Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 22 Oct 2008

Vol. 191 No. 12

Broadband Infrastructure Bill 2008: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I introduce this Bill with some enthusiasm and also with a great deal of exasperation. Approximately two years ago I raised the issue of broadband in this House and it was greeted with some astonishment and a certain amount of diffidence by Members. Approximately a year ago I reintroduced the matter in a Private Members' motion, and we got promises of a vague type that something would be done about progressing broadband. I had hoped that by this time we might have made enough progress so that broadband would be speeded up and available — or there would be a hope of it being available, accessible and have penetrated every household in the country. It is with great disappointment that I report to the Minister and his predecessors that very little has happened in the intervening year, as with the two years before that. We have gone a couple of notches up the OECD average. We have made a great deal of fuss about the fact that we now have 1 million subscribers, as though that were some kind of achievement, but as a nation we are still lagging far behind. It is my contention that we are falling way behind our targets, our intentions and what we had hoped to achieve.

The Bill is a simple one and I see no reason why the Minister would be unable to accept it. The main purpose of it is to give targets to the Minister and the Government for broadband access and penetration. The reason for that is very simple. Broadband has been the subject of great lip service by successive Ministers but absolutely no delivery. What the Bill hopes to achieve is accountability from the Minister on either why he has not met the targets or what is happening if he has. It seems the Government is particularly reluctant to do that.

I will spell out a couple of the targets that are not completely out of line with the Minister's own ambitions, which would mean that the Bill should be acceptable to him. The aim is to have broadband access into every household and business at a speed of five megabits per second by 31 December 2009, at a speed of 20 megabits per second by 31 December 2012, and to have broadband penetration at the rate of 30% by 31 December 2009 and at 60% by 31 December 2012. Those are not unreasonable targets. From reading the Government's consultation paper, those targets are not completely out of line with its ambitions. If the Minister is going to object to the Bill it must be due to the accountability clause because it ties the Government into targets that it perhaps cannot meet. The targets are reasonable. They make the Minister accountable and they are ones that will bring us way above the average of our European competitors, and the OECD average.

I know these are hard times and I accept the Minister is subject to budget constraints. I hope we do not hear the Minister pleading we do not have the money to introduce broadband. I doubt if he would do that. However, the budget has introduced cuts for IT. That is quite serious and worrying. There appear to be provisions in the national development plan for broadband to be rolled out by 2013. Can we have assurances that they will be kept and that no cuts will apply to them, and an explanation of the €400 million cut in the budget for IT? I am fearful — as are many others — that this infrastructural necessity is on the back-burner. I am more than fearful, I am sure that is what is happening, although we have not been told that.

Our real problem is that we did not do this ten years ago. We missed the boat during the boom years. Nothing stood out more obviously as a subject for infrastructural investment than broadband. That was an investment we could have made in the future. I will not go into all the money wasted, but while money was being spent on favoured projects elsewhere, broadband was neglected. It is not just me who is saying that. The Minister will be more than aware of the discontent felt by multinationals — he has been lobbied by them — and by small business about the matter. Small businesses in Ireland, especially in rural areas, are discontented by the fact they cannot get broadband.

The chief executive of at least one prominent multinational has been very outspoken about the problems of broadband in this country. The real problem is that if we are found out, if the message goes out and the IDA does not manage somehow to dissemble it — that we are Third World in terms of broadband — then foreign direct investment in this country will be reduced. Foreign direct investment is the second pillar of the Celtic tiger. It is vital and gives employment to in excess of 100,000 people. If we lose the confidence of those who contribute to foreign direct investment that second pillar will be gone. We are all aware of the first pillar. I am speaking in general terms. I ask Senators not to tell me that I have left out this, that and the other. The construction sector has fallen over a cliff. The multinationals are still here, thank God, to support the economy. If they lose confidence in the Irish economy, God knows where we will be. We desperately need broadband if we want to prevent those involved with the multinationals from thinking that our economy is not particularly advanced, infrastructurally. Some of them have already reached that conclusion about our roads and airports. Broadband seems to be the subject of more internal discontent than discontent among those who are investing from the outside. I appeal to the Minister to accept this Bill, which stems from the need to invest in broadband infrastructure, for the sake of the long-term future of the economy.

I read the consultation paper on next generation broadband, which was produced by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, with great interest. I wish to express my disappointment with it. The Minister has shown great ingenuity by holding various forums over the last year. In April or May of this year, international experts were invited to address one such forum. They came in for a day, at a cost of approximately €20,000, before flying home again. They recommended that certain action be taken, but we already knew that they were necessary. We did not need the forum. There is some waffle in the Minister's consultation paper about the need for further public and private forums. People were invited to give their opinions at another forum that was held a few weeks ago. I apologise because I was unable to attend the forum at the last minute. I do not intend to go to any more forums because they are a waste of time. We have had enough. They are being used to conceal the fact that no action is being taken in this area.

The consultation paper the Minister produced, which is full of the same sort of attitude, states:

The Minister will shortly publish a spectrum policy paper for consultation and later this year will produce an action plan on ICT development which will set out a coherent and cohesive strategy to make Ireland a leading global player in this area. Comments received on this paper will be an important input into this wider policy document.

What is going on here? Why are we talking about policy papers, comments on policy papers, coherent and cohesive strategies and then more comments? All we need is to get broadband into every household in this country. We do not need any more policy papers or strategies. The time for that is over. The time for that was ten years ago, before the Minister came in to office. I accept he is facing political difficulties in this regard. I appreciate that he is using much of his political clout in the energy sector. He probably does not have that much political capital left to push the broadband agenda. It is rather like education in the sense that its value cannot be measured in pounds, shillings and pence. It has to be measured in terms of its long-term benefit to industry and the economy as a whole.

The Minister needs to tackle certain other areas as a matter of urgency. He needs to deal with Eircom, which is the dominant player in this field. He needs to give the House a breakdown of the €435 million fund that is mentioned in the consultation paper. We do not know what that fund will be used for.

The Government's enterprise agency, Forfás, recently published a report on the ambitions set out in the consultation paper. It was a damning report, considering it was published by a State agency that is funded by the Government. The most disturbing aspect of it was the suggestion that Ireland's current rates of progress in promoting broadband indicates that it will catch not up with its comparator nations by 2012. The report cast doubt on figures that indicate that we can live up to the ambitions which have been spelt out in every official paper. It is depressing to hear such a suggestion from Forfás. The report states specifically that Government intervention is absolutely necessary, which contradicts the suggestion in other quarters that such intervention should not be necessary. When an independent report contradicts the Government's figures — the basic thesis of what the Government is saying — it is clear that we are in trouble. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says in his reply. My own reading of the Government's behaviour in this regard is that it is engaging in procrastination. We will continue in that manner at our peril.

I thank Senator Ross for asking me to second the Broadband Infrastructure Bill 2008, which is a fine piece of work. In welcoming the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the House, I ask him to consider the essential aims of the Bill, which are to establish targets and put in place structures to measure those targets.

This morning, as I listened to the comments made by the Minister for Education and Science during his visit to China, I wondered how honest he was being with the Chinese people. As a representative of western democracy, did he tell his hosts that schools in Ireland cannot get broadband? Did he mention the cutbacks in education? Did he mention that over the last ten years, Ireland has dropped down the European information technology league table?

I have used information technology for many years. I would like mention an experience I had today in that regard. I phoned Eircom to cancel one of my telephone lines. I never thought it would come to that, but I have finally given up. Even though I live just 15 miles from the centre of Dublin, I have accepted that I will never get broadband via the copper wire from Eircom. I used a dial-up service until recently. I have managed to overcome my broadband problems at home. As somebody who avails of various IT structures to do everything, I use broadband all the time. Believe it or not, I now have a full broadband service at home for the first time.

This issue crosses some of the Minister's departmental responsibilities. I have a full satellite broadband service, without a need for a telephone line. If I like, I can use the satellite facility to get full television reception and unlimited free local and national telephone calls to fixed lines in Ireland. Such a system would help the Minister to overcome many of his difficulties. It would solve the problem in the Black Valley, for example. It would deal with many other issues.

Section 3 of Senator Ross's Bill deals with the need to provide access to broadband. We have now reached a point at which that can be done. Two parties are affected by access issues — the final end user of the service in his or her house and the party providing the service at the point where it comes from. It is now possible for any house in any place in Ireland, unless it is underground, to receive satellite broadband. If we are to implement Senator Ross's legislation, all we need to do is help people to get the necessary set-top box or decoder. It is that easy. We should ensure that we do what is needed.

At least 15 years have passed since I contributed to a debate in this House on the proliferation of telephone masts throughout Ireland. I am sure the Minister participated in that debate in another place. At that time, I asked why our mobile telephone service was not being delivered via satellite. That was over 15 years ago. I am asking the same question now. Why are telephone, television and broadband services not provided via satellite, which is the easiest way to do it? I ask the Minister to consider supporting those who want houses, schools and other places to access broadband services in this manner. It meets many of the requirements and targets of Senator Ross's Bill in an easy way. Not only can people get unlimited broadband under this system, but they can also get a new local telephone number at no extra cost. These issues need to be examined.

The State could save a great deal of money by adopting the approach I am advocating. I may have written to the Minister on this issue today. Many people have satellite reception to receive RTE, TG4 and TV3. In Ireland, Sky is the only satellite supplier of RTE. I did not have enough information when the Broadcasting Bill was coming through the House and it is the same issue here. Many in this House pay Sky up to €60 or €70 per month. Sky rebroadcasts RTE as well as many other channels. We pay VAT on that, and since Sky is based in the UK, that VAT goes to the British Government. More than €100 million in VAT payments goes out of this country every year, apart from the fact that the company is unregulated because it is UK-based. I want the Minister to try to release the grip Sky has on the satellite rebroadcasting of RTE. It is anti-competitive, and I am writing to the Minister on that. It is certainly losing us money and there is no gain in the situation.

I was delighted that in his Bill, Senator Ross takes the opportunity to establish two new quangos. I welcome that because there are times when quangos can do a worthwhile job. The Bill contains specific aims and targets of which I approve. I want to qualify one point which I have raised many times. Section 14 contains an exclusion of Members of Parliament from one of the boards. There is a very good reason for this in that the board is established through one of the joint committees of Parliament. That is a classic example of where there would be a conflict of interest. It is quite in order to do that in this situation. I discussed with Senator Ross that we would bring forward one amendment on Committee Stage to add the word "school" to "household and business" in section 3, with which I am sure the Minister would have no disagreement.

Here is an attempt to facilitate what the Minister is trying to achieve. He can disagree with none of Senator Ross's objectives and targets. I ask the Minister to do the decent thing. If he has difficulties with our Bill, he should take it on board and bring forward all the changes he wants to make to it. Senator Ross has indicated he would be open to whatever level of amendment needs to be implemented. It is important we put ourselves on the line here and that people line up and say this can and will be done. We have given the Minister a solution that meets targets and is implementable. I have given examples such as the satellite provision that would create money for the State, and I could give many more examples. How many times in the past two weeks has the Minister heard anybody in the Dáil or the Seanad propose a way the State can gain at least €100 million in VAT annually, as well as providing better reception and stopping nasty letters coming from the Black Valley where they cannot get telephone, television or any other reception? This deals with all those issues. I am proud and privileged to second Senator Ross's Bill and I ask the Minister to take it on board and implement the proposals in it.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this Broadband Infrastructure Bill as initiated by Senator Ross. I commend him on allowing us the opportunity to discuss a crucial infrastructure for the future of our country. I regret that I cannot accept the Bill or support it. While I very much agree with the ambitions set out in the legislation and the ambition that Ireland sets itself to have the very best and most modern broadband infrastructure, I cannot agree with the means suggested. I will set out in simple detail, if I can in the time allotted, why that is the case.

I will take Senator O'Toole's comment that we are looking at the development of two new quangos, that is, quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations.

That was a joke between Senator Ross and me.

It grabbed me that Senator Ross proposed such a mechanism.

The board would not be approved by a Minister. We would not let the Minister get his political hands on it.

The alternative would be to return to the days of the Department of Post and Telegraphs where the Minister would have a direct hand in who does and does not get a telephone. While there have been many developments in recent years I would question, I am not sure we should return to the days to the Department of Post and Telegraphs to deliver vital infrastructure, especially one where there are so many different technologies.

The Minister has only 15 minutes.

That is the central point of my 15 minutes: the fundamental difference between the Government's approach to the development of this broadband infrastructure and that set out by the Senator, which I understand but with which I cannot agree. We have a liberalised telecommunications market and regardless of whether one agrees with that policy, it has been set in train for ten to 15 years. Other countries that have succeeded in developing broadband infrastructure quickly have done so through competition. Broadband has tended to be delivered more quickly where there has been competition between different platform providers, between a cable company and a fixed line company or mobile companies which are now coming in. We have seen that in Ireland. Our failure to develop the infrastructure was due to a lack of investment and competition between the main companies. That is why we lagged behind, especially in the early part of this decade. The failure to invest, particularly by the fixed line and cable companies, from 2002 to 2004 was a fatal error on the part of those companies and did real damage to the State in terms of the infrastructure we want.

All the evidence shows that the competitive environment now is better than it was then. The ownership of those companies and the nature of the market and the technology have changed. There is a genuine choice for the customer between a wireless, fixed line, satellite or cable operator. The direction the Senator is looking for us to take, to dismantle that liberalised market and bring it back into centralised State control to deliver a single technological solution, or what the Minister considers to be the best technological solution, will not necessarily give the best return to the public.

Another fundamental development in the Bill is setting out the targets we would achieve. We must be careful when talking about targets, although not in the level of ambition we might wish to have. My general ambition is that we have to have a supply of broadband which is ahead of demand. I do not want to see a restriction in availability of broadband or speeds restricting existing demand. We should aim for faster and ubiquitous broadband availability. However I would be careful about some of the targets Senator Ross sets in such a fast-changing area.

To give an example of how one must sometimes be careful around the statistics in this area, I will pick up one of the threads of the Bill. The definition of the broadband penetration rate is set out as the number of subscribers per 100,000 members of the population, the common statistical analysis used in the OECD and EU reports within which we are compared internationally. I will give some background information on how one must be careful with the reality behind statistics. We have a population of 4.339 million and the latest figures for the end of quarter two of 2008 show we had 1.054 million subscribers. On that basis there is a subscriber rate of roughly 24.3 per 100. I apologise for going into these figures but it is important to explain the reality behind some of these statistics and the care that must be taken with them. We have 1.5 million houses and 300,000 business premises. If we put broadband into every house and business tomorrow, we would have a subscription rate of 41 per 100. This Bill sets a target of 60 per 100. Sometimes one must be slightly careful with how one uses targets and about what real value one is measuring.

If at that point, every single house had broadband, it would be difficult to go beyond that and achieve the target of 60%. It does not even give one something that is an accurate reflection of where one might want to go. We must be very careful with definitions in this area. We must recognise certain characteristics such as the larger household size in this country and the failure to include mobile broadband in certain statistical analyses. We must be very careful with our use of figures. While I agree with the overall intent of the Independent Senators, that is, to provide faster and more ubiquitous access, the measurement of that is something about which we must be both consistent and careful.

A further concern regarding the Bill, which I hope will be viewed as constructive criticism, is that it would breach EU State aid rules. Irrespective of whether we like it, these are the rules and regulations that govern how the State can interfere in markets. It is clear in the decisions that have been made across the European Union, in a number of different countries, that such a provision, where the State effectively takes over the role of determining how the market operates, would breach the State aid rules and would not be possible, on a legal basis. That is not the deal clincher but it is a reality which must be taken into account when considering any legislation.

The explanatory memorandum in the Bill makes reference to Korea and Denmark and it is useful and appropriate for us to compare ourselves with other jurisdictions. I went to Korea this year to participate in the forum on the future of the Internet, an OECD event which takes place every ten years. Korea has a very extensive network of 100 Mb broadband connectivity, through a fibre optic and cable network into people's homes. It is much easier to do that in Korea than in Ireland. I have never seen a city like Seoul in terms of its apartment density — the whole city would fit into a suburb of Dublin, effectively. Wires hung outside from one window to the next, giving people broadband connectivity.

While it may be true to say that in Korea there is 100 Mb broadband connectivity to every home, it does not necessarily mean they have the applications or the benefits from that. Nor does it mean they have the economic strivers from it. These are some of the reasons we would be investing and we will invest in the development of our broadband future.

It is the first step.

It is an important step, yes. One of the problems I encountered at the conference was that my mobile telephone did not work.

Mine does not work in north Dublin.

I could not connect my mobile telephone to the network. I could not run Skype on the network. I could not send a single 5 Mb video file from the convention centre.

While it is useful to analyse and use international comparisons to determine what is happening in other countries and learn from them, we must remember that we have our own unique characteristics. We do not have the high density apartment schemes they have in Korea, which means we will have to come up with a different solution. We may have a competitive advantage by being more flexible and innovative than countries like Korea and Japan because we must be thus to get broadband to our population.

Denmark and the United Kingdom are examples of countries where investment by different platform operators is what is driving the high speeds and the innovative approach. It is investment by the Danish grid company — which is similar to the ESB here — in broadband which underlies development there. The investment here by the ESB in the back haul network to carry broadband has similarly paid dividends.

It is interesting that in the UK, a review by their top-level analysts on the future of broadband and next generation networks came to the clear conclusion this June that the right approach was not for the State to take a controlling interest in the development of broadband, contrary to the proposal as set out by Senator Ross here. I cite these examples of what other countries are doing to illustrate that the clear lesson to be learned is that broadband development tends to work best when there is strong competition between players that are well regulated by an independent regulatory body. The best results come from an evolutionary approach where one technological improvement on a platform drives through competition for another platform provider to improve its service and bring down its price. That is what is happening in Ireland at the present time.

In the past year and a half we have roughly doubled the number of broadband subscribers, which was the fastest rate of growth in the OECD. We have been particularly strong and fast growing in the mobile broadband sector, in the application of wireless hotspots and mobile broadband itself. We are also starting to see prices come down and speeds increase. In recent months operators have been increasing their standard packages from 2 Mb to 10 Mb or even 20 Mb. New companies are building fibre optic networks which are providing 50 Mb connectivity to the home. It is starting to happen and companies are starting to deliver.

Deputy Ross asked about the scale of investment. Certainly the State will invest where it can but the most important thing is to leverage and recognise that the private sector has the most important role to play. The telecommunications industry federation estimates that those platform providers competing against each other are now investing some €700 million per year in providing the next generation broadband network. Investment is occurring and it is our crucial role to drive that and push companies to invest further, to drive competition but not necessarily to pay the money ourselves. Why spend taxpayers' money on the development of broadband when we can get commercial interests to do it?

I stand by the fora that we organised. I found the one-day forum attended by leading experts such as the former adviser to Mr. Al Gore on the development of the Internet, CEOs of significant American and Japanese companies investing in this area, as well as former regulators to be excellent. It was absolutely right to bring together people with real expertise in this area, particularly as they had no vested interest in the economic issues of this country. Typically, those who are involved in the area here have a vested interested. That international forum brought together people with real expertise but no vested interest to express their views on where we should go from here.

I also believe we were absolutely right to hold a public forum here and to hold an on-line, social networking style forum in the consultation process on our next generation broadband paper. It is right for us to try to bring about the change that we want to see and to take on some of the open, democratic consultative processes that exist on the Internet and to apply them to our own policy analysis. I absolutely stand by those fora, which were hugely valuable and beneficial in terms of the consultative and policy processes, leading to action.

There were 150 participants in the forum, including user groups, people from an on-line network, computer companies and digital media application companies, public policy experts interested in rural divides and social exclusion, telecommunications companies and broadcasting companies. Bringing them all together into a room was a very useful way of trying to get a common understanding of the best way forward and the key actions we need to take. Having spent the day at the forum, which was one of the most useful days I have spent in Government, I got a clear sense of support for key actions the Government is now taking.

One of the reasons I will not be supporting the Bill before us is that we are in the process of delivering change and do not want to stop that in order to start again on a whole new process. The establishment of a one-stop-shop so that platform providers, on an equal access basis, can have access to ducting which we may run alongside State infrastructure, new and old — along roadways, canals, gas pipelines, availing of whatever State infrastructure we have to make sure we have the back haul network into which operators can tap — is probably one of the most crucial, beneficial interventions the State can make and one to which I am committed to bringing forward in the next year.

We will bring forward very specific proposals on how we can ensure new buildings are fit for the broadband Internet future. We will reduce the cost of retrofitting buildings by designing the correct connection into houses from the outset.

We are living in a wireless age now.

I am certain that, for Ireland, the key development in the broadband area will be access to high-speed broadband in our schools. This will enable us to activate our children's imaginations and their ability to learn from the Internet. It will give children the tools to go to any part of the world to find help with their lessons and enable teachers to deliver an education system which is fit for the 21st century. We will be engaged in the process of providing such broadband access to our schools, to allow teachers and pupils to avail of the Internet and open up their schools and classrooms to the world. That is specific project delivery in which we are engaged.

Senator Ross was critical of the spectrum policy analysis paper, but in our spectrum management we have some of the best practice in the world. We have, through our regulator and some of our academic institutions who are involved in the policy analysis in this area, delivered some innovative and new approaches to the allocation of spectrum, to encourage foreign direct investment. It is working. Let us not talk ourselves into a different reality. We have 200 of the leading ICT companies in the world here. We have 600 of our own software companies here. We saw Facebook arriving two weeks ago, on the back of Google, Ebay and other companies. It is still happening and we are still succeeding.

I recently visited the Digital Hub. It does not have enough accommodation and the numbers in terms of employment growth is ahead of projections. The spend on the National Digital Research Centre to encourage further connection between basic research and commercial activity is working. One area, more than anywhere else, where we have a competitive advantage over any other country is our spectrum. The fact that we do not have a large military reduces the military application given over to spectrum. That is a competitive advantage. The fact that we are an island means that we do not have conflicting issues with neighbouring spectrum management systems and is also an advantage. The fact that we have a flexible Government, which can work with the regulator and seek to be as flexible and innovative as possible in spectrum allocation, is a crucial economic advantage for the coming decade, because the allocation of spectrum will be one of the key infrastructural assets companies will be looking at.

We are engaged in trying to finalise the selection of a candidate to deliver the national broadband scheme, where we will provide the type of coverage Senator O'Toole is looking for, and which is ubiquitous cover across the country. It is a specific and significant intervention by the State to support, through a competitive dialogue process, a particular provider to cover areas that were not previously covered. These arise from the policy paper on which we are working. That is what my Department is trying to deliver and is delivering. That will give Ireland the possibility of having some of the best infrastructure, which is what we should be aiming for in a world where digitally traded service will be the economic future for a country like Ireland.

I welcome the Minister. I congratulate Senator Ross and his colleagues on the Bill and welcome the Bill as an important part of our ongoing dialogue. I have the impression from the Minister that the Bill will not be accepted. It is a pity he does not accept it and amend it in ways he sees fit.

It is important to kick-start the process of having targets set by Government. Sections 3 and 4 of the Bill establish targets. The Minister may reasonably question some bases for those targets, but the concept and principle of having ambitious targets is good and should be accepted. It is regrettable that the backdrop to this discussion is that there was a reduction in the budget of 25% in the IT and telecommunications infrastructure funding. That is at variance with the Government's stated plan on the 3rd July, which said, "To make this a reality, investment of €435 million has been earmarked under the NDP for 2007 to 2013". That may happen but there is no indication in the budget that it will.

Senator Ross made the point that there are areas of expenditure, in education and broadband, that are above the process of cuts because they are vital to any future economic regeneration when better prevailing economic winds are blowing. If we are to regenerate our economy, education and broadband are central pillars and it is regrettable that these cutbacks were announced in the budget.

With regard to the concept of the network board, I am conscious of the issue of quangos and not setting up new, unnecessary structures. I recognise and welcome Senator Ross's point that the Bill provides for a membership of six and not more than 10. If we are to have a network board, it must be lean and — to use popular jargon — wash its own face and not be another expensive monolith. We need to be careful about that. In asking the Government to reconsider and accept the Bill, there is a need to consider any amendments that would make that as lean as possible. We do not want to increase expenditure on a plethora of quangos. If it is to be a productive and useful contribution to the rolling out of broadband, then fair enough.

It is hardly necessary to state the advantage of having top-class broadband infrastructure. It is imperative for foreign investment, it is an important educational tool and is important for business. It is vital if people are to work at home and locate in isolated areas. It is wonderful to see people setting up their own businesses in an isolated area or a place that is not traditionally highly populated. It is vital to have the broadband network to achieve that.

We have not been sufficiently proactive in bringing on the new generation of broadband, which is the Internet with much larger capacity to achieve more. That is necessary for video conferencing and other aspects of modern industry and communication. We should be more proactive in this area. It is important to be ambitious about our broadband roll-out for regional and economic development, and inward investment. We cannot work on the negative, pessimistic or Jeremiah assumption that we will never have good days again. We must prepare for a time when the economy will recover and be ready with the infrastructure and educational investment, and that is why what is happening in education will come into focus next week. It is verging on tragedy and farce. Broadband is a vital element of our economic regeneration in the future.

The question of availability is very important. In Leitrim, half the people have no availability where they live. It is not a question of accepting or paying for the broadband; they do not have it. In Roscommon, surveys by local authorities show two-thirds of people have no availability. I beg the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach to welcome the members the County Council of Cavan today. They comprise an important delegation of citizens from Lavy in Cavan. They are very aware and anxious that representations be made to the Minister that in Cavan, while there is good coverage with wireless broadband——

The Senator is canvassing.

——the prices are prohibitive. In areas with hollows, because of the topography of Cavan, one does not get the proper signals and broadband. That is particularly difficult in Drumland, and areas with hollows. Be that as it may, the cost is prohibitive. This is a huge issue. It is not less than €30; in many instances it is over €40. It is very expensive for an ordinary family, who need it for their children going to school, apart from any ambition to set up a home industry or be in touch with modernity. They need it for their children. As the Minister said, it is a learning tool. It is prohibitively expensive and that must be addressed. That is why we do not have a higher penetration of broadband. The cost is underestimated as a factor.

We need Government subsidisation to make broadband cheaper. I welcome the Minister's remarks on 3rd July that at the end of the year it will be a requirement in all modern buildings to have ducting. I would like to see progress on that. The infrastructure should go into all State and private buildings. The failure to compel the developers of large private housing estates and offices to include the necessary infrastructure during recent years was a missed opportunity.

I have a map which shows areas of the country in which we do not have broadband. They are marked in green and are of significant size. In the areas in which we have broadband coverage cost is a major issue. I submit to the Minister that we need to examine cost and adult education because cost and lack of competence are major issues as are penetration and availability.

My party will support the Bill. We would table amendments on Committee Stage to obtain clarification from Senator Ross on the network board. We have no difficulty with the targets or the principle of the Bill. I welcome it as a pro-active step to put ourselves in a position with regard to broadband which is proper for the 21st century.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach anocht chun an ábhair tábhachtach seo a phlé.

I compliment Senator Ross and his independent colleagues on bringing forward a Private Members' Bill. Members bringing forward Bills has been a feature of the House in recent years. It is opportune that a Bill has been tabled on this subject as it allows us to discuss an important infrastructural issue pertaining to the future development of the economy.

The island is too small for rail to be a very effective means of transportation other than for the movement of large tonnage and we are dependent on goods vehicles. Therefore, we invested in roads to get people from A to B as speedily as possible and to increase competitiveness in our economy and business. It is fair to state that while roads are the artery of the business and economic life of the country, broadband is the artery for the knowledge society. It is important that we maintain a strong focus on it and that we constantly review the progress being made.

Since he took office, the Minister has shown that he has a good grasp of this issue. We have had one or two debates on the topic during the past 12 months. The Minister has identified a policy to pursue and we have seen the benefits of the policies pursued in recent years in the increase in the take-up and provision of broadband. The figures are reasonably impressive.

Everybody acknowledges that we were slower to start that we would have liked to have been. It might have been better to have actively rolled out broadband prior to the IPO in Eircom although I concur with the general thrust of policy that injecting and ensuring competition in the area is one of the best catalysts to get us where we want to be. The Minister stated the cornerstone of his policy is to increase competition in the sector.

According to the statistics we are still lagging behind the OECD average. I tried to extrapolate the figures with regard to mobile broadband subscribers, the number of which has risen considerably and is approaching 250,000. The OECD figures do not include the mobile figures and as a consequence when we make comparisons it is important that we do so on a like with like basis. If I am correct in my assessment, broadband penetration here in the final quarter of last year was at approximately 19.2% of the population as against an average of 20% for OECD countries.

Our intention should be to be ahead of the OECD average and to be one of the leading countries in Europe. A number of years ago, we took great pride in surpassing the United States as the largest exporter of computer software in the world. We built a great deal of our economy and growth potential in this sector. Therefore, it is imperative that we have the infrastructure to assist and facilitate increasing growth and adapt to changes in the area.

Senator O'Toole made the point, which was emphasised by the Minister, that mobile telephony and wireless broadband offer significant potential particularly in areas where it will not be possible to extend the fixed network. It is interesting that emphasis is being laid on this during the consultation process arising from which we will set ambitious targets. We hope to have widespread universal access to broadband by 2010.

A great deal of focus is placed on this at local level, particularly by local authorities. In County Wexford, broadband is readily available in Wexford town and its surrounding areas. However, New Ross, Enniscorthy and Gorey are awaiting broadband. I spoke to senior officials in those areas and they are happy it is in progress and that the national development plan will ensure that broadband is extended to those areas in the course of the development plan.

Senator Ross raised the matter of the risk of us losing foreign direct investment because large corporate companies might not have access to broadband. My information is that every corporate company seeking broadband has ready access to it. Large industry is not suffering from a lack of connection, which would be a retrograde step. As the Senator pointed out, we depended on foreign direct investment for much of growth we saw in the past and I am sure will see more in the future.

We should keep this area under review. I note the proposal for two additional quangos and I do not believe they are necessary. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, of which I am a member as is Senator Joe O'Toole, is an ideal forum for the Minister to attend periodically along with his officials to assess our progress and establish whether any lacunae exist which need to be addressed. Senator Quinn has also attended meetings of the committee. We need to work effectively within the structures which exist and I have every confidence in the Minister's grasp of his brief, particularly with regard to broadband.

While we should keep our attention on this matter because it is important for our future economic wellbeing, this Bill is not necessary. I will not go into the details as to why because the Cathaoirleach will not allow me to do so.

The Senator's time is up.

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the House and thank Senator Shane Ross for doing the Minister's job by introducing this Bill.

Despite the small improvements to broadband services, there are still large parts of the country without access to broadband. I encountered much frustration about this when canvassing during the previous general election. Many people get frustrated when they see television advertisements for broadband services abroad at competitive prices, which lead to some uncomplimentary comments about the Irish provision of services. Ireland is the worst country in Europe for broadband delivery.

The targets set out in the Bill seem reasonable but I am concerned the aim to achieve 100% broadband access nationwide would include satellite and wireless providers that provide a service adequate for most domestic users. These two platforms, however, are generally regarded as not being as reliable for businesses as a copper wire based service. A high bit rate fast DSL service delivered to existing copper wire telephone lines would be admirable.

Members have proposed the establishment of another agency to co-ordinate broadband roll-out. In the current economic climate, such a proposal could be a problem and it already is the Minister's and ComReg's job. The proposal to create a national broadband network could be used to take the heat off the Minister when the targets contained in the Bill might not be met.

I welcome the publication of and debate on this Bill from Senator Shane Ross and his colleagues on the Independent benches. It identifies the key infrastructure we need to get right, especially if we are to meet the much talked about aspiration of becoming a knowledge-based economy, which I admit is a long way towards being met.

Most of the criticisms made by Senator Shane Ross are quite valid. We must accept there were many missed opportunities over the past decade to ensure a better broadband network was put in place. There were missed opportunities with policy decisions on national infrastructure projects, such as roads and public transport, with which the roll-out of a broadband network could have been linked and the decision to privatise the State telecommunications company which has been involved in most of the network. Those mistakes have been made and the question must be where we go from here.

The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is sufficiently energised in pointing his Department in the right direction in fulfilling this policy goal. He has enough commitment and knowledge of the subject to ensure the goals are met. It is not facetious to say that he knows in computing terms the plural of "mouse" is "mouses". He is the one Cabinet member with a knowledge of how particular technology choices in this area work.

That said, more information is needed in this debate. The use of statistics is not always helpful. Legislation of some sort is needed and I would like the Minister to give a commitment in the near future towards how we will legislate specifically for this area. We also need some standard as to how fast broadband should be and what size files can be downloaded. Some statistics that have been presented claim broadband speeds are quite slow but that depends on the technology platform being used. Statistics should also be made available on how broadband is used in different sectors. The general statistics presented so far in this debate simply show the percentage of people who use broadband. They do not inform us how many households have access, what the breakdown is in industry or how many schools have access.

One function for an overseeing agency would be to ensure broadband penetration is reached critically in each of those sectors. The Minister has indicated his personal priority as regards broadband in schools. I am confident there will be significant advances in this area. It must be recognised better broadband access for households has other implications such as encouraging home working and preventing unnecessary commuter transport.

The difference between technology platforms is an area I believe could be more tightly regulated. Will the majority of broadband service be delivered through cable or some other platform such as satellite? The Minister indicated that because the greater increase in broadband services is through mobile platforms, this seems to be policy direction. I am not sure that should be the case. There are still opportunities to have a cable-based system that will carry as much of the broadband network as possible while having the mobile broadband as an add-on.

The Minister is open to debate on the issue while at the same time progressing policy goals in this area. I would like to see Senator Shane Ross, who has taken an interest in this area, engage in further goading of the Minister, the Department and the Government on broadband services. I know the Minister has stated he will not accept this Bill but there is still a need for the Minister to explain what he intends to do in regulation and legislation, if necessary, in this area.

I am favourably disposed to the Bill's general intent. Much detail has gone into it. I would quibble with some of its proposed administrative infrastructure such as the establishment of new quangos. There needs to be a more coherent and cohesive broadband policy overseen by an identifiable State arm which does not clash with EU competition rules. This is something which many Members and the public would welcome. While it is likely the Bill will not be supported by the House majority, the debate is helping to progress this policy goal. I am confident the Minister and his officials will take necessary cognisance of it and make the necessary policy refinements to give more confidence to Senator Shane Ross and others who are pushing for better action in this area. I also hope we will correct the mistakes of the lost opportunities of the past ten years.

I was disappointed to hear the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, say he was unlikely to accept the Bill. I congratulate Senator Shane Ross on introducing it. I, too, have introduced two Private Members' Bills to the House. While they were not voted down, I achieved what I set out to do. The Minister at the time said he agreed with what my passports Bill contained and subsequently introduced a similar Bill the following year. In more recent times, on the Human Body Organs and Human Tissue Bill, the Minister stated somewhat similarly that he would introduce his own Bill to do exactly the same. While I would much prefer to see the Minister accept this Bill, as long as he takes action to achieve what Senator Ross is trying to achieve, we will have achieved something like it. There is a future in it.

I was elected to this House in 1993. In 1995, I returned from a visit to Singapore so enthused about the opportunity I saw for Ireland to become the hub of the information technology sector in Europe, if only we were to invest in IT and such technologies as broadband, which I do not think we understood as such. Unfortunately, we did not do so. Singapore did it. They achieved a great deal with what they did in Asia. I believe we could have achieved it here as well.

High-speed Internet is essential for economic growth. Those are the very words Senator Ross used. However, many parts of the country, especially rural areas and my own home, have little or no access to broadband services. My home is in County Dublin but apparently I am just on the wrong side of a hill. Earlier this year, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, pledged Ireland's broadband speeds would equal or exceed those of EU countries. However, the new EU broadband performance index shows that Ireland is still lagging significantly behind the EU average in terms of broadband capability. Ireland is ranked ninth from bottom. This is the country which 13 years ago I wanted to see become the hub in Europe.

In addition, we are lagging in terms of broadband speeds and other areas such as price and level of usage. When it comes to broadband connection speeds and capacity, Ireland ranks only 33rd in the world according to an international study conducted by Oxford University. Researchers at the university looked at the capability of broadband connections in 42 countries to find out if they are equipped for services like high-definition video and other enhanced content offerings. While Sweden and the Netherlands had the best-performing broadband connections in Europe, tellingly, they were still found to be behind the required standard for next generation services. The report revealed that Japan is the only country equipped to handle the roll-out of these services.

Broadband is linked strongly to innovation, which we must cultivate in Ireland. The United States is the leader in terms of high-tech start-ups and technology innovation and as a developer of talent. Ireland has done well in this area and is now ranked 15th by the Economist Intelligence Unit in terms of our information technology environment. However, we must consider the new competition. Three new countries — Sweden, Denmark and Taiwan — moved into the top five this year, displacing others such as Japan and South Korea. IT industry environments exist in Europe and Asia, including in emerging markets, and they are also becoming more competitive.

Broadband in Ireland is often too expensive, too slow and unreliable. We must address these shortcomings. While technology spending may be decreasing in many parts of the world, we need still to be investing in this area, to be seen as an innovation-friendly culture and to be ready for when the upturn in the economy comes, which I hope will be reasonably soon. We need to invest in broadband and perhaps we need to encourage more outside investment to build our broadband coverage to compete with countries such as Denmark and Holland which have 100% coverage. That is what Senator Ross is trying to achieve and I hope, whether his Bill is accepted or not, that he will achieve it in some form.

There are now an estimated 3 billion mobile phones in the world creating a vast potential user base for the mobile Internet. Many people will seek to use their mobiles to access the Internet. We in Ireland are in danger of being left behind in this area unless we address our broadband shortcomings. This year China overtook America as the country with the largest number of Internet users. It has more than 250 million. In addition, China also has 600 million mobile phone subscribers, more than any other country, so the potential for the mobile Internet is considerable. I visited China recently. In cities like Shanghai, children are carrying phones with touchable colour screen and TV functions. None of us may particularly welcome that, but one sees the youngsters with them.

The Chinese are so far advanced. It is a much bigger country, but consider the fact that they were so far behind us.

It is now thought that developing countries may be poised to leapfrog the industrialised world in the era of the mobile web. The number of mobile phones that can access the Internet is growing at a phenomenal rate. This is especially true in the developing world. In China, for instance, more than 73 million people or 29% of all Internet users in the country use mobile phones to go on-line. The fastest growth overall is in developing countries such as Indonesia, India, Russia and South Africa.

Mobile phones in developing countries are now used to access services to which we do not have access in Ireland or even in Europe. The Economist reports that one example of this is M-PESA, a mobile payment service which I learned about only last week at a Gorta conference in Dublin. It is a mobile payment service introduced last year by Safaricom Kenya, a mobile operator. It allows subscribers to withdraw and deposit money via Safaricom’s sales agents and send funds to each other by text message. The service is now used by around a quarter of Safaricom’s estimated 10 million customers. Casual workers can be paid quickly by phone, taxi drivers can be paid without having to carry cash around, and money can be sent to family and friends in emergencies. Safaricom’s parent company, Vodafone, has also introduced M-PESA in Tanzania and Afghanistan and plans to offer it in India. The reason I learned about it from Gorta last week is that the agency sends help by this method to shops in Kenya and is able to help on that basis. Similar services are popular elsewhere.

We should be encouraging more people to work from home and the high-speed Internet access of broadband makes that possible. Perhaps we even need to consider so-called green tax incentives. I am afraid even to mention a tax of any sort, but I refer to an incentive. If a person need not commute to work five days a week, it reduces his or her car emissions and results in less traffic on the roads. It also links into other social benefits such as a parent being able to spend more time with his or her children and, perhaps on that basis, having lower or no child care costs. The avenue of encouraging people to work from home is ripe for exploration and broadband is essential for that to happen.

This Bill is worthy of support. The Minister should accept it but, if not, he should certainly take steps to ensure the objective of this Bill is achieved during the coming year.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, and thank my colleague, Senator Ross, for bringing forward this opportunity to discuss broadband in Ireland today. There are many good parts to the Bill and there are weaknesses in it.

The Government has done quite an amount over recent years to implement broadband policies and to bring it to as many subscribers as possible. However, there are shortcomings. Senator Ross in his speech stated that more money could have been invested in the area ten years ago. I would go along with that, but at that time broadband was not high on the people's agenda. In the past four or five years broadband has become a major aspect of business. Indeed, in my part of the world in the west where in certain areas there is very poor supply, the demand for broadband is growing all the time.

In the past two years Eircom's share of the broadband market has dropped by 12% owing to healthy competition. The Government policy of metropolitan area networks and the group broadband scheme would have assisted the stimulation of competition. This is no harm because Eircom did not provide the service it was supposed to. The company failed the people and the business community badly in that it only wanted to provide broadband where there was a strong demand and did not want to provide it to the parts of the country where demand was weaker. Only for the other companies being in place, broadband would not have been available in many places.

There are more residential subscriptions in the higher speed category than in the lower speed category. Advances in technology and growing demand will continue to result in higher speeds. OECD broadband indicators define broadband as starting at 256 kbps, which is well below 2 mbps. This definition boosts figures for countries with lower speeds, leaving countries such as Ireland with higher speeds at a disadvantage. Representations have been made to the EU and will be reflected in future broadband performance indicators, a new measurement recently devised by the European Commission.

The Government only intervenes where there is a market failure. Currently, there is a lack of broadband availability in rural areas relative to the main urban centres. For that reason the Government has implemented various intervention policies and different companies have taken up the issue. Other parts of the Government's policy are being finalised at present. I come from the west and in parts the broadband service is very poor. The figures for the west are very low. The Mid-West Regional Authority stresses the need to bridge the digital divide in Ireland and, more specifically, in rural areas such as the west. The director of that authority said that people in rural areas are often unaware of the digital services available from the Government and the benefits of the Internet in general.

There are people in quite remote parts of County Mayo who are trying to operate small businesses. Their markets can be in America, England and other countries. They depend on broadband but the service is not sufficient to meet their needs. I ask the Minister to examine this. We were promised some time ago that the service would be improved but so far no great improvement has taken place. The people are annoyed about it, especially as some of them have come from other countries to settle in Mayo. The countries they left had a good service but where they live now does not. The Government is trying to provide Reach services such as motor taxation and Revenue services on-line. People are encouraged to use those websites but they are being discriminated against by the communications companies.

For those reasons, broadband accessibility in rural areas must be made a priority. In more remote rural areas people cannot get broadband even where satellite and other technologies are available. The installation fees for those areas are also quite high. People who operate small businesses, often from their own homes, find it difficult to get broadband while the price is also prohibitive.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to bring these points to the Minister's attention. I urge the Minister to improve the service. Cities and bigger towns have a good service but the Minister should take the situation of people in rural areas into consideration and ensure money is diverted to improve their service.

Like other speakers, I compliment Senator Ross on bringing this Bill before the House. Indeed, he has regularly advocated in the House, be it on the Order of Business or in other ways, the development and use of broadband in this country. I support him in that effort. The Senator's Bill is quite detailed. Its most striking feature is the fact that it sets clear targets and clear levels of accountability for the delivery of adequate, next generation broadband for this country. In a way it is a pity that an Independent Senator must bring a Bill such as this before the House when there is a Minister who could do so with the full support of the Department and its civil servants.

The wheels are turning too slowly in the delivery of broadband or, in technical terms, the bytes are travelling too slowly and, in many cases, are not reaching their targets. This is a country that prides itself on having a good technology base, a well-educated workforce and on being an advanced economy. Shamefully, however, it lags far behind others with regard to broadband technology. That is evident in the level and quality of broadband in the cities, towns and villages throughout the country. If I can get broadband on my mobile phone, it does not mean I have the communications and technology infrastructure I require. I will say more about that shortly.

The understanding of broadband and the use of the term must be clarified as well. In many of the surveys carried out throughout the country by local authorities, regional authorities and others, the service providers are asked if they are providing broadband to which they reply "Yes". When individuals are asked if they can get broadband, they also reply "Yes". However, that broadband cannot be compared to what we call next generation broadband. That is the nub of the issue and it is what Senator Ross is dealing with in this Bill. His concern is quality and quantity with this technology, and I support him in that regard.

I listened with amusement to Senator Boyle when he said a survey of usage should be carried out. That is crazy. It is obvious that if we had adequate availability, we could conduct a proper survey of usage. Many people cannot use broadband because they cannot access it. That is the hard fact. In Northern Ireland there are penetration levels of high quality broadband of more than 90%; I am not sure if the level is 98% but it is definitely near that figure. In the Twenty-six Counties, it is far below the European average. That is shameful.

When discussing broadband we must examine key headings. I have already mentioned quality. The others are availability, penetration, speed and price. A huge mistake was made when the Eircom network was sold without any cognisance of or emphasis on access to those networks at a later stage by the State. A huge opportunity was lost. The Government had no access to the ducting, which is a simple pipe in the ground, when it made an attempt to install its own networks. It is a disgrace that this opportunity was lost and this must be highlighted.

In fairness, there was good investment in the metropolitan area networks or MANs that were rolled out by the regional authorities. Unfortunately, while millions were spent on installing MANs, there are huge problems with them. The main problem is the connectivity costs to those MANs. They preclude people from connecting to the broadband networks so the networks are not being used as they should. As a result, there is no return for the investment costs of installing the networks.

Penetration is another area that must be addressed. Penetration levels in Ireland are low. Senator Carty mentioned the mid-west but I am from the south east. Penetration levels in the south east are far lower than the European average. That is not good enough. Many rural areas depend on wireless broadband. It is better than nothing but if the terrain is mountainous or hilly, it does not work. If even trees are in the way, it will not work. It is not dependable in a modern society. We must have hard wired, hard connected, next generation broadband.

Speed is another important issue. I will not deal with it in further detail as I have already expressed my views on it. One point must be made, however. Speed is the area in which Ireland's performance is worst. The latest OECD figures, dated October 2007, place us 33rd out of 35 OECD countries in terms of average advertised download speeds, ahead only of Mexico and Turkey. This is a crazy statistic for a country that prides itself on education and technology. It is just not good enough.

Forfás found in December 2007 that the highest speed widely available to businesses at that time was 6 megabits per second and that our broadband cost four to five times more than considerably faster broadband in France, Germany and Hungary. How do we expect our businesses to compete if this is the level of service available in Ireland? We need to be more ambitious. In this Bill, Senator Ross, who is being ambitious, is producing a clear roadmap setting down levels of accountability and outlining how we can achieve our aspirations in this field. Time will pass and we will lose our place in the world economy if we are not competitive and do not have access to vital communications services.

Failure to be ambitious about broadband infrastructure in terms of next generation access will be disastrous for Ireland because we will be left further behind our economic competitors. Services that become commonplace in other countries will not be available here. A number of high-tech multinationals have already criticised Government policy in this area. Without high-speed broadband, businesses are less likely to expand and invest in Ireland.

I support this Bill and commend Senator Ross on introducing it. It is a signal to the Government that it should do its job and deliver vital broadband infrastructure. Broadband is as important as electricity and the transport networks. It is probably more important if we want to be competitive economically.

I congratulate our colleague, Senator Ross, on bringing the Bill before the House. As he indicated when he introduced it, it is relatively short and simple and should be welcomed. I very much welcome the broad outline of the Bill in the explanatory memorandum, with which nobody could disagree. It is one to which every Member would sign up. Senator Ross and the rest of the Members were somewhat disappointed by the view expressed by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who indicated he is not accepting the Bill. One had hoped he would indicate when he would be in a position to set out the parameters of legislation reflecting the Bill before us. Pragmatic and realistic targets for access and penetration of broadband are very worthy of acknowledgement in light of the need for infrastructure and necessary investment. Anybody with responsibility cannot simply accept a proposal without being satisfied such targets could be met.

I certainly agree there is a need for more action and proactive measures in developing broadband and meeting market needs. We all accept we have lagged behind over the past decade. Private sector investment will continue to be required to roll out broadband infrastructure. The consultative paper envisages that private sector investment will be primarily responsible for the roll-out of next generation infrastructure. I acknowledge that Government incentives and initiatives are in place but we left the roll-out largely to the private sector in recent years and have been lagging behind. This is a concern.

It must be emphasised that broadband infrastructure will become a more vital component in ensuring our competitiveness. The failure to emphasise the role of broadband sufficiently is such that Ireland's broadband take-up is lagging behind that of some other European states. Broadband penetration in Ireland, excluding mobile broadband, is only about 20%. Accounting for mobile subscribers, there are approximately 1 million broadband subscribers in total.

As we know, the main responsibility for supplying and selling broadband rests with the service providers which operate in a fully liberalised market, as the Minister outlined. Investment in broadband infrastructure is driven by such service providers. One can understand why, in the present market, they would invest in and target densely populated areas rather than less populated ones.

I welcome the Government's commitment to and investment in connectivity, especially in high-level international connectivity. This was witnessed in respect of the investment in the Global Crossing system and in Project Kelvin, which not only provides connectivity but also affords us high-speed fibre access across the Atlantic, thus linking us to the global digital economy. The Government has implemented various intervention policies in respect of the metropolitan area networks, the group broadband scheme and the national broadband scheme. I welcome these along with the consultative paper on next generation broadband which charts the way for universal access to broadband and identifies key conduits for investment and connection.

In the past, we lacked access, mainly because of our policy direction. It is now all the more important to ensure access given that economic circumstances are as difficult as they are and are likely to remain so for some time. No Senator underestimates the scale of the challenge faced by our economy. Given the current global economic trend and the financial crisis, which is unparalleled in our history, it is all the more important that we seize every opportunity to advance as best we can. The job of Members of the Oireachtas is to help plot the correct course and design the comprehensive action programme for economic recovery as quickly as possible. We would all sign up to this and we have a solid base.

A great opportunity presents itself in the knowledge economy. There is endless scope for Ireland in this period of innovation and development of telecommunications technologies and digital applications. That developments in this area are likely to continue rapidly for the foreseeable future affords Ireland an opportunity to compete in the global marketplace provided we have the required infrastructure in place. We have all the required ingredients. We have a modern economy of a nice size and with a young, well-educated population who are probably more clued in to developments in the digital age than many of their European colleagues.

I listened with interest to Senator Ross's introduction to the Bill. I commend him on highlighting the importance of setting targets and measuring the progress of our success in achieving them. I do not wish to put my good friend and colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, or his officials on the spot but the opportunity that prevails regarding this cycle of events in the world of telecommunications, digital systems, fibre-optic cables and all that goes with it, and what is likely to advance at an even greater rate in the coming period, is a tremendous challenge for us. Because we accept we have been at fault in the past, it should be all the more important that we put the appropriate measures, targets and acid testing in place as we progress in the period ahead.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I commend Senator Ross on bringing forward this Bill. It is worth pointing out the obvious that every Member of this House would like to see Ireland at the top of the OECD league for broadband rates. However, there are huge differences between us in the urgency and delivery of that happening.

The importance of broadband access is something my party has been pointing out for a long time. Broadband is not a luxury. It is a necessity and in a globalised world and an economy like ours, it is important that the Minister seizes the initiative to deliver on that. In these harsh economic times, however, the Government can still redeem itself and show it is committed to enterprise, innovation and investment, and indeed small business and people who want to have the option to work from home. Nobody can deny the link between a prosperous, strong, pro-business economy in the 21st century and the existence of high speed, next generation broadband infrastructure.

Ireland's raw materials are its people, and a highly skilled, educated workforce is vital to attract investment. So too is the infrastructure to allow such investment prosper, something we lack in the area of broadband. It is too important an issue for us to be lazy and renege on it. It cannot be put on the back-burner any longer. That is why I commend Senator Ross on putting this Bill before the House. It is borne out of frustration at the length of time it has taken for the Government to deliver on broadband. The national economy depends on it, as do all the rural and urban areas throughout Ireland. Every street and town in the country needs access to high-speed broadband at an affordable rate but we are four to five times more expensive than Germany. That excludes many people from access to broadband.

I thought the Minister's comments were merely excuses when he spoke about the grid becoming gridlocked, so to speak, and that there would be too many people, which would be a negative development. That is rubbish. In my constituency of Longford-Westmeath, broadband is vital to securing investment and ensuring we get high tech or research development based companies into our counties.

The Government should be focusing on upskilling workers, attracting foreign direct investment and selling our economy as a knowledge-based centre. That is not the case, however. It is important that the Minister ensures rural areas are not left behind, further adding to the inequality in terms of employment and opportunities. I hope he will listen to this debate and treat it with the urgency it deserves.

For a long time my colleague, Deputy Simon Coveney, has been calling on the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to take action. Senator Walsh spoke glowingly about how innovative the Minister is, and I accept that, but I cannot understand the reason he is delaying in this area. While the Minister did not accept Senator Ross's Bill, there is no talk of a date for his legislation. I question that and ask the Minister of State to get an answer for us on that.

The only way to ensure negotiations are opened up with all broadband service providers is to ensure a monopoly is not created. Will that happen? I do not know. It is one thing to be able to access broadband in a particular area but it is important to be able to afford it, especially in Longford-Westmeath.

The Fine Gael plan for a fibre-optic nation released this year sets out a cohesive strategy for ensuring Ireland is not left at a disadvantage. We must ensure that happens, and I ask that the Minister would take on board the broad thrust of these proposals.

Rural areas deserve the same opportunity to pitch for business, big and small. All Members in this House agree that small business is the way forward for our economy. The two and three jobs in a company are a way we can save our economy and it is in all their interests, therefore, that we have the necessary infrastructure to ensure people can work locally and in small towns and villages throughout our country.

I sincerely welcome Senator Ross's Bill. It is time we took action. It is a shocking statistic that Ireland is 33rd out of the 35 OECD countries in terms of broadband performance. Athlone is a gateway town but with the gateway innovation fund being dropped, I do not hold out very much hope for us getting the necessary infrastructure for broadband in the spatial strategy. However, I live in hope.

We have an extremely successful college in the town — Athlone Institute of Technology. We have an innovation centre that is second to none. Students graduate from that college every year with excellent skills. I ask that we be able to keep those graduates locally and have them working from the local area by providing the necessary infrastructure, namely, broadband. I do not believe that will happen, although I hope it will.

I welcome the aspiration in the Bill to set up a broadband commission to monitor progress. We all know from recent experience the necessity of having accountability and transparency, and that the Minister would appear before the joint committee twice a year. The thrust of Senator Ross's Bill is that we would have a progressive report on what is happening. That is the only way forward. It seems this is going on ad infinitum without any concrete proposals.

We need to attract business, develop an entrepreneurial spirit and give people the right tools to develop business from home. We talked about carbon footprint and families being able to have a quality of life, but the only way people can have a quality of life is if they have the necessary broadband facilities to be able to work from home.

I commend Senator Ross on bringing forward this Bill. I support him and thank him for putting this issue on the agenda and highlighting the delays and disappointments of the Government in its delivery of broadband throughout our rural areas.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome also the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. There is no need for me to go over the ground covered in excellent speeches on broadband by various Members of the Seanad. It is not the first time that Members of this House have raised the issue of broadband. Senator Ross has raised it on numerous occasions in recent years but we appear to be in the same position we were in a number of years ago.

There is no need for me to make the case regarding the value of broadband to this country, particularly to the remote areas. While the cities have a reasonable level of service, the rural areas have little or no service, something that was pointed out by various Members. I live three miles from Castlebar, which is one of the hub towns and which does not have a broadband service. I know what it is like to try to access the Internet which breaks down every ten minutes or so, just when one has found the information one is seeking. Such problems are not uncommon among small businesses in rural areas. This is one of the challenges they face and we must ask how they can compete on the world stage when they are such a disadvantage.

I am disappointed by the Minister's indication that he will not accept the Bill. The explanatory memorandum to it is written in plain English and sets out how the legislation is structured. The Bill contains clear guidelines in respect of the powers laid down and the targets that should be achieved within a given period. I compliment Senator Ross who spent a great deal of time and invested much effort in bringing this Bill forward.

The Bill is a revelation because it sets down clear targets. There is an unusual aspect to it in the context of the way the proposed board would be structured and how it and the Minister would be accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas and the relevant joint committee thereof. Even if only for that aspect, we should take the opportunity to see how the Bill might work in principle. During the 15 years I have been a Member of the House, I have not come across a Bill which stipulates that a board be constituted in the way outlined, that each member thereof must obtain two thirds majority support of the members of the relevant Oireachtas joint committee and that said board would be accountable right down the line. Such a development would be great.

The Minister, Deputy Ryan, considers matters in an innovative way. However, I am disappointed that he will not be accepting the Bill. I admire the principle behind the legislation and it is my opinion that we should measure other Bills against it. I again compliment Senator Ross on this excellent legislation which I am happy to support. I would be interested in seeing how matters might develop in the future if it were accepted. There is much other legislation which could be brought forward in the same vein as that introduced by Senator Ross. I hope the Senator will push this matter all the way to a vote. This and the Lower House have debated the issue of broadband for many years. Senator Ross has brought forward a fantastic Bill and it should be accepted.

I thank Senators Burke, Coffey, O'Toole, O'Reilly, Quinn, Prendergast, McFadden, Boyle, Carty, Walsh and Callely for contributing to the debate.

I was disappointed by the Minister's response to the Bill, which was deliberately tailored in such a way as to give him an opportunity to accept it. The Bill was structured so that there would not be much in it to which he could object and so that he might add to or subtract from it if he objected to any of its contents. I was disappointed by his initial response — echoed by almost everyone on the Government side of the House — to the effect that the principle behind the Bill is something with which he cannot disagree. The Minister then proceeded to pick holes in some of the detail. I have no problem with his doing so or with him changing any of that detail. The Bill was merely meant to kick-start the process.

The Minister knows that full well. When I heard his objections, I came to the conclusion that there is a reluctance to tackle this problem with any great speed.

Hear, hear. Absolutely.

The Minister stated that he does not agree with some of the targets. He did not really identify those targets. That is fine. Let him alter the targets. I have no difficulty in that regard. Let us just set the targets and get on with it. The Bill is not a panacea and I am not claiming that the targets are all perfect. Forfás indicated that it believes the Minister's targets would not be met. There appears to be a great reluctance on the Minister's part to set any targets at all.

As Senator McFadden stated, it is disappointing that the Minister did not make a declaration of intent or outline a timetable in respect of his programme. That programme is extraordinarily aspirational in nature. It contains many policy ambitions but there are no dates supplied. That is not good enough. As Members, particularly those on the Government side, acknowledged, we have missed an opportunity. However, we have been presented with a further opportunity to allow us to catch up but we are not taking it.

The Minister proceeded to state that the Bill is somehow contrary to EU rules. I cannot work out what he was talking about. Stating that something is contrary to EU rules is the final excuse of the political desperado. The Minister did not provide a convincing reason in this regard and muttered something about State aid rules. The Bill will not contravene those rules. Investing in roads or infrastructure does not contravene them. The Bill is not designed to give anyone an unfair competitive advantage; its purpose is to provide people with an infrastructural service.

The excuses provided, which were not echoed by Members on the Government side, were fairly unconvincing and basically mask a reluctance to pursue this issue, probably because funding for it does not exist. The reality is that the Minister probably does not have a Bill of his own and is intent on voting this one down because he has neither the clout nor the money. This matter is no longer — not that it ever was — a priority for Government. That is a road we take at our peril.

Members on all sides rightly alluded to the abyss into which the economy is plunging at present. We do not know where it is going and no one is aware of how bad matters are. However, the position will be much worse if we do not arrive at a long-term vision regarding where Ireland will be in ten to 15 years' time. That is not apparent this evening and neither was it apparent when the budget was introduced. Broadband has been placed on the back-burner because it may cost a certain amount of money to put in place and because the IT cuts to which Senator O'Reilly referred are more sinister than we have been led to believe. The IT budget is to be reduced by approximately €400 million, which is a substantial sum of money.

I congratulate the Members on the Government side of the House who picked up on the issue of quangos. It was a fair political point to ask why I propose the creation of two new quangos. I included them as part of the tailoring of the Bill to suit Senators on the Government benches.

That is a great escape.

We could not reverse last week's policy decision.

I knew that if I had not included it, the Members on the Government side would not have been happy. There are 800 quangos which they are not prepared to touch. It is a bit bloody rich for Senators on the Government side to state that they are not enamoured of the quangos the Bill proposes to create. I am pleased with the acknowledgement from those Members who actually read the Bill. I accept their criticism. Let us take the quangos out if that is what Members on the Government benches want.

However, these are a different type of body in charge. I suspect it would be difficult for the Government at the moment to accept this type of quango because it is not the norm. It does not suit the Members opposite as there is not room on this quango for the normal party political patronage. The Members on the Government benches must have seen that.

Senator Ross was going great for a while.

What it requires is that they do not put cronies on the board but people who have to be passed by a two thirds majority of a joint committee of the Houses. They would not get their pals through. I do not blame them for not liking it. That new type of quango could be a model for other quangos. The Members on the Government benches will hate it because their cronies will not be appointed any more as only people of ability can be appointed. Appointees will have to know about the subject and be scrutinised and approved by a joint committee of the Houses by a two thirds majority. The Government will not be able to ram it through the way it normally does. It will have to appoint people who know what they are talking about. That will make a difference to the Members on the Government side. No wonder they do not like the quango.

In addition, the Minister would have to report to the joint committee every six months. As Senator Walsh acknowledged, that is a very useful exercise. It is important that we should be accountable for that sort of expenditure and responsible for the bodies we have set up, and that they should report from time to time. I make no apology for putting that type of board in place, because somebody has to be in control. Somebody must appoint a chief executive. Somebody must have a hold on a semi-State body such as this.

I almost feel we reversed our positions. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, suggested there is too much State ownership and State interference in my Bill. I make no apology for that. The State has a role — even if the Greens do not think that is the case — in this type of infrastructure because private enterprise will not take on the kind of public service role that is necessary in areas of infrastructure. The State must take on that role and take the lead. It must spend money to ensure that is possible. It must spend money to encourage business and on organisations such as IDA Ireland. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that regard.

In summary, I am disappointed. The Government is hiding the fact it is not prepared to fast-track broadband. That is a very foolish and short-term decision.

Question put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 22; Níl, 27.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Prendergast, Phil.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • White, Alex.


  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Butler, Larry.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • de Búrca, Déirdre.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • O’Sullivan, Ned.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Joe O’Toole and Shane Ross; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Question declared lost.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.