03/10/14 Senator Daly speaks to Seanad regarding broadband

Senator Daly: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking the question on broadband provision nationwide and in Kerry. He is well aware of the difficulties in rural areas regarding broadband. I am sure he is aware of the fact that 30% of trade is now done over the Internet yet only 10% of Irish companies seem to have a presence and an ability to sell over the Internet. A large part of this is due to an ineffective broadband system throughout the country and in rural Ireland it is a major impediment.

The focus of my concern is not only the lack of broadband but broadband speed. One study has shown that the speed of broadband and fibre optic networks in Ireland is less than 1% while the OECD average is 9.6%. A fibre optic network can lead to potential savings in the four main economic areas of electricity, transportation, education and health but, as I have said, the fibre optic network here has been less than poor.

With regard to the speed of our network at 10 MBps, the Irish network is just over 10% whereas in the UK it ranges in the high 30s to the mid-40s in percentage terms of their ability to get 10 MBps or more. We have a number of proposals. One proposal is like the rural electrification or group water schemes where communities could put in ducting which accounts for 90% of the cost of installing a fibre optic network. That is the future-proof way of having a better network.

We all know the difficulties encountered when installing masts in rural areas. The Minister of State knows that communities, such as those in his area, are quite willing to install fibre optic networks given that the tools, mechanism and money could be put in at a reasonably inexpensive cost relative to the State installing same. In the same way as rural water schemes were installed by communities, the ducting could be done which accounts for 90% of the cost of a fibre optic network. If the network is installed by a private contractor or the State, there is no doubt it would be done at a huge expense and enormous waste.

Rural broadband, and broadband in general, are a concern for Kerry but are also a concern for Donegal because they are used for commerce throughout the world, and increasingly so. However, small businesses and communities around Ireland – in Kerry, Donegal and elsewhere – do not have access to adequate broadband. In some cases they do not have access to broadband at all.

Joe McHugh TD: Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I thank the Senator for tabling the question. Broadband is a subject close to my heart and he is right that Donegal faces the same challenges as Kerry. I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on this matter.

The State only intervenes in the competitive telecommunications market where there is evidence of clear market failure and such intervention is always subject to EU state aid approval. The national broadband scheme was one such intervention.

Let me be clear on this matter, there is no question of services being withdrawn following the ending of the scheme. 3 has confirmed that, following the expiry of the scheme, it will continue to provide coverage throughout national broadband scheme areas on a commercial basis, and that customers should see no change to the level of service or speeds provided by 3. It has also announced plans to extend 4G coverage across all of the NBS coverage areas within the next three years offering significantly faster mobile broadband speeds.

I understand that former NBS customers who choose to stay with 3 can avail of the same choice of broadband plans and tariffs as those offered by it in non-NBS areas. Furthermore, there is now a choice of commercial operators offering broadband services over a diverse range of technology platforms throughout much of the area previously covered by the NBS.

Through the national broadband plan, the Government aims to ensure that high speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses in Ireland. This is being achieved through a combination of commercial investment and the development of a State-led intervention for non-commercial areas.

The commercial sector is currently investing approximately €2.5 billion in new infrastructure and services. These investments are delivering high-speed broadband to homes and businesses across Ireland for whom low speeds would have been the norm just two years ago. The pace of investment is encouraging and is having tangible impacts on communities across Ireland.

The Government has made clear its intention to ensure that all citizens and businesses can access high-speed services, regardless of where they are located. The national broadband plan, therefore, aims to supplement the significant commercial investments with a State-led intervention in the areas where commercial investment is not forthcoming.

The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is currently finalising a mapping exercise which will identify the precise areas of commercial investment and those areas that require a State-led intervention. The Minister and I intend to publish a series of interactive maps later this year for public consultation where operators and citizens can give feedback, with a view to ensuring that we correctly identified all of the areas requiring intervention. These maps will be dynamic and subject to change as future commercial investments are announced or rolled-out.

Publication of the maps represents an important milestone in the overall project. It will feed into a detailed implementation strategy which will be of published in 2015, in tandem with an application for EU State aids approval. The detailed plan will be the subject of a full public consultation and we will move quickly thereafter into formal procurement for a winning bidder or bidders to build the network.

The proposed State-led intervention will involve a substantial network build-out which will be capable of carrying even higher broadband speeds, as new and more bandwidth-demanding services emerge. It will extend to locations in every county in the State identified as having no current or planned high speed network.

This challenging programme is being progressed as a priority project within my Department. The national broadband plan, which is being progressed in stages, will deliver quality, high-speed connectivity to meet the needs of present and future generations in all parts of Ireland.

Senator Daly: I thank the Minister of State for the reply. My concern is that customers will not see a change in the level of service or speeds provided by 3. Reports from many areas indicate that speeds have been reduced, and if such speeds remain, that will not be helpful. The concern here is that 3 has said it will not improve the level of service or speeds.

I understand the Government proposes to apply for EU aid in 2015, but it will be 2016 before some of the areas in the Minister of State’s constituency, as well as parts of Kerry, will see any funding and 2017 before improved service is a reality. Approximately 90% of the cost of installing a fibre optic network is accounted for by the ducting system, and if communities are capable of installing a water network in their area, they are also capable of putting in the ducting required for a fibre optic cable. This would ensure they would get broadband services much more quickly than the current projections. I fear that the timelines referred to will not be met and that the areas that need broadband the most will not be connected any time soon. Connectivity with the world should mean that a person working on the Stock Exchange can do that work from Inishowen or Valentia island, where the quality of life is much better than in places like London. This is not possible, however, because such areas do not have access to high-speed broadband. The commercial network operators are not providing such access, and while the Government intends to provide access to high-speed broadband where it will not be provided by commercial entities, the timeline for this is far too long.

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