I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this important issue for my constituency and the Border area. I welcome the Minister of State.
Irish language broadcasting in Northern Ireland received a boost when the Irish and UK Governments agreed a memorandum of understanding which provides a framework for continuing co-operation on broadcasting issues on the island of Ireland. The memorandum is aimed at ensuring a smooth transition during the digital switchover and the switch-off of analogue services on the island of Ireland. It was signed by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ben Bradshaw. The memorandum commits the two Governments to facilitating the widespread availability of RTE services in Northern Ireland and BBC services in Ireland on a free-to-air basis. It will also ensure the continuing widespread availability of the Irish language channel, TG4, in Northern Ireland following the digital switchover.
At the time the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources said the agreement was the culmination of a successful period of co-operation on broadcasting issues between the Governments of Ireland and the UK and its benefits would be important. A smooth transition to digital television throughout the island of Ireland is important, especially for TG4, and the agreement will facilitate the availability of RTE on an all-island basis. The agreement will also help the delivery of broader economic and social benefits which will be gained by all citizens from the release of digital dividend spectrum following the closure of the analogue service. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Ben Bradshaw, said he was pleased to sign the memorandum of understanding as it was an important step in ensuring everything went smoothly and that BBC services would continue to be available on the island of Ireland.
I raise this issue because many of my constituents who pay the licence fee do not receive RTE's channels. RTE has done a great deal of work at its sites in Holywell and Limavady in Northern Ireland. Will the work being done on both sides of the Border maximise reception quality for those who receive either no signal or a very poor one? Will it overcome existing problems in order that those who do not receive a signal will receive one and that when the switchover takes place those who have found a solution through free-to-air services from, for example, the Limavady transmitter will not find that the good service they currently receive will disappear? In the context of the memorandum of understanding, it is intended to provide a good service for people in the North and that from the North BBC services will be provided for people in the Republic. However, it should be borne in mind that many do not currently receive RTE services.
In May 2008 theInishowen Independent ran a story on how television services on Inishowen were going digital but that reception quality would not improve for householders. It was indicated that, although RTE was upgrading the transmitter at Holywell Hill, Altaghderry, Killea and that the digital service was due to come on stream by 2012, this would not address the problem of bad reception that had plagued areas across Inishowen. Scores of households in the Burt area have been forced to subscribe to satellite providers such as Sky in order to receive clear RTE television pictures. The fact that they have to pay the licence fee of €160 to RTE and €240 to Sky means there is an additional cost to them.
RTE sought planning permission from Donegal County Council to build a prefabricated cabin at Holywell Hill to house the new digital broadcasting equipment. Experts in RTE say that, while the signal will be digital, it will be broadcast terrestrially. They also say it will not provide much comfort for those households that currently cannot receive clear analogue pictures. The spokesperson for RTE said that when the signal went digital, it would be no better or no worse than the signal currently received in households. RTE states it has met its legal obligations by providing coverage for 99% of the population and that local conditions mean 100% coverage cannot be achieved.
Many have been trying to find a solution to the problem. Some who work in the industry say they have been able to install freeview systems using satellite dishes in recent months. The crux of the matter is how we determine whether the digital television transmitters in the North will carry RTE and TG4 on freeview services. We assume they will because if these services are to be provided for people in Belfast and Inishowen receives a signal from the North, it should cover the area. This is a technical subject, but people in my area do not care how the problem is solved. They experience enormous problems because they cannot receive a crystal-clear signal. The television pictures they receive are snowy. We had enough snow during the winter without having to worry about it now. In the Muff area there is a perfect signal received from Limavady, but there is a shadow effect in the signal received in Quigley's Point and Redcastle. The signal received in the Clonmany and Urris areas also requires to be dealt with.
A memorandum of understanding has been agreed and much work is ongoing. We need to find a solution to the problem on a cross-Border basis. Will the Minister of State indicate whether it is accepted that there is a problem with television coverage in the Inishowen area?