Dermot Ahern, Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, yesterday announced the publication of a draft Policy Direction to the newly established Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg).
The document set out clear goals for the new body and indicates that the Government intends it to be far more aggressive in opening up the telecoms sector.
The first issue to be dealt with in the draft directive is flat-rate dial-up internet access. The Minister’s directive stated: “The widespread availability of dial-up access to the internet charged at flat rates would be of substantial benefit to users as well as for the further development of the market for internet access provision. The Commission shall make use of its powers under the legislation as appropriate, to bring about agreements among market players for the provision to the public of dial-up internet access charged at flat rates. The Commission shall report to the Minister on progress in relation to this matter within one month of the issue of these directions, making any recommendations it considers appropriate for further action.”
Flat-rate access is something which has been available in most developed countries for some time now. It has been widely argued that flat-rate access would significantly boost internet usage in this country, while lowering access costs for most users. Some improvement in the situation was achieved earlier this year when UTV Internet and Esat BT introduced limited flat-rate packages, where flat-rate access was capped at a certain number of hours. Eircom, the former incumbent operator has yet to launch any kind of flat-rate package. The Minister’s deadline of one month would seem to indicate that he intends that action be taken quickly on this issue.
The Minister’s draft directive also covered broadband internet access. It stated: “The Commission shall take into account the national objective regarding broadband rollout in its regulatory decisions, viz, the Government wants to see the widespread availability of open-access, affordable, ‘always-on’ broadband infrastructure and services for businesses and citizens throughout the State within three years, on the basis of utilisation of a range of existing and emerging technologies and broadband speeds appropriate to specific categories of service and customers.”
Broadband internet access is already available in Ireland. Both Eircom and EsatBT have launched ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) services. Users, however, have been critical of the pricing of such services, which is far higher than most other developed nations. As a result, Ireland has significantly lower broadband penetration than most of our European counterparts.
Cable internet access, the other main broadband technology has been made available on a limited basis. However the pace of the rollout in no way matches ADSL, with one operator, NTL effectively ceasing its rollout in the light of financial difficulties. The inclusion of the word ‘affordable’ in the document would seem to indicate the Minister’s intention of tackling the pricing issue.
The Minister’s draft directive was issued in accordance with the provisions of the recent Communications Regulation Act. Under the act, the Minister is required to publish a draft of the proposed directive to facilitate representations. The Minister has requested that written submissions be sent to his department before January 10th 2003.
By Dick O’Brien