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 Header Item National Broadband Plan (Continued)
 Header Item Mobile Telephony Services

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 931 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten] There are clear caveats set out in the tender documentation which runs to 1,000 pages where it is clearly stated that as demand and average speeds in urban areas increase, the service in rural areas must keep in step with them. That is why, because of the way we have structured the tender process, the three consortia are looking at a predominantly fibre-to-the-home solution. We are not talking about 100 Mbps, 200 Mbps or even 300 or 400 Mbps but about up to 1,000 Mbps, should people require it.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley Am I to understand the tender documents will require speeds up to 1 GB or will it be a lower level, with the three consortia suggesting in the preliminary round of discussions that they would like to and will probably use fibre? At the end of the day the response will be based on the request for a proposal and unless the request for a proposal sets out that there is a requirement to use fibre, the Minister will have no way of ensuring or insisting on those who respond using fibre to all homes. Will the Minister confirm whether he intends to have the lower limit of 30 Mbps as the base requirement or if it will be increased to 100 Mbps, or if the tender documents will be silent on download speeds and require a fibre solution? I seek clarity for those who are waiting and forbearing, given the fact that it will be on the way at some stage.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten The fact is that there are services on the way for the vast majority of customers across the country in advance of the roll-out of the national broadband plan. That is why we are focusing immediately on implementation of the task force's report on mobile phone and broadband services. We will publish the results in the next couple of weeks. The contract based on EU state aid rules must be technology neutral. We have to be cognisant of this, but the base requirement is that the technology used must be future proofed for the next 25 years. As the Deputy is aware, the European Commission has published its proposals for a 1 gigabit society. Because of this, the technology will have to be able to accommodate that speed in the future. At the end of the day what technology the companies propose is up to them, but they must comply with the requirement set down and because of this they are proposing a predominantly fibre-to-the-home solution.

Mobile Telephony Services

 37. Deputy Michael Collins Information on Michael Collins Zoom on Michael Collins asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten the reason mobile phone coverage throughout west Cork has deteriorated in the past 12 months (details supplied); the reason this was allowed to happen; and the way in which phone companies can provide a service at this level in view of perceived evidence throughout the country of a collapse in service. [38864/16]

Deputy Michael Collins: Information on Michael Collins Zoom on Michael Collins Why has mobile phone coverage throughout west Cork and elsewhere in the country regressed in the past 12 months? Prior to the merger of the mobile service providers O2 and Three, figures show that they had a total of 3,180 masts. However, once the merger is fully complete by 2019 there will be a total of 2,300 masts, which implies a loss of 880. Mobile phone coverage, in west Cork in particular, is suffering because Three has cut the equivalent of 68% of its masts. ComReg is not intervening on the removal of 880 mobile masts, mainly in rural communities. I call on the Minister to ensure it will investigate the O2 and Three merger in terms of the effect it has had on mobile phone coverage.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten If people are experiencing difficulty with mobile phone coverage, they should, please, first, go to the company involved and, second, to ComReg to express their frustration. That is vitally important. From talking to many Deputies and colleagues in west Cork and throughout the country, it appears that in areas where there had been excellent reception people are now experiencing decreased or non-existent mobile phone coverage. The recent merger between two mobile phone companies has led to a major mobile phone issue throughout the country. Similar to broadband, it is also rural communities that have been affected.

  The management of radio spectrum is a function of the independent regulator for the telecommunications sector, the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. Licences issued by ComReg impose terms and conditions on mobile network operators, including minimum population coverage obligations. ComReg monitors compliance in that regard by means of biannual drive tests. However, given its independence, I have no statutory function in the matter of auditing mobile coverage. I am critically aware of the frustration being experienced across Ireland, where mobile networks are not always delivering the services people expect. Any customer, including those in west Cork and its environs, who experiences service difficulties should raise the matter with the service provider in the first instance. If the service provider fails to resolve matters, customers can refer a complaint to ComReg which will investigate the service provider's compliance with its contractual obligations. I have passed on the details provided by the Deputy to ComReg for its attention. My Department is also following up directly with one of the operators in west Cork, where specific problems have been identified. I understand officials from my Department have been in direct contact with the Deputy.

  Mobile network 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 past four years and this presents a continuing challenge for mobile network operators, regulators and policy makers, both in Ireland and internationally.

  Additional information not given on the floor of the House

  Recognising this challenge, I specifically included in the programme for Government a commitment to a mobile phone and broadband task force. In July I established the task force, together with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, which aims to unlock barriers to investment in mobile and broadband services. The terms of reference of the task force state it will identify and recommend practical actions that can be taken to improve mobile reception and broadband access. The task force has met approximately 20 times, with a number of helpful initiatives emerging in the areas of planning, local authority engagement and consumer information and engagement. The task force involves Departments and agencies, as well as engagement with ComReg and telecoms operators. I anticipate that we will bring a report later this month on foot of the work of the task force. The report will set out specific timelines for the delivery of its recommendations and actions.

  Under the programme for Government, the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, has also established two regional action groups to work with local authorities, local enterprise offices, Leader groups and other relevant agencies in helping to accelerate the roll-out of broadband and mobile services at local level. 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 for an 86% increase in total spectrum available for mobile and fixed wireless services.

  In my Department's Estimates for 2017 I have secured €8 million for RTE to allow it to free up the 700 MHz spectrum band. ComReg will, in turn, 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, 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 has not been fully demonstrated.

  The procurement process is under way and the three bidders have indicated that they are proposing a predominantly fibre-to-the-home solution in rural Ireland. Intensive dialogue with the bidders is ongoing, with a view to putting in place contracts that will deliver the NBP network and put Ireland to the forefront internationally in terms of connectivity.

Deputy Michael Collins: Information on Michael Collins Zoom on Michael Collins Mention was made of getting involved in discussions with the companies, but we have been trying to do this in recent months since the issue arose. Coverage was poor to start with, but it has got worse. The company does not seem to realise this. Every excuse is given to customers and elected representatives and we cannot seem to resolve the issue. In my area of west Cork, along the N71 and R586, the two main thoroughfares into west Cork, from Skibereen to Leap and into Clonakilty there is no mobile phone coverage. On the other side of the R586 in Dunmanway and into Ballineen the position is the same. It is not good enough in this day and age; we are back to levels in the Third World where countries have made far more progress than we have. One could ask why that is the case. Will the Minister intervene? There are too many rules and regulations. ComReg seems to have dictatorial rule over the country and the Minister must intervene on behalf of the people. I have confidence that he can do this because he is an excellent Minister in many fields. I would appreciate if he worked on the matter.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I have accepted the challenge the Deputy put to me. That is why, during the talks on the programme for Government, I proposed the establishment of a task force to deal with the problems with mobile phone coverage and wireless and mobile broadband services. The task force was established in July and will publish its recommendations in the coming weeks. However, I have not waited for it to publish its recommendations. We have been able to address some of the issues that have arisen in the interim as part of an ongoing process and will make announcements in the coming weeks in that regard. This is an ongoing process that will improve the quality of mobile phone coverage, improve 3G and 4G broadband coverage, as well as wireless broadband coverage. That is why in October I released the 3.6 GHz spectrum, which will allow for additional capacity on both mobile and wireless networks to improve the services available.

Deputy Michael Collins: Information on Michael Collins Zoom on Michael Collins Were politicians involved in the task force? It is important that they be involved. We had a meeting with the mobile phone companies perhaps six weeks ago in the AV room and I had never seen such anger – right across the country, not just west Cork- at any meeting I had attended since I was elected to Dáil Éireann. Politicians are getting it in the neck because the reception is getting worse, not better, and we are responsible for it. Under Irish telecoms law, mobile network operators are only required to cover between 70% and 80% of the country’s population and there is no legal requirement to cover rural areas. Under a 2014 agreement in the United Kingdom, all four mobile network operators collectively agreed to guarantee voice and text coverage across 90% of the geographical area of the United Kingdom by 2017. I urge the Minister to work with all the Irish mobile network operators to agree to a similar arrangement. Everybody has a right to the same service, regardless of where he or she lives.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten Everybody has a right to the same service, no matter where he or she lives. That is why I ensured the task force would include representatives of rural communities across the country who were experiencing at first hand problems with mobile phone coverage.

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