Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Ceisteanna (28)

Bobby Aylward


28. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the measures contained within the national broadband plan to ensure equality in the roll-out of broadband services for rural areas, rural communities and regional towns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18015/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

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

Will the Minister outline the measures contained in the national broadband plan to ensure equality in the roll-out of broadband services for rural areas, communities and regional towns?

I welcome the opportunity to provide the house with an update on the Government's national broadband plan. The plan aims to ensure that every citizen and business has access to a high-quality, high-speed broadband service. This will be achieved through a combination of commercial investments and a State-led intervention in areas where commercial services will not be provided. The intervention area to be served by the State intervention includes some urban areas but it predominantly covers rural and regional Ireland, which requires a step change to bridge the digital divide separating it from urban counterparts.

As the Deputy knows, my Department is in a formal procurement process to select a company that will roll out a new high-speed broadband network in the State intervention area. That procurement process is now in its final stages. My Department will engage with the successful bidder on the most efficient roll-out of the network. As part of the deployment, the successful bidder will be required to provide early high-speed connectivity to the previously identified high-speed strategic community access hubs across the country. The network that will be built by the successful bidder in the State intervention area will be a fully open access network providing wholesale telecommunications services. The contract will mandate that all retail service providers have open access to the infrastructure, which should result in consumers having access to a range of providers. The terms and conditions of this access will be monitored through the contract.

To answer the Deputy's question, there will be equal access to this network. It will be built by enet-SSE.

It will be a wholesale company and will lease that line to the traditional retailers available in Kilkenny city and every other city across the country to provide the same package and offer to people in rural areas.

I wish to point out that the mechanisms currently in place for public representatives to follow up on behalf of their constituents in respect of broadband are basically non-existent. That is important. I recently contacted the Department’s dedicated broadband email helpline regarding a constituent of mine in Ballybeg, Rossbercon, New Ross, whose case I have previously raised with the Minister. The residence is located in the middle of a dark blue area on the national broadband plan map but has no access to broadband. It took a month to secure a response from the Minister's Department stating that it is aware of a number of residences in dark blue areas which cannot access high-speed broadband and that it is keeping a list of same. I had to read that a few times before I could believe it. I had to wait a month for an email telling me that the Department is keeping a list. Meanwhile, my constituent is surrounded by neighbours who all have access to high-speed broadband but he cannot access it and no one can explain why. As the endless wait for works to commence under the national broadband plan rumbles on, will the Minister speak to his officials about providing an adequate service to public representatives? Will he speak to Eir about setting up a dedicated Oireachtas query line similar to those for the ESB, Electric Ireland and Ordnance Survey Ireland, OSI? It is important that is done to facilitate Members in representing their constituents.

I apologise to Deputy Aylward for the delay in responding to him, which is not good enough. I have previously raised the issue with my officials and I will do so once more on foot of the Deputy's comments.

As regards Eir, I hope to meet with its new owners early next month and I will inform them of the Deputy's comments on a query line for Members.

On the dark blue area, there is a problem across the country with areas in which we are told by private operators that high-speed broadband is available but it is not so available at a minimum of 30 mb per second 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is why on several occasions in the House before we locked down the map I asked Members to make the public aware that if they were in a dark blue area but were not receiving that minimum basic standard, they should come forward with their postcode so we could amend the map. We are noting all such areas. We will amend the map to reflect that, and those areas and premises will be addressed through a universal service obligation or the national broadband plan. All premises, whether in O'Connell Street in Dublin or the most peripheral part of County Kilkenny, County Roscommon or County Clare, will have access to high-speed broadband.

I ask the Minister to request that service when he speaks to Eir. A similar service is available with other organisations such as the ESB and is very helpful for Members in making representations. I ask the Minister to facilitate that dedicated line with Eir such that Members of this House can represent their constituents and find out what the problem is, unlike the situation I have raised whereby I received no response for a month and the response then received was negative.

Is the Minister worried that there is only one bidder left for the contract to roll out the national broadband plan? We started off with three or four, which became two and then, eventually, one. In terms of competition, is the Minister satisfied that the remaining bidder will be able to provide the service he envisages according to the timescale he has set out? Is 2020-21 still the date for the roll-out of that broadband? Will the Minister stick to that target or will it be pushed out in six months' time, as has happened before?

I will take up with Eir the issue of a dedicated line for Members.

As regards there being one bidder remaining for the contract, I am confident that we can roll this out. From engagement with the company, I believe it is ascertaining how it can fast track the build and it is already engaging in that regard. Significant progress has been made since this issue was last discussed in the House and I am determined that the contract will be signed as quickly as possible and, more importantly, that the final phase of the roll-out across the country will begin. We expect that 90% of the country will be covered by 2020. The Comreg quarterly reports indicate significant ongoing improvements in the quality and coverage of broadband that people have and provide evidence of a significant step up in that regard. However, I will not be happy until every home, business and farm has access to high-speed broadband.

Question No. 29 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 30 taken with Question No. 27.