32. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his plans for the roll-out of rural broadband across County Wexford; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 41888/17 asked on 04 Oct 2017)

Deputy Denis Naughten: I propose to take Questions Nos. 31, 32, 43, 56 and 58 together. 

The National Broadband Plan is about connecting people in towns and villages across Ireland to high speed broadband through a State led intervention and commercial investment. The State-led intervention is progressing, with my Department evaluating the bidders’ submissions received last week, with a view to final tenders being received in 2018. In the interim, broadband roll-out continues through significant investment by commercial operators to a value of €1.8 million per day. This investment would not be taking place, connecting people at the rate they are being connected, were it not for the State’s national broadband plan. The areas referenced by the Deputies in their questions are a prime example of this.

There are over 81,000 premises in County Wexford, 60,000 of which fall within the blue area of the national broadband plan map. This means that they are to be covered by commercial operators. Of these 60,000 premises, approximately 20,000 form part of eir’s planned rural deployment to deliver high speed broadband between now and the end of 2018. The remaining 21,000 premises in County Wexford fall within the amber area and will be part of the State-led intervention under the national broadband plan.

There are over 90,000 premises in County Kildare, 77,000 of which fall within the blue area of the map and are covered by commercial operators. Of these 77,000 premises, approximately 7,000 are part of eir’s planned rural deployment. The remaining 13,000 premises in County Kildare fall within the amber area and will be part of the State intervention phase of the national broadband plan.

There are over 101,000 premises in County Donegal, 68,000 of which fall within the blue area of the map and are covered by commercial operators. Just under 17,000 of these 68,000 premises form part of eir’s planned rural deployment to deliver high speed broadband between now and the end of next year. The remaining 33,000 premises in County Donegal fall within the amber area and will be part of the State-led intervention phase under the national broadband plan.

There are over 83,000 premises in County Meath, 64,000 of which fall within the blue area of the map and are covered by commercial operators. Of these 64,000 premises, over 10,000 form part of eir’s planned rural deployment to deliver high speed rural broadband by the end of next year. The remaining 19,000 premises fall within the amber area and will be part of the State-led intervention phase of the national broadband plan.

This commercial investment will continue through 2018 and beyond. By early next year the State-led intervention will be at final tender stage and extend the reach of broadband to all citizens. By 2020 nine out of ten premises the length and breadth of Ireland will have access to high speed broadband.

The mobile phone and broadband task force was established in July 2016 to consult and engage with telecoms industry representatives in order to identify solutions which could be implemented in the short, medium and long term to alleviate telecommunications deficits, particularly in rural Ireland and particularly in relation to broadband, prior to the full build and roll-out of the network planned in the State-led intervention phase of the national broadband plan. Under the task force, engagement between telecommunications operators and local authorities through the broadband officers is continuing to strengthen. These broadband officers are acting as single points of contact in local authorities for their communities. Their appointment is already reaping rewards in ensuring a much greater degree of consistency in engagements with operators and clearing obstacles to infrastructure. There is a link to the list of local broadband officers on my Department’s website.

Deputy James Browne: I thank the Minister. I asked this question because of the deep frustration felt by people in County Wexford. Fibre broadband to the home is the key to bridging the rural divide in providing access to digital technologies. In County Wexford there are areas that completely lack access to broadband. People are getting deeply frustrated, fed up and annoyed at this. In particular, lack of access to broadband is holding back rural economies which have potential. They want to develop their economies, but they are simply not able to do so. It extends out and does not just affect businesses. Pretty much everything done at home, whether it be homework, completing grant or medical card applications or whatever else, is now done online now and people cannot do it. Similarly, the farming community which wants to develop modern efficient technologies on their farms cannot do so without access to broadband. Providing access to high speed fibre broadband is absolutely critical for all rural communities.

Deputy Denis Naughten: I thank the Deputy. He is right and I understand his frustration. As the worst broadband speeds in Ireland are in Roscommon and east Galway, I understand exactly the frustration he is experiencing. As I said to Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív earlier, if we could provide high speed broadband for every home in Ireland on the back of a hare, it cannot come quickly enough as far as I am concerned. That is why the broadband task force is so important in dealing with those in the amber area who are not part of the current roll-out phase of the national broadband plan. They are waiting for completion of the procurement process, particularly in the last 7% or 8% of more isolated areas. On entering the Department 12 months ago, I released 3.6 GHz of spectrum. That auction took place earlier this year and allows for the roll-out of point to point mobile and fixed wireless 5G broadband services in the more isolated parts of Ireland. Already one operator bidding for the contract has come to me and expects to cover 85% of the landmass of the country by 2019. This will deal with many people in County Wexford and other counties who are in the amber area.

I was surprised when I was told by an operator within the past week that some local authorities still charged development charges for telecommunications infrastructure. I want to make it quite clear to the House that I will publicly name those local authorities if they do not stop doing this. They have been issued with a request by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on a number of occasions not to do so. This is curtailing the roll-out of wireless and mobile broadband services to those counties and they need to be held accountable for it.

Deputy James Browne: I thank the Minister. I certainly hope no local authority is holding up the development of broadband services which are absolutely critical for the development of communities. The Minister has explained very well and clearly how this will happen. The mechanics have been quite well explained, but this probably adds even more to people’s frustration as they see that it is not rocket science but more bicycle mechanics and they cannot understand how it is not happening by now. Particular areas, whether it be Enniscorthy, Wexford, New Ross or Gorey, are blighted by the lack of broadband. I certainly hope to see services developed as soon as possible in all of these areas in order that we can free rural communities to maximise their talents, opportunities and ideas which are being held back.

Deputy Denis Naughten: I am disappointed that some local authorities are doing this and the Deputy might assist me in that regard. I would appreciate his assistance and ask colleagues in the House to do it also. I am working with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to exempt 4G antennae and other telecommunications infrastructure to fast-track the planning process to try to deploy this technology as quickly as possible. The other work I am doing with the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, and the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, who has taken over responsibility for this aspect as and from the Cabinet meeting held last Tuesday, is looking at how we can exploit the broadband that will be brought into every village across rural Ireland in the next 12 months. We are looking at whether we can have hot desks in local community centres and local GAA clubs in order that instead of lads who are playing with the local football team or even the local hurling team having to commute to Dublin five days a week, they can actually work from their local GAA pitch or their local community centre. It is not perfect and not ideal, but it is a damn sight better than what they have had up to now. All of this is happening and I need everyone’s assistance in the House to progress it.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Thomas P. Broughan has been waiting patiently and with his agreement the Minister will answer the question and we will have one supplementary question.