Seanad Éireann - Volume 194 - 25 March, 2009

Telecommunications Services: Motion.

  Senator Martin Brady: I move:

That Seanad Éireann welcomes the various Government interventions in broadband which have led to improved choice, quality and prices of services and the national broadband scheme which will make broadband available in those parts of the country not currently served.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome the Bill regarding the investment in broadband services. Foreign investors coming to Ireland have two requirements, one of which is a good telecommunications system and the other being transport. The overall goal for the Government is to ensure that its communications policy continues to drive the Irish economy and break the digital divide. A key strategy in achieving that goal is to ensure the widespread availability of affordable broadband for business and citizens.

The current position is that broadband is not widely available here. We had a meeting last week with Eircom representatives who admitted it is not financially viable to provide broadband in some rural areas of the country. I spoke to a person involved in the telecommunications business before coming into the Chamber who told me that last week, a businessperson from Cavan was in contact with him and he was told in no uncertain terms that Eircom could not provide him with a broadband service. Eircom is inhibited by the regulator from investing what it believes is necessary in the infrastructure to make it attractive to customers. That is a problem that must be examined. That happens in the United Kingdom as well, not just in Ireland.

The current Eircom network providing broadband is not sufficient for businesses because it is low speed. The problem that arises is that if Eircom collapsed tomorrow there is no plan B. If Eircom collapsed, the other telecommunications providers would not be able to provide the service required.

Government support will be needed to secure the long-term viability of the network, not only in cities but also in rural areas. We must make broadband available to customers wherever they want it, at a cost that is affordable and within a specified period. Not too far from here in Malahide and such places, broadband is non-existent. A businessman to whom I spoke last week had to let two of his staff go because Eircom was unable to provide him with a broadband [761]service. In the case of another person who has broadband, Eircom was unable to repair it. The infrastructure is run down.

Finance must be pumped into the provision of broadband if we want to broaden the provision and provide the service the customers require. If we do not do that, jobs will be at stake. I am aware of a case where two people were let go. Another person cannot relocate because proper telecommunications service cannot be provided. I support what the Minister is doing but I would like to him to examine the points I have raised.

  Senator John Carty: I welcome the Minister to the House. The Minister and the Government want to ensure their communications policy drives the Irish economy and breaks the digital divide. The key strategy in that strategy is to ensure there is widespread availability of affordable, always-on broadband for businesses and citizens. I am happy to note that the Minister recognises there is a lack of service in regional areas outside the main urban centres and that he has undertaken initiatives to address that problem by providing grant aid. There is also recognition that more remote areas find it difficult to access broadband. There are now people living in those areas who work from their homes three days per week and do not get a fast service, if any service at all. That is frustrating for people trying to do business.

As someone from County Mayo I am aware that in the west of the county there is a demand for broadband but the people are not getting the service they require. In south Mayo I am getting the same complaints from constituents. While they live near Eircom bases they do not appear to be able to get the service they require.

The national broadband scheme will bring broadband to areas of the country which currently are without coverage. It is being provided by 3 Ireland independently of Eircom’s plans. This may be no harm, because Eircom has not done the job it promised to do. This body is contracted to meet challenging roll-out targets and provide higher speed broadband as the scheme is implemented. Implementation will be on the basis of electoral divisions. The Minister has provided a major contribution from the Exchequer, which is welcome. I hope the scheme will provide access to broadband in remote areas which are finding it difficult to get the required levels of service. Urban centres seem to be fairly well looked after but rural areas are not. This has a major impact on people living in those areas. In fact, they are quite annoyed about it.

There has been much negativity about Ireland’s progress in the area of broadband but there is positive news too. We should note that it is not all bad news. As late as June 2007 there were 500,000 subscribers; now there are more than 1 million. There are 40 operators in the market at present compared with three in 2000. This gives an idea of where we are going and of the demand for the service. The latest global innovation survey, which was published recently, placed Ireland third out of 40 advanced economies in the area of broadband improvement. There was a 6,088% increase in the number of subscribers from 2005 to 2008. This is welcome news. I hope this progress will continue and that we get the service we deserve and that is being demanded.

My colleague mentioned the appearance of Eircom representatives at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in early March. They said they were reviewing the level of investment in next generation broadband networks owing to the economic downturn. I may be wrong in saying this but I do not think it provided a great service when the economy was going well. It did not do enough to ensure remote regions were provided with broadband access, whether by fibre-optic cable or by satellite. It did not do a good job and I am delighted independent bodies are now coming in to pick up the slack.

[762]The representatives at the committee said that Eircom planned to upgrade its core network from copper wire to fibre-optic cable in urban centres and regional towns throughout the country by 2011. That is not good enough. It has had plenty of time and opportunity over recent years to improve the service but has not done so. This will leave rural people without a hope of being provided with broadband. Eircom is the largest and best resourced body to provide these rural areas with vital services but it has not done so. It merits criticism in this regard. It has not given the service that was expected through the years. Despite the times we are in, Eircom also said there were technical difficulties providing broadband to people in rural Ireland who live more than 5 km from a telephone exchange. I must challenge even that because I know people who live within 1 km of a telephone exchange and do not get a satisfactory broadband service. This is to be deplored.

I am delighted the Government is pushing ahead with the national broadband scheme and I hope it will rectify many of the shortfalls that currently exist in rural broadband provision. I compliment the Minister on his actions. I know he is trying to advance this process. It is vital, especially at present in view of the economic downturn. There are opportunities. I know quite a number of people who have set up businesses in their own homes aimed at foreign markets, and if they had a good broadband service they could bring much more money into our economy from abroad. I ask the Minister to take our comments on board and to consider the more remote regions, especially along the west coast, where there are different problems to those existing in large urban centres.

  Senator Joe O’Reilly: I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Seanad Éireann” and substitute the following:

“— recognises the critical importance of broadband services in the development of the knowledge economy nationally and regionally;

condemns the Government for its failure to deal effectively with regional disparities in the provision of broadband services;

and calls on the Government to:

deliver on its commitment to provide as a matter of urgency adequate broadband availability and speed to 100% of the population;

set clear ambitious targets on average speeds, availability and penetration rates to be achieved within set timeframes in the short and medium term;

require the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to report in detail to the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources every six months on these targets and on Government policy.”

I wish to share time with Senator Twomey.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I am informed the amendment must be seconded, so each Senator must take his own slot.

  Senator Joe O’Reilly: I thank you for your direction, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I join my colleagues in welcoming the Minister. Apart from being unduly exuberant, the Government is somewhat premature in congratulating itself on its success in the area of broadband to date, [763]which is why we tabled a sobering amendment to give some balance to the discussion. I hope Senator Carty sees fit to accept the amendment.

There are many misconceptions about the current level of broadband coverage. One of the most distorting aspects is the maps that have been available to date which do not always show the topography of the country and the areas, such as valleys, that are not covered. I can identify large areas in my constituency that are not covered, and I know this to be the experience of colleagues in the same area. We have not reached a level of coverage that is anything like adequate. I was dealing recently with representations from an area beside a large provincial town which does not have broadband coverage. I am told of areas 15 miles from Dublin, including in Wicklow, without proper coverage. This emerged at the meeting today of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Coverage is by no means universal and quite sketchy in many places. The maps hide areas in which coverage is bad. The national broadband scheme is welcome but the delay in its implementation is regrettable. However, even with the national broadband scheme, 12,000 homes would not be covered, which represents a considerable area without coverage. This information is provided by the organisation Irish Rural Link and the figures are accepted by the Department. The lack of a full broadband service is serious, with large tracts of the country not covered by the national broadband scheme. Dernakesh, in the hinterland of Cootehill, a reasonably sized provincial town, does not have broadband coverage. This is repeated throughout the country. As a Senator I get communications from councillors who regularly tell me they do not have broadband. I have heard this message in Westmeath, Louth, north County Dublin and Wicklow, all the counties in my own area and across Connnacht-Ulster. It is important to widen coverage.

Eircom is not in a strong position to deliver next generation broadband services and that is a concern. It has admitted its financial position is difficult, with a debt burden of €3.7 billion, and the parent company in Australia, Babcock & Brown, is struggling to survive. That has implications for the delivery of next generation broadband and our economic development. The Government must intervene. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources expressed the view that Eircom would need to be taken into State ownership to attract investment and ensure sufficient capital for the development of next generation broadband.

The amendment points out that broadband, especially next generation broadband, is critical for economic development by ensuring the availability of on-line booking, video conferencing and access to knowledge across the world. It is vital to the maintenance of rural businesses, the rural economy and the lifestyle of people in the country. At a time when jobs are being lost, it is important that broadband is available to maintain existing jobs and to provide access to information for students. It is an important communications system in the modern world. It is as important as a road network was in the past. The need is critical.

The initial date for full broadband coverage was the end of 2009. The Minister has postponed that in recent pronouncements and, assuming optimum success, we are still 20 months from complete coverage according to his most optimistic projections.

There are question marks around mobile operators providing broadband services and the speed of those services. The national broadband scheme is welcome but we are not satisfied with the speed of the roll-out of broadband and the extension of the projected dates for full coverage. The maps that exist do not offer an adequate account of the existing situation in many rural areas that lack coverage. Progress to date does not merit the passing of the motion without accepting the amendment.

  Senator Liam Twomey: I second the amendment. The Minister is aware of the difficulties Eircom faces in providing infrastructure because Babcock & Brown does not have the neces[764]sary funding. The national broadband scheme he recently announced has been granted to 3 Ireland.

I would like to take issue with some of the points Eircom made at the committee last week. It was stated that it is not possible to get broadband more than 5 km from an exchange and that wireless broadband companies cannot provide the same coverage or bandwidth. That is untrue. Wireless broadband companies can provide the same speeds as Eircom, with 2 megabyte capability in both uploading and downloading. One wireless broadband company of which I am aware can provide up to 8 megabytes for specific customers who need such download speeds for their businesses.

The difficulty faced by wireless broadband companies is the varying standard throughout the country. Many of them are set up by individuals who lack the necessary specific expertise in software to provide a service to the customer and in hardware to run the masts and provide the infrastructure to ensure the broadband works at all times. The provider must also be a businessman because funding is needed to run the company.

My sister lives one mile from the nearest exchange near Rosscarbery in west Cork and cannot get broadband while my brother can receive up to 8 megabyte speeds on the wireless broadband system. He owns the company that does it; that is how I know I am right. He can provide up to 8 megabyte broadband speeds to specific customers, with 2 megabyte speeds for all customers using the wireless broadband system. He understands the Minister’s predicament but he makes clear that what is being said about wireless broadband companies is not true. They are efficiently run, have the technology and the business acumen and can provide broadband at the speeds necessary for people to enjoy broadband in rural areas. The problem is that some of the schemes that have been set up are not very well run. While I suppose the Government has little say in how they are run, it can give the impression to some people that wireless broadband does not work. The Minister should become more involved in what is happening in that sector because it could provide a solution to many of the problems currently facing broadband. There will be no easy solution, however, because the system in most major towns has been structured in such as way that it will be impossible to implement in an economically viable way for those companies wishing to use it. It is just too expensive. Eircom will not put the necessary millions into the system unless we buy it or put substantial State investment into the company. Those are the existing problems for the fixed-line broadband service.

Satellite is not an alternative because it is far too expensive. In addition, mobile phone technology for broadband is not even as powerful as wireless systems. Speakers have focused on broadband problems in rural areas and the solution lies with the wireless system. I ask the Minister to meet with people like my brother and others who run these sorts of companies. They are usually small outfits and may not interest the Minister to the same degree as the problems he would be faced with concerning Eircom. They have solutions to offer, however, and it would be worth discussing the matter with them.

Those are the main points I wished to raise. Broadband is a major issue for politicians. Public representatives are always hearing about people’s unhappiness with the lack of access to broadband. Even in major towns there are problems with Eircom lines not functioning properly, as well as problems with the demand system due to the cost of access. We have broadband problems both in urban and rural areas, but they are not insurmountable if we put our minds to them. Some of the Government’s strategy will work, but more effort needs to be put into it. We can get through this if we put our minds to it.

  Deputy Eamon Ryan: I thank Senators for the opportunity raise this crucial issue for the development of our country. I do [765]not think anyone can be complacent about this matter and, having listened to the concerns expressed by Senators O’Reilly, Brady and Carty, I do not think they are being complacent. They are very much aware of their constituents’ concerns and interests in having a better broadband service. The first fundamental question is to ask why this is of such importance. There are three reasons, the first of which is the economic one. Many of the new jobs we will create as we trade our way out of the present economic crisis will arise from trade on the Internet — that network of networks for which broadband provides access. Broadband is not an end or a benefit in itself, except for the access it provides. The faster, more ubiquitous and easier that access is, the better for companies and individuals to be enterprising on that network. In that way they can trade not only in Ireland but across the world in a seamless, clean, quick and efficient manner. It is therefore central to our economic development in a way that we are only just starting to understand and explore. As a country that has excelled in recent years as an open economy, trading internationally, it is critical for us to have a top class broadband network so we can avail of those opportunities which we are only starting to consider.

Second, broadband is vital for the democratic development of our country. One of the other uses of the Internet is the social networking that can take place on it. In addition, it involves collaboration and a democratic engagement and involvement that can take place through the use of those networks. During the recent presidential election campaign in the United States we saw a further step up in terms of people becoming engaged and actively involved in politics, which is what we all aspire to see happening regardless of our political background. The Internet is therefore an important tool of democratisation in the development of our society.

Third, the important question “Why?” arises. I believe the Internet will be of crucial importance in meeting many of the environmental objectives we have. It will cut down emissions and the use of resources. People often refer to the “Internet of things” whereby we will go from one website, weblink or datapoint to another. It will increasingly be a network that connects devices for electronics, transport, monitoring and machines in the home so we can use them more efficiently. It will be centre stage in how we deliver efficiency to expand the economy in a way that meets the green economist Herman Daly’s criteria of having qualitative development rather than quantitative growth.

For those three reasons the roll-out of broadband is crucial. If one looks at which countries have been successful in this respect and where networks have developed best, it is clear that competition has driven it. In Holland and the United Kingdom where they have good networks that are ahead of ours, the competition between cable and fixed-line phone companies to provide such network access has driven the development, bringing speeds up and prices down. While we have lagged behind in recent years, that competition has been more in evidence. Because of it we have seen investment by companies and improvements in the situation. As Senator Carty said, in June 2007 we had some 500,000 broadband connections whereas we now have roughly 1.2 million and the figure is rising. We have come back from bottom of the league to tenth in the EU out of 27 member states. We cannot be satisfied with that, however, because we need to be in the top three. We need to match Denmark, Holland, Britain and other countries. We recognise, however, that we have come some way. We have 40 operators which are all equally important in that competitive market. We do not see one operator as the sole possible provider.

We must also recognise that in instances there has been real market failure. The reason we have been lagging behind is because Eircom as a fixed-line company, and the cable operator, in those crucial years from 2002 to 2004 when the new Internet was developing, failed to invest in their networks and provide broadband access to the public. They would say that was due to the lack of a business case but the reality was that we were not giving people the opportunity to connect and by dint of that we were falling behind and losing jobs. We also lost the sort of [766]Internet connectivity that is expected in a modern, knowledge-based society and thus our ability to obtain services from such networks was hindered. Because of that market failure the Government has over a period made a series of interventions and will continue to intervene to stimulate competition and get the services we want.

One of the key initial investments that makes such obvious sense now, although at the time it was fought tooth and nail by certain sections of the public service because we may not have had a top notch cost-benefit analysis, was in our international connectivity. A State investment in a global crossing-fibre connection to the wider world Internet, was a crucial investment. It improved our position through cheaper international connectivity and higher band width speeds, which brought business to this country. Continuing that tradition of investment, recent contracts have been signed concerning Project Kelvin, which is an international connection from the United States to the north west of this island, connecting down through Monaghan and Cavan — Senator O’Reilly will be glad to hear — to Dublin. That will add to our international connectivity thus ensuring quick and fast connections with the rest of the world.

In addition, the Government has engaged in a number of different schemes to boost market efforts. Initially with the group broadband schemes, some 127 rural communities were given the opportunity to access the type of operators referred to by Senator Twomey. They often operate with innovative fixed-line and wireless solutions which we must turn to because of our demographic situation, which is different to most other countries. Up to 40% of houses are located in rural areas where it is difficult to run a DSL connection any distance from an exchange.

Beyond that there was the development of the metropolitan area networks in two phases. It was a massive investment by the State in fibre connections in most large towns and several large cities. That investment will prove to be a long-term real benefit to the State, as we need to move to fibre as our main transportation network for heavy data traffic. There will be space for cable, mobile, fixed, wireless, satellite and other operators. They will be able to work best when they get their volume data transactions on to fibre. New photonic systems will be able to carry large volumes of data, multiples of what is carried by present systems. The metropolitan area networks were an important long-term investment by the State in that regard.

The issue of covering rural areas that could not be included in the metropolitan area networks scheme did not go away. Neither did the group broadband schemes solve the problem. In recognition of that, we have signed contracts on a national broadband scheme which is aimed at getting to the 10% of the population which otherwise would not be served. The best way to manage the scheme was to go down to the smallest local area district — the electoral district. We reached agreement with the EU under the competition rules that where there was a significant minority of the population in any such electoral district which could not get broadband, it could be provided on a subsidised-supported basis.

That is what happened with the competitive process involving several different companies and leading to the contract being awarded to 3, a Hutchinson Whampoa company, which in turn is a major international company providing 3G broadband access with guaranteed broadband transaction speeds. It is a crucial and important development for the social, economic and environmental agenda. The public sector involvement of €79 million, out of the €200 million project, shows it is not an insignificant investment and the political importance of covering those areas that would not be provided with that broadband service.

We need to push further and not rest. In the next-generation broadband discussions, we engaged with a range of different industries, not just telecommunications but the computer and broadcasting industries. Several developments from these discussions have emerged.

[767]It is proposed to ensure high speed 100 MB connectivity broadband in our schools and a wireless connection for every classroom. For example, a French classroom could connect with a classroom in Mayo or Donegal to provide a real-time interaction and different learning experience. Another example would be a mathematics class being able to download the latest leading physics lectures from MIT at the click of a mouse. Teachers and students having that ability would change the education system. This would be the greatest benefit of the State intervening to provide such access to schools in an open and competitive manner which supports the market. It also will have a knock-on effect in the provision of high speed broadband services to other services and households in the area.

Another development in the strategy is to provide a one-stop-shop wherever there is State infrastructure with ducting, which could carry a fibre network. It will be co-ordinated to allow businesses access to it. Likewise, the planning system must be changed so that any new housing developments will have high-speed fibre connections to ensure householders do not have to retrofit their residences.

The most crucial advantage Ireland has in the development of a broadband network is its available wireless spectrum. Access to it, unlike in other countries, is not restricted because there is not much of a military demand for it and because we are an island. The use of that spectrum in an innovative way to test new wireless systems and applications is an advantage. We have given clear directions to the communications regulator to use the spectrum wisely and put us ahead of other countries which might not have the same resource.

It is crucial, be it the cable or fixed-line telephone companies, to make the investments now that will deliver the next generation of broadband services on their networks. Be it building a fibre connection to a telecommunications cabinet to ensure high-speed connection to the nearest homes or be it upgrading the cable television system to provide broadband, such investments will provide a future for those companies and provide an income, not just from their traffic but others sharing it.

In this way, a business case can be built up for what is a difficult and costly investment. Failure to do that will see this country falling behind again and missing out on the jobs we need to create in this economic crisis. The State will do whatever is possible to support this type of investment in a competitive market. There must be a more co-operative, but at the same time competitive, approach to ensure access for a range of different suppliers is made much more easily and everyone benefits economically. That is the nature of this new Internet world. It is a more collaborative and open world and ages away from the old days of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs where the one company managed the whole process. That was the time when one had to wait nine months to get a telephone and someone could listen in on the exchange. We are in a faster, more open-access and distributed Internet world now. We need to be good at it. The companies which fail to invest in it will fail in the short run because it is a fast-changing world. This is what we must achieve. It is no small task and one we cannot ignore or be slow in taking on.

  Senator Feargal Quinn: I wish to share time with Senator Mullen.

  Senator Fiona O’Malley: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Senator Feargal Quinn: I welcome the Minister’s speech because I was not happy with the wording of the Government’s motion that Seanad Éireann welcomed the Government’s intervention in broadband provision. It was far too complacent while the Minister was much more open and explained his plans and hopes for achievement in the area. It was far more honest.

[768]On 12 December 2007, Senator Ross also tabled a motion on broadband access. During that debate I pointed out one of the four principle issues in the last Australian general election was broadband roll-out to every house in the country. The Australian Government of the day lost the election because of its failure to roll out high speed broadband.

I accept many other factors will determine how people vote on this Government, but the broadband issue is very important. I live less than 15 km from Dublin city centre and yet I cannot get broadband in my home. I was pleased the Minister said there would a subsidised-supported basis for those households which cannot get broadband. I am probably one of those but I am frustrated that I have to do so.

I am still concerned at Eircom’s reluctance to invest in next-generation broadband, which hits people in sparsely populated rural areas hardest. Eircom stated that the economic downturn forced it to review its investment in next generation broadband, which will be a major disappointment for many of its customers. Eircom is carrying a huge debt burden, in the order of €3.7 billion, and is losing market share. Its Australian parent company is in even worse shape and is struggling to survive. This means Eircom is not well placed to deliver what the country needs, namely, a high-speed broadband service.

People in rural areas will be obliged to depend on wireless technology for their broadband needs. This is not ideal because the connection speeds will be relatively slow and will be dependent on the number of users accessing the service at any one time. For personal users, low-speed broadband may be adequate. However, for most businesses, first generation broadband will not suffice. Unless rapid progress is made in respect of high-speed broadband provision, rural dwellers will fall further behind their counterparts throughout Europe. In Sweden, for example, 80% of farms already have access to the Internet and one third of those who live on these farms use the Internet daily. Ireland’s rural internet service is closer to that provided in regions such as Tuscany in Italy and countries such as Hungary, where only one quarter of farmers use the Internet.

Last year the Government rejected Eircom’s request for a State investment of €150 million to support its €500 million plan to provide a faster broadband service to 70% of the population. If the figures I have provided are not correct, perhaps the Minister will correct them.

We will eventually reach a situation where it will be much more attractive for businesses to locate in Northern Ireland if high quality broadband services are not available here. One need only consider the recent advances made in the North in this regard. Almost 30,000 customers in the Balmoral area of Belfast are to be given access to super-fast broadband on the BT network early next year. This is part of the largest ever investment in super-fast broadband in the UK in a project worth some £1.5 billion. The speeds available by means of this model are more than ten times as fast as those obtainable by most households in this country. Why are we not taking a similar approach and investing properly for the future? I am confident that the Minister, who spoke about the future, intends to do the right thing. We must exert pressure to ensure that he does so.

Access to high-speed broadband is a key requirement for modern business and is also a critical factor for national economic recovery. The Government will be obliged to reassess matters if, as seems increasingly likely, Eircom is unable to deliver on its commitments in respect of future investment.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and his commitment. However, I am concerned that people do not fully recognise the importance of broadband services. I urge the Minister not to be complacent. I am of the view that the motion before the House displays a degree of complacency which really must be avoided.

[769]  Senator Rónán Mullen: I welcome the Minister. Like Senator Quinn, I express my appreciation of the Minister’s optimism and vision and I welcome a number of the points he raised. In particular, the Minister stressed the importance of business and indicated that he envisions a future in which we will take both a co-operative and a competitive approach. He stated that he does not see these two coming into conflict with each other but that they are vital in the context of how we will deal with the challenge we face.

In recent years, when we were more conscious of our excellence from an economic perspective, we used to refer to the need to develop facilities in rural areas throughout Ireland. We also spoke about the importance of people in such areas being in a position to do business. In addition, we perceived this matter in eco-friendly terms, particularly in the context that provision of broadband would reduce excessive commuting to areas of high population density. At present, we have become distracted by more grave considerations. Nonetheless, the matters to which I refer remain real and significant issues.

The Minister will be aware of the views of Irish Rural Link, representatives of which made a presentation on the roll-out of broadband services to the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources earlier today. Irish Rural Link describes the national broadband scheme as the good, the bad and the inadequate. As the Minister knows, Irish Rural Link is of the view that the lack of broadband services in many areas adversely affects indigenous entrepreneurship and will jeopardise our economic recovery.

While the representatives of Irish Rural Link welcome the national broadband scheme, it is worth placing on record the concerns they raised. For example, they pointed out that 12,000 homes and business premises which cannot access broadband services are excluded from the national scheme and that provision has not been made in respect of them. The way in which the scheme has been rolled out on the basis of electoral areas means that some people who are already in a position to access broadband services will be included. In addition, those who live in electoral areas that are not included under the scheme will not be able to access services.

It is right that we should emphasise the importance of people doing business. However, it is not the case that we are ignoring people’s domestic use of the Internet. I appreciate the Minister’s vision of the development of a kind of participative, democratic community. There is no doubt that technology will be essential in the context of achieving this. Technology, including broadband services, will be vital with regard to enabling people’s proper engagement as citizens of this country.

As everyone is aware, however, we operate in an economic context. It is a healthy economy that makes everything else possible. In light of this, we must ask what will be done for those who own the businesses that comprise the 12,000 homes and business premises which cannot access broadband services. Is there any way in which specific provision might be made for these businesses or households? Would it be possible to provide subsidies to households or businesses which might be able to prove that they are not in a position to access broadband services in a way that is economic?

I recognise that the success of the national broadband scheme will depend primarily on mobile broadband technology. Such technology has its advantages and its limitations. I accept that a minority of people will be able to access broadband by means of satellite technology. However, a large degree of subsidisation will be required in this regard. If we are serious about the importance of facilitating businesses in rural areas, we must take action in respect of the 12,000 businesses and households which cannot access broadband services.

The Minister will be aware that ComReg has questioned the reliability of mobile broadband technology. When it was first announced, it was stated that the national broadband scheme would provide universal broadband coverage. However, people’s views in respect of it began [770]to become more pessimistic. The Department began to describe it as a first step and stated that many of the issues raised in respect of it would be addressed by measures that would be introduced later. The Minister, when speaking in Silicon Valley, referred to the investment of €223 million as a gap measure. That is particularly disquieting because as part of its submission to the joint committee, Irish Rural Link highlighted case studies relating to two businesses, both of which have been severely challenged and frustrated by the lack of high quality broadband services.

I wish to sound a note of affirmation in respect of the Minister’s vision, which I share, of a future where people participate. I particularly welcome the fact that he placed schools at the heart of his vision in the context of the role they can play in facilitating other members of the community in accessing broadband services. Will he indicate the position with regard to the 12,000 homes and businesses currently excluded from the scheme?

  Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: I wish to share time with Senator Norris.

  Acting Chairman: That is agreed.

  Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: I welcome this debate, which presents us with a great opportunity to reflect on the issue of broadband, the progress that has been made and the work that must be done in the context of rolling out broadband services to every community in the country. When widely available, broadband provides an affordable, always-on service for businesses, schools and individual citizens. It is important that such a service is made available.

6 o’clock

As the Minister indicated, the provision of broadband is mainly a matter for private sector operators such as Eircom and others, which operate in a liberalised market that is regulated by ComReg. It is important that private providers fulfil their obligations in areas for which they have responsibility. I have never subscribed to the notion that just because only a few people live in a particular area or because it is not economically viable to do so, private providers should not provide broadband services. That notion is wrong. I am of the view that Eircom fell short in respect of its public obligation in this regard. Nevertheless, the Government has intervened where the market failed to provide the service. There have been a number of initiatives by the Government such as those mentioned by the Minister, including the group broadband scheme which was like the old group water scheme. The latter was technology neutral and it subsidised the implementation of 127 projects nationally, all in rural areas. Small to medium-sized service providers supported competition using a range of different technologies and that really assisted small rural areas. Those infrastructural interventions helped increase competition in the regions by facilitating the introduction of a new service to many small, mainly rural areas.

The other service being subsidised by the Government was the metropolitan area networks, MANs. The assistance provided by the Government was facilitated by the Department’s regional broadband programme. The MANs are ultimately State-owned. I know there are a number of MANs in my county that have been funded by the Government. They provide open access telecommunications networks to towns and cities that did not previously have a backbone service available to them or would not have it to this day had the assistance not been available from the Department.

The Government has intervened to provide broadband to many rural and regional areas that would not have had it owing to the lack of commitment from the private sector. In addition to the group broadband and MANs schemes the Department has introduced a new scheme. Broad consultation has taken place over a long period and that scheme will be rolled out nationwide. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, referred to the national broadband scheme, NBS, that was sent to [771]tender. A contract was signed between the Department and a private operator which tendered for the scheme. The scheme will provide affordable, scaleable broadband services to rural Ireland. Many such areas do not have a broadband service currently and the scheme will provide an extension of broadband facilities to rural areas that would not have the service readily available at present. It will bridge the digital gap and give Ireland a better ability to engage in the knowledge society and knowledge economy.

I very much welcome the work that has been done by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, in developing the national broadband scheme and bringing it to its current position. A contract has been signed and there is a definite period of 21 months from December last from which broadband will be rolled out to at least half the areas by the end of this year and all areas by September 2010. That will mean significant leaps forward for many areas.

The national broadband scheme will provide broadband to many areas in my county. I have a map showing some of the areas that will be facilitated by the national broadband scheme. Other parts of the country will be assisted also.

  Senator Michael McCarthy: Exhibit A.

  Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: I welcome the work that has been done to bring the scheme to fruition, especially in rural areas such as those in Donegal that did not have broadband. Why should someone in a city have the service available when someone in a rural area does not? Equality of provision is important. I welcome the steps taken by the Government to achieve that.

In his address the Minister referred to the challenges not only in rolling out the national broadband scheme to 1,028 electoral divisions throughout the country. Obviously that is a challenge but it is one that is being met in a planned, constructive manner. I have every belief that the investment of €225 million will be delivered upon. In 2002 or 2003 fewer than 4,000 customers in the country were able to avail of broadband but today approximately 1.2 million customers are availing of broadband. That is a huge advance in a short time. The Minister highlighted the ways those advances have been achieved.

  Acting Chairman: There are two minutes left in the slot.

  Senator David Norris: I only need a minute.

  Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill: I wish to make two final points. The Minister referred to the schools issue. I believe it is vital that steps are taken to provide broadband to all primary and secondary schools in the State because pupils need to be able to obtain information digitally. I know the Minister is addressing that issue.

The second point relates to carrier lines. While not directly linked with broadband, it is linked in an indirect way. Where there are carrier lines in certain areas broadband cannot be made available through the telecoms lines. My view is that Eircom is not fulfilling its commitment to fund carrier lines. I urge the Minister to examine how we can address that issue. The other matter that dovetails into that is where an exchange has been provided but the cable network leaving the exchange is so weak that the radius of coverage from the exchange is not adequate. They are two issues that could be addressed. I accept that some of the private companies are engaging with the Department to examine the matter. Senator Brady worked for Eircom where he provided long years of service and he will be aware of what I say.

I thank the Acting Chairman and my esteemed colleague, Senator Norris, who has been in the House much longer than I have.

[772]  Acting Chairman: Senator Ó Domhnaill is eating into his time, not that he would be stuck for words.

  Senator David Norris: I am most grateful to Senator Ó Domhnaill for so graciously allowing me to speak because otherwise I would not get a chance to contribute to this debate at all. A minute should be more than sufficient time.

As I understand it there are two principal problems. The first is geographic spread and the second is speed. I do not think they have been completely addressed by the Government despite its best efforts but it is making progress. The significant difficulty is the reliance on mobile broadband. As far as I can understand it, internationally this is regarded as satisfactory as a back-up service but not as the principal service because it does not have the adequate speed or capacity. That is a significant problem.

The Government’s motion is bland in the extreme and almost invites the kind of negative response which it got. What a pity. We should all be pushing together because this is so necessary in terms of attracting international business. If the unnecessarily negative elements of condemnation had been removed from the amendment on this side of the House then I think we could have rolled the amendment and motion together in a satisfactory way and we could have all got behind the Government.

The Minister referred to telecommunications. That is the one aspect that is missing from the whole argument. I note that when a debate took place on legislation introduced by this side of the House in Private Members’ time, no one but me mentioned the background. The seeds of this problem were sowed in the privatisation of Eircom——

  Senator Martin Brady: Correct.

  Senator David Norris: ——which was then raided by Tony O’Reilly. It was a smash and grab raid and then there was asset stripping and absolutely no investment in broadband. That is where the whole problem originates. If this side of the House wants to condemn the Government and State institutions for their lack of investment and lack of progress, why does it not condemn equally private business for what it did in holding this country back? It is important that the record of this House should show that at least one Member of this House understands that vital point.

I support the Government and would encourage it in every way I can to complete the programme of establishing broadband throughout the country, bearing in mind those two critical factors I mentioned, namely, geographical spread and megabyte speed. Mobile broadband is not going to solve the problem. It may be a makeshift answer for the time being but it is not sufficiently sophisticated or complex to attract international investment into this country, which is what we need.

  Senator Michael McCarthy: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power. I look forward to debating this issue. It is important we debate broadband, especially in the current economic climate and given that there has been so much doom and gloom, threats and challenges to the Government and the country. We need to start focusing on what is positive. We need to start looking at the smart economy and to consider areas of investment. Despite the expectation of the budget it is my belief, which I have stated in regard to schools infrastructure, that now is the time to invest in infrastructure. We must reboot the economy. This would result in bringing people off dole queues, thereby making a social welfare saving. In terms of taxation revenue and social welfare outputs, each job lost to the economy costs approximately €20,000. We are losing 1,000 jobs per day. The Government needs to show initiative in terms of the smart economy, but also in terms of putting infrastructure in place now so that when the economy picks up we will have sufficient capacity in education and technological infrastructure to deal with that upturn. Hopefully, it will come sooner rather than later.

[773]While the announcement by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, with regard to the signing of the contract with the 3 mobile network is welcome, it falls far short of what is required to compete with other countries. This is true in particular for rural areas, as one sees when one teases out the issue and takes a closer look at what comes behind the announcement. We need to view the issue in terms of international standards rather than just take an Irish view. We need to consider it in terms of how we can compete with economies, skills pools and the technological resources of other countries.

Some of the countries considered to have less well developed economies than ours have a much better broadband infrastructure and lower wage costs. As a result, they are taking thousands of call centre and back office business processing jobs from Ireland. We must be mindful of that. A poor broadband infrastructure further diminishes our already slim prospects of attracting foreign direct investment to rural areas, as high speed broadband is considered a basic tool of modern day business. High speed broadband is not just a necessary tool for multinationals or larger factories. We need to remember the small entrepreneurs and small businesses in rural areas. They may only provide a small number of jobs, but if we have enough of those types of businesses, they will deliver sufficient jobs.

My town of Dunmanway lost manufacturing jobs, like many other towns of its size in the greater south Kerry and west Cork area. However, we have tried to get over that. For example, local authorities have provided land banks to small food processing operators. This is an area of activity that might not have been considered significant ten or 15 years ago when we were used to companies offering 300 jobs. However, these days a company such as that which provides ten jobs needs all the support it can get, whether a land bank from the local authority or broadband infrastructure it needs to survive. Small industries such as this and entrepreneurs will not be enticed into rural areas unless we have decent broadband infrastructure.

Some years ago a person of significant international scientific standing from west Cork who worked with several universities made the point that if there was proper broadband infrastructure in Dunmanway, which we now have, he could work from home. His experience could be multiplied. Many people who could have worked from home were, because of inadequate broadband provision, confined to larger population centres and cities. They did not have the option to work from home nor gain the benefits of being able to do so, such as no transport required, fewer CO 2 emissions, lower costs because of not having to run a car and fewer demands on road infrastructure. We need to bear in mind that our regional road infrastructure is not great. I am aware we have great primary routes and our motorways have expanded. We now have ring roads, and the M1 and M50 etc. That is good, but in the recesses of west and north Cork and south Kerry, the road infrastructure, while not bad, is not up to national road standards. It is important we give people the opportunity to work from home.

In recent weeks I contacted the Minister on the issue of broadband provision for someone living in the Rossmore area, a village between Dunmanway and Clonakilty, where proper broadband infrastructure is not available. This presents difficulties for the individual in question. I wrote to the Minister about this, but I do not think that because of my representation it will happen immediately. However, it is important the Minister is aware of the situation. If we can cite personal experiences or examples for the Minister, these may help colour the thinking on the issue and illustrate the necessity for proper, decent roll-out of high speed broadband. Access to this is essential, particularly in rural areas.

There is an issue also with regard to rural schools where we have a better chance of delivery of the curriculum if we have proper broadband infrastructure. In that regard, I wish to mention a wonderful occasion on Sherkin Island recently. This relates to broadband provision for schools and the islands off the coast of west Cork, Bere Island, Cape Clear and Sherkin Island. The wonderful occasion on Sherkin Island took place when DIT, in conjunction with Sherkin Island Development Society, presented certificates to people who graduated with a BA in [774]visual design. The Minister for Education and Science was present on the occasion and there was significant media interest. It was wonderful to see the governors of DIT and the Minister perform a graduation ceremony and award BA degrees. This was a tribute to the Department, DIT and the community on Sherkin Island who launched that BA programme approximately five years ago. When heading to the island on the ferry, the last thing one would think would be that people took the boat to the island to be presented with their degrees by the governors of DIT. However, it was a wonderful experience. The ceremony highlighted the importance of broadband infrastructure on the islands. Schools on the islands will be much better able to deliver their curriculum with better infrastructure.

I do not want what I have to say to sound political, but rural Ireland needs the proper roll-out of broadband. We need Government action. The programme is already behind schedule. The contract was due to be signed in July of last year, but it was not signed until January this year. This is a delay of almost a year. We need to get going on the contract and to keep upgrading what we have.

  Senator Dan Boyle: This Fianna Fáil motion welcomes Government support for the development of broadband across the country in the context of the programme for Government and the smarter economy document. There is no denying that with regard to broadband roll-out we are not where we should be. However, there is no denying either that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources is committed to bringing us to where we need to be. A number of Government initiatives over recent months show the direction we are going in terms of broadband.

Senator McCarthy mentioned the need for broadband in schools. There is a commitment towards achieving a national roll-out and effective programme in that area. While there are criticisms of our broadband strategy because we are catching up so slowly, we should not forget that what makes us catch up may not be what we need in the longer term. The criticism I would make would be that while we need to provide broadband access to as much of the country as possible, to do so in the short term through satellite and WiFi technology is not what is required for the longer term. We need a physical infrastructure to provide a full broadband system. I am confident that will and can happen, but we also need to meet the short-term need. It is to the country’s detriment economically that we do not have the infrastructure in place.

The real beneficiaries of a national broadband strategy would be rural communities. However, I am heartened by seeing rural communities that thrive despite this lack. A number of weeks ago I visited a small community in Waterford called Dunhill Ecopark, an initiative run by four community groups and villages in the local area. The combined population of the area is 1,700. Despite the minimal support received from State agencies, some 133 people are employed in the ecopark. The main activity is an excellent food processing business, but there are also services such as a local credit union. Bodies like Teagasc also occupy some of the units in the centre. What was surprising was that while an ecopark such as this or any kind of semi-industrial facility needs technology to help it go further, there was no mobile coverage available while I was in that area. Not having even that level of infrastructure was an impediment. I was grateful because it allowed me, for the two hours for which I was present, to devote my full attention to what people were saying and to take lessons on board. It struck me that this was precisely the type of community that would benefit from realising the full potential in this area and of full broadband roll-out. The park has the necessary sense of initiative and is conscious of the need to marry technology with the effort and commitment that will result in progress for the local communities. If we can identify such communities and provide the technological links and resources to bring the components together, I will have a lot of confidence in the future of our communities.

[775]When I worked very briefly for the National Rehabilitation Board, which was subsumed by FÁS, one of the jobs I was given was to consider information technology for people with disabilities, particularly those with hearing and visual disabilities. This was in the early 1990s. I must admit I failed miserably on the report, partly because technology was so badly developed at the time and partly because of my own ignorance of the field. It says something about the speed of progression of technology that we now take for granted what was non-existent then. Not only do we need to put in place the desired infrastructure, we need to put in place a plan to get us to where we need to go regarding the technological advances that are likely to happen over the next five, ten or 15 years. This is the real challenge for our economy.

We have depended on actions that seemed easy, such as the over-lending of money and building of property. What we need to do is plan an economy that considers the technological possibilities of 2020 and 2030. This is the real importance of this debate. It is not so much a question of determining what we are lacking and what is not being done but of determining collectively where we need to go. The wider community does not sense this is occurring. People realise how far we have come technologically but it will require an exponential leap forward to go where we ought to go technologically. This will require a lot of resources and a particular type of commitment. Ultimately, I wonder whether there is political interest in achieving this. Both Houses operate in a parliamentary system in which, it is sad to say, there are many Members who pride themselves on their ignorance of technology and its use as a tool for politics, information and communication. Until there is sufficient intelligence and usage in this regard, it will be harder than it ought to be to make progress on national policy in this area.

I support tonight’s motion because it is a call for stating there is intent to make badly needed improvements and a commitment to take us to where we need to get to. If we can identify our destination, the future of our country will be better as a result.

  Senator Nicky McFadden: I welcome the Minister of State. This motion is self-congratulatory. Senator Quinn said it is a bit complacent and Senator Ross said it is bland, but I believe it constitutes an arrogant proverbial pat on the back for the Government. It “welcomes the various Government interventions in broadband which have led to improved choice, quality and prices of services and the national broadband scheme which will make broadband available in those parts of the country not currently served”.

The Minister is in touch with his brief and I believe he and Senator Boyle were honest, if not somewhat aspirational, in their comments on broadband. In spite of this, the reality is that the Government’s record on broadband rates has been appalling. Since 2002, Ireland has been at the lower end of the scale in terms of penetration and speed. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous.

  Deputy Seán Power: This is 2009.

  Senator Nicky McFadden: As a country, we are far behind in this area and, despite plan after plan and promise after promise, we are doing no better now than when the Government first took office 15 years ago. To suggest we should in any way congratulate the Government on its constant rehashing of the same plans is ludicrous and disgraceful.

There is a perception that broadband rates in Ireland are awful, and the reality is the same. When selling our economy as a location for foreign direct investment, broadband infrastructure is of great importance. While the Government constantly talks about it, we see no action. There is a serious digital divide in this country between rural and urban areas, and this is discriminatory and unacceptable. In the current climate, we cannot afford to be at a disadvantage. Rural areas need to compete for business just as much as urban areas, as has been said by all my colleagues. The lack of broadband is an appalling drag on a rural community. The Minister of State might think I am exaggerating but he should note there are areas of County Westmeath [776]with no access to broadband, as implied by Senator Quinn. The reality is that 15 miles from the greatest urban hub, Dublin, there is no broadband access.

Last year, the European Commission published its Progress Report on the Single European Electronic Communications Market 2007, in which report Ireland got a bad score. We are well below the EU average in terms of broadband infrastructure and broadband take-up. Ireland stands at 17% in terms of broadband take-up. In urban areas, there is 90% DSL coverage. In rural areas only 70% can choose to avail of broadband. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Denmark etc. are far higher up the list and we are grouped with newer member states despite being members of the more advanced EU 15. This is a very sad reflection on the Government, which has talked for so long about improvement in this area. I am really sorry to say we have failed consistently to take action.

  Deputy Seán Power: We have doubled the number of subscribers in the past two years.

  Senator Nicky McFadden: The Minister, Deputy Ryan, is in touch. He is aspirational and wants to connect people but his comment that schools should be connected and his comments on the global village are questionable. How many schools have interactive whiteboards?

The plan to invest €223 million was launched in the middle of January and it is to result in full coverage by September 2010. I fear this is a promise much like the previous ones. Fine Gael spoke about delays and put forward very good suggestions. My colleague, Deputy Coveney, did so time and again but they were not accepted. We called for all new buildings to be required to install open access fibre broadband connections. The Minister spoke about this today and I welcome the fact that he has taken this suggestion on board. Fine Gael suggested the Department should undertake an audit of all publicly and privately owned telecommunications infrastructure so gaps can be prioritised.

Broadband is as important to business in a rural area as road transport or energy access. I am trying to be emphatic because I meet many people who are despairing of the service in rural areas. According to the 2006 census, householders in Longford-Westmeath are less likely to own a PC and have Internet access than other householders in the State. Only 13% of households in Longford-Westmeath have broadband access compared with 20% in Dublin. That is neither fair nor acceptable. The playing field for attracting investment is not level. It does a disservice to those who study in Athlone Institute of Technology or for the Open University. Immediately, they are at a disadvantage. Businesses are less likely to locate within the midlands. We are part of the midland gateway and our prime focus is to bring new jobs into the Athlone, Mullingar and Tullamore gateway. It is an absolutely essential ingredient to add to the infrastructure of our area. With the certainty that the next few years will be tough for Ireland it is more important than ever that there is investment in this area.

Senator Mullen referred to Irish Rural Link, which is based in Moate, County Westmeath. I compliment it on its consistent lobbying for sustainable rural development. It stated it has real concerns that the Government broadband scheme will not deliver 100% coverage and has serious technical limitations. I agree with the group that it is totally unacceptable that the scheme is based almost entirely on mobile broadband technology. Irish Rural Link claims this is unreliable and has serious capacity problems. Irish Rural Link also stated that mobile technology may be a cost effective solution but it is not really broadband. Therefore, I do not believe it is the solution to Ireland’s broadband problems.

As Senator Mullen stated, Irish Rural Link, in February, published a report entitled The Good, The Bad & The Inadequate, the essence of which is that the quality of connection for rural areas is completely unacceptable. The group’s document shows that 12,000 homes and businesses are in areas which are not covered by the new Government scheme. There needs to [777]be a contingency plan to allow for delays relating to planning permission for the 160 telecommunication masts needed to deliver the scheme. Will the Minister of State comment on this?

In our proposal we ask that the Minister updates the committee every six months on how broadband is progressing. This part of the motion at least could be accepted.

  Senator Shane Ross: I wish to share time with Senator O’Toole.

  Senator Joe O’Reilly: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Senator Shane Ross: I have mixed feelings about this motion although I will vote against it. There has been an improvement in the attitude of this House and the other House towards broadband and it would be churlish not to recognise it. Approximately two years ago I tabled a Bill on broadband in the previous Seanad. There was no interest in it and there was no realisation of the problem whatsoever. It was absolutely staggering. I do not know whether it collapsed but the number of Senators who wished to speak on it was extraordinarily and embarrassingly small and there was no recognition of the fact that broadband was an important piece of infrastructure which had to be developed very quickly.

Approximately six or eight months ago, I introduced another Bill on the issue and there was a vast improvement not only in the interest in it but in the Minister’s attitude and in the knowledge in this House. One of the problems with the development of broadband in this country has been the negligible knowledge of and interest in this area from Members of the Oireachtas and members of the Cabinet. It may have been a generational problem or a lack of interest. This has developed and the fact that the Government has tabled a motion, albeit giving itself a pat on the back for things it probably has not done, shows that at least there is some acknowledgement that this is a real problem which must be tackled and is recognised in the Government parties. This is progress which I welcome, acknowledge, applaud and celebrate.

However, this is not enough. The Minister is not here but I wish to acknowledge his commitment and interest in this subject. In recent months, for reasons which I do not understand, he rejected a Bill on broadband in this House. To table a motion of this sort stating how wonderfully the Government has done, when it rejected a Bill on broadband in this House, seems to be somewhat inconsistent. That particular Bill was left open for the Government to amend it. However, it did not want to do so and the reason is simple. The Government did not wish under any circumstances to commit itself to targets which were modest for the outlay of broadband.

I suspect the Government does not have the confidence itself to produce the figures, numbers and targets which are necessary. I do not know why this is. Perhaps it is due to a shortage of money. In what has been stated today, in the motion and in the Government’s programme there is a lack of conviction that these targets will be met. The Bill set out simple targets and it was for the Minister to be accountable for this, which is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in the country.

In years to come, particularly in years of recession, it will be more important that we have broadband than roads in terms of development. It is more important in attracting overseas and internal investment. Let no one say to me that the lack of broadband or the way we have fallen behind in broadband does not affect overseas investment. I cannot prove that it does but no one can prove to me that it does not. However, it is an undeniable fact that if we continue to be behind in this area, and I acknowledge the improvements that have been made, overseas investment which is so vital and becoming scarcer will be scared by the fact that we do not have this particular piece of infrastructure which is so necessary.

During this debate, somebody on this side of the House mentioned how important it was not only for overseas investment and multinationals, who are coming here in smaller numbers, [778]but also for very small businesses and people working at home to have broadband. This is difficult for a Government to measure but it is absolutely vital for small businesses also.

  Senator Joe O’Toole: I support the points made by Senator Ross. I was also impressed by what the Minister stated in his speech. However, in all fairness it takes a brass neck to table this motion. I do not take from the commitment and honesty of my colleagues on the other side of the House. However, it is shameful where we are in the broadband league. Look at where we stand in the OECD league, the European league and the global league. We are down with Zambia and other such countries in terms of our connectivity.

Earlier, I heard Senator Quinn speak about his difficulty. I live 15 miles from here and I cannot get broadband at home. I get broadband by satellite very expensively and very slowly and this is the way it will remain. Eircom will never provide me with broadband through copper wire because it will not invest in upgrading it. As I stated 15 years ago, when it was being sold, Eircom would never bring broadband to Belmullet. At that stage I did not think it would not bring it to north Dublin either. However, this is the reality. As Senator Ross quite rightly stated, this is impacting at all levels. He outlined the possible, probably and potential poor effects on the development of industry. The most significant thing, mentioned in Senator Doherty’s report on the west of Ireland, is that we cannot develop the region without broadband access. Not only can we not develop it, we are losing the intellectual, creative and other abilities which could be distributed through broadband in many parts of the west. That is completely wrong.

I do not know the answers to this. I met the people from Irish Rural Link today, and they make the point that even with the best efforts of Eircom and the Government, there will still be thousands of houses which will not have access. Broadband access should be made universally available and should be supported by the State, because it is an investment in the State. It is as important as education. Senator Ross said it is as important as roads, and I want to say it is as important as education. Research depends on it, as does any kind of development. Human contact depends on it. For somebody from the west who wishes to keep in contact with a son or daughter in Sydney, voice-over Internet access is the only cheap way to do it. There are many losses and difficulties, and we are going backwards on this issue.

I listened to what the Minister said, but I do not agree with his enthusiasm because I do not see it happening. In my area, which is 15 miles from here, I cannot see how we will ever have regular, full-speed broadband available to us under the current circumstances. If we cannot do it in north Dublin where there is a huge population, then we can be sure that nobody will care about the places in the west with a smaller and more widely distributed population. A decision must be taken for the country. Broadband is as important as roads, education, industry and employment. That is why we need to make it available at this stage.

My suggestion is to make it available at satellite level. It is too expensive for people to pay the full rate for fast broadband speeds, but at least they can get fast download broadband speeds that should be supported by the State in those areas where it is not otherwise available, even though upload speeds are not available there either. There is no solution to this and I do not think speakers on the other side of the House have recognised that. The plan put forward by the Government, Eircom and others means these areas will never get broadband.

The Minister made reference to telephones. I was one of those people in 1971 who had to wait up to two years for a telephone to be installed, but this is different because broadband will never be available under the current plan. People are being ruled out of it, and that is why I cannot support the Government position. I will be fully supportive of the Fine Gael amendment.

[779]  Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this important motion and amendment on broadband. I also welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, to the House. The last two speakers have put their finger on the pulse, when they outlined the problems with rural areas, small industries and with working from home. The Minister has a great grasp of what is happening and what needs to be done, but it seems he is not in a position to carry it forward.

The statistics before us show that 40% of the population live in rural areas. Senator O’Toole is 15 miles from the centre of the capital city and I am astonished to think that he cannot get access to broadband. I thought I was bad enough being three and a half miles from the centre of the largest town in the third largest county in the country, which is Castlebar. I can only get mobile broadband access, but as other speakers have pointed out, this breaks down and is slow. If I was running a small business from home, it would not be adequate. Senator Ross is quite right. If we are to progress as a nation that will be flexible with our workforce, then we must provide broadband access to everybody. While the Minister means well and has a great grasp of things, he must make a commitment to roll out broadband to everybody across the country. It is our future and is as important as education, roads and industry. Everybody recognises that, including the Minister, but he is doing little about it.

Senator Ross stated there have been certain improvements in responses in the last couple of years, but the service has still not been rolled out and it is not there. Where do we go from here? I was astonished to hear that copper wires with broadband provision were not rolled out 15 miles from the centre of the capital. It will not be easy to develop the west, but broadband is essential. We have no proper road infrastructure from the east to the west, especially in County Mayo. There will be a dual carriageway to Galway sometime in the next 12 or 18 months, but we do not have a fast train to any part of the country.

People working from the home in small businesses in rural areas rightly need broadband, and 100% coverage across the country is essential. I agree with the amendment tabled by my colleague, Senator Joe O’Reilly, and I agree with the last few speakers on this important issue. Broadband will be the lifeblood of the country in the years to come.

  Senator Pearse Doherty: We should not be having this debate at all. We have had a number of debates on broadband, some of which have been sparked by worthwhile motions proposed by Senator Ross which should have been supported by the House. We are talking about a technology that is at least a decade old, and a national broadband strategy that even the Minister recognises will not address the needs of customers in modern Ireland. We are so far behind it is hard to believe. It is very frustrating to be talking about a national broadband scheme and whether it will be delivered on time and cost friendly, when we know the service is very limited and does not meet the needs of the population, especially the needs of the business and tourism sectors. I gave the example today provided by Irish Rural Link about tourism projects that cannot reach their potential due to the unavailability of broadband.

We have been forced into having this debate because vast swathes of the country still have no access to broadband. There have been claims that broadband is as important as education, roads and so on. I have already said broadband today is like running water or electricity. People and businesses need it, and it needs to be provided.

I genuinely feel the current Minister is committed to broadband and I listened with interest when he announced the national broadband scheme. He was speaking on either RTE or Newstalk, and he was being pushed into answering whether it would definitely be delivered by the end of 2009. He hung his colours to the mast and stated it definitely would be in place by then. The interviewer pushed him to say what he would do if it was not delivered and he repeated that it would definitely be delivered. Thank God he did not say he would do something drastic if that did not materialise because since then the date has slipped twice.

[780]There is a very sizable digital divide. Senator O’Toole referred to the report I carried out for the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs called Awakening the West: Overcoming Social and Economic Inequality. The report shows the digital divide between east and west. Although three out of ten customers have access to broadband, the level is still far below where we need to be in terms of Dublin. According to the recent Forfás report, in the Border region of the west the rate of broadband connectivity is only 12%. In significant swathes of the west there is no broadband connectivity and most of the west has a level of connectivity between 10% and 17%. In fact, 17% is the average in the west. This has resulted in significant limitations. Where there are difficulties in terms of access to the west because of lack of infrastructure, broadband has the potential not of eradicating those difficulties, because those issues need to be addressed, but of easing them. It is possible for a business to communicate with another business or do the work over the Internet which does not require physical infrastructure. This should be provided and it should be done quickly.

I refer to some specifics. Everyone knows the MANs, metropolitan area networks, scheme proved to be a waste of money to a certain degree. Under phase 1 some €18 million was spent in five towns which have no customers whatsoever. One such town is in my parish of Gaoth Dobhair. Let us consider County Donegal. Some €10 million was spent on the metropolitan area networks in Carndonagh, Ballybofey, Buncrana, Ballyshannon, Bundoran and Gaoth Dobhair. The majority of those towns have no customers because the cost of connecting to the network is excessive. However, the Eirnet group facilitated a co-operation between Donegal County Council and Derry City Council to fund broadband connectivity. This was overseen by the European Union and involved North West Electronics Wireless Networks. Since then, there has been a significant increase in the number of people who can access broadband. However, North West Electronics maintains that with an additional €0.5 million it could connect everyone in the county to the network, including businesses and people in their own homes. It further maintains it could do so at a faster speed and with a better service than that provided by the national broadband strategy. I am not privy to the figures in terms of the contract that has been signed by 3 Ireland. However, we should consider value for money. A large part of County Donegal comes under the national broadband strategy. We should consider whether it represents value for money to award the contract to that firm, or whether better value for money and greater speeds are available elsewhere.

One reason this is the wrong debate is that broadband is not only about availability. The cost and affordability of broadband is also in question. My research has highlighted the problems faced by business.

Let us consider broadband speeds in Ireland at present. The average speed is approximately 2 megabytes. Some 19% of products in Ireland have a speed of 2 megabytes compared to 47% of products in Britain and 55% of products in France with greater speeds. The fastest speed here is approximately 6 megabytes, but the cost of that service is four or five times the cost in other countries in Europe such as France, Germany and Hungary. For example, an Irish business pays more than €2,000 per year for a 6 megabyte ADSL, asymmetric digital subscriber line, service, while its counterpart in Germany pays €534 for a 16 megabyte service. In France, the annual cost for an 18 megabyte service is €530. Let us remember that in 2000 in Ireland the corresponding cost was for a 6 megabyte service. In Sweden for a 24 megabyte service the cost is slightly less than €1,200 per year.

The Minister of State is aware of these figures, because report after report has shown that we have low speeds, high costs and low availability. The problem is that we are discussing something which should have been done ten years ago. We should have been investing at the height of the Celtic tiger. The Six Counties has 100% coverage many times over and there are proposals as part of its programme for Government for speeds of up to 100 megabytes for [781]businesses, which is greatly in excess of what this State is considering. I appeal to the Minister of State to consider several points. The national broadband strategy has identified areas which are not connected. Leitrim County Council carried out a survey and found areas that the Department claimed were connected which were not in fact connected. This should be revisited and a proper audit should be carried out.

We must examine the possibility of reducing costs for people. We must also move with the times and catch up very quickly. There is no point in discussing next generation networks in ten or 20 years time. We should have next generation pilot projects where possible. For example in my home county of Donegal it would be possible to have pilot next generation network schemes and to introduce speeds of up to 100 megabytes per second in towns. That would give us a cutting edge not only in Ireland or Europe, but throughout the world. We could attract serious investment if there were a serious carrot to entice multinational companies or other industries into an area with such a network available. There is no point in attempting to do so with old technology and when other countries are moving in a certain direction in terms of next generation networks. We must begin to invest State money and pilot schemes.

A significant problem and one of the reasons we are discussing this matter now is the privatisation of Eircom. It should be acknowledged by the Government that this was a wrong strategy. The main Opposition party argues for selling off more State agencies. However, that is a wrong strategy and Eircom is an example of why that view is completely and utterly flawed. Ministers and taoisigh are down on bended knee begging Eircom to provide services which it will not and cannot afford. We must consider the re-nationalisation of Eircom in order that broadband, an essential service for every community and business, is and can be provided by direct State intervention.

  Senator Martin Brady: I acknowledge the very fine contributions made and I especially thank the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I am aware the Minister, Deputy Ryan, means well. I refer to a matter raised by Senator Norris, that is, the privatisation of Telecom Éireann. I worked in Telecom Éireann and I was a trade union official and president of a union in that company. I never believed it was a good idea to privatise Telecom Éireann. Telecom Éireann gave a terrific service to its customers at that time. Its staff were excellent and superb and well qualified, such that 1,100 went to work on contract in England. The opposite is the case now. There have been four or five owners of Telecom Éireann since I left. Each one came in, stripped the assets and ran down the infrastructure. The public received a worse service and that was the result of privatisation for the people of the country in respect of Telecom Éireann.

When I was involved in the union we held marches and called for the fat cats to keep their hands off Telecom Éireann. I apportion some blame to the unions because they became partners with the company and the company put forward carrots and sticks which they accepted. I refer to the ESOP, employee share ownership plan, and so on. That is why we are in the situation in which we find ourselves. When I was in Telecom Éireann some 20 years ago we discussed broadband and we said exactly what has been said today. Why do we not have it? The reason is that the fat cats came in their droves. There were more chiefs than Indians, but they all looked after themselves in a similar fashion to what took place in the banks not long ago. I wish to put this on record because it is important for me that I do so. I hold sincere convictions on the matter.

It has been stated that it is very important to have telecommunications infrastructure in place to attract investors, whether foreign investment, investment in Ireland or wherever. If one does not have a good telecommunications system, this will not occur. When the economy turns around, and I have no doubt it will do so, we must be ready to get out of the traps and to grab the opportunities. If we do not have a good broadband system and a good telecommunications system, that will not occur.

7 o’clock

[782]Privatisation is not always the right thing to do. Telecom Éireann was sold for the price of a couple of warehouses, or for peanuts. It is not always a good idea when business becomes too cumbersome in a company such as Telecom Éireann to get rid of it, or to say that because it is too much hassle someone else should look after it. It was a bad mistake, although I realise it was the Government in which I am involved which was responsible. We cannot look backwards because we all make mistakes. We must move forward and deal with what we have. I have every confidence in the Minister, a sincere person whose heart is in the right place. All is not lost and I am hopeful the problem will be resolved when the economy turns around.

Ireland will be in a position to encourage foreign investors to locate here if we are able to offer them the best telecommunications system in the world, as was the case when Telecom Éireann was the provider. At that time, our telecommunications system was more advanced than those of France, Britain and many other countries. This is no longer the case because the fat cats were only interested in themselves, greed took over, the service to customers deteriorated and infrastructure was not sufficiently upgraded. While there are large quantities of copper in the ground, it is completely useless. I commend the motion to the House.

Amendment put.

The Seanad divided: Tá, 21; Níl, 27.

    Bradford, Paul.

    Burke, Paddy.

    Buttimer, Jerry.

    Cannon, Ciaran.

    Coffey, Paudie.

    Coghlan, Paul.

    Cummins, Maurice.

    Doherty, Pearse.

    Donohoe, Paschal.

    Fitzgerald, Frances.

    Hannigan, Dominic.

    Healy Eames, Fidelma.

    McCarthy, Michael.

    McFadden, Nicky.

    Norris, David.

    O’Reilly, Joe.

    O’Toole, Joe.

    Phelan, John Paul.

    Regan, Eugene.

    Ross, Shane.

    Twomey, Liam.


    Boyle, Dan.

    Brady, Martin.

    Butler, Larry.

    Callanan, Peter.

    Callely, Ivor.

    Carty, John.

    Cassidy, Donie.

    Corrigan, Maria.

    Daly, Mark.

    de Búrca, Déirdre.

    Ellis, John.

    Feeney, Geraldine.

    Glynn, Camillus.

    Hanafin, John.

    Leyden, Terry.

    McDonald, Lisa.

    Ó Domhnaill, Brian.

    Ó Murchú, Labhrás.

    O’Brien, Francis.

    O’Donovan, Denis.

    O’Malley, Fiona.

    O’Sullivan, Ned.

    Ormonde, Ann.

    Phelan, Kieran.

    Walsh, Jim.

    White, Mary M.

    Wilson, Diarmuid.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Joe O’Reilly; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.

Amendment declared lost.

Motion put and declared carried.

[783]  An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?

  Senator Donie Cassidy: Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.