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Debate Of My Broadband Bill 2008

Posted on: October 23rd, 2008

Yesterday, I stood in the Senate to speak on my Broadband Bill. I have been working on this Bill for quite some time and have been urging Minister Ryan to set a minimum target for broadband roll out in this country. We are moving in a digital age and I do not want enterprising Ireland or rural areas to be left behind. The current broadband service, where it exists, is often unreliable. We need every house and business that wishes to access it to be able to and we need to increase the speeds at which people can work online.

I introduce this Bill with some enthusiasm and also with a great deal of exasperation. Approximately two years ago I raised the issue of broadband in this House and it was greeted with some astonishment and a certain amount of diffidence by Members. Approximately a year ago I reintroduced the matter in a Private Members’ motion, and we got promises of a vague type that something would be done about progressing broadband. I had hoped that by this time we might have made enough progress so that broadband would be speeded up and available — or there would be a hope of it being available, accessible and have penetrated every household in the country. It is with great disappointment that I report to the Minister and his predecessors that very little has happened in the intervening year, as with the two years before that. We have gone a couple of notches up the OECD average. We have made a great deal of fuss about the fact that we now have 1 million subscribers, as though that were some kind of achievement, but as a nation we are still lagging far behind. It is my contention that we are falling way behind our targets, our intentions and what we had hoped to achieve.

The Bill is a simple one and I see no reason why the Minister would be unable to accept it. The main purpose of it is to give targets to the Minister and the Government for broadband access and penetration. The reason for that is very simple. Broadband has been the subject of great lip service by successive Ministers but absolutely no delivery. What the Bill hopes to achieve is accountability from the Minister on either why he has not met the targets or what is happening if he has. It seems the Government is particularly reluctant to do that.

I will spell out a couple of the targets that are not completely out of line with the Minister’s own ambitions, which would mean that the Bill should be acceptable to him. The aim is to have broadband access into every household and business at a speed of five megabits per second by 31 December 2009, at a speed of 20 megabits per second by 31 December 2012, and to have broadband penetration at the rate of 30% by 31 December 2009 and at 60% by 31 December 2012. Those are not unreasonable targets. From reading the Government’s consultation paper, those targets are not completely out of line with its ambitions. If the Minister is going to object to the Bill it must be due to the accountability clause because it ties the Government into targets that it perhaps cannot meet. The targets are reasonable. They make the Minister accountable and they are ones that will bring us way above the average of our European competitors, and the OECD average.

I know these are hard times and I accept the Minister is subject to budget constraints. I hope we do not hear the Minister pleading we do not have the money to introduce broadband. I doubt if he would do that. However, the budget has introduced cuts for IT. That is quite serious and worrying. There appear to be provisions in the national development plan for broadband to be rolled out by 2013. Can we have assurances that they will be kept and that no cuts will apply to them, and an explanation of the €400 million cut in the budget for IT? I am fearful — as are many others — that this infrastructural necessity is on the back-burner. I am more than fearful, I am sure that is what is happening, although we have not been told that.

Our real problem is that we did not do this ten years ago. We missed the boat during the boom years. Nothing stood out more obviously as a subject for infrastructural investment than broadband. That was an investment we could have made in the future. I will not go into all the money wasted, but while money was being spent on favoured projects elsewhere, broadband was neglected. It is not just me who is saying that. The Minister will be more than aware of the discontent felt by multinationals — he has been lobbied by them — and by small business about the matter. Small businesses in Ireland, especially in rural areas, are discontented by the fact they cannot get broadband.

The chief executive of at least one prominent multinational has been very outspoken about the problems of broadband in this country. The real problem is that if we are found out, if the message goes out and the IDA does not manage somehow to dissemble it — that we are Third World in terms of broadband — then foreign direct investment in this country will be reduced. Foreign direct investment is the second pillar of the Celtic tiger. It is vital and gives employment to in excess of 100,000 people. If we lose the confidence of those who contribute to foreign direct investment that second pillar will be gone. We all know what is the first pillar. I am speaking in general terms. I ask Senators not to tell me that I have left out this, that and the other. The construction sector has fallen over a cliff. The multinationals are still here, thank God, to support the economy. If they lose confidence in the Irish economy, God knows where we will be. We desperately need broadband if we want to prevent those involved with the multinationals from thinking that our economy is not particularly advanced, infrastructurally. Some of them have already reached that conclusion about our roads and airports. Broadband seems to be the subject of more internal discontent than discontent among those who are investing from the outside. I appeal to the Minister to accept this Bill, which stems from the need to invest in broadband infrastructure, for the sake of the long-term future of the economy.

I read the consultation paper on next generation broadband, which was produced by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, with great interest. I wish to express my disappointment with it. The Minister has shown great ingenuity by holding various forums over the last year. In April or May of this year, international experts were invited to address one such forum. They came in for a day, at a cost of approximately €20,000, before flying home again. They recommended that certain action be taken, but we already knew that they were necessary. We did not need the forum. There is some waffle in the Minister’s consultation paper about the need for further public and private forums. People were invited to give their opinions at another forum that was held a few weeks ago. I apologise because I was unable to attend the forum at the last minute. I do not intend to go to any more forums because they are a waste of time. We have had enough. They are being used to conceal the fact that no action is being taken in this area.

The consultation paper the Minister produced, which is full of the same sort of attitude, states:

The Minister will shortly publish a spectrum policy paper for consultation and later this year will produce an action plan on ICT development which will set out a coherent and cohesive strategy to make Ireland a leading global player in this area. Comments received on this paper will be an important input into this wider policy document.

What is going on here? Why are we talking about policy papers, comments on policy papers, coherent and cohesive strategies and then more comments? All we need is to get broadband into every household in this country. We do not need any more policy papers or strategies. The time for that is over. The time for that was ten years ago, before the Minister came in to office. I accept he is facing political difficulties in this regard. I appreciate that he is using much of his political clout in the energy sector. He probably does not have that much political capital left to push the broadband agenda. It is rather like education in the sense that its value cannot be measured in pounds, shillings and pence. It has to be measured in terms of its long-term benefit to industry and the economy as a whole.

The Minister needs to tackle certain other areas as a matter of urgency. He needs to deal with Eircom, which is the dominant player in this field. He needs to give the House a breakdown of the €435 million fund that is mentioned in the consultation paper. We do not know what that fund will be used for.

The Government’s enterprise agency, Forfás, recently published a report on the ambitions set out in the consultation paper. It was a damning report, considering it was published by a State agency that is funded by the Government. The most disturbing aspect of it was the suggestion that Ireland’s current rates of progress in promoting broadband indicates that it will catch not up with its comparator nations by 2012. The report cast doubt on figures that indicate that we can live up to the ambitions which have been spelt out in every official paper. It is depressing to hear such a suggestion from Forfás. The report states specifically that Government intervention is absolutely necessary, which contradicts the suggestion in other quarters that such intervention should not be necessary. When an independent report contradicts the Government’s figures — the basic thesis of what the Government is saying — it is clear that we are in trouble. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says in his reply. My own reading of the Government’s behaviour in this regard is that it is engaging in procrastination. We will continue in that manner at our peril.

The Minister replied, ‘I regret that I cannot accept the Bill or support it. While I very much agree with the ambitions set out in the legislation and the ambition that Ireland sets itself to have the very best and most modern broadband infrastructure, I cannot agree with the means suggested. I will set out in simple detail, if I can in the time allotted, why that is the case.’ He blamed the government for not investing in the main companies for the lack of Broadband and suggested that I was proposing we return to the days of Posts and Telegraphs. I want an independent board to expand the broadband network and availability to every business and household in the country. The board would not be approved by a Minister. We would not let the Minister get his political hands on it.

The Minister didn’t agree with my targets, claiming that he didn’t want limits on speed. The reason my Bill has targets is so that everyone has a minimum standard, there is no point improving large urban areas and completely neglecting the rest of the country!

Senator Dan Boyle on the Government side of the House agreed with me. “Most of the criticisms made by Senator Shane Ross are quite valid. We must accept there were many missed opportunities over the past decade to ensure a better broadband network was put in place. There were missed opportunities with policy decisions on national infrastructure projects, such as roads and public transport, with which the roll-out of a broadband network could have been linked.

I was disappointed by the Minister’s response to the Bill, which was deliberately tailored in such a way as to give him an opportunity to accept it. The Bill was structured so that there would not be much in it to which he could object and so that he might add to or subtract from it if he objected to any of its contents. I was disappointed by his initial response — echoed by almost everyone on the Government side of the House — to the effect that the principle behind the Bill is something with which he cannot disagree. The Minister then proceeded to pick holes in some of the detail. I have no problem with his doing so or with him changing any of that detail. The Bill was merely meant to kick-start the process. We need to get moving on this, and we need to make a tangible start now!

The Minister proceeded to state that the Bill is somehow contrary to EU rules. I cannot work out what he was talking about. Stating that something is contrary to EU rules is the final excuse of the political desperado. The Minister did not provide a convincing reason in this regard and muttered something about State aid rules. The Bill will not contravene those rules. Investing in roads or infrastructure does not contravene them. The Bill is not designed to give anyone an unfair competitive advantage; its purpose is to provide people with an infrastructural service.

I congratulate the Members on the Government side of the House who picked up on the issue of quangos. It was a fair political point to ask why I propose the creation of two new quangos. I included them as part of the tailoring of the Bill to suit Senators on the Government benches.

I knew that if I had not included it, the Members on the Government side would not have been happy. There are 800 quangos which they are not prepared to touch. It is a bit bloody rich for Senators on the Government side to state that they are not enamoured of the quangos the Bill proposes to create. I am pleased with the acknowledgement from those Members who actually read the Bill. I accept their criticism. Let us take the quangos out if that is what Members on the Government benches want.

However, these are a different type of body in charge. I suspect it would be difficult for the Government at the moment to accept this type of quango because it is not the norm. It does not suit the Members opposite as there is not room on this quango for the normal party political patronage. The Members on the Government benches must have seen that.

What it requires is that they do not put cronies on the board but people who have to be passed by a two thirds majority of a joint committee of the Houses. They would not get their pals through. I do not blame them for not liking it. That new type of quango could be a model for other quangos. The Members on the Government benches will hate it because their cronies will not be appointed any more as only people of ability can be appointed. Appointees will have to know about the subject and be scrutinised and approved by a joint committee of the Houses by a two thirds majority. The Government will not be able to ram it through the way it normally does. It will have to appoint people who know what they are talking about. That will make a difference to the Members on the Government side. No wonder they do not like the quango.

The vote to move my Bill on was put to the House and defeated 27 to 22.

In summary, I am disappointed. The Government is hiding the fact it is not prepared to fast-track broadband. That is a very foolish and short-term decision.