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Topical Issue Debate - Telecommunications Services

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 755 No. 1

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Deputy Michael McCarthy: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy In case the Acting Chairman thinks my matter has something to do with the number of bachelors in west Cork, Dunmanway, Kinsale or Skibbereen, MAN is short for metropolitan area network. I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter regarding fibre optic infrastructure and the creation of jobs and the provision of investment in rural Ireland.

The metropolitan area network, MAN, is high-end infrastructure. There is a perception that rural Ireland is being attacked in an effort to make savings. I refer to the excellent initiatives, not least taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, to include primary schools in the European project and want to see us build on existing infrastructure. There are three metropolitan area networks, MANs, lying dormant in west Cork over the past seven years. [76] They are connected in Skibbereen, Kinsale and Dunmanway. To date, they remain to be connected to the relevant service providers. All of the MANs are managed and operated by e|net who were appointed by the Department following a procurement process to make the networks available to the telecommunications sector.

Each of the three networks holds within it the vast potential to create hundreds of jobs, if not more, and to equip local businesses in the areas I have outlined, Kinsale, Dunmanway and Skibbereen. I refer to equipping those businesses with high broadband capacity and unlimited speed. The economic benefits of having metropolitan area networks in a rural town are wide ranging and self-explanatory. Every town, regardless of whether it is in an urban or rural setting needs a broadband-literate population and business community to further develop itself economically. A modern and effective communications network is essential and is the bedrock of any business or thriving rural economy and community. Everyone benefits from that, from the large corporations to educational providers and Government institutions among others. Broadband delivered on a fibre optic cable is an essential requirement for all of that.

In addition to high capacity and unlimited speed, the MANs are separate from other networks and thus provide an alternative and increase competition. Each connected network is routed to access the major industrial and commercial area and provides the essential infrastructure heavy broadband users need to have the services they require delivered to their door. In addition, a metropolitan area network can increase workplace flexibility for smaller businesses, as it can accommodate people who are increasingly beginning to blur the lines between home and work boundaries. By enabling greater broadband capability, daily administration tasks could be performed at home thus helping to relieve traffic congestion and allow for flexible child care arrangements. Despite the unemployment crisis those are obviously still issues for people who are affected by them. The failure to date to connect any of those networks to the relevant services required to make each one go live is a disappointment for the towns concerned.

The infrastructure is in place. It is about connectivity. We are not starting from a blank canvas. A former Deputy from my constituency, the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Mr. Joe Walsh, secured funding for the provision of a fibre optic network to the technology park in Clonakilty approximately 11 years ago. There are approximately 1,000 jobs in the park, which is due to the vision of the former Minister, Mr. Joe Walsh. I acknowledge that. The work has stood the test of time throughout the economic crisis with regard to what investment in rural broadband can do for sustainable jobs in a rural setting.

Business people from all over west Cork say that when one goes to State agencies such as Enterprise Ireland or the IDA for grant assistance the first question asked is whether there is an appropriate fibre optic infrastructure in the local area. The answer is self-explanatory. I await the Minister’s reply with great anticipation. I will comment further following the reply.

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Deputy Pat Rabbitte): Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I thank Deputy Michael McCarthy for giving me the opportunity to respond on this important matter.

Deputy McCarthy will be aware that the electronic communications market here is a fully liberalised market and regulated by the independent regulator, the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. The provision and quality of electronic communications services, including broadband, is a matter for private sector service providers, regulated and licensed by ComReg. The State is not a service provider in the telecoms market and tends to intervene only in cases of demonstrated market failure. Under one such intervention, the Government’s regional broadband programme, there were a total of 11 MANs built in County Cork covering [77]15 towns, including the four towns that are Deputy McCarthy’s immediate concern, Skibbereen, Bantry, Dunmanway and Kinsale.

The MANs are operated and managed on behalf of the State by a managed services entity, MSE, e|net, a Limerick based company. Three of the MANs in west Cork were handed over to e|net in 2010. The Kinsale MAN will be completed this year and handed over to e|net on completion. I have been advised by e|net that the Bantry MAN is now active and that the MAN in Dunmanway is expected to be live in the next month or so. While the Skibbereen MAN is available for use, it does not have connections. E|net is in active discussions with local business representatives with the aim of stimulating demand for MAN-based services.

The demand for services in a MAN town is the primary factor for e|net to consider when deciding to connect a MAN to a backhaul service. To commit to the significant cost of a backhaul connection, e|net must be confident that there is sufficient demand on the MAN to justify the costs. Businesses that wish to connect to a MAN can do so by contacting e|net, who will then meet with the business to discuss the type of services required.

In addition to the MANs programme, the national broadband scheme, NBS, is another example of targeted State intervention in the telecoms market. The NBS network is now complete and services have been available in all 1,028 designated electoral divisions since October 2010. I am pleased to say that all premises located within the 96 designated electoral divisions in County Cork can now avail of NBS services.

I envisage that greater use will be made of the MANs in the coming years to provide bigger broadband to more businesses and citizens. I should highlight that it is important to understand the long-term nature of the MANs investment. The MANs significantly enhance the productive capacity of the local economies in which they were built. While the networks will be available for generations to come, and facilitate digital-based business of the future, they may not be used immediately, but they are available and are already playing a part in helping this country to meet its targets under the European Union’s Digital Agenda for Europe. I would welcome any initiatives that lead to greater use of the MANs in Cork and nationally.

The Government accepts that the widespread availability of high-speed broadband is a key requirement in delivering future economic and social development. With basic broadband services available across the country, the challenge now is to accelerate the roll-out of high speed services.

I chair the next generation broadband task force. The task force is currently considering how best to facilitate the roll-out of next generation broadband throughout the country, which reflects a commitment under the NewERA proposals in the programme for Government. The task force will conclude its deliberations shortly. It is my intention to consider the findings, conclusions and recommendations of the report of the task force and to move quickly thereafter to put in place the optimal policy environment for the delivery of high-speed broadband and thereby assist in delivering on the commitment in the programme for Government.

The Acting Chairman, Deputy Tuffy, was present on Monday when I had the pleasure of announcing the roll-out of high-speed industrial strength broadband to every second-level school. On this occasion it did not include Cork South-West but it will next time around. The first 200 schools will be connected up along the north-west coast in 2012.

Deputy Michael McCarthy: Information on Michael McCarthy Zoom on Michael McCarthy I acknowledge the sentiments in the reply. One of the proposals put to me locally is that one can establish a resilient circle connecting the metropolitan area networks from the Bishopstown roundabout going to Dunmanway, Bantry, Skibbereen, Kinsale and back into Carrigaline and make it part of the Cork city metropolitan area network because that has global connectivity. We are all well aware of the constraints on Government but this [78]is one of the Departments that can take the lead in terms of providing the infrastructure necessary to encourage the expansion of jobs and the creation of jobs. Progress has been made in Kinsale in recent times, which I welcome. With no pun intended, I urge departmental officials to accelerate their involvement with the officials in Cork County Council who are tasked with handling the delivery of the networks in towns across Cork.

There is a strong appetite for networks in Skibbereen. Putting the onus on the potential user of the service is all very well, but a Department-led initiative is required if the networks are to be connected. It is one way to stop the perception of an attack on rural Ireland, a notion that I reject. Through this process, we can provide infrastructure to create the conditions that are necessary for job creation.

When one considers Departments, spending and budgets, the Departments of Health, Education and Skills and Social Protection come to mind, but the Minister’s Department can take the lead in job creation.

Deputy Pat Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I am familiar with Deputy McCarthy’s opinions on this critical connectivity issue because he has canvassed my position on it several times. He is right, not only in terms of the importance of job creation, but in terms of the better provision of services locally.

Regarding the Deputy’s particular point about Skibbereen, there is a difference between the multi-fibre optic cable around the town being dormant, yet lit, and being accessed by local businesses. I would happily facilitate the Deputy if his wish is for local business people to meet and discuss with e|net how they might make optimum use of the existing service.

People have criticised the previous Government for the major expenditure of approximately €170 million on providing metropolitan area networks, MANs, around the country, given that half of them are still not lit, but I am not one of the critics. The expenditure was a valuable addition to necessary infrastructure. Even if it takes time for the capacity of the MANs to be exploited by local businesses, it will still be valuable.

The decision to roll out industrial strength broadband to second level schools is one of the most important decisions the Government will make. The impact on teaching and learning is remarkable and energising. In terms of the future digital economy and the knowledge society, we could not take a more valuable step towards equipping our young people for the future or, through the use of digital enterprises, providing the kind of employment the Deputy is advocating.

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