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Broadband Services Provision (Continued)

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 4

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Noel Harrington: Information on Noel Harrington Zoom on Noel Harrington]  The concern I wish to raise is the adequacy of the provision of broadband to certain parts of the country, which is proving very challenging. This country subscribes to the EU challenge to provide a minimum service of 30 megabytes per second to every household in the country by 2020. I am concerned this target is becoming unreachable or very difficult to attain. I can tell of an instance that happened recently in Bantry in south west Cork which shows the impact this service can have. It came about through the endeavours of a local councillor, Mary Hegarty, who met representatives of Amazon and gave them a proposition for jobs they could provide in the area if the technology and infrastructure were in place. They made the commitment and delivered on it, offering 26 jobs with Amazon, servicing technological aspects of that company. Regrettably, however, because we could not provide five megabyte per second service in certain areas, some of those jobs had to go. The impact of 26 jobs in a place like Bantry is a terrific good news story. Happily, the majority of people were able to take up the offer because the necessary five megabyte service was available. I reiterate the great impact this can have in a place like west Cork. It is as significant as some of the recent job announcements in more urban areas.

We need to move on. There are many parts of the country, rural areas in particular, that are not adequately provided for. The figure given, for example, of 97% broadband coverage in the country is fine if one is talking about basic broadband service of one or two megabytes per second but that is not enough for economic activity. In this Chamber in the past 12 months or more we have had some intense debates on the closure of small schools. Such schools do not close because of lack of commitment by the Minister for Education and Skills or lack of finance provided by the Minister for Finance. Small schools close because there is an insufficient number of children. Garda stations and banks close for similar reasons. The banks show a different dynamic in that nine out of ten bank transactions are now done online. However, it is fruitless to point the many people who have a one-megabyte or minimum broadband service towards online access. Many of the policies we are implementing through budget cuts or corrections could be easily supplemented by investment in an adequate broadband service. People like James Whelton, for example, who recently figured in the Forbes Under 30 list, understand this. He has spoken about establishing the CoderDojo classes about which we have heard. Such people realise the potential for every citizen in the State to use digital technology and what this can bring about.

I appeal to the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, and his Department to push forward and apply 30 megabyte per second technology to every household. There is no need to bring fibre optic networks to every house. They can be brought to an area and the technology exists to bounce the connection into every household. I look forward to the Minister's response and acknowledge his commitment in this area. This is an issue that needs to be highlighted.

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Pat Rabbitte): Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte Deputy Harrington is absolutely right about the potential of broadband for economic dispersal and job creation in a region such as the one he represents, which I visited very recently for an engagement with David Puttnam, who, I am happy to tell the House, has accepted the appointment as digital champion for Ireland. Living in Skibbereen as he has for the past 26 years, he has arranged a facility where, for example, he can conduct lectures, as he does every week with students in Sunderland, Brisbane and Manchester from his video conferencing facility in Skibbereen. Without doubt, Deputy Harrington is right about the significance of this technology.

In terms of the architecture being put in place by the national broadband plan, I reiterate for the House that the timetabled plan targets will put in place 100 megabyte service for 50% of the population by 2015. A further 20% at least will have 40 megabytes or better. It is principally in the third tier, which will have 30 megabytes or better, that State intervention will be necessary because the private sector will not supply the necessary quality bandwidth to the less densely populated areas of the country. The prospectus we will draw up will require the successful bidders to deliver 30 megabytes, or better. I assure Deputy Harrington that will be more than ten times better than what is available in his area at present. There is no country in the western world - known to me, at any rate - where there is not a difference between the high-speed bandwidth available to densely populated urban areas and what is available in very poorly populated regions. Holland may be an exception but that is a tiny area that is densely populated throughout. There are entire tracts of the United States that have no broadband.

The idea is that tiers 1 and 2 are to be implemented by the end of 2015. The intention in respect of tier 3 is to implement service by the end of the lifetime of this Government. The reason for the date being as late as 2016 is that we have no choice but to go through the State aids procedure because we envisage the investment of State money. The procedure is painstakingly slow and I do not know of any short way around it. We must do a detailed mapping exercise and have just begun preparations for implementing this next year. The idea is that by the end of the lifetime of the Government the successful bidders will deliver a 30 megabyte service.

Deputy Harrington unwittingly stated the target date was 2020 but that is the European digital agenda. Ours is more ambitious if we can deliver on it, as I believe we can. There has been some €300 million of Exchequer investment in the past decade. In the past five years alone private investment in the broadband infrastructure across all platforms amounts to €2.5 billion. There is very significant private investment going on and there is fierce competition. Deputy Harrington is absolutely right. There are parts of the country where provision is very basic and that is not good enough. Broadband offers possibilities of doing business in the regions that was unthinkable before. It has tremendous capacity to keep people in their own areas.

We have connected some 297 second level schools with 100 megabyte service, which transforms the educational environment. We are about to announce the next 200 second level schools in the second tranche and by 2014 we will have connected every second level school in Ireland to this service. Progress is being made.

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