Public Accounts Committee
Meeting 28 January 2016
Mark Griffin, Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: I have a second issue, pertaining to the rural parts of my constituency. The Irish Times and other papers today discuss how the goalposts have shifted on the roll-out of broadband. The reason is EU state aid rules and the fact that when a private operator is involved the State cannot duplicate that service and this has changed the plans initially made by the Department.
Somebody in Waterford asked what that meant for us and whether we could now expect broadband to be rolled out across the county and in my rural location. Has it changed? Where do we stand on what the EU has ruled and how is the Department dealing with that now?
Mr. Mark Griffin: There are two issues relating to the EU element. First, there is the issue of infrastructure sharing and a broadband cost reduction directive has been adopted and will be transposed.
There are already existing rules under section 57 of the Communications Regulation Act 2002, where those who would intend bidding for the intervention area under the national broadband plan will be encouraged to share infrastructure.
We consider that to be critically important because, by definition, the sharing of infrastructure reduces the cost of providing the service and doing this should have a positive effect on the level of Exchequer funding to be provided.
We have discussed in great detail with the stakeholders and likely bidders the importance of sharing infrastructure during the roll-out of the national plan. During 2015 we invited companies to set out the nature, extent and type of infrastructure they might be able to make available to those companies proposing to bid for the broadband plan.
We are making good progress and the Deputy might recall that the updated broadband map up to 2020 was published on 2 December 2015 by the Minister. The pre-qualification questionnaire, as part of the tender process, was published on the same day and our expectation is that we will be in a position to award a tender by the end of this year.
As part of the tender process we will say to the companies best placed to advise on the mobilisation of the roll-out plan that it needs to happen quickly and that certain areas, such as those with poor access and high demand, need to be prioritised.
Certain categories such as primary schools and businesses should be part of the initial targeting and we expect 60% of the intervention area to be completed by 2018, which will be 85% when one adds in the commercial sector. We expect 100% by 2020.
I cannot give an exact date when communities in Waterford will get it under the intervention area but people will see from the broadband map, if they enter their address or Eircode postcode, whether they are part of the commercial intervention or the State intervention.
As was reported this morning, there is one company which mooted the inclusion of an additional 300,000 addresses on the broadband map last year. I do not want to single that company out but we have said consistently that we want to do this once and do it right.
When the commercial companies set out plans for the provision of broadband infrastructure, we require them to enter into a commitment contract. I do not want to come back to the committee in 2020 and say company X said it would provide broadband to parts of Waterford but we decided not to proceed under the intervention strategy and now we have to go back for those areas.
If the Deputy looks at the figures for his county, we have 61,000 premises to be covered by the national broadband plan, the Minister's plan for which he announced the updated map in December.
This accounts for just under 18,000, so that is 29% of premises in Waterford. The figures for premises to be covered by next generation access, NGA - that is, the commercial sector - are approximately 32,000 by the end of 2015, with a further 11,000 to be provided by the end of 2016.
What I would say to the Deputy, if he were speaking to his constituents, is it is absolutely full steam ahead for delivery of this plan. It is among the one or two top priorities that I have in the Department.
We have a great team in place dealing with it and very good expert consultants advising us, all procured in accordance with the public procurement guidelines. I am very confident that once this is completed, we will rank among the best in the world for the provision of broadband infrastructure. I do not want us to be talking about Ireland being somewhere at the EU average or a little above it in 2020.
This is a really progressive piece of work and I believe it will deliver excellent outcomes for the State. Considering the footprint of the intervention area and the type of premises that will be served - the number of farming communities, workers, and SMEs in the intervention area - this will make a transformational difference. We are talking about 96% of the national landmass, 1.8 million citizens, 214,000 white-collar workers and 89% of farm employment lying within the intervention area.
John Deasy: That is fine. I understand there is an impetus within the Department to actually get this rolled out. If I take the west of my county of Waterford, the lack of speed is killing businesses there. It is killing the growth of existing businesses and the establishment of new ones.
I deal with the issue alongside the county manager a great deal. I try to get him involved and he does so readily. We both correspond with the companies to try to get a better service. There are topographical anomalies involved whereby people and businesses are badly disadvantaged when it comes to their service. The sooner this is done the better because it is holding back business development badly in rural areas. I cannot say that enough. I just come across it too often.
Mark Griffin: The Deputy is absolutely pushing an open door with the Department, I can assure him of that. I am very comfortable that we are doing this the right way.
John Deasy: It does not just affect my constituency, it affects every rural constituency. Mr. Griffin knows this. I am trying to emphasise its importance. Frankly, when it comes to many of the most recent cases, I have failed to help these individuals because it is outside of my power. We end up with no real improvement in the service in many cases, which is devastating for some businesses.
Mark Griffin: If we look at what is happening in the digital economy, we are spending €6.4 billion online every year. That is up €2 billion since 2012. The expectation is that it will be €12 billion by 2020. We are spending €730,000 per hour online. I want to link this back to a conversation we had earlier.
The untapped potential of the digital economy is present in rural communities right across the country. I have nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters who live down the country. I assure the Deputy that I get it in the ear every time I meet one of them as regards the appalling state of the broadband infrastructure as soon as one moves outside the small towns.
I would like to finish on a positive note. The real value of Eircode is that when we provide high-speed broadband to rural parts of the country, and when the people in those areas fully tap in, we will see a massive increase in demand and online activity. It is then that we will see a huge and very significant take-up of Eircode because people have to get stuff delivered to their houses.
Deputy John Deasy: I thank Mr. Griffin and apologise to the Chairman for being overly parochial occasionally.