To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if his attention has been drawn to the poor standard and quality of broadband and mobile phone technology in many areas throughout the country; the action taken or proposed to address the situation; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
– Bernard J. Durkan.
* For WRITTEN answer on Wednesday, 25th June, 2014.
Since market liberalisation, the provision of telecommunications services, including broadband services are delivered in the first instance through private sector operators who operate in a fully liberalised market, regulated by the independent regulator, the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg). The market has developed into a well-regulated market, supporting a multiplicity of commercial operators, providing services over a diverse range of technology platforms. Details of broadband services available in each County can be found on a number of websites, including the websites of individual commercial operators.
In terms of the quality of mobile coverage throughout the country, licences issued by ComReg require Mobile Network Operators to provide a minimum level of national population coverage. There are no Universal Service Obligations attached to mobile phone licences. The design of the network is a matter entirely for the operator concerned although operators tend to exceed their minimum coverage requirements for commercial reasons. However, given that mobile telephone services are a radio based technology, services can be affected by several factors including topography, the capacity of the network and more generally the quality of access customers have to mobile telephone antennas.
ComReg’s 2012 multiband spectrum auction has released additional radio spectrum previously unavailable for mobile operators. This is expected to further improve the coverage and quality of mobile service throughout the country. Since the auction, three mobile operators have launched 4G high speed mobile broadband services and rollout is continuing. There has also been continued investment by all operators in enhancing and broadening 3G services and network improvements.
I would also point out that Local Authorities have a strong role to play in facilitating the roll-out of the necessary telecommunications infrastructure to help enable service availability throughout the country. This is a matter which has been raised by telecommunications services providers and is reflected in the Government’s National Broadband Plan, which commits to addressing barriers to deployment of services.
The Plan, which I published in August 2012, aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring that high speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses. This will be achieved by providing:- a policy and regulatory framework that assists in accelerating and incentivising commercial investment; and a State-led intervention for areas where it is not commercial for the market to invest.
Since publication of the Plan, investments by the commercial sector are underway and in some instances have been accelerated in both fixed line and wireless high speed broadband services. Commercial operators combined have either invested, or committed to invest, over €2 billion in their Irish networks, delivering high speed broadband to homes and businesses.
As a result of this accelerated investment the addressable area required by the State-led intervention has been reduced by 30% since the National Broadband Plan was launched. While the commercial developments are welcome the acceleration of investment is largely contained to cities and towns. Consequently, the speeds that are available in these areas are demonstrably better than those that are available in more rural areas.
On 25 April last, I signalled the Government’s commitment to a major telecommunications network build-out to rural Ireland, with fibre as the foundation of its investment, as part of the State-led intervention under the National Broadband Plan. This commitment is a clear expression of Government’s determination to address the connectivity challenge in rural Ireland in a meaningful and sustainable way.
Central to the strategy will be a fibre build-out to locations in every county in the State identified as having no existing or planned enabling fibre network. It is intended that the fibre will be delivered directly to access points for homes and businesses, where service providers can utilise the fibre to provide high speed services to end users. The fibre build out will be part of an end-to-end strategy that will address all parts of Ireland that cannot access commercial high speed broadband services.
A comprehensive mapping exercise is underway in my Department which will identify those areas that will require a State intervention. I have published a county-by-county list of towns and villages which have already been identified for a fibre build-out. This list is available on my Department’s website, www.dcenr.gov.ie. This is an indicative list and is subject to the completion of the mapping exercise. Further locations may be identified as this process continues. Similarly, it may be determined that some locations on the list will be addressed by the commercial sector and will therefore not require State intervention. I expect that this mapping exercise will be concluded in the autumn.
I would point out that the EU Commission’s guidelines on State aid for high speed broadband infrastructure preclude Member States from intervening in regions in which private investors have demonstrated plans to roll out their own infrastructure within the following three years.
In tandem with the completion of the mapping exercise, intensive design and planning work is ongoing in my Department with a view to producing a detailed end to end strategy for the State led intervention. It is my intention to conduct a full public consultation on the outcome of the mapping process and the proposed strategy. EU State aid clearance will also be required for the intervention once finalised. This will be followed by a detailed procurement process with a view to commencing construction of the fibre network and provision of services in identified areas as quickly as possible.