Thursday, 1 February 2018

Ceisteanna (3)

Thomas Byrne


3. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his views on the levels of access to broadband in schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5090/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

This is a very important question concerning the issue of access to broadband in schools. There is a real technological divide between schools happening at the moment. In many cases it is an urban-rural divide, and in some cases it is putting the future of rural schools at risk because they do not have access to broadband. Ludicrous situations are arising, as is also the case for many rural dwellers, where the mainline Eir broadband is coming within a few feet or metres of particular schools. Sometimes the Eir broadband is just up the road but it cannot be provided to the schools. What does the Minister propose to do about this?

I suspect this issue might be debated elsewhere in the House during the course of the day.

The delivery of high quality Internet connectivity for all schools is a key objective of my Department. Deputy Byrne has outlined why that is important. It is essential to embed technologies for teaching and learning and for the implementation of new subjects. My Department spends some €15 million per year on the provision of Internet connectivity.

The policy of my Department is to offer the best quality connectivity to all schools in line with the technical solutions available in the market and financial constraints. Broadband capacity can vary due to geographical location and local infrastructure, and thus impact on the service that can be provided.

A programme to roll out broadband to post-primary schools was started in 2012, at a time when virtually no school had speeds of over 30Mbp/ s. By the end of 2015, all 735 post-primary schools and some 58 special schools had speeds of 100Mbp/ s.

In the case of primary schools, by the end of 2017, 1,046 schools were upgraded to speeds of 30Mbp/s plus, the standard established under the national broadband plan. It is anticipated that the infrastructure to be made available through Eir's 300,000 rural deployment commitment will reach 700 to 800 schools by the end of 2018. 

This infrastructure will allow for speeds of at least 30 Mbps, if not more, and my Department will upgrade the service to those schools as soon as possible on delivery of the infrastructure.

The need to improve broadband connectivity to primary schools is recognised in my Department's digital strategy. An interdepartmental working group has been established to advise on how this can be best achieved while having regard to other developments in State policy and the implementation of the Government's national broadband plan, its associated intervention strategy and provision offered by the industry. Extensive training supports are available to schools to help in their planning and engagement with technology for teaching and learning.

There is much talk about plans but it worries me that the planning appears to be centred on Eir and Eir's strategy for the next year. Eir has a strategy for its own rural network and, before yesterday, apparently had a strategy for the rest of the rural network. I posted on Facebook yesterday, for my constituents, that Eir had pulled out of the national broadband plan. I view that as a disaster, as I am sure everybody does, but the reaction from members of the public was a little different. They have had such bad experiences with Eir, in various guises, over recent years that they are somewhat glad it is out of the process because they do not have confidence in it. When the Minister says that Eir will deliver these schools by the end of the year, it is almost passing the buck to a company that, let us be honest, has shown itself to be unreliable in the provision of broadband in rural areas. Yesterday was the pinnacle of that. I am very concerned that the answer to schools' broadband provision is Eir. The Department needs a far more comprehensive strategy involving the Department and other technologies that might be available. The Department should consider that urgently.

The group we have includes not just our representatives but also HEAnet, which has been very progressive in the roll-out of digital technologies, and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The Deputy is correct that the elements of putting this in place will partly come from commercial roll-out and Eir and others are doing that. It will partly come from the national broadband plan as well, and there are others that will have to be resolved in other ways. We are working in all three channels, as it were. We cannot ignore that where it is commercially viable for a company to roll it out, and Eir is a significant player and its plan envisages another 700 to 800 this year, that is clearly an opportunity for us to deliver to our primary schools. However, it is not the sole way of resolving the remaining areas we must address. Each year my Department seeks to plan the continuing roll-out. I share the Deputy's concern that we do this as quickly as possible. I understand the national broadband plan has the target of 2022 to complete the roll-out. If that could be achieved it would be the real backbone for addressing the rural disadvantage about which the Deputy is concerned.

The lack of broadband in rural schools is as big a threat to those schools as depopulation in some parts of the country and the cut to the pupil-teacher ratio for small schools that was introduced by the former Minister, Ruairí Quinn. That is the truth. Parents will look askance at schools that cannot provide the full educational experience to their students. As I said previously, the centre point of the strategy appears to be Eir. Eir is a dead duck. If it rolls out what it says it will in rural areas, aside from the national broadband plan which it has dropped like a hot potato, it may work out, but it is not acceptable for the Department of Education and Skills to put its eggs in the basket of a private operator that has proved itself to be unreliable in the provision of broadband, and not just in rural areas. I am seeking a much more comprehensive strategy. After the debacle that occurred yesterday, which is tragic for broadband in rural areas, perhaps it is time for the Department to acknowledge that it must look at this again, as it is a clear and present threat to our rural schools.

The reason we have an interdepartmental working group is to ensure that we keep abreast of changing technologies or, indeed, changes in commercial provision. However, Eir has a plan and it reiterated yesterday that it would deliver that plan even though it is pulling back from the national broadband plan. It would be short-sighted of the Department to suggest that Eir's potential to fill a significant gap should be shunned in some way. We will work with any commercial provider that proves capable of delivering. I am keen to have this move as quickly as possible. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, who will probably be answering questions later in the House, does not foresee delay in the roll-out of the national broadband strategy as a result of the decision by Eir, so we will continue to work with all parties and use the best available information to support our programme of investment.