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 Header Item Media Mergers (Continued)
 Header Item Mobile Telephony Services

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 937 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten] Mr. John Horgan has agreed to be the chairperson of that panel. I know that the committee has commenced hearings. There is a function and role with regard to the BAI process for the committee to participate in this. I look forward to the response from the committee on this issue. What I have to do in this process is laid out in law in black and white. I am waiting for the BAI to come back with its report. The decision will then lie with me on that. I have answered questions in the House in the past on the issue of media plurality and I am conscious of all of the issues that have been raised.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith I thank the Minister for all of his answers. I am not advising the Minister but I do hope that he reads the submissions, particularly from the academics, because the stark reality of the takeover of media in this country is quite shocking. For example, between 2005 and 2016, there were 90 takeovers. This is the first takeover to actually be scrutinised. That is very serious. That is probably a consequence of the legislation that was passed quite recently, but it goes to show how these things can creep up and have quite a serious impact and serious consequences. Albeit the appeal this morning was to save the jobs in regional media, there are some on the committee who believe that while we should attempt to save the jobs, if necessary by some sort of public intervention, we should not compromise the role of media in maintaining local democracy, its plurality and its social and political role in Irish life.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher I am trying to accommodate as many Members as possible. The Minister has one minute.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten It is the first merger to be scrutinised. The reason for that is the legislation is very new. I am the first Minister to do that. The State will not be subsidising any media outlet or newspaper in this country. However, there is a broader issue with regard to how we encourage quality journalism. It is an issue I have addressed in the past and with which I am actively engaged at the moment. I believe it is important that we have responsible media outlets and that we can trust the output that comes from those outlets, particularly now in an era of social media and instant messaging. There is a broad area there of which I am very conscious.

Finally, I do not want it to be raised that I did not-----

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher I am trying to accommodate-----

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten A further merger has come before me. That is the BBC-ITV joint venture, BritBox. That was notified to the Department on the last day of January.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith I do not think the journalists are the problem.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Pat the Cope Gallagher Zoom on Pat the Cope Gallagher We are finished, Deputy.

Deputy Bríd Smith: Information on Bríd Smith Zoom on Bríd Smith The quality of journalism is not the problem.

Mobile Telephony Services

 45. Deputy Martin Heydon Information on Martin Heydon Zoom on Martin Heydon asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten the status of the work by his Department to improve mobile phone coverage in County Kildare and nationwide; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [5801/17]

Deputy Martin Heydon: Information on Martin Heydon Zoom on Martin Heydon We have discussed many times the gaps in the provision of broadband around the country and particularly outside the larger urban conurbations. Similarly, we have huge gaps in mobile phone coverage. That is an issue and I think the Minister will agree it seems as though it is getting worse in certain areas. I seek a statement from the Minister on the matter because it is a prevalent issue for me in south County Kildare.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I thank Deputy Heydon and am critically aware of the frustration currently being experienced across Ireland, where mobile networks are not always delivering the services people expect.  Any customer, including those in County Kildare, who experiences service difficulties should raise the matter with the service provider in the first instance. If this fails to resolve matters, customers can and should refer a complaint to the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, which will investigate the service provider's compliance with its contractual obligations. Mobile operators have invested significantly in rolling out improved services, following ComReg's multi-band spectrum auction. At least one operator now has in excess of 90% 4G population coverage. The rate of demand for data services has, however, increased by 500% in the last four years and this presents a continuing challenge for mobile operators, regulators and policy makers both in Ireland and internationally.

  Recognising this challenge, I specifically included in the programme for Government a commitment to a mobile phone and broadband task force. In July 2016, I established the task force together with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, which has identified immediate solutions to broadband and mobile phone coverage deficits and investigating how better services could be provided to consumers prior to the full build and roll-out of the network planned under the national broadband plan, NBP, State intervention. The report was published in December and is available on both Departments' websites.

  In producing this report, the task force worked with Departments, local authorities, ComReg, State agencies, the telecoms industry and other key stakeholders.

  The report contains 40 actions that will alleviate some of the telecommunications deficits across Ireland and the implementation programme on mobile phone and broadband access identifies 19 of these actions as areas where immediate and direct action by Departments and State agencies can ensure accelerated benefits to consumers. Included in the actions is a commitment made by ComReg to produce a mobile phone coverage map and another action for the regulator to carry out a mobile handset sensitivity testing programme.  Both actions will be of great value to consumers, including those in County Kildare.

  Additional information not given on the floor of the House

  The work of the task force will also assist local authorities in preparing for the roll-out of the new NBP network once contracts are in place.

  In addition, I recently signed regulations allowing ComReg to proceed with an early 2017 allocation of spectrum in the 3.6 GHz radio spectrum band. This will provide an 86% increase in total spectrum available for mobile and fixed wireless services.

  In my Department's Estimates for 2017, I have secured an €8 million provision for RTE to allow it to free up the 700 MHz spectrum band. ComReg in turn will make plans to allocate this spectrum to provide for significantly enhanced mobile coverage. The 700 MHz band is particularly suited to rural environments where the signal can travel long distances. 

  These initiatives should assist in enhancing the quality of mobile phone and data services across Ireland and particularly in rural Ireland.

  In parallel, the national broadband plan aims to deliver high-speed services to every city, town, village and individual premises in Ireland, through private investment and a State intervention in areas where commercial investment have not been fully demonstrated.

  The management of radio spectrum is a statutory function of ComReg, which is the independent regulator of the telecommunications sector. Licences issued by ComReg impose terms and conditions on mobile network operators, including minimum population coverage obligations. ComReg monitors compliance in this regard by means of biannual drive tests. However, given ComReg’s independence, I have no statutory function in the matter of auditing mobile coverage.

Deputy Martin Heydon: Information on Martin Heydon Zoom on Martin Heydon I thank the Minister and I am glad to hear that progress has been made. We are all aware of areas near our homes or even in our homes where coverage is poor, calls drop out or are unable to be made and areas that we have to avoid. The progress the Minister has outlined for the key measures identified in the report is critical. I am particularly focused on the ones that are easy fixes and easily implemented. Three stand out for me. The Minister mentioned ComReg assessing the extent of black spots. That coverage map, similar to what we have for broadband, on which we identify where the black spots are, makes it easier for us to then engage with the providers to see where the black spots are. The operators will report quarterly to the Minister and I hope that starts immediately. By having that map, we can then work down and drill into the detail.

Similarly, recommendation 17, which is about ComReg developing a licensing scheme allowing for the use of external mobile phone repeaters, really needs to be progressed. I am aware of many buildings within which there is an impediment to mobile phone coverage either in business or residential areas. The licensing of phone repeaters has great merit in being pursued as soon as possible.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten ComReg hopes to be in a position by the end of this year to have significant progress made with regard to that mapping. We have received a commitment from the mobile operators that they will provide us with the data on their coverage black spots across the country.

The Deputy is right about the repeaters. They will help to boost the signal in many parts of the country. What we are trying to do is assist the existing commercial telecoms companies in rolling out their networks. At the moment, they are spending on average about €1.7 million every single day and they have been doing that for the last four years. What we are trying to do is facilitate them in fast-tracking that investment in order that it will improve mobile phone coverage, wireless broadband coverage and both fixed line and fibre to the home for broadband.

Last October, I released the 3.6 GHz spectrum. That will be auctioned off in the next couple of months, which will assist in improving the quality of mobile coverage across the country.

Deputy Martin Heydon: Information on Martin Heydon Zoom on Martin Heydon As for the cost of some of these implementations, this obviously is a perfect example of the State engaging with the private sector and trying to encourage it along. Is there a budget within the Minister's remit to help to implement some of these measures? I know there is a 700 MHz band with RTE on which we need to expand. Is the Minister confident that the private operators are going to work with the Minister to address these issues? Does the Minister get a sense from the private operators that they accept that the issue has deteriorated and that mobile phone coverage has become an issue, particularly in rural parts of Ireland and in south County Kildare?

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten The quality of service is something I raised specifically with ComReg when I became Minister. It has not received the scale of complaints that it should have received based on what I was receiving as complaints in my own constituency. That is why I would actively encourage people to first contact their operator. If they are not satisfied with the response, they should contact ComReg about it and make a formal complaint, because that is important in order for us to progress these issues.

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