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ESB (Electronic Communications Networks) Bill 2013: Report Stage (Continued)

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 830 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Michael Colreavy: Information on Michael Colreavy Zoom on Michael Colreavy] It could lead to an unhealthy monopoly with one communications company having a virtual monopoly of broadband provision in the country. It could result in such a private company monopoly using an infrastructure that was paid for by Irish people and using ESB staff who have extensive powers of access to land to enrich the company principals and shareholders. We would, in effect, potentially be sowing the seeds of yet another golden circle.

I do no understand why the Minister will not remove the "selling" from this legislation. While his intentions may be entirely honourable and I am sure they are, he will not always be Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and another Minister at some time in the future could misuse that clause by virtue of the it containing the word "selling". I ask the Minister to agree to withdraw the word "selling" from the section. I would like to allow this legislation to go through unopposed but I will certainly oppose this section unless the word "selling" is removed from it.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I understand where Deputy Colreavy is coming from and I agree with much of what he has said but I honestly think there is a misunderstanding between us on this one. If we consider what is in the Bill in terms of what the board may do as a result of this legislation, it states it shall develop "electronic communications networks and electronic communication services... [or it enables that, and the] leasing, licensing, selling and otherwise providing, making use of and engaging in any service in connection with the electronic communications networks and electronic communications services infrastructure". I understand the word in that context to relate to the selling of services, not as a permissive insertion to allow the selling of the company. I believe there is a genuine misunderstanding between the Deputy and myself on this. I will put my note on this on the record. I do not want to teach my granny how to suck eggs but if we were to address the issue that is of concern to the Deputy it might be better to do so in the form of an amendment that seeks to enshrine in primary legislation that this company may not be sold off or something like that. I can say that now that I hope to get out the door here soon and will not have to deal with the consequences of my advice to the Deputy. The word "selling" in this section has a different meaning and it is not to facilitate the privatisation of the company.

  The purpose of the Bill is to provide an explicit legal basis, as the Deputy has said, to enable the ESB to engage now or in the future in the installation and operation of electronic communications networks and services, either alone or by agreement with one or more other companies, and to provide for consequential matters. I should clarify at the outset and in response to a concern expressed by Deputy Colreavy on Committee Stage that the Bill is enabling only. It does not exempt the ESB from any current legislative requirements or regulatory rules. The ESB is required by the Electricity Supply (Amendment) Act 1988 to secure the consent of my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to form any company. The same legislative provision also requires the ESB to secure similar consents to dispose of shares or other interests in any such company. Nothing in this Bill will absolve the ESB from these obligations and I can therefore reassure the Deputy that this Bill does not provide a legal basis for the ESB to dispose of critical infrastructure.

  The purpose of section 2 is to provide an explicit legal basis to allow the ESB to engage in electronic communications networks and electronic communications services which include leasing, licensing and selling of such services. If the ESB enters this market in the future it must do so on a commercial basis. It is essential therefore that it has the vires to sell services. The vires would be put in doubt if the reference to "selling" was deleted. For this reason, I cannot support the amendment proposed by the Deputy. However, I hope that my reassurance on the limited nature of the statutory authority arising reassures the Deputy on the wider issue and additional requirements regarding any subsequent disposal of its interests in this or any other venture.

Deputy Paudie Coffey: Information on Paudie Coffey Zoom on Paudie Coffey I offer a view on this amendment and this is an matter we discussed at length on Committee Stage. While I might understand, or try to understand, from where Sinn Féin is coming on this, and I know it is ideologically opposed to privatisation and all the rest of it and that is fair enough, I cannot figure out why its members will not accept numerous reassurances from Ministers that the critical infrastructure is not for sale. They have been given such reassurances about Irish Water and the electricity networks and now they are being told the same about the telecommunications that might be installed on these networks.

There is no doubt in my mind that we have learned from the mistakes of the past where essential infrastructure of Eircom was sold which literally set us back decades in terms of the development of broadband and telecommunications infrastructure. It is only now that we are seeing Eircom beginning to invest in its infrastructure again after many years. In the interim period we have seen the substandard state and degradation of the telecommunications networks that were managed by Eircom, which was not the fault of the staff of Eircom but the fault and the lack of investment due to the sale of that asset.

As I said on Committee Stage, this legislation is a game-changer in terms of the potential to deliver quality broadband to the regions of this country again. Sinn Féin's attitude on this is quite cynical. Deputy Colreavy mention the possible creation of a golden circle and enriching the shareholders of the ESB and otherwise but the shareholders of the ESB are the Irish Government and the Irish people and reassurances have been given. I cannot understand why the Deputy continues to pursue this amendment.

As a result of this legislation we will see increased competition in the delivery of broadband. I hope this service provider, in partnership with the ESB, when it goes to market will be able to offer high-speed, quality broadband to regional areas at far less cost. It is obvious that they will have far less overheads in delivering this infrastructure. I cannot understand why it did not happen before now. I know there are telecommunications networks wrapped on transmission lines going across the country. Now we are going to the next level where it is intended to hang telecommunications lines on existing ESB distribution networks where there are already existing routes and pathways to the regions and at far less cost in terms of capital costs and overheads. If we want to bring a fibre network to a region it can be literally strung along existing networks with no additional costs incurred in terms of excavation, access to land, the cost of ducting and the cost of reinstatement of land. This initiative will have the potential to deliver broadband to the regions in a far better and more cost effective way and it is something I encourage.

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