Dáil Éireann - Volume 313 - 02 May, 1979

Adjournment Debate. - County Limerick Telephone Service.

Mr. W. O'Brien: On 28 February I put down a question for written reply but I was not happy with the reply I received. Newcastlewest is the county capital in my area, which is a designated area. So far we have not received a direct dialling system in spite of the fact that there are 600 subscribers in the immediate area. Many smaller towns and smaller areas have that service. I do not know why we are denied it. This town was to have an automatic service at the end of the year but for some reason that project has been put back indefinitely. There was a site for this automatic exchange at Rathkeale and the erection of it was begun. Building has now been stopped and the people in the area are anxious to know why.

The town has 15 industries employing approximately 1,500 people and approximately 30 per cent of their total output is for export. That speaks for itself. The population of the area is approximately 15,000. The absence of this service has had a bad effect on industry. One can well understand how difficult it is to interest industrialists in an area which has no automatic exchange. That lack creates a handicap for industrial development. West Limerick is literally starved of industry because of this and this was never so evident as during the present postal and telecommunications strike. Only during the past ten weeks have the people of Newcastlewest fully realised what they are being denied.

The IDA has a very difficult task in trying to induce industrialists to come to west Limerick. The people feel that without this basic service there is no hope for the future. The lack of adequate telecommunications services has literally isolated west Limerick from the outside world. We have no contacts and no hope of new industry because of this fact. Other areas such as Rathkeale, Kilmallock and Kilfinane suffer from the same inadequacy.

I would ask the Minister of State to make a commitment tonight, to give us this service. Over 400 subscribers have signed a petition, which I received, requesting the Minister to give an early indication of his intentions. They have set as a dead line 16 May to hear from the Department. These people are not easily roused, as has been proved by the fact that there is little trouble in these areas and few grievances have been expressed. There have been no protest marches or anything like that. However, people are only prepared to put up with a certain amount.

[2035] Industrialists find it very hard to reach, for instance, the managers of their firms in Newcastlewest, and there are very long delays. That is the reason I am asking the Minister here tonight to give me some information about what is happening. About two years ago these services were promised for Newcastlewest. I understand that something has happened to the site. Some people tell us that it has to do with dampness but I would like to know why we were not told anything. On behalf of the people of west Limerick I ask the Minister of State to say why this service has not been provided. I do not want to be told it will be provided in one or two year's time which was the reply I received to a question I put down.

Mr. O'Donnell: Deputy O'Brien has outlined the situation adequately and I should like to support what he said. A few nights ago, with Deputy O'Brien, I met a deputation from the Newcastlewest Chamber of Commerce, which deputation included businessmen, industrialists and public representatives from the Newcastlewest area who are gravely concerned about the situation.

As Deputy O'Brien has pointed out, the situation has been exacerbated by the unfortunate prolonged dispute in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Newcastlewest is the centre of a fast developing industrial and agricultural hinterland. It has a number of important industries that are export-orientated and it is adjacent to the major Alcan development on the Shannon estuary. There are other projects planned for that area. Newcastlewest is not merely a dormitory town but it is an important regional town in relation to the Shannon estuary.

I have seen examples of industrialists in successful industries with a high export content trying to operate under very severe handicaps. The manual telephone service is not suited to modern industry or business. I understand from the deputation we met in Newcastlewest that expectations had been raised that something was going to happen about this matter in the current year but judging [2036] from the reply of the Minister of State to Deputy O'Brien recently there appears to be a change of attitude. There is a slowing down in the programme.

The future economic development of Newcastlewest and its large hinterland will depend on the provision of automatic telephone facilities in that area. I live in the Kilmallock area where there is no automatic telephone service. The absence of this facility nowadays is very serious. I ask the Minister if there is any reason for delay in the provision of automatic telephone facilities for Newcastlewest. If there is a reason we want the Minister to tell us. Industrialists in the area are operating under severe handicaps because of the absence of this modern facility which they were led to believe would be provided in the current year.

Irrespective of whatever difficulties may have arisen, I urge the Minister to put the provision of an automatic telephone service for the Newcastlewest area high in the Department's programme of work. I am sure the Minister of State appreciates fully the gravity of the situation. I am concerned about the cases put to me by people who are operating successful industries in that area. Some of them are in food processing or engineering industries. As Newcastlewest is adjacent to the Shannon estuary we hope there will be spin-off industries coming to Newcastlewest, Rathkeale and other towns and villages. I urge the Minister to take immediate action to ensure that the much-needed automatic telephone facilities will be provided in Newcastlewest as quickly as possible.

Minister of State at the Department of Posts and Telegraphs (Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick, Dublin South-Central): First, I wish to say that I accept readily the desirability of converting not just the four exchanges in question but all the other manual exchanges in the country. However, I should like to explain that it is a major undertaking to convert all exchanges to automatic working and that this task could be undertaken only on a piecemeal basis. Therefore, an order of priority has to be set.

[2037] This was arranged broadly on the basis of dealing with the major centres first, where this was practicable, and with the smaller exchanges dependent on them. Altogether, more than 500 exchanges catering for 90 per cent of existing subscribers have automatic service but the remaining 10 per cent are served by some 500 exchanges. Arrangements for the conversion of these exchanges are being pressed forward as quickly as possible but, regrettably, it will take some years yet before they can all be converted. Naturally, we must have an order of priority in this matter.

Turning to the four exchanges referred to in the Deputy's question, I propose to deal first with Newcastlewest and Rathkeale. Rathkeale is the critical exchange in so far as the conversion of other exchanges in this area is concerned as trunk calls from other exchanges in the area will be switched at Rathkeale exchange. Therefore, the other exchanges cannot be converted to automatic working in advance of Rathkeale.

The position of Rathkeale is that the building required for the automatic exchange was due to be completed in April 1978, not the indefinite period suggested by Deputy O'Brien. Unfortunately the contract completion date for the building was not met and the work is only now being completed. The automatic exchange equipment has been on order for quite some time but installation could not begin until the building was completed. Work on installation of the exchange is to begin as soon as the building is available but it is likely to take up to the end of next year before the exchange is ready for service. When Rathkeale is ready for service the other exchanges mentioned by the Deputy will become automatic at the same time.

A building is available at Newcastlewest but, as I have said, this exchange cannot be converted to automatic working in advance of Rathkeale. The installation work there will go ahead in parallel with that of the Rathkeale exchange and both should be converted to automatic working at about the same time, namely, about the end of next year.

As regards Kilmallock and Kilfinane, [2038] both of these are in the Rath Luirc group and the Rath Luirc exchange will be the automatic trunk switching centre for these exchanges. Rath Luirc in turn is dependent on Limerick exchange for the routing of much of its onward traffic. The trunk exchange at Limerick needs to be extended. Work on the building required there is in progress and will, it is expected, be completed about the middle of next year. The new trunk exchange there is, however, unlikely to be available for service until mid-1982.

The existing automatic exchange at Rath Luirc has also to be replaced before Kilmallock, Kilfinane and other exchanges in the area can be converted to automatic working. The building at Rath Luirc is nearing completion and the aim is to have the new exchange ready for service shortly after the Limerick exchange. Conversion of Kilmallock and Kilfinane will follow this, but because it has not been possible so far to get a suitable site for the exchange building at Kilmallock, we cannot be reasonably assured of this at this stage. The Deputy may take it, however, that every effort will be made to arrange this.

Everything possible will be done to give as good a service as possible up to the date of conversion to automatic working, including provision of some additional trunk lines between Newcastlewest and Limerick later this year, with additional switchboards being installed at Rathkeale. Indeed the Department took exceptional action to give a good service at Newcastlewest and Abbeyfeale by taking over the staffing of these sub-office exchanges.

There is a very big volume of work to be done in improving and modernising the telephone service, but there are limits to what can be done at any one time. Work must be carried out in a planned, orderly way. All manual exchanges would be converted to automatic work immediately but that is simply not practicable. More applicants have to be given service and the telephone network must be expanded to enable this to be done. Local cabling and trunk circuits must be increased and exchanges extended or replaced. It is not possible to hold back all this type of work and to give conversion [2039] of manual exchanges to automatic working overall priority. There must be a balance between all types of work.

As Deputies can see, we have a progressive policy in regard to countryside automation. At the moment, 90 per cent of all subscribers are on automatic exchanges. I fully appreciate the position of many people who are on manual exchanges and the drawbacks as far as business is concerned, and our policy is to bring all exchanges under the automatic system as soon as possible. We recently announced that we are giving a high priority to the whole telecommunications section and we hope that before long 98 or 99 per cent of subscribers will be on the automatic system.

With my rural knowledge I have no doubt that the system of manual exchanges is not acceptable because it is not efficient as far as modern industrial organisations are concerned. They want a quicker service. We are continuing to pursue the policy I have outlined and we hope that by the end of next year the [2040] County Limerick exchanges will be automatic.

Mr. W. O'Brien: I thank the Minister for his interest but I would draw his attention once more to the great unrest in Newcastlewest because of the delay. There was a kind of commitment given to that area prior to the last election: they were told that the building would be completed in 1978. How is it possible that if the premises were completed in 1978 the service could not be provided until the end of 1980?

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Dublin South-Central): It takes about 18 months from the time of completion of the building for the installation of equipment and so on.

Mr. W. O'Brien: Would the Minister review the matter again?

Mr. T.J. Fitzpatrick (Dublin South-Central): I will do everything I possibly can.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday 3 May 1979.