33. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the number of times he has met with the mobile broadband taskforce since June 2017. (Question 41961/17 asked on 04 Oct 2017)

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment (Deputy Denis Naughten): I propose to take Questions Nos 30, 33, 48 and 65 together.

Recognising the frustration experienced across Ireland where telecommunications networks are not always delivering the services people expect, I specifically included in the Programme for Government a commitment to a Mobile Phone and Broadband Task force.

I established the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce (the ‘Taskforce’) in July 2016, arising from that commitment, to identify immediate solutions to broadband and mobile phone coverage deficits and investigate how better services could be provided to consumers, prior to the full build and roll-out of the network planned under the National Broadband Plan State intervention.

The Taskforce  which I co-chaired, consulted and engaged with telecoms industry representatives to identify short and medium term solutions to alleviate telecommunications deficits, particularly in rural Ireland. The Terms of Reference of the Taskforce is available on my Departments’ website.

The Task Force worked with Departments, local authorities, ComReg, State agencies, the telecoms industry and other key stakeholders to publish a Final report in December 2016 which contains 40 actions to alleviate some of the telecommunications deficits across Ireland. The Report is also available on my Department’s website.

Key measures among the 40 actions contained in the Taskforce Report included measures to streamline and prioritise planning procedures for telecoms infrastructure, a licensing regime to allow people to boost their home signals using repeaters, the build out of new ducting along the M7 / M8, measures to help stakeholders make informed choices in relation to their network provider and handsets, and general network improvements.

To maintain momentum, I established an Implementation Group together to drive progress on implementing the measures recommended by the Taskforce. The establishment of the Implementation Group is a commitment in the Action Plan for Rural Development. I co-chair the Implementation Group with Minister of State Sean Kyne.

The Group comprises key stakeholders identified in the Taskforce report with responsibility for delivery of actions. Officials in both Departments are working closely together to oversee delivery of the actions.

The membership comprises the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, the Department of Rural and Community Development, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and the City and County Managers’ Association. ComReg, the independent Regulator for the telecommunications sector, also sits on the Group in an advisory role and also in respect of its ownership of a number of key actions.  This key stakeholder interaction will ensure that strong momentum and timely delivery is maintained over the coming months, and will enable early identification and proactive management of any emerging challenges to the delivery of actions. In addition to overseeing the delivery of actions by the State entities, the Group will monitor and track progress made on actions owned by telecommunications operators. Quarterly progress reports are being produced and published on the status of Taskforce actions, the second quarterly report having been published in July 2017. The first two quarterly progress reports are accessible on the DCCAE website. These demonstrate that good progress has been made in delivering the actions. I am also pleased at the sustained level of engagement between action owners and industry. In addition, a comprehensive Annual Review of progress will be undertaken at the end of 2017. 

 A National Stakeholder Forum will also be held on Friday 6 October 2017 in Athlone, to take stock of progress made in implementing the Taskforce actions and to enable discussion on all the issues impacting on the rollout of telecoms infrastructure. This work will also assist local authorities in preparing for the roll-out of the new NBP network once contracts are in place.

The Forum will be hosted by me and by Minster Kyne, and it will feature a range of stakeholders from across the telecoms sector, including action owners, Government Departments, the independent Regulator, industry representatives, as well as consumer representatives. The event will afford an opportunity to review progress made, and to identify potential new actions. Feedback from this event will be incorporated into the Annual Review, in order to inform the Year 1 Annual Report of the Implementation Group.     

In addition, following Regulations which I signed last year, ComReg’s announcement earlier this year of the results of its auction for the 3.6GHz radio spectrum band, will mean an 86% increase in spectrum capacity to meet the growing demand for mobile and wireless broadband services across rural and urban areas. The award of 15 year licences for the rights of use in this band will provide stability and create future investment certainty. Spectrum was also awarded in lots covering 9 urban and rural regions across Ireland.

The very significant commercial investment by mobile operators has resulted in improved services, with at least one operator now having in excess of 90% 4G population coverage.

These initiatives should assist in enhancing the quality of mobile phone and data services, particularly in rural areas.