Dáil Éireann - Volume 640 - 01 November, 2007
Adjournment Debate. - Telecommunications Services.
Deputy Michael Finneran Deputy Michael Finneran
Deputy Michael Finneran: I call on the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to address the need for the complete roll-out of broadband in the constituency of Roscommon-South Leitrim. An article appeared in a local weekly newspaper on 23 October 2007 which indicated there may be a delay or shelving of two important broadband projects for County Roscommon, namely one in the town of Castlerea and one in the town of Boyle.
 The Minister should be aware that these projects were sanctioned over two years ago by the previous Government. The local authority was informed the towns of Castlerea and Boyle were included in the phase two MANs programme. It was invited to prepare contract documents following the investigation, which it has done. Those documents are to be submitted this month for approval with a view to construction early in the new year. I understand a 90% grant is available from the Government and the remaining 10% will be provided by the county councils. I also understand the cost payable by county councils can sometimes amount to 25%. The overall cost of the project is €3 million.
The people of the towns of Castlerea and Boyle and of other parts of County Roscommon will not accept the shelving of these two projects which have been approved and where the preparation documents have been put in place. The new priority list which excludes these two towns is not acceptable to the people in County Roscommon. Any such proposal would set back the hard work that has been done by Enterprise Ireland, Roscommon County Council, the enterprise boards and other development organisations in the county.
Currently, the county manager, in consultation with Enterprise Ireland and local development groups, is at an advanced stage of negotiations for a project that would bring 50 to 60 jobs to the town of Boyle for a call centre. If a proposal to defer or shelve the fibre optic cable proposal for the town of Boyle goes ahead, the opportunity for those jobs will be gone also. That is not acceptable to a town that has lost practically all of its manufacturing employment in the past seven or eight years.
Recently Enterprise Ireland, under the aegis of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, allocated €350,000 to provide a new enterprise centre in Castlerea. The local development association, in consultation with all the other agencies, decided it would be an IT-oriented enterprise centre. One can well ask where that would leave this project in the event of broadband not being rolled out early in 2008.
It appears certain persons in the Department, either with or without the consent of the Minister, are attempting to exclude important areas of population in the constituency I represent. That is not acceptable to the people there who were given a commitment over two years ago. Any attempt to row back on their entitlement at this stage will be vigorously opposed.
I cannot understand how we can ask people on the one hand to promote jobs in the IT sector while on the other hand a person in another area can decide not to introduce the communications system that would allow that to become a reality. I urge the Minister to ensure this project costing €3 million goes ahead. The county manager has  indicated to me that the county council will carry the cost for 12 months in the best interests of the development of this project.
I hope we are in a position to allay the fears not alone of the elected members of Roscommon County Council, but also my fears as the Government Deputy and the fears of the good people of the towns of Castlerea and Boyle.
Deputy Tony Killeen Deputy Tony Killeen
Deputy Tony Killeen: I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. A lag in the provision and take-up of broadband in rural areas is generally a feature across the EU and beyond due to the private sector being unable to justify the commercial provision of broadband services in some rural areas. However, the Government is determined to address any potential digital divide that may arise.
The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband, is a matter in the first instance for the private sector. Broadband service providers operate in a fully liberalised market, regulated, where appropriate, by the independent Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. The role of the Government is to formulate regulatory and infrastructure policies to facilitate the provision of high quality telecommunications services by competing private sector service providers. Nevertheless, the widespread provision of broadband services continues to be a priority for the Government. In that regard, the Department has undertaken initiatives to address the gaps in broadband coverage. These include providing grant-aid under the recently concluded group broadband scheme and investment in metropolitan area networks, MANs.
There are currently eight group broadband schemes in operation in south Leitrim and Roscommon. The MANs constructed under phase 1 of the MANs programme, including those in Carrick-on-Shannon in south Leitrim and Roscommon town, are complete and fully open for business. They have been handed over to the managed services entity, eNet, which manages, markets, operates and maintains the networks on behalf of the State. Products available to service providers on a wholesale basis on these networks include dark fibre, ducting and co-location facilities.
The group broadband scheme, which offered grant assistance for the installation of broadband services in small towns and rural communities, also played a part in driving broadband into the regions. It is being replaced by the national broadband scheme, which will address the issue of the last 10% of the country which will never have access to broadband without investment and support. All reasonable requests for broadband to houses and premises in unserved rural areas will be met under this scheme.
The first phase of the procurement process of the national broadband scheme, the pre-qualifi cation questionnaire phase, is now complete. Eleven valid pre-qualification questionnaires were received and assessed, and four candidates have pre-qualified to enter the next phase of the procurement process for the scheme. The four candidates are, in alphabetical order, as follows: the BT Communications Ireland Limited consortium; Eircom; Hutchinson 3G Ireland Limited; and the IFA-Motorola consortium.
The Department anticipates that the national broadband scheme contract will be awarded during the second quarter of 2008, with the roll-out of the services due to begin as soon as possible thereafter. This timeline is subject to negotiations with candidates during the competitive dialogue phase of the procurement process. It is intended that the broadband service delivered under the national broadband scheme will be broadly comparable to the products enjoyed in the majority of currently served areas, now and in the future. This refers to both price and product specifications, which will have to evolve during the contract period to reflect trends in the broadband market. The most appropriate mechanism to achieve this aim will be decided during the competitive dialogue process.
The group broadband scheme — MANs and the national broadband scheme combined — combined with significant roll-out progress by the private sector operators, will make a huge contribution to the further availability of broadband throughout Ireland, particularly in rural areas. More generally, broadband penetration in Ireland has also increased significantly in recent years. I am pleased to state that broadband is now available in almost all parts of Ireland through a combination of digital subscriber line, fixed wireless, cable television, mobile and satellite technologies.
There are now 698,000 subscribers, according to the latest available official figures from ComReg, which, by OECD measures, is the equivalent of 16.48% of the population. This compares with less than 1% in 2002, 3% at the beginning of 2005 and 6.76% of the population at the beginning of 2006. We have narrowed the gap behind the EU average dramatically. At the end of the second quarter of 2006, the EU-25 average was 14% and our rate was 8%. At the end of the second quarter of 2007, the EU-25 average was 18.1% and our rate, including new mobile subscriptions, is at 16.48%. This is significant progress by any measure.
According to the latest available OECD broadband statistics, which apply up to the end of December 2006, the strongest per capita subscriber growth over the year came from Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Ireland. Each country added more than 5.8 subscribers per 100 inhabitants during 2006. As a result, Ireland has improved its position internationally and Government action through pro vision of an optimal regulatory regime and targeted infrastructural investment will continue to support this performance.
Although there is no connection, regulatory or otherwise, between Eircom and the Department, I welcome the recent announcement by Eircom that it is committing an extra €30 million to enabling 319 exchanges in the next couple of years to allow up to 140,000 new customers to connect to a broadband-enabled exchange. Other service providers have also announced invest ment plans which will improve the roll-out of high-speed infrastructure and services.
A draft policy paper on next generation broadband is being prepared by the Department, which will review current communications infrastructure policy and analyse policy options in light of industry developments. This will give guidance in regard to the optimum future role for Government in the planning and roll-out of broadband.
The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 6 November 2007.
Dáil Éireann 640 Adjournment Debate. Telecommunications Services.