28. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when it is expected a contract will be awarded for the national broadband scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 41703/17 asked on 04 Oct 2017)

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I hope the Minister does not read the answer he gave previously to very similar questions and that we start to get into the nitty gritty of this. Caithfidh mé rud amháin a rá i dtús báire. Ní haon mholadh é féinmholadh agus ba cheart don Aire cuimhneamh ar sin. Nowadays fibre is no more complicated than copper was 20 years ago. It is a little thing that is hung on the top of a telephone pole and run it from pole to pole and join it just like a copper one in a slightly different technological way. The Minister should not give us the line that this is some technological revolution. It is not. Is it a fact that the Minister and the Department predict that by 2020 a total of 180,000 houses will not have fibre broadband.

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment (Deputy Denis Naughten) (Deputy Denis Naughten): I have given a detailed outline on the current status of the procurement process in my responses to the priority questions on today’s order paper.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Deputy will be aware that this procurement process will select a bidder, or bidders, who will roll-out a new high speed broadband network to remote and rural areas not served by commercial operators. The successful bidder, or bidders, will build, maintain and operate this State intervention network for the next 25 years. Last Tuesday, 26 September 2017  was the closing date for bidders to submit their detailed solutions in the procurement process and I can confirm that my Department received submissions from two bidders. These bidders were Eircom Limited and the Granahan McCourt, enet, SSE, John Laing Group plc consortium. This is a significant and positive milestone in the process and the path to a digitally equal Ireland. The submissions received means that we are at the final stages of this procurement process.

My Department’s specialist national broadband plan, NBP, team will now evaluate these two submissions over the coming weeks, with the expectation that very early in 2018 bidders will be invited to submit final tenders.

I am confident that the combination of existing commercial investment and the State intervention will make Ireland an exemplar in Europe and beyond, in terms of providing high speed services to all citizens regardless of where they live or work.

Deputy Ó Cuiv is right. It is easy to physically string the cable from pole to pole. As he knows, because he travels across rural Ireland just as I do, it is not as simple as that because some of these poles are red rotten and have to be replaced. Some have overhanging trees, some are missing altogether. There is much labour intensive work to be carried out in advance. It is not just as simple as sticking one piece of fibre to the other because light is being transferred through it. The connection has to be seamless. There are very specialised staff who do that. That is why the two bidders in the State intervention phase of the national broadband plan have decided to roll out fibre rather than any other solution as the main source of high speed broadband across Ireland.

The Deputy is right, it is amazing that this is not being rolled out elsewhere. As I said before the Deputy came into the House, we are now the global leader, and I am open to correction on this, in that 13% of our premises outside of our cities have access to pure fibre. That is unheard of anywhere in the world. That will continue to ramp up over the months and years to come. I believe that by 2020 a minimum of 91% of premises will have access to high speed broadband. I believe it will be higher than that because of the progress we have made in the 3.6GHz spectrum. We are the first country to auction off spectrum that can take 5G. Several companies that are considering rolling out high speed wireless and mobile point to point services have already been to me but I am not going to commit myself to a figure higher than 91% until I can stand over it. The Deputy knows as well as I do that people are sick and tired of promises that are not fulfilled. I am not going to give a figure until I know that I can stand over it. I believe it will be higher than 91% but I am not going to say that until I know exactly.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Can the Minister confirm that not one house in this country has been connected to fibre or anything else under his national broadband scheme?

Deputy Denis Naughten: That is not true.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Before Eir signed a contract with the Minister it had committed publicly to rolling out fibre broadband to 300,000 houses. Can the Minister confirm that Ireland is unusual in having a very high percentage of the population living in non-agglomerated areas? People call them rural areas, I call them the people with bigger back gardens. One would think there was some awful magic at work because we do not all have to live on top of each other. No matter what the world is doing it was a very simple objective for us in this island to decide that within the part of this State that we control that every house would have fibre broadband. That was not rocket science.

The Minister talks about overhanging trees and replacing poles. They have been doing that since the telephone was invented. Can the Minister give me a date on which he thinks that he would sign a contract with some company to provide broadband under the national broadband scheme?

Deputy Denis Naughten: Yes, Ireland is unique in European terms in respect of its dispersed population in that 38% of our population lives on 96% of the landmass of the country. A total of 27% of the population lives in villages of fewer than 50 homes whereas the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, average is 11%. Vint Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet who was here at the Dublin Data Summit on 16 June, said, “[Y]ou are working one of the hardest problems we know about. Highly distributed, highly rural, low density population ... So your success in this will be a real beacon for other populations that have this similar sort of rural population”. International experts are looking to Ireland because what we are doing has not been done anywhere else in the world and under the national broadband plan, and through its commercial stimulus aspect, 10% of the premises that have been passed by the Eir contract to date, which is approximately 100,000 properties, have connected to pure fibre and I am told approximately 20% of those 100,000 have connected with the SIRO roll-out. Between 10% and 20% is the rate of connection to pure fibre on foot of the commercial stimulus aspect of the national broadband plan.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Can the Minister give me an estimate of when he hopes to sign a contract for the national broadband scheme? It is a very simple question.

I do not know what is wrong with the international experts that they think there is anything revolutionary or physically difficult in putting a little bit of fibre into every premises on this tiny island. If they have a problem with that, the kids on the street cannot see it. It is a problem purely in the head. It is obvious that we will have to invest, as we invest millions of euro in the basic infrastructure of our cities. For the whole country this will be half of the cost of the Tuam to Gort motorway. That is not a problem. If they have a problem with it the Minister should not start quoting them. Will the Minister please give me the date when he expects the contract to be signed?

Deputy Denis Naughten: Deputy Ó Cuív was the Minister in the Government that signed the national broadband scheme. Does he remember that?

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Yes.

Deputy Denis Naughten: It was a simple scheme. The day it went live, it was obsolete.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: That was not the question I asked.

Deputy Denis Naughten: The Deputy should listen to me. It was obsolete the day it went live. The problem is that there have been Ministers in the past who thought it was just as simple as that and we ended up with the disaster we have now. There are people around Ireland at the moment who are relying on the national broadband scheme and it is appalling. We are not even a decade down the road from that having been introduced.

We are rolling out a network that will stand the test of time, just as electricity did in the past when colleagues in this House at the time said who in God’s name will be using all of this electricity that we are generating, that we started 90 years ago in Ardnacrusha. We were the first country in the world to bring electricity to every single home. There have been tomes published on how that happened. There will not be the same on this. It will be one small chapter in the story of Ireland because it will happen quickly and every single home will get access to high speed broadband.