Television Reception.

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?

On behalf of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, I thank the Senator for raising in the Seanad the issue of the availability of Irish television services in Northern Ireland in the context of the switchover to digital terrestrial television services.

The development of digital broadcasting is an imperative at an international, European and national level. Throughout the world countries have agreed that traditional analogue broadcast services will no longer be protected from interference after 2015. Within Europe there is widespread agreement that all analogue broadcast services will cease by 2012. This provides an opportunity for Ireland to upgrade its terrestrial free-to-view television services from analogue to digital and, while so doing, to seek ways in which to provide greater access to the Irish public broadcast services throughout the island of Ireland.

It is important for Ireland to upgrade to digital terrestrial television services for a number of reasons. Analogue networks are becoming increasingly obsolete and expensive to operate. Digital technology is essential in order that our broadcasters can continue to compete with commercial broadcasters. Digital terrestrial television, DTT, is more spectrum efficient and versatile than the analogue television service. DTT can provide more services for television viewers. These include more television channels, more radio channels, electronic programme guides and even HDTV services. Because DTT is more spectrum efficient — it can provide eight television channels in the same amount of spectrum as one analogue television channel — spectrum in the television frequency band can be reallocated to other services such as broadband or mobile broadband services. This provides a digital dividend which has the potential to provide a significant economic benefit for the country.

The Broadcasting Act 2009 provides for RTE and TG4 to provide their broadcast services, in as far as possible, throughout the island of Ireland. In addition, the Act provides for RTE to build and operate a free-to-view digital television service as a replacement for the current analogue service. This service must at least provide space for RTE One, RTE Two, TG4 and TV3. The RTE free-to-view digital television service is due to launch to 90% of the population by 31 October.

In developing plans for digital terrestrial television services in Ireland the Minister was cognisant that the United Kingdom was also upgrading its television services to digital and, in particular, that the Northern Ireland switchover is planned for the last quarter of 2012. In this regard and in order to provide for a co-ordinated approach to the analogue network switch-off on both sides of the Border, the Minister's officials entered into discussions with their United Kingdom counterparts. As a result of these discussions, a memorandum of understanding was signed jointly by the United Kingdom and Irish Governments on 1 February, the purpose of which is to provide a mechanism for co-operation between the Governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom in providing a framework for the transition to digital terrestrial television services and the analogue network switch-off; to provide for TG4 to be carried in Northern Ireland on the digital television network and to provide an opportunity for RTE to be transmitted within Northern Ireland and for the BBC to be transmitted in Ireland. The provision of BBC services throughout Ireland is a commercial decision for the BBC, as, unlike RTE, it does not have a mandate to provide its services throughout the island of Ireland. In regard to TG4, the memorandum of understanding draws on the Belfast — Good Friday — Agreement 1998 and the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement which provided for the availability of TG4 throughout Northern Ireland on the analogue network. The memorandum of understanding provides for TG4 to be carried on the digital network in Northern Ireland. In regard to RTE, the memorandum of understanding commits the two Governments to seeking to find a technical and cost-effective solution to the provision of RTE services throughout Northern Ireland.

Since it was signed, officials from the two Governments have continued to meet and work together to provide for full implementation of the memorandum of understanding. The most recent meeting took place in March and a further meeting is planned for May. The meetings are examining practical ways in which the memorandum of understanding can be used to provide for a smooth transition from analogue to digital television services across the island of Ireland and how best to provide for RTE and TG4 services to be made available throughout Ireland.

I asked one specific question. Given that the officials responsible for the memorandum of understanding will meet in May, can the Adjournment Matter I have raised be brought to their attention regarding the difficulties experienced in the Inishowen area? The officials might need to talk to RTE spokespersons to obtain further details on the technical difficulties experienced. Solutions can be found. I ask that the response of the officials be brought to my attention.

I will ask if that can be done.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m on Thursday, 22 April 2010.