I propose to take Questions Nos. 22, 33, 38, 61, 65, 72, 73, 77, 84, 93, 129, 130 and 131 together.
The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, is primarily a matter for companies operating in a fully liberalised market, regulated by ComReg, the Commission for Communications Regulation. The growth in broadband uptake in recent months has been very encouraging. At the beginning of 2004, there were 3,000 broadband users, and the figure is expected to be in excess of 100,000 at the end of the year.
In the New Connections document, published by the Department of the Taoiseach in April 2002, the Government stated its commitment to placing Ireland within the top 10% of OECD countries for broadband connectivity within five years. This target should be achieved by the end of 2007. To drive the delivery of open access broadband infrastructure, an indicative €200 million of Government and ERDF funding was set aside under the National Development Plan 2000-2006.
Phase one of my Department's regional broadband programme, the building of metropolitan area networks, MANs, in 26 towns and cities in association with the local authorities, is now almost completed. The networks are being completed to schedule and within budget, and are being managed for the State on an open-access basis by E-Net, which was awarded the services concession contract during the summer. There is already commercial traffic on the MANs that have been completed.
Phase two of the programme involves the rollout of MANs to over 90 towns with a population of 1,500 and over. Proposals in respect of the next 45 of these towns have already been received and are currently being considered by my Department. It is expected that contracts will be in place by the end of 2004 and construction completed by the end of 2005. The call for the remaining towns will issue early in 2005 and construction is expected to commence later that year.
For smaller towns and rural communities, the group broadband scheme, administered by my Department, offers grant support to communities to come together and pool their requirements, and obtain broadband for their area in association with a broadband provider. Funding assistance of up to 55% is available from my Department. Over 50 applications have been received under the group broadband scheme to date, and to date five grants have been sanctioned by me. Further announcements will be made shortly regarding approvals under the scheme.
One of the group broadband schemes that has been approved is located in the Gaeltacht area of Dungloe, County Donegal, and one of the first group of MANs is located in Gaoth Dobhair. The CLÁR programme, administered by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, has specific responsibility for initiatives in Gaeltacht areas, and my officials are working closely with the CLÁR administrators to ensure optimum takeup of funding opportunities for broadband in Gaeltacht areas.
In addition to these initiatives, my Department, in partnership with the Department of Education and Science, and the Telecommunications and Internet Federation, is undertaking a programme of delivering free high speed broadband connectivity to every primary and post-primary school in the State by the end of 2005.
Latest national broadband figures show a 70-fold increase in broadband customers since March 2003, with the number of DSL customers currently over 75,000, and growing by over 30% each quarter. In addition, there are over 6,000 customers who access broadband by cable modem, and over 4,000 using fixed wireless access. These figures place Ireland favourably in the league table for broadband, and indicate that the Government's target should be reached by 2007.