Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Ceisteanna (26)

Dara Calleary


26. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of discussions he has had with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment with regard to broadband provision in rural communities, including the role of his Department in the national broadband plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23010/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (11 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Rural)

The national broadband plan, if properly implemented, has the capacity to be a game changer for Ireland, offering economic opportunities and also offering opportunities for people to come home and work from rural locations for companies based in bigger centres. There are many caveats to the plan and my party has many concerns. What specific input does the Department of Rural and Community Development have into the plan in terms of rural areas? Will those areas be prioritised as they are the areas that need the plan most?

I thank the Deputy and I am glad he raised the issue; as a rural Deputy it is very close to my heart. As Minister of State with responsibility for community development, natural resources and digital development, I work across both the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I also chair the mobile phone and broadband task force which was established in 2016 to identify and overcome obstacles to mobile phone and broadband services.

As someone who comes from a rural area, I am keenly aware of the importance of access to high-speed, high-quality broadband services in rural areas and I engage regularly with my ministerial colleagues in both Departments to find ways to remove barriers to the roll-out of telecommunications infrastructure.

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has overall policy responsibility for the national broadband plan. However, the Department of Rural and Community Development works closely with that Department and with local authorities to help prepare rural communities for the roll-out of high-speed broadband.

The mobile phone and broadband task force, which is co-ordinated by officials of the two Departments, has successfully addressed a number of complex issues over the past three years, many of which will facilitate the roll-out of the national broadband plan when the contract for the State intervention area is signed. Quarterly progress reports on the work of the task force are published on the websites of both Departments, with the most recent report covering the first quarter of 2019.

The Department of Rural and Community Development also supports preparations for the roll-out of the national broadband plan through the network of broadband officers located in each local authority. The broadband officers are co-funded by the Department and provide a vital point of contact for industry and the public regarding telecoms issues.

The broadband officers are also leading on the development of digital strategies for each local authority. These digital strategies will enable communities to make full use of digital technology in their daily lives and will be particularly beneficial when the broadband plan is rolled out.

I said this is a potential game changer and a proper roll-out of this plan for many areas might be the last chance saloon. The Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said at the end of April that after year ten of the national broadband plan all premises in the intervention areas will have access to high-speed broadband. The Government in its PR said seven years. Is it ten or seven years?

The Minister of State spoke about the role of the broadband officers. Some of them are doing excellent jobs. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, and I have a very good officer in our county. However, in response to a parliamentary question, the Minister of State advised that many of them - I believe the figure was 18 - had not responded or co-ordinated their activities with the Department. Has that situation improved? Did the Minister of State follow up with those reports that were outstanding?

When does the Minister of State expect the contract for the national broadband plan to be signed? What are the consequences and penalties for the operator if the operator does not deliver to rural communities, in particular, within a certain timeframe?

I have responsibility for the broadband officers who are working very hard. I think what the Deputy is referring to is when they were asked to provide some information on black spots and some of them did not respond. However, at the time they were only just in office and some of them did not know their full role. Since then ComReg has published the map that shows the black spot areas. I have met all the broadband officers and the local authority chief executives on a one-to-one basis since I came into office. I have also met them on a number of occasions at different meetings they have had. I am very happy that the broadband officers are working to ensure that their rural areas are ready.

The national broadband plan is to ensure that the 1.1 million people who are mainly living in rural areas will receive an equality of service in the next seven years when the roll-out happens. The Deputy asked when the contract would be signed. The conditions are being progressed at the moment and I expect it to be signed before the end of this year.

Go raibh maith agat.

The broadband officers have also identified 300 broadband connection points to be prioritised-----

The Minister of State will have another opportunity.

-----to provide access for rural people on an interim basis.

There will always be another minute.

I ask the Minister of State to confirm again when the tender contract will be signed. Given that the contract has yet to be signed, I suggest that the Minister of State and the Minister work to ensure that local companies and local tradespeople are involved in the roll-out of the project to provide employment opportunities.

If this is done properly - I always add that caveat, as we are still sceptical - it will represent a major infrastructural investment in many communities across the country. That investment should be aligned with employment opportunities for locally based companies. In designing the contract over the next few months and then rolling it out, will the Minister of State in his roles in the Departments of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and Rural and Community Affairs try to ensure that small businesses located in rural areas get a part of it and an opportunity to deliver services in their areas as opposed to what normally happens, that being, large outside contractors - sometimes, they are not on the island - taking all the work with no local return?

Something the Deputy said is worth repeating, namely, that the national broadband plan is the single largest investment in rural Ireland since rural electrification. That took 40 years, by the way. We will roll out broadband using current technologies over the next seven years, but it will also be maintained and future-proofed for the next 35 years. I am proud of this investment, as is everyone in rural Ireland because we have been left behind for so long. The broadband officers, my Departments and the Ministers, Deputies Ring and Bruton, are working to ensure that everyone will benefit from this as quickly as possible. Like every other Deputy who lives in rural Ireland, Deputy Calleary knows that there must be broadband and proper connectivity. In addition, it will not be 30 Mbps. Rather, it will start at 150 Mbps and increase to 300 Mbps. That will be a game changer for rural Ireland.