Wednesday, 21 November 2018, 12.30 p.m.
Thanks to you Carolan, and to Torlach for inviting me to address the TIF/Audiovisual Federation Digital Lunch today. I am very pleased to be here and to have the opportunity to meet you all.
As Minister for rural affairs and natural resources with specific responsibility for digital development, I am acutely aware of the telecommunications sector's economic, social and human impact. We are all guided by a common desire for a better connected, future–focussed and digitally inclusive society. As a rural TD, I am also acutely aware of the sector's impact on local communities in supporting their digital connectivity.
High speed broadband is a key enabler in ensuring that connectivity positively impacts on lives nationwide. If we are serious about bridging the rural/urban divide, we must work towards all citizens drawing equal benefits from the digitally connected society, supported by high speed broadband and mobile coverage, so that Ireland can be a real digital leader in the future.
As an industry, you will know that building the infrastructure to support these services requires very substantial investment and can be very complex. The industry investment of in excess of €3.3bn in the sector over the last 5 years has significantly improved Ireland's digital connectivity.
In 2012, less than 30% of the 2.3 million premises in Ireland had access to high speed broadband. When this Government came into office, this had risen to 52%. Today, 74% or 1.7 million premises can access a high speed broadband service.
The Government, through the National Broadband Plan, is committed to ensuring that every home and business in Ireland has access to a high speed broadband service. The Government's commitment to the National Broadband Plan has acted as a catalyst and industry has responded in rolling out high speed broadband infrastructure that will equip Irish participation in the Gigabit society.
The Government is committed that no will be left one behind. The Government's National Broadband Plan will ensure that the 1.1 million citizens living in the NBP intervention area have access to a high speed broadband service and this is a key Government priority.
The National Broadband Plan is unique in terms of its level of ambition and vision. Its focus is to ensure a future-proofed, technical solution that will allow this generation and future generations to participate fully in digital society.
Realising the objective of the National Broadband Plan will significantly enhance Ireland's standing as a leading EU digital economy.
Pending roll-out of the State intervention, the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce has worked steadily and determinedly since 2016 to improve mobile phone and broadband coverage for householders, businesses and communities across the country. You, the industry have played a critical role in making this happen.
I was delighted to preside over my first Taskforce Implementation Group meeting a fortnight ago, and was immediately struck by the newly established structures, which are not only encouraging inter-Departmental cooperation, but also facilitating greater, more productive dialogue between commercial operators and the State. True success for the Taskforce lies in bringing together the right people in a spirit of goodwill and collaboration to resolve and clear logjams.
The Taskforce's engagement with industry has been particularly fruitful, and I would like to acknowledge TIF members for your continued engagement with all stakeholders. You play an integral role in helping deliver numerous actions to improve coverage across rural Ireland. I am also heartened by industry's commitment that all mobile operators will soon introduce WiFi calling, further alleviating indoor coverage deficits for potentially thousands of consumers.
I urge you all to keep playing such a positive role as we go forward; particularly in establishing structures for greater coordination between telcos and Broadband Officers on the planning application process; in the sharing of telecoms infrastructure, as well as in working to eliminate blackspots.
All of these positive inputs will also inform the forthcoming Taskforce Annual Review, and help develop some new actions for 2019 that we can implement together.
Our combined efforts in building and upgrading networks go hand-in-hand with encouraging people to take up the opportunities this connectivity presents. There are a number of Government initiatives to support this.
We are living in a truly digital age and as a nation we must have a level of ambition that reflects both what we have achieved, together with a clear vision for our future objectives. The Department of An Taoiseach is leading in the development A new National Digital Strategy (NDS) in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is playing a key role.
The strategy will be based on the OECD integrated policy framework for digital transformation and focus on three key thematic areas:
- the Citizen and Society;
- Enterprise, Infrastructure and Regulation; along with
- Education and Digital Government.
A public consultation is ongoing and further engagement with key stakeholders – including the telecommunications sector – is due to commence this month, and I would encourage you to fully engage as you are critical stakeholder with much to contribute to this project.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday are reminders to us of the increasing importance of online trading to our economy and the world's economy. Recent analysis shows that Irish online shoppers are some of the most active globally, spending an estimated €7.8bn online in 2018 – up 20% from €6.6bn in 2017 and expected to exceed €10bn by 2020.
It is vital that Irish businesses at every level take the opportunity to compete for a share of this growing economic activity. My Department seeks to assist small business to grow an online trading presence through the Trading Online Voucher Scheme. Since the Scheme's 2014 launch, almost 5,000 businesses have successfully applied for funding, and almost 12,000 businesses have received training, advice and mentoring. My Department will spend €3 million in 2019 to support an extra 1,500 small businesses to develop their digital assets.
In an increasingly digital world, it is vital that we protect our networks and systems. The ICT sector is a priority strategic sector, and cybersecurity is central to its growth and development. Future productivity and a more general national competitive and economic advantage will develop from areas such as Cloud Technology, the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.
My Department plays a leading role in the area of Cyber Security and is home to the National Cyber Security Centre. The Government has increased the level of resources available to the National Cyber Security Centre over the past two years and this has allowed for a building of capacity.
Planning for the development of the next National Cyber Security Strategy is underway. The new strategy will set out Ireland's vision and how we will address the challenges we face in this area. Again this is an area in which the involvement of the sector will be essential in framing Ireland's approach.
The pace of change in the digital sphere has also been recognised at European level. The new European Electronic Communications Code will modernise the EU telecoms regulatory framework, ensure faster access to radio spectrum, boost investment in high-speed and high-quality networks and better protect consumers.
Implementing the Code by 2020 will be as challenging as its negotiation was. Industry's views have been invaluable during this process and appropriate inputs will be sought as we tailor the legislative and regulatory backdrops to the Irish situation, in line with the new Code.
I would also like to thank you for your helpful engagement during negotiations on the revision of the recently adopted Audiovisual Media Services Directive. Once published, a public consultation will explore how best to reflect its provisions in Irish law. The ambitious 21 month implementation period will need focused stakeholder contributions to meet the deadline.
As many of you will know, one of the actions in the Action Plan for Online Safety was the establishment of a multi-stakeholder forum to advise Government on online safety issues. This National Advisory Council on Online Safety established in September held its first meeting on 4 October 2018 and I welcome the fact that members of Technology Ireland and Telecommunications Industry Ireland are also members of the Council. I look forward to meeting them tomorrow, in my new role as chairperson of the Council. Online safety is a key challenge today, especially for our children. The work of the Action Plan shows that we are rising to meet that challenge.
Ireland must be able to seize all opportunities presented by the digital world, and position itself as a real digital leader into the future.
One of these opportunities is 5G connectivity. The new Code represents an important step in facilitating connectivity across the EU as we move towards deploying 5G. Ireland has endorsed the EU 5G Roadmap containing a set of milestones for Member States to meet over the coming years and we are fully committed to working with industry to achieve them.
As incoming Minister, I can see the significant effort already invested in getting us to a point where more and more people can reap the benefits of first class connectivity. However, we have to keep the momentum going, to deliver more, and to deliver it together.
We need to get our business and consumers online, eliminating unnecessary barriers, trading in Ireland and across borders. We must ensure a free flow of data, while protecting rights in respect of personal and non-personal data, and ensuring that we are protected against cyberattacks.
Connecting every townland, every home, school and business with the information age, is essential. It is a priority for Government, it is a priority for my Department, and it is a priority for me. In that regard I look forward to working on the communications portfolio with my colleague Minister Bruton.
We must remain focussed, committed and dedicated to completing the journey towards a digitally connected society – not for many, not even for most, but for all. And you all play a critical role in delivering this. I look forward to engaging with you over the coming period.