps, they all want it. They want parity with the other part of the country, whatever that is. Satellite got a bad name because it was seen as something secondary. It was viewed as something people had to use because they could not get what they really wanted. The Starlink is closer to that. If Starlink gets the licence and goes on sale on the market, a lot of units will be sold to the very edge and inside that there will be WiFi and wireless Internet service provider, WISP, delivery.

I thank Mr. Fitzpatrick. I call Deputy Darren O'Rourke.

I thank the witnesses. I want to pick up on where the Chairman left off. Our previous discussions on this issue focused on the gap areas. We have already touched on the frustration of people in terms of the service they are being provided or the lack of service and the piece in terms of the information in that they do not know whether they are two months or seven years away from a good connection. That has implications. It certainly serves to frustrate people.

I will pose some questions to our three witnesses regarding opportunities and potential interim solutions. Some of the latter be long-term and permanent in some instances. What can the Government, this committee and the industry do to maximise the potential of these opportunities? Mr. Campbell referred to the need to secure capacity on the satellites. Who needs to be proactive in that regard? Is it industry or the Government? How do we make it happen? In terms of what was set out by each of the contributors, is there a risk that you are banking on the wrong technology and that you have committed to a technology that will be surpassed in six or 12 months' time? I would welcome their opinions in that regard.

My question is what do we need to do maximise the potential opportunities that are there for us with the different technologies, be that satellite, GEOs, LEOs or the Starlink? In respect of the fixed wireless access to which Mr. Carvalho referred, how do we maximise that opportunity? What does Government and the industry need to do to realise the potential of that? I ask each of the witnesses, starting with Mr. Campbell, to respond.

Mr. Declan Campbell

I thank the Deputy for the question. There are a number of phases involved.

I am probably repeating what I said earlier. The first element of that is if the average consumer knew when the national broadband plan would be available to them they could begin to make some decisions based on that date. If it would not be available for six months-----

If I may interrupt Mr. Campbell, does he have a sense consumers are widely aware of the services already in place from providers such as his company and others or are they following the roll-out of the national broadband plan, mindful of when they will be connected and frustrated waiting for that in the interim? I sense there is not widespread understanding of the services available outside the national broadband plan. Is that one area we could improve in terms of access to such information?

Mr. Declan Campbell

Potentially, but I know from my experience that if a consumer is in one of those areas where they can only get poor broadband, they more than likely have tried every way possible to get an improved service at this point. They would have scoured the market and would be aware of exactly whether the service is fixed wireless or a satellite service. Historically, satellite services are a service of last resort. When consumers come to the conclusion the only service available to them is a satellite service, they tend to question when the NBI service will be available and whether they should spend €200 upfront now or there is the possibility that the NBI service will not be rolled out in six months' time. If consumers knew that they would not have a fibre service for six years it would be much easier for them to make that investment now to secure an improved broadband service for that six-year period.

The Government could answer that question for those individuals by potentially removing and subsidising the upfront cost, recognising consumers are not investing any money other than the monthly amounts and the Government would remove that risk. The Government would do that on the basis it would know the dates and it would acknowledge, realistically, that it could not keep people waiting. The Government could provide that for anybody who would not get the service for the next two years. It would know those consumers' Eircodes, the areas where they live. Consumers who would not get the service for the next two years could apply for that option and be entitled to a voucher that would cover the capital expenditure cost for a satellite service or another service that might be available to them. That is where I would see such an intervention being made. It would be a temporary solution. When the NBI service becomes available to those individuals, naturally they would move to that service.

If the State were to intervene to support and secure a space on a satellite service, does Mr. Ftizpatrick think the technology might move quickly beyond where the State has invested and would that have to be considered?

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

There is always such a fear. No matter what one does there will be a risk one has stepped in too early or too late. It is great the State is doing something at the moment. That is worth commending; it is brilliant something is being done. The issue with it is an infrastructural problem with which we have to deal. If the State were to step in and deliver a satellite-based solution that would present significant additional opportunities. Mr. Campbell spoke of the new systems coming down the line with the Eutelsat, VHTS and other services. If we were to go down that route, we would have an opportunity to tie in some of RTÉ’s broadcasting capacity in terms of Saorsat that is going out from Madrid. We have an opportunity to cater for the Defence Forces who are underprovided because they have to tender in Europe on piecemeal contracts. There is a much bigger opportunity here for the State to unify this. We are small country. We do not have a very big budget in this area. We certainly do not have the money to be putting up loads of satellites, especially not when there are guys putting 60 of them out every Thursday. This is an opportunity here.

The LEO service will be huge. If we consider what is coming into the market, Starlink and SpaceX are out in the lead but right behind them are Telesat, OneWeb, Amazon's Kuiper project and Apple is also talking about this; those are only the Californian guys. This is before we look at some European ventures that might come in. We are also looking at the Japanese, the Indians and the Russians. We could end up with 20 or 30 service providers with low orbit satellite provision. They will all help our end user consumer but they will not help the State on the difficult problems it has. The State should have some involvement in the communications infrastructure. Obviously, I would have because I have a teleport but this would also make sense for Mr. Campbell as it protects local business and the needs of the local market rather than the needs of the global market.

I thank Mr. Fitzpatrick for that response. It might be a case of there being a broader benefit in taking this step and if it was done in a co-ordinated way it might align well with a number of interests. I note Ms Cullen O'Reilly has her hand up. I do not know whether she wants to come back in.

I was going to bring her in.

I am happy to facilitate her during the reminder of my time.

Ms Niamh Cullen O'Reilly

The phone masts are already in place. We already have 3G, 4G and now 5G frequencies operating in the market. We have Three, Eir and Vodafone. The infrastructure is already in place. Many Irish people have modems in their homes and businesses. When we add an external attennae on to that device it will be a game changer. It will increase speeds, reduce latency and the customer will still have an affordable product that works for them in real time. We deal with people in Clonbur in Galway, in Mayo, Donegal and west Cork. These are real people with real challenges not two years down the line but today. Right now they have the use of SIM card technology in their homes. Novatel is a Cork-based company that has been in operation since 2007. We have been dealing with Poynting for many years. We are a global leader in the manufacture of attennae. We have the solution already. Is it the solution that will solve the needs of every customer? No. There is a marketplace in Ireland in both urban and rural areas. Some of the urban markets are very well taken care of. They have their fibre connections, satellite connections and landlines but there is a population who have been ignored and left out in the cold and we can solve that problem today.

I call Deputy Cathal Crowe and he has seven minutes.

I confirm I am in the convention centre. I have a few brief questions. My first question is for Mr. Carvalho. I am interested in the fixed wireless option given that everyone has a mobile phone in Ireland. Very few do not have one and some even have two. They are to be found in every household. In terms of the 4G and 5G signal, Mr. Carvalho was correct in saying there is pretty good coverage around the country, yet there are parts where there is poor coverage. I can think of several such areas in my county. When one travels beyond Lissycasey and goes out to west Clare there is an area spanning a distance of three or four miles where the signal drops entirely. That does not occur intermittently, it happens every day. In such scenarios, whether it be Clare or anywhere else in the country, where the signal is low, poor or non-existent, is it pointless having a fixed wireless service? Is there such a thing as a capacity drain? Forgive me, as I am not an expert in this area but Mr. Carvalho is. If everyone is working off the 4G or 5G networks, or whatever network is available in the locality for their mobile phones, and if there is a high uptake of people buying a 4G enabled modem, are they competing for that bandwidth?

Is triangulation a problem? If it is particularly spaced out in the rural areas, will there be issues with the signal dropping off?

Mr. Hugo Carvalho

In the context of dead or low-signal areas, fixed-line broadband acts as a solution for that. The solution is directional antennae. Basically, you get an antenna and point it in the direction of where the base stations are located. I ask the members to think of it as being like the following. If I play some music in my office and I want people to hear it 100 m away, I need to get a better loudspeaker. That is what we do with antennae. We get better loudspeakers so that the tower can hear us better and we can hear the tower better. It is bidirectional. As we have said, in dead zones where there is zero signal, even if we have a high gain, and antennae have different gains, it is about how well the loudspeaker can talk or hear. There might be places where there is zero signal, but it will be rare.

In terms of competing for bandwidth, the Deputy is right. Each cell has a limited capacity. The capacity is the number of users who can connect to it or the throughput that the cell can distribute. In terms of the number of users, you see it, for example, when you go to a stadium or a concert and you try to make a phone call at half time. Everyone is trying to send WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram messages at the same time. We call it a bottleneck. Everyone is trying to go through the same space and there are too many users. It also happens with cells in remote areas.

I particularly want to hone in on that last point. It is one that I have raised a few times at committee meetings in recent months. A co-location policy was introduced in Ireland nine or ten years ago, through which there was to be a decent roll-out of mobile phone masts nationwide to ensure that signal would be maximised. However, that principle has been abandoned by the sector and the big companies in the past number of years. If you go into an urban centre, there is a concentration of mobile phone masts on around the local Garda station, the cathedral, the school roof and the church roof. The triangulation is huge and there is a strong signal. The companies do not want to share space because it is more lucrative to build their own masts and lease them out. If you go four or five miles outside an urban centre, the technology is simply not there. It should be a major concern for the committee that the old principle in the planning legislation for co-location has been abandoned to the detriment to some parts of rural Ireland. We still see a flood of applications for masts in urban centres. There is a happy medium. It is called a nationwide network. Some of the companies are still shying away from that.

I will move on. As Mr. Campbell was speaking, I made two notes on comments he made that captured my interest. He said that full fibre broadband is the ultimate. We all agree on that. It is what the country aspires to. One particular concern is that Mr. Campbell stated that people are holding back on paying the €200 installation charge because they are uncertain as to when their community or household will get fixed line broadband. Therein lies a major problem. I hope Mr. Campbell will respond to that. We have been told that the roll-out of the national broadband plan will take seven years. If representatives of the national broadband plan appear before the committee in the coming months, I imagine that they will tell us that the roll-out is behind schedule because of the Covid-19 pandemic and whatnot. The roll-out will take approximately seven years. Some people are very fortunate. They look up the national broadband map, hone in on their house or Eircode postcode and know that broadband will be installed in their area in three, four or six months. They can live with that. When people know something is coming, they accept it and plan around it. For those who might be getting their fixed line broadband in years five, six or seven of the roll-out, they do not know when it will happen, and Mr. Campbell has articulated that here today. I propose that the committee recommends that based on what Mr. Campbell has said, there should be State intervention on a scaled basis - scaled subsidisiation - whereby if residents are to get broadband in years five, six or seven of the roll-out, they should get 100% subsidisation, which should be scaled back according to each year of the roll-out. I ask Mr. Campbell for his views on what I have said as an addendum to the point he made earlier.

Mr. Declan Campbell

That is a decent suggestion. It is one that could be looked at. It would limit the exposure in the context of the finances that might be required and it would ensure that those who are going to wait longest receive the most. That is a decent suggestion.

My final question is for Mr. Fitzpatrick. I hope he will forgive me for going a little off topic. Mr. Fitzpatrick is from the National Space Centre and he is most welcome. As I understand it, Ireland has been affiliated with the European Space Agency, ESA, since 1975. We embraced it early on. At that stage, we probably did not have much of a notion, as a country, as to where we were going in terms of space exploration. Since 2019, we have had a national space strategy. We play our role in Europe and contribute to it. I thank Mr. Fitzpatrick for what he is doing. He and is colleagues are lone wolves. They are at the table for Ireland and yet there are some giants in terms of space exploration. Another mission was undertaken last month. Not everything in space is about putting people on the moon or satellites. There is a huge amount being done. Mr. Fitzpatrick has told us loud and clear about the benefit of satellites and how they are benefiting people in rural Ireland day in, day out.

At the moment, the European space infrastructure is concentrated in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain and French Guyana. A someone who is involved with the ESA and attends its meetings, what are Mr. Fitzpatrick's thoughts on Ireland having a role in terms of space infrastructure on the ground? In particular, I want to put the proposal to him of using the runway at Shannon Airport, which, at 3.2 km, is one of the longest in Europe. It has a favourable orientation. There are 6,500 km of ocean between Ireland and the US. There are deepwater channel ports along the Shannon Estuary. Space exploration is not for Ireland alone to pursue, because it is a colossal thing, but there are many reasons, at a European level, we should be nudging and putting forward a suggestion of Shannon or, indeed, somewhere else in Ireland, being used time and again. Space missions are launched from Cape Canaveral and, increasingly, Russia. Europe is trying to join the space race, which is continuing. Ireland can play a major role in that regard. There is significant hangarage in Shannon, which has capacity beyond being an airport. I ask Mr. Fitzpatrick for this thoughts on that.

I ask Mr. Fitzpatrick to summarise. Quite a few members have arrived late and I want to accommodate all contributors.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

I thank the Deputy for his questions. I wish to clarify that we are a private company, not a State agency. I would get spanked if I pretended we were. We are out there pushing and trying to develop space products and services. The ESA funding is delivering. I agree with the Deputy that Ireland needs more infrastructure. We have pushed into projects and tried to get involved in projects. It is very difficult because the budget we put in is a very small one compared to the other countries and much of the infrastructure funding that comes out is big ticket stuff. It is worth hundreds of millions of euro. There are big numbers involved. Therefore, it is a difficult area. I would be very keen to follow it up with the Deputy after the meeting and discuss things that are going on that might be of interest to him. We do not have time to go through it properly now. However, I would be very interested in talking to the Deputy about it after the meeting.

It is something that we can take up later. We take the Deputy's suggestions on board. I call on Deputy Carey, who has six minutes.

At the outset, I compliment Senator Dooley and Deputy Ó Murchú for proposing that this group come before us as part of our deliberations on this most important issue. I have missed much of the meeting because I was chairing in the Dáil and then I spoke in a debate there.

What type of engagement has there been between NBI, the Department and the organisations represented today as key stakeholders in the provision of broadband across Ireland? There is a commitment by Government to accelerate the delivery of broadband across the State and to bridge the real gaps that exist in service provision. I strongly believe that private companies such as those represented here have a major role to play.

What type of engagement, if any, has there been between the Department, NBI and the witnesses regarding the role they can play in helping to accelerate the delivery of broadband?

Mr. Declan Campbell

I will take that question first. Digiweb is a retail provider for NBI. We have daily engagement with it. We get a heads-up and a home pass file every time NBI has passed a certain number of homes with its infrastructure. We can see the pace of that roll-out and we get an opportunity to contact customers as and when that roll-out takes place. We are fully engaged with the NBI guys on a daily basis.

Our point is more that it is not about what is happening on a day-to-day basis, it is the fact that the plan, and it is only natural, will take seven years to deliver. People do not understand that they will be waiting up to seven years before they get their fibre broadband home pass or, in other words, before their home is notified to us and, as an Irish internet service provider, ISP, we can start to contact them to ask whether they would like service. The key issue we see today is the fact that it is a seven-year roll-out and a large number of consumers will be waiting well into those seven years before they get a decent broadband service.

I thank Mr. Campbell. The common issue brought to my attention is one where many houses have a service and, in the middle, there are a number of houses that do not have access and will have to wait seven years to get service. In discussions with the Department and NBI, has Digiweb looked at solutions around that to try to speed up the delivery of a service that can be easily tapped into from other services? What is the plan in that regard?

Mr. Declan Campbell

That is a question that NBI needs to answer rather than me. As an industry player, I understand the scale of the task it has, which is to roll out broadband for 500,000 homes scattered throughout our island. It is difficult to roll that out beyond the seven years NBI is talking about but there are efficiencies that can take place. If the neighbours of those homes the Deputy talked about have a service, then it should be possible, and much quicker than heading off to a new house on the side of a mountain, to get the service into those sorts of gap houses that are not getting it. Again, I go back to a point I made earlier, namely, that there are technologies available for individuals in those positions, such as the pointing option where a neighbour is asked to share his or her service, but that is not ideal and is not what people want. People do not want to approach a neighbour to ask if they can share broadband service until such time as theirs improves. NBI is best-placed to answer that question, as is Open Eir with its FTTH roll-out.

I thank Mr. Campbell for his answers.

Deputy Ó Murchú and Senator Dooley are next. They drove this initiative so I want to give them some time. I will give them approximately eight minutes each.

I thank all the witnesses. The conversations we have on the broadband roll-out is usually when constituents contact us because they just do not have a sufficient level of access. That is usually where we come from in respect of the matter. My understanding of the national broadband plan, which I will put on the record, in the context of the Covid pandemic delay, is that it is believed the plan will be sorted in the first six months of next year. That is the most recent information I got from NBI, but it needs to have its plan for acceleration by the end of this year. In reality, we are talking about people who are planned for in years six and seven but for whom capacity could be put into years four and five so they can be dealt with there and then. That will obviously require a lot of due diligence to be done and an awful lot of capacity to be in place, not only for NBI but to deal with the likes of Eir and ESB as regards infrastructure. That is absolutely necessary.

Another matter we will need to deal with is the roll-out of 4G and 5G by mobile phone operators. In dealing with that particular issue, we may consider mobile phone operators individually or by means of the likes of Telecommunications Industry Ireland, which will provide greater capacity in the context of the solutions offered by Novatel, Poynting Europe and so on.

As already stated, the big issue is putting a plan in place for an interim solution. One of the problems with regard NBI in the context of the national broadband plan is that it does not like to outline a plan beyond 18 or 24 months in case there are problems into the future. The fact is, however, that we need to state clearly to people how far away we are and that there are alternatives in place. A mobile and broadband task force is meant to be in operation. I do not know if the witnesses have had dealings with it. The point is that this task force should be dealing with the Government in respect of all of these issues.

Many of the questions I was going to ask have been already been deal with. I will mention a number of other issues, however. On LEO satellites, and Starlink specifically, it is similar to what Deputy Cathal Crowe said about whether we are going to have difficulties with coverage. All of these solutions work on the basis that one person rings up looking for a solution, whether it is satellite or fixed wireless, and that is fine. If entire areas are suddenly encouraged to say that they are not going to be part of the national broadband plan for four or five years and a huge number of the people who live in these areas look at a particular solution, there are going to be problems with capacity. At what point will Starlink be up and running and fit to provide for a town or village for which national broadband provision may be a number of years down the line? I ask Mr. Campbell what exactly are we talking about? We are probably talking about the Eutelsat and Viasat having the ability to deliver in that regard. Are there are any mitigations at all in the context of latency, which is an issue for anyone who is gaming or using Zoom at present?

My initial dealing with Novatel related to a particular issue it had but it later offered a solution that worked for certain people. These were people who were able to run businesses, etc., in areas where there was not any sort of decent mobile phone connectivity, 3G or 4G. In fairness, Mr. Carvalho dealt with the issue in the context of the loudspeaker analogy. Can we deal with those questions? I apologise if I rambled somewhat.

Maybe it would be helpful if we called Mr. Fitzpatrick and then Mr. Campbell. Ms Cullen O'Reilly wishes to come in, as does Mr. Huitema. We will take contributions in that order.

Can Mr. Fitzpatrick give a little more information about the full governmental solution he talked about?

The Government should be required to communicate with these people regarding possible solutions into the future. Mr. Fitzpatrick talked about dealing with Defence Forces capacity and other such matters. I would also direct my question in this regard to Mr. Campbell.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

Starlink is up and running. It works and it delivers today. Our systems have been working and they are only getting better since we put them in. My peak is about 200 Mbps at the moment. It is a very good service. I am on the beta test trial. I will keep the system at the end of the trial. I will be paying €99 per month for it.

Does it have full coverage everywhere at this point? I imagine that there would be capacity problems if a number of people were to take it up tomorrow.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

I have no idea what their capacity numbers are. They would be very high because it is a global platform. Ireland is a tiny speck in it. I do not know how many we would need to get to for it to become an issue. The committee would need to bring in the engineers from Starlink to discuss that. We are not selling the service. We just provide them with a ground segment and run a ground station support for them. Representatives from Starlink would need to come in and talk to the committee about this. I am sure they would be happy to do so. As soon as they have a licence, they will be able to sell into the Irish market and customers here will be able to get up and running.

On Eutelsat, SES and all the other matters, I mentioned all the issues with the different Departments because ours is a small country and those Departments have small budgets. It would be hard for us to get the kind of service that nations such as Germany, France and Italy get. Those countries have huge defence budgets and they can throw money at it. We have enough for a little bit, but we do not have enough to have our own system. We are piggy-backing all the time. My suggestion is that we would take a load of these different services and put them together in order to deliver an overall service. Starlink certainly delivers in respect of the issue we have in remote areas right now. However, most of the country is already covered with services. I live in a black spot and I cannot get any coverage. Digiweb is there and other providers - I think, Huawei - are offering 3G there. We do have service there. If I had a choice, I would prefer a fibre service. I do have some service, however. Most of the country has some service, but there is a small bit that is extremely problematic. That is where the satellite comes in and delivers straight away.

Eutelsat and SES offer advantages in terms of their networks. These would fit with Mr. Campbell's and Ms Cullen O’Reilly's roll-out of their networks because they would support indigenous Irish companies that deliver a service to the market. That is where I see that being such a useful tool. As a country, we would benefit from having home-based services that are developed to provide solutions for us rather than us just accessing a global service. I say that even though, for broadband, Starlink is awesome.

Mr. Declan Campbell

Just to be clear, Digiweb currently has agreements for GEO satellites. We can take capacity on those satellites. We are also in negations regarding LEO satellites and we will be in a position to take capacity on those as well. I will try not to focus too much on the details of that particular technology. Either way, satellite technology has developed massively in the past two to three years and will continue to develop in the next two years. It will provide a service for the people who are contacting members of the committee to say that they cannot get a service. This will be available. On the point as to whether people will subscribe to that service or wait for the national broadband plan, they need to know how long it is going to take for broadband to be rolled out to them under the plan. Then they can make that decision.

They definitely need that information. That is something on which we can probably work. Are there any mitigations as regards those issues? You have to go up and down as regards-----

Mr. Declan Campbell

There is very little that can be done about latency. People may not have caught the earlier analogies. I work in miles. The GEO satellites are 22,000 miles above Earth. They work at the speed of light. It takes time for a signal to go up 22,000 miles, back down to Earth, and then back to the satellite and back down to Earth. The LEO satellites are only 600 miles above Earth. Therefore, the time it takes is much shorter. The time it takes at the speed of light for a signal to go to a GEO satellite is approximately 600 ms, which is just over half a second. The latency time in the context of a LEO satellite is about 35 ms. The latter is not something you are going to notice. On a call like this, however, half a second is noticeable. The basic broadband needs will be covered by either technology.

I get that. My final question is on capacity. The only way of getting around the issue in this regard - there may be a need for Government here - is to block buy space on the new satellites. If a last-mile village of considerable size or a number of such villages suddenly applied to Digiweb at this point, capacity issues would arise. However, the new satellite system should deal with that.

Mr. Declan Campbell


Mr. Brendan McGahon

I might come in there. What we are dealing with here is spot beam technology. Spot beams can be focused over geographic areas. All of the other countries in Europe are looking at these satellites being developed. They are looking at how many spot beams they will commit to. If Ireland does not act now, we are in danger of not having access to that capacity, once these satellites go up. Satellite capacity is being pre-booked. At the minute, when a customer comes onto our satellite network, we commit to a small amount of bandwidth on a per-customer basis. If, as you say, villages and townlands will be connected onto a satellite service, then we would need to commit to some dedicated bandwidth for Ireland.

Mr. McGahon, who makes that commitment? Do you, or does the State have a role in that?

Mr. Brendan McGahon

Ultimately, it is the broadband providers which makes that commitment. I would say, however, that they will need State help in making that commitment.

We probably need this question to be at least put on the agenda as soon as possible, Chair.

I think so. I would like to bring in Ms Cullen O’Reilly, managing director of Novatel, followed by Mr. Huitema.

Ms Niamh Cullen O'Reilly

Again, 3G, 4G, and 5G infrastructure are already in place throughout Ireland. There are few spaces in Ireland right now that do not have mobile coverage. As Mr. Carvalho mentioned, we have an array of different products to overcome certain problems. If it is the case that a customer is far away from the base station, we just change the antenna type. All of those solutions are already in place and ready to go off the shelf. It is fast, easy, flexible and immediate. It serves a population that already has routers inside their homes. There are some parts inside the routers, but the lack of an external antenna means that they are getting a sub-standard service. Again, it is down to hardware. When you have the right hardware, you will have a better end-performance. That is what we provide: high-performing hardware that maximises the abilities of the 3G, 4G, and 5G services that are already in rural and urban parts of Ireland.

I thank Ms. Cullen O’Reilly and call on Mr. Huitema. I do not know if I am pronouncing his name correctly.

Mr. Tjeerd Huitema

It is a difficult name. I thank the Chair for letting me speak. I wanted to come back on the earlier question of what the Government needs to do about fixed wireless access. This was mentioned in passing earlier. The infrastructure is already partly there, but it is missing in some areas. I would also suggest involving the telecommunications operators because they play a crucial role in providing infrastructure.

As Ms Cullen O'Reilly was saying, we provide basically the customer's premises-side equipment, but there is also the infrastructure. The infrastructure is crucial. Luckily, it is there but it can be improved. That is the role of the operators, such as Vodafone, Three and the like. There is a role to motivate them a little more. What I see in Germany, where I am a user of a mobile phone contract as well as a fibre-optic contract, is that the costs for the end user in terms of mobile contracts for data are much higher than for fibre. One could ask if that is really fair because the roll-out of mobile data is more or less the same cost at the end of the day.

As regards capacity, that is connected to the base station capacity, as Mr. Carvalho mentioned. The antennae can improve the capacity, which means that with antennae mounted on each house one can serve more customers as more information can be transferred in a shorter time. That is one thing we should perhaps examine. I happen also to own a place in Poland. I am using fixed wireless broadband access there. I have three times the speed of what my local fibre can offer, so I am much happier with fixed wireless access. I can move it around, I am flexible and I have it set up in five minutes. These are elements which can be considered. Also, as I said earlier, I would definitely speak to the operators because they form a crucial part of the total fixed wireless access concept.

To follow up on that, we already discussed the need to deal with the mobile operators, whether that is through Telecommunications Industry Ireland or the operators individually. I am agnostic in respect of the solutions, but there are number of things in play here. It is necessary that the mobile and broadband task force that is technically set up actually meets, deals with these issues and offers these interim solutions to areas, accepting that as soon as people have the national broadband plan roll-out they will probably take that on as the gold standard.

The mobile and broadband task force is something the committee will follow up with immediate effect. Senator Dooley is one of the members who promoted this session along with Deputy Ó Murchú. Senator Dooley has approximately ten minutes.

I thank the contributors for their guidance and help. I do not want to get into the technical aspects of this. We all have a reasonable understanding about this, but we depend on experts to guide us. What I wanted from this endeavour was an understanding as to whether there is a solution that could fill the gap between now and year seven, and I suspect it will be longer. When I was the Fianna Fáil Opposition spokesman, I was very critical of this contract. I saw the scale of the ambition as being, perhaps, too great. While we all want fibre to the home, it is creating some problems in terms of its roll-out and delivery. However, fingers crossed, NBI has the contract. I opposed that at the time. I believed it was a job for the ESB or a body with the type of presence on the ground that could take on such a project. The fact that the ESB and Eir pulled out of the contract said a great deal.

That is all history. We are now left with a situation where many homes and premises are in contact with all of us each day, and I dealt with two this morning, wondering how they can get the service. The intervention of the contributors today is helpful in that it provides us with the information that there is a mix of technologies available. Some will work in some locations and some will not, but there is a mix that will probably get to that 530,000 to 540,000 premises. Again, not all those premises necessarily want broadband, but there is consistently a group that does. What I want to understand is where we move from here or how we can plot a course. I will recommend to the committee that we invite officials from the Department, based on the evidence the witnesses have provided. We then have to fashion a response from the committee's point of view on how to pull the information the witnesses have given us together to design some type of further intervention by the State.

I like the idea Mr. Campbell discussed regarding a voucher or some type of subvention. There might be some issues with that which we have to tease out as well. What we do not want is somebody getting a voucher to try a satellite or a fixed wireless solution that does not work for him or her, and the person being no further on. We would have to find some way around that. It is clear from the questions, however, that have been answered, and the witnesses have gone through all the questions so there is no point repeating them, that there are solutions available and that is important. At a minimum, any solution would have to provide for Zoom. When Deputy Ó Murchú and I started talking about this some time ago, I do not know about the Deputy but I certainly had not heard about Zoom to the same extent. Unfortunately, we have come to live with it now. Those are the things that are very important. I am very interested in the new satellite technology. It sounds really good. The latency was always going to be a problem. If that can be eliminated, one is right in the ballpark.

The sum of €100 per month with a €500 installation fee might be a little pricey. The installation fee would not be the problem. Many of the people I talk to would happily pony up €500 to get the kit in, but the €100 per month might be a problem. With flexibility now and people working from home and not having to commute, there is potential to offset the cost of the commute against the cost of a service like that. Where €100 might have been prohibitive at one stage, people are spending more than that driving to and from work. There is an exciting dynamic and there is an opportunity. I thank the witnesses for their presentations and their assistance. Chairman, our job now is perhaps greater than we thought. Quite frankly, there are opportunities on which we have to engage with the Department, and we will work on that.

I wish to check on one thing in that context. It might appear to be a stupid question, but I will ask it anyway. Are there any circumstances in which the national broadband plan that is being rolled out could be outdated three, four or five years hence and where satellite could overtake it? We are discussing an interim solution, so I have to ask the hard question. One can only have an interim solution if the ultimate solution is by far the best solution. It is a very hard question but I will put it to Mr. Campbell first and then to Mr. Fitzpatrick and to Mr. Carvalho. It is a very straightforward question and one that an ordinary person would ask.

Mr. Declan Campbell

Thank you for the difficult one. To a certain extent, one would want a crystal ball. Who can tell what the future holds? In fairness, at this point in time fibre to the home would be seen as the gold standard and the top service-----

Like the PCR test relating to Covid.

Mr. Declan Campbell

That would be my bet at present. I wish to make a brief point.

Mr. Declan Campbell

It relates to what Deputy Ó Murchú and Senator Dooley said. I have assumed and perhaps all of us on this call have assumed, because we are so close to this subject, that the people who are struggling to get broadband will be conscious of the fact that fixed wireless might be an option for them or satellite, particularly in the context of GEO or low latency satellites. Perhaps the task force the Deputy and Senator mentioned could produce an information pack that could be readily sent out to all the residents on the NBI list to make them aware of the options available to them at present.

I refer to the mobile phone and broadband task force.

Are the witnesses aware of it? Have people contacted them in respect of it?

Mr. Declan Campbell

No, not that I can think of right now.

Is NBI the PCR of broadband coverage?

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

I would like to give an Irish answer here and say "Yes" and "No". To a large degree, it depends. If we look at what is coming next, certainly we are heading into a fairly extreme period of growth and acceleration in technology in this area. It depends on how the systems operate when they are up there. It is very possible that it will replace a lot of traffic movement because there is no latency in space. There is a quicker connection. According to the physics, there is a quicker connection in space via satellite than there is through fibre. I have seen this before. I would like to see a little bit more before I say that would be the situation.

Is it fair to say that at times it is better for a person to own a car than to lease one? Having the infrastructure gives us more certainty. I ask Mr. Fitzpatrick if that is a fair comment.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

It would be. When we look at what is coming next this is not a cost the State has to incur. SpaceX, Telesat and all of these global satellite operators are raising gazillions of dollars on the markets and building global platforms. I do not know how many will survive and make it out the other end. It is a very interesting development. I am sure that in the next ten years much of what we think is normal now will change and turn on its head.

That would operate in parallel. Is Mr. Fitzpatrick aware of the mobile phone and broadband task force? Has he had contact with it?

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

No, but I am interested in finding out what it is doing.

It is something the committee will be following up on. My next question is for Mr. Carvalho. When comparing fibre broadband with satellite fixed wireless, is fibre broadband the gold standard?

Mr. Hugo Carvalho

It has been until now but with the advent of 5G, I am not sure. In the same way that fibre does, 5G will be able to bring 500 Mbps. This raises the question as to who the hell needs that much broadband. People probably do not need the millisecond latency 5G will bring. It would be for autonomous driving and Amazon drones delivering food. Fibre might be replaced by 5G. I believe this because we cannot take fibre-optic cables to a car, boat, drone or small sensor.

What Mr. Carvalho is saying is absolutely the case. He indicated that he has been in Ireland a couple of times. He may not realise how difficult it is to get planning permission to build the lattice structure the antenna is put on. I see these antennae being dropped on the tops of all sorts of buildings close to schools, etc., and nobody gets overly worked up about them. If they are put in areas, which are usually the areas where we have the most problems with the delivery of broadband technology, there is a significant backlash. We are prepared to accept the old timber poles that have been around for a long time. I suspect if we were trying to roll out a platform now that required timber poles we would not be able to put them up either. My understanding is that Mr. Carvalho is spot on from the technological point of view but a cultural shift has to take place regarding the acceptance of the antennae.

Many of the questions I intended to pose have already been asked. I remember being the chair of the Southern and Eastern Regional Assembly in 2014, which covered Clare to Fingal. At that time, Alex White was the Minister. We once had a room of 53 councillors where it was so obvious and palpable that half of the councillors had nothing to say about broadband and the other half were enormously exercised about the fact they did not have it. Those from urban areas of Dublin and some of its hinterland in north Wicklow, Kildare and Meath were absolutely silent and had nothing to say. Those from other places were hugely exercised about the fact they did not have broadband of any description that was useful. People were driving to hotels to pick up their emails from their laptops in the car parks. It seems that in certain parts of the country nothing has improved all that much in the past seven years. This is what frightens me for all those people who do not have broadband. They have been promised it for so long that it just does not seem like it is coming.

My other concern is from a State perspective. Broadband needs to be treated in the same way as we treat running water and electricity. Every house should have it and should have as good a quality service as every other house. Equally, there are parts of the country that are almost inaccessible or where it is very difficult to provide the service, although I hear from the witnesses that satellite and various types of wireless are coming on stream. Twenty years ago, when houses were being built they were being wired with category 5 cabling so they could have computer technology. Three or four years later, it was scrapped because in the areas where it was possible, everyone had wireless broadband. There were wireless routers in the houses and every device could pick it up. My concern is that we will spend a fortune giving everybody fibre and in five years' time, we will discover we did not need to do so, in the same way as we do not use phone boxes or phone cards the way we used to. As a state investing in technology by the time it gets to the places it is needed it may be out of date. I do not know who the best person is to respond to this.

Ms Niamh Cullen O'Reilly

I agree with the Senator. I speak with people on a daily basis and I hear their frustration in parts of the country where there is no coverage. I ask the Senator to give me the question again.

Is the State going to spend a fortune on technology that will be out of date by the time people get it? Will the technology being offered by the witnesses improve so rapidly it will be as good as what we say is the gold standard or, as the Chair said, the PCR test in terms of fibre. Will fibre be needed in five years' time? We used to think digital subscriber lines or copper were amazingly good until we got fibre. Is the State going to spend huge amounts of money bringing services to people who, in some cases, do not want it and, in others, absolutely need it, and by the time they get it, it could have been done far more cheaply and quickly in a different way?

Ms Niamh Cullen O'Reilly

That is where we see fixed wireless access as the answer. Mr. Carvalho referred to 5G coming on stream. We are seeing it go live. There are test sites. If we go back to 2010 when I first heard of the national broadband plan, it was awarded to the network operator Three. At the time the State and European Union funded antennae that were connected to the routers. This was rolled out for a couple of years. We can imagine how far the infrastructure has come in the past ten or 11 years. I see it in real time. The level of 4G coverage throughout Ireland today cannot be compared with what it was two years ago. Continuous strides are being made.

Fixed wireless access taps into this existing infrastructure. It does give the flexibility. For example, I spoke to a customer yesterday. This is a real life example. He and his family go to their summer home at weekends but because of remote working they are spending more time there. They have an antenna in their home and they have a router they take with them to the summer home where they also have an antenna. They have one service that they are able to move from Cork city to west Cork and they can work in both locations uncompromised. Fixed wireless access has this freedom and flexibility.

As Mr. Carvalho stated, it can be a long-term solution as 4G and, in particular, 5G roll out. It will be a significant part of the future of telecommunications and will continue getting stronger and better.

I have a question to which Ms Cullen O'Reilly or others might respond. Do we need to give everyone in every remote place fibre if alternative technologies in two or three years' time will be faster and better than what it provides now?

Ms Niamh Cullen O'Reilly

The cost of getting fibre to some of our customers in rural Kerry or a rural part of any county - rural Ireland is all over Ireland - is much higher than rolling out fixed wireless access.

I will clarify a point that I made. Someone who has 100 Mbps fibre to the home will stick with it if the solution is 30 Mbps or 40 Mbps. Where fibre is available, it is a fantastic option and people are delighted to have it, but the reality is it is not reaching homes and businesses. There are self-employed people operating from their home offices who cannot get fibre. They will not see it for many years to come, if ever, because it is too expensive.

Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Huitema have indicated that they would like to contribute.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick

Regarding the question as to whether it is worth spending money on, we need to step back for a second and consider where we are within Europe and globally and where our economy stands. We have always had a large agricultural economy, but we have also developed a very strong tech sector on the back of American foreign direct investment into Europe. That sector is one of the key employers in our area. It is vital that we be seen to be keeping pace with the rest of Europe. Even if it takes time to deliver and it costs a great deal of money, the cost of not doing it could be much greater. Some of our partners in Europe would be quick to steal the headquarters of these companies and get them to move to Frankfurt, Milan or Paris if they could. While it is a great deal of money and there are problems with it, I am a major fan of spending that money and delivering as much as we can.

Mr. Rory Fitzpatrick


Mr. Tjeerd Huitema

All of the technologies that we are discussing are complementary in a way. Earlier, Mr. Carvalho mentioned Norway. Norway is a far larger country than Ireland and has many remote and rural areas where people live very far out. Putting fibre-optic cable in the ground in Norway would not always pay off, so its Government chose a solid mix between fibre and satellite, but it also took a major step forward in choosing fixed wireless as a structural means of providing Internet to homes, businesses and what not that were far away from city areas. As far as we have seen, that roll-out has been successful, with 30,000 antennae, 30,000 routers and so on connecting homes and businesses within one and a half years, more or less during the Covid period. Fixed wireless can solve Ireland's challenges in connecting the 500,000 houses and businesses in question. It has a quick roll-out. It would not mean that Ireland would have to stop investing in fibre, but it is a very good alternative. Starlink is coming on line and mobile operators - the Ericssons and Huaweis of the world - will speed up their endeavours to develop technologies with faster speeds and lower latencies than 5G offers, thereby boosting this technology.

I do not know whether fibre can do all that. Where I am, I have copper in the ground and I do not believe that I will be able to wait for fibre to come to this area. It will be too expensive and does not pay off. The deployment of fixed wireless would take no time and could be done easily. It could make a good contribution to helping the good companies in Ireland to avoid missing out because they are not connected.

Does Mr. Campbell wish to contribute?

Mr. Declan Campbell

The Senator used an analogy and asked whether fibre would, like the PCR test, be the gold standard in five years' time. I certainly hope that we are not talking about PCR tests in five years' time.

Or even antigen tests. The Chairman might like to keep talking about them, but that is for another meeting.

Maybe in analogy.

Mr. Declan Campbell

To some extent, the horse has bolted on that one. The national broadband plan has been signed and we are progressing with it. The life cycle of fibre in the ground is north of 25 years and is probably closer to 50. That technology is likely to be surpassed, but it will be available for that period to everyone in Ireland, which is the desire of the committee.

In the analogy, fibre broadband is the PCR test but, like antigen testing, satellite technology has a meaningful role to play as well.

It is exactly the same, in that the PCR test is delivered more rapidly and its result delivered sooner than an antigen test's. Of course, it only takes 24 hours in the case of a PCR test, not seven years.

Yes, but it depends on which question-----

I think it has given us-----

I am conscious that Deputy Matthews wishes to speak and that we are reaching our two-hour Covid limit.

I was going to finish up by thanking the witnesses. They have given us food for thought and questions to raise with representatives of NBI whenever they appear before us. Clearly, the witnesses' technologies have a role to play in the long term, but in the short term in particular. In 2014, I sat in a room with 53 councillors from 16 local authorities. They were being promised broadband over the next couple of years by the then Minister, former Deputy Alex White, who has been a long time out of politics by this stage, but many of their areas still do not have a service. I hope that, sooner rather than later, we will have high-quality broadband for every part of the country, however we get it.

I will ask one of our members to speak before Mr. Carvalho, as Covid means that we have a two-hour limit.

I have listened with interest, but I have no further questions to put. I thank the Chairman for inviting me to contribute. I was at another meeting, but I was listening. I thank the witnesses for their participation.

Mr. Hugo Carvalho

A little like the PCR test versus antigen test analogy, is fixed wireless access the cure or the vaccine? I am just making a joke.

I love Mr. Campbell's idea of putting this information in front of people and telling them that there are solutions and they do not need to be stuck waiting for fibre or using DSL. Mr. Huitema stated that the Government needed to speak with providers about deploying more masts, but that is down the line. This is zero subsidised by the Government. We just need to get the message across to people about using an antenna with a 4G router. People will see a boost in their connectivity straight away. Sitting down with the providers, having them deploy more towers and telling them that, whenever they sell their routers, they need to sell good antennae to get the most out of them is a different discussion. Today, we just need to put solutions in front of everyone. That is as good and easy as it gets.

I thank all of the witnesses. This has been a very informative session for us. We have held various meetings on broadband. NBI and Eir have appeared before us. Our next port of call will be based on the members' recommendations. The mobile phone and broadband task force has been in existence since 2016.

We will be looking to bring the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in. Senator Dooley made that suggestion. Our first order of business should be to bring the Minister in to see exactly what the mobile task force is doing. We will probably look to engage with the task force as well and get it front and centre. First, there is an educational space there in terms of what are the alternative options as an interim solution. Second, I think we need to look at the body of work to be done. If it is not within the terms of reference, we need to get them amended to look at the roll-out of the national broadband plan, and how interim solutions, if required - and it looks like they will be - will be structured.

I suppose I would make one qualification. If interim solutions are being given to members of the public, particularly in the gap intervention areas, they can in no way be seen as being the final solution. If they are given satellite and other forms, such as fixed wireless connections, they have to be given the option of going for fibre broadband like everyone else. That is what the national broadband plan is about.

The committee looks forward to further engagement with the witnesses. Our deliberations today reaffirm our view that alternatives have a serious role to play. In these times, we are using the analogy of the PCR test in terms of the fixed fibre and the antigen test in terms of all the other methods. Both have a key role to play. With people working remotely, this matter has become even more urgent. We will be engaging with both the Minister and the mobile phone and broadband task force.

I take Mr. Carvalho's point about the providers but we need to get a full handle on what the up-to-date position is. With the witnesses' indulgence, we will probably look to interact with them in the future. I thank all of our guests for taking the time to attend. I am sorry about the short notice, but it has been a hugely productive meeting. What we want to do for the people out there who are contacting us on a daily basis in our role as public representatives is get them high-speed broadband, in whatever form, as quickly as possible and then get them the final solution that is fibre broadband.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.32 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 July 2021.