Let me state in this House that delivering high speed broadband to every home, business and school in Ireland is a personal promise from me and my top priority as the responsible Minister. Like all Deputies I have been equally frustrated with the lack of progress in this area for the last number of years. And so too have hundreds of thousands of people across Ireland - our constituents – the people who elected us to deliver. Yesterday was an important day. A milestone in a project which I believe, on scale and significance, matches rural electrification. The process is finally moving and on time.
The Motion, which was tabled by the Rural Independent Alliance, is timely. Let me promise the Deputies right here that every home and business in Ireland will have high speed broadband. The roll-out will start in every county in the first year of the Programme and the last homes and business will be connected within 3 to 5 years. No one will be left behind.
Turning now to the amendments put forward by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, let me be clear – Both procurement models will deliver the same service to consumers for the next 25 years. People in rural Ireland will not see any difference, in terms of the type, timeliness and cost of services they receive. The Government will exercise the same control over the network for the full 25 years under both models. The network will, as Fianna Fáil asks, ensure the future needs of homes and businesses are met.
The only tangible differences are in the cost to the taxpayer, and the time it will take to get contracts in place:
On cost, the Full Concession model which Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein want would cost 50 - 70% more than the Gap funding model. The full cost of the project would be likely to go on the Government's Balance Sheet, and it must be noted the commercial sector input would also be regarded as Government debt.
The impact of this on the general Government deficit would be approximately €1000 million more than the gap funding model. This would also reduce the available capital spend by up to €600m over the next six years. On timing the Full Concession Model would take at the very least 6 months more to negotiate with bidders. A delay the people in need of broadband cannot afford.
10 weeks ago a delay of 6 months to the procurement process was announced. Are we really saying to the people of Ireland that we want them to endure another delay of at least 6 months? We want to encourage investment in rural Ireland and that means avoiding delays that are within our control.
As both models will deliver the same thing, the benefit of State Ownership is a notional benefit at the end of the contract. My questions to Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are this:
- What projects are you prepared to forgo to pursue a State owned model? From which projects will you cut €600 million? Do we close long stay homes for older people that are not up to HIQA standards?
- Are you comfortable returning to your constituencies tomorrow to tell families and business people of rural Ireland that you are proposing further preventable delays in delivering them their vital broadband service?
- Can you really look them in the eye and tell them that in a world that is more connected than ever that they will continue to lose out. I certainly will not be going to the Connacht final to tell my constituents that they will have to wait at least six months longer, because certain Deputies in this House want the State to own and control the network in 2043 – that's 27 years away.
People in rural Ireland are already frustrated and angry about the delay in delivering services to them. I am not prepared to put other urgent capital investment priorities in schools, local and regional roads, flood relief and primary care residential centres in jeopardy by opting for an ownership model that will give the same outcome at a significantly higher cost.
The telecoms industry has invested strongly to deliver high speed broadband to approximately 1.2 million premises in towns and villages across Ireland and this investment is ongoing. It is covering homes and businesses in towns like Tipperary, Clonmel, Tralee, Cahirciveen, Killarney, Cooraclare, Barna, Inchydoney and Kilrush to name only a few.
Industry had previously promised to deliver to 1.6m premises. My Department has been closely monitoring these developments.
Yesterday, I announced that my Department has identified up to 170,000 premises which we had been expected to get services from the telecoms sector, and which will not now get services. We are working now to identify these premises so we can include them in the State intervention. This will make sure that no premises, no matter how isolated, are left behind.
Let me be very clear. Effective regulation, such as a Universal Service Obligation, can deal with many of the concerns that could arise in 2043. I am already considering what regulatory safeguards we could introduce, to ensure that quality services continue to be delivered over the coming years, and after 2043 when the contract or contracts expire.
I was amazed this morning to hear Brendan Howlin extoling the virtues of public ownership. As a member of the last Government he could have made a decision on ownership last December if he was so keen on the full concession model. I must also note that he consented to the privatisation of almost 300 Coillte telecommunications masts last year. The Deputy knows well that the Government has to make tough decisions in order to strike to balance between what's necessary and desirable.
Fianna Fáil has also tabled an amendment in relation to the speed of the network. The speeds we have set out in the procurement process are minimum speeds and not "up to" speeds. They are also the lowest threshold we expect to see coming from bidders. It is quite conceivable that bidders will put forward speeds that far exceed this minimum. Bidders are also being asked to put forward specific speeds for business.
Fianna Fáil have also called on the Government to ensure that the evolving high-speed broadband needs of the locations covered by the contract are met, and remain in step with those areas covered by the commercial market place, taking into consideration future technology advances. I can assure Deputy Dooley that this will be the case. Bidders will be required to demonstrate that their proposed network has the capacity to keep pace with demand, and with services in urban areas, both on speeds and price.
All of this will be the subject of intense negotiation and discussion with bidders over the coming months.
I will in the coming days lay a Statutory Instrument before this House which will transpose key aspects of the European Cost of Broadband Directive. It will deal with infrastructure sharing by utility network operators and timelines for processing permissions to install telecoms infrastructure along public roads.
I intend to follow this with measures to ensure that all new-build premises have ducting installed for the purposes of installing telecom lines.
This will add to existing legislation in this area since 2002, and should help industry to rollout services more efficiently.
In conclusion, I believe there is unanimous support in this House for the speedy and efficient delivery of the National Broadband Plan. I would like to put firmly on the record of the House, the progress that is being made:
- The procurement process commenced in December and yesterday we moved to stage 3 where three qualifying bidders were invited to meet with the Department to kick off the dialogue process.
- My Department is continuing to monitor deployment by the telecoms industry and I am now moving to include another 170,000 premises in the intervention area.
- The "Gap Funding" Ownership model will deliver the same network and services that would be delivered under a Full Concession Model. These services will be designed to meet the needs of consumers for 25 years. It is the quickest and most cost effective way of delivering services to the people of rural Ireland.
- I cannot stand over a Full Concession Model which would have an additional impact of over €1000 million on the general Government deficit reducing the Capital spend of over 600 million and delay the rollout of services for at least another 6 months.
I would like to thank the Rural Independent Alliance for putting down this important Motion. I look forward to updating the House on future developments.