I propose to take Questions Nos. 771 and 772 together. I propose to take Questions Nos. 771 and 772 together.
The EU and national regulatory framework for telecommunications allows for the application of a Universal Service Obligation (USO) in respect of fixed voice services. The existing framework for telecommunications relates solely to voice telephony and Functional Internet Access (28.8 kilobits per second). There is no provision in European or national regulation for a USO in relation to mobile voice services.
The Directive Establishing a European Electronic Communications Code (Directive (EU) 2018/1972), which will come into force following transposition in late 2020, aims to incentivise and encourage increased investment in high speed broadband networks, and contains a provision that would allow Member States to apply a USO for adequate speed broadband, in specific circumstances, where such networks are available.
Mobile operators are, however, rolling out 3G and 4G networks across Ireland following ComReg’s 2012 Multiband Spectrum auction, with at least one operator now having over 90% population coverage of 4G services.
Furthermore, the EU Commission's Digital Single Market Strategy highlights the importance of the 694-790MHz (700MHz) spectrum band for ensuring the provision of broadband services in rural areas. The band is particularly attractive for wireless broadband services, allowing higher speeds and greater coverage over long distances. An EU level Decision has been adopted in order to co-ordinate release of the band in all Member States by 30 June 2020. This proposal will allow mobile broadband services to use this part of the spectrum band, which will provide enhanced mobile services. My Department and ComReg have been working to ensure the necessary measures are taken to facilitate a clearance of the spectrum to meet the 2020 timeline for clearing broadcasting services from the band. In addition, ComReg published a preliminary consultation in June 2018 on a proposed award of spectrum rights of use covering multi- band spectrum, to include the 700 MHz band. On 18 June 2019, ComReg issued a response to consultation and further consultation on the proposed multi-band and spectrum award for the 700 MHz, 2.1 GHz, 2.3 GHz and 2.6 GHz bands.
In terms of ongoing efforts to improve mobile telephony coverage nationally, the Programme for Government specifically included a commitment to a Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce. The Taskforce worked with key stakeholders to produce a report in December 2016, available on my Department’s website, containing 40 actions to alleviate some of the coverage deficits across the country. An Implementation Group is overseeing the implementation of the actions and comprises all key stakeholders responsible for delivery. The Implementation Group meets on a quarterly basis and publishes quarterly progress reports on the implementation status of actions.
Now in its third year of operation, the Taskforce has addressed over 60 actions and continues to focus on issues that are negatively impacting upon the rollout of essential telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas. The outcome of discussions at the second Annual National Stakeholder Forum held in October 2018 informed preparation of the 2018 Annual Review Report, which was published on 21 February 2019 together with the 2019 Work Programme. Over 30 new actions are contained in the 2019 Work Programme for delivery this year.
Various measures are underway under the aegis of the Taskforce which will address mobile coverage deficits, particularly in rural areas such as counties Cavan and Monaghan.
- My Department and the Department of Rural and Community Development have worked to achieve a greater consensus around site selection for telecoms infrastructure and therefore improve mobile phone coverage.
- A focus group was established to provide guidance with respect to categories of location where high quality reliable mobile coverage should be made available as a priority. The report of the focus group was published on my Department’s website on 31 August 2018. It is anticipated that the output of the focus group should influence the actions of the mobile network operators in their work to reduce mobile phone blackspots. It will also inform future policy in my Department with regards to priorities for mobile phone services.
- A working group has been established with the remit of investigating the feasibility of developing standardised policy for accessing and utilising State and publicly-owned assets for the deployment of telecommunications infrastructure.
- ComReg has published a composite national outdoor coverage map, which will, in tandem with its work on handset testing and activities to raise consumer awareness, allow people across Ireland to optimise the services available to them.
- ComReg has developed a licensing scheme which will enable households and businesses to use mobile phone repeaters to boost signals into their premises and bring immediate improvements in mobile coverage.
All of these initiatives should help enhance the quality of mobile phone and data services, particularly in areas currently experiencing a low level of service, including counties Cavan and Monaghan.