Minister presses the right buttons

18 Oct 2004

The very morning of the Commission for Communications Regulation’s (ComReg) Serving the E-consumer conference in Kilmainham was a gloomy one thanks to the rain and the early start; a mood that could sum up the feelings of telecoms operators and consumers alike in the current marketplace.

Despite all the various TV and radio ads proclaiming the wonders of high speed connectivity, the reality that less than 50pc of the country can actually obtain broadband at this point of time has pushed broadband from being a peripheral subject occasionally tackled by a few technology journalists over the years to becoming a mainstream media issue in 2004.

A battered and weary communications sector is caught between the jaded promises of fixed line broadband and a brighter era being hinted at by advocates of services such as fixed wireless broadband, WiMax and voice-over internet protocol (VoIP). Whatever happens, consumers will vote with their feet – and wallets!

Catering to the needs of an increasingly technology-literate society was an issue evidently important to all who gathered in Kilmainham last week to measure the cloth of a new communications minister upon his first public engagement in the sector.

Fresh from parrying questions with radio reporters over allegations of illegal fishing by the Irish fishing fleet, the new Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Noel Dempsey, barely had time to catch his breath before delivering a confident, measured and savvy statement of intent to the communications industry professionals gathered in the room. In other words, the former Minister for Education had done his homework.

Barely a few weeks into office, it is clear that the importance of broadband to Ireland’s economic wellbeing and the potential for technology to heal social division on this island were not wasted on Dempsey. It was also clear that ComReg’s perceived “lack of teeth” when it came to ensuring fairplay in the Irish telecoms market is soon to be addressed by the Minister, who hinted to delegates of more giving powers for the regulator.

Dempsey’s background in education, both as a teacher and as a Government minister, is clearly going to punctuate his term in communications. Dempsey told the conference that the €18m joint project between the Departments of Education and Communications and the Telecommunications Industry Federation (TIF) was well underway and that 4,200 schools would have broadband by the start of the 2005 school year. “Additional resources will be made available for software development and training. This will be delivered at no cost to the schools themselves.

“Students who become familiar with the web at school will then ask to have broadband at home and will go on to become the knowledge generation that will ensure the continuing prosperity of this country in the knowledge society. But I also see huge possibilities for the role of information and communication technologies (ICT) in social development – in dealing with social disadvantage, social inclusion and others on the periphery for example, the disabled.

“Technology has the power to change the pedagogy with which my generation has grown up – providing student centred, experimental learning. It also has the ability to mediate between disabled people and broader society by providing new outlets for people to communicate, to learn and to share experiences. We have seen the dramatic benefits for cerebral palsy users or deaf people from using technology effectively.

“I have seen the statistics that point to the fact that we are one of the biggest users of text messaging in the world – over 4bn messages sent this year alone. Why does the industry not offer to provide free text messaging for deaf people – to help make these people feel more included in society. It would not cost a lot but would make a huge difference. This is an issue I will return to in the coming weeks,” Dempsey told the conference.

The importance of ICT in terms of economic development was also expounded by Dempsey: “Ireland is at a key juncture of its economic development. Future economic development and wealth creation depends on our ability as a nation to climb the value chain. This will not be possible unless the key economic infrastructure underpinning economic activity supports high skills and high-income activity. The lesson of our economic experience of recent years is that the development and use of these key infrastructures, most notably ICT infrastructure is a strategic imperative for the Irish economy. It is not simply a sectoral issue. Furthermore, the exploitation of that infrastructure encompasses both a social and an economic dimension.”

“I do not want an Ireland where e-commerce cannot flourish outside of Dublin; the Government cannot afford to sit idly by while the digital divide deepens. Nor do I want to see a situation where the pace of development and exploitation of ICT technologies here significantly lags behind that of our major competitor economies. This cannot and will not be allowed to happen,” Dempsey promised.

Dempsey then moved from the aspirations of the country to a more pressing and real problem, that of protecting children in an online environment. Dempsey said that work is under way to resolve the problem of minors accessing inappropriate material such as porn online or on mobile devices. He said his department is advancing plans for the creation of a register of prepaid mobile phone users as well as users of 3G phones; the latter register that was mooted by his predecessor Dermot Ahern TD in August.

Despite the regulation of the telecommunications sector in 1998, ComReg has over the years been severely criticised by the local sector as “lacking teeth” when it came to tackling issues like aggressive customer win-back strategies and insufficient infrastructure rollout.

The root of this problem lies in the lack of punitive powers, especially in the form of hefty fines – covering as much as 10pc of a telco’s annual turnover – for errant telcos that buck the system. Although these powers had been promised in previous years, they failed to materialise in subsequent legislation.

It appeared, however, that Dempsey may have good news for ComReg. “One of my key objectives in the short term is to seek to strengthen the role of regulation where this is necessary to create competitive conditions to the benefit of Irish consumers.”

Dempsey talks up a fair game, but his ability to appease the concerns and expectations of both consumers and the industry in the years ahead will be sorely tested. Either way, his confidence and straight talking brightened up a room full of battered industry professionals on a wet and windy morning in October.

By John Kennedy

Pictured are Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Noel Dempsey TD, with chairman of ComReg, John Doherty and Isolde Goggin, commissioner, ComReg