Ceann Comhairle, Fianna Fáil welcomes this Bill in principle and believes it is a positive step forward for the provision of high quality communications services in Ireland. The entry of the ESB into this area should increase competition in the broadband and electronic communications market. This will hopefully result in reduced costs and an increase of broadband coverage throughout the country.

When in Government, Fianna Fáil invested heavily in the provision of broadband infrastructure as the technology developed. Indeed, we committed over €450 million in the provision of broadband services during the period from 1999 to 2011. This investment was necessary to establish a foundation for the expansion of services in the years to come. The explosion of social media, online shopping and e-commerce in general has resulted in broadband becoming a vital service for homes, schools and businesses. Increasingly, broadband is almost as important as electricity, especially to online businesses.

Technology advances in this area are taking place at a rapid pace and in order to be competitive in the world of business, Ireland needs to be at the forefront of broadband provision and speeds. It appears as though this Government has failed to keep pace with technological advances and the expansion of the service has stalled. The Government’s plan for full broadband coverage in Ireland by end of 2012 under its Rural Broadband Scheme may technically have been met in 2013, but the quality of the service is often so bad that it simply cannot be used. The publication of the national broadband plan last year, which commits to the delivery of high speed broadband across the country is welcome, but action is louder than words in this regard.

Despite the increased number of service providers in the broadband market and the improvement in quality in recent years in urban areas, many towns, villages and communities, particularly in rural Ireland, will receive little investment, if any, in the expansion of the broadband network by private firms. I think it has been accepted by these firms that Ireland’s widely dispersed population and topography means they do not believe it would be commercially viable for them to provide services in some areas. This is something that the state must intervene in and ensure that rural Ireland does not get left behind in the digital revolution. 

The failure to provide these services is contributing to a two tier economy in Ireland where regional and rural Ireland loses out on investment and business expansion to urban areas. This is not a positive development given the increasing pressures on rural Ireland where state services are being reduced and potential services are being driven away by the lack of resources such as high quality broadband.

In August of last year, the Irish Examiner ran a story in its features section entitled “Is Ireland living with a great broadband myth?”.  That piece carried a story of a small business in Westmeath only one hour and 15 minutes from Dublin City centre which employed 120 but they cannot get reliable broadband. The company in question had resorted to both satellite and mobile broadband which promised speeds of 10Mb download and 4Mb upload but independent tests showed that the actual speeds they were getting was closer to 0.5Mb, upload and download. At one point during the year, the company had to go without broadband for five days due to connectivity problems. During that time they had to dispatch staff members to print documents in their own personal homes. At one point, the company owner had to get in the car and head to somebody’s house, near Mullingar, to print something off at 11 o clock at night.  They estimated that they lost at least two customers per day for the five days the satellite was down, and they had to bring in external IT consultants to try and sort something out. This is just not acceptable.

Here is a company trying to compete nationally for business and they are at a massive disadvantage because they are located in an area that does not have reliable broadband. When asked: why don’t you move to Dublin? The company owner replied:  “It’s a fair point. But we’ve built up a business in a little village, which was a disadvantaged area with no employment. We’ve recruited lots of people from the farming community, people have moved to the area because of us, and we want to try to keep jobs in the community.” I think you will agree with me Minister when I say that this question should never have to arise. These people are trying their best to create employment in rural areas. They are trying their best to ensure their business is sustainable. Yet, the lack of reliable high quality broadband is dragging down their entrepreneurial spirit and sapping their ability to expand.

Hopefully, the entry into the market of ESB into this area will bring about progress for those communities who face the difficulties I have outlined above. Given their widespread electricity network which reaches into every community in the country, it will be possible to improve and expand broadband services in areas which currently cannot rely on those services currently provided.

Another area that needs to be addressed is broadband congestion which affects tourist areas in particular. In Kerry for example, when the influx of tourists increases dramatically in the summer months, the broadband provision which is advertised as providing 3Mb speeds drops dramatically to 0.06Mb. This has a significant impact on local businesses which rely on their high speed broadband to deliver online services within demanding time limits. Upgrading the coverage in these areas would enable businesses to compete with places like Dublin for a talented workforce and yet keep the quality of life that comes with living in less built up regions.

Minister, it is my intention to bring forward an amendment to this legislation so that the services advertised by the broadband providers with regard to speed and quality are reflected by the actual speed and quality of the broadband the consumer receives. I hope the Minister might be willing to take this on board. I would be open to suggestions from his Department on how best to frame this if the Minister was willing to accept such an amendment.

Another aspect of the Bill which must be seriously considered is the extension of the extensive rights currently being enjoyed by ESB relating to their access to private property to allow that company to carry out its function. This Bill extends Section 53 of the Electricity (Supply) Act 1927 to third party companies who the ESB may agree a contract with to provide electronic communications services. I understand that not all of Section 53 applies to these companies and I think this is a wise decision given people’s inherent right to the peaceful enjoyment of their property. I would put forward to the House that the legislative provisions contained in Section 5 and 6 of this Bill allowing ESB and other companies access to private property must be carefully construed so that any works carried out by those companies must not dramatically impact on property owners rights in the long term. I also believe that any works carried out on private property are conducted with care and with the least amount of disruption to the property.

We have plenty of experience in this country of contractors who find it very easy to rip up our roads at a quick pace, yet find it very difficult to repave the road in a manner which would restore the road to its original standard. This is something we must avoid in this particular area as we are dealing with people’s private property. I would put it to you Minister, that we must have some form of complaints mechanism which could allow an unsatisfied private property owner to request that the company who accessed their land and carried out works be compelled to return and restore the property to the high standard it previously was if the company left it in an unsatisfactory state on finishing their work. I intend to submit an amendment in this regard which will allow a complaint to be made to the Commission for Energy Regulation where the property is left in an unsatisfactory state. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s viewpoint on this matter and am open to any advice his Department might have in this area.

In conclusion, Fianna Fáil does welcome this Bill and will be supporting its passing in this House. Broadband services are vital for domestic and commercial life in this country. This legislation should go some way in increasing high quality broadband services in this country and hopefully reduce the high costs currently associated with this service. I hope that my amendments suggested might be considered by the Minister for Committee Stage of this Bill.