Oireachtas group attacks broadband failure

8 Mar 2006

Not a single recommendation out of 12 put forward two years ago by an Oireachtas Committee on Communications aimed at boosting broadband availability and adoption in Ireland has been applied, it was revealed yesterday.

Announcing the Sixth Report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, the committee’s chairman Noel O’Flynn TD said: “There is a fundamental problem with the Government’s approach to the broadband issue and that is no one in Government is driving the agenda.”

Two years ago, the Oireachtas Committee — which is comprised of TDs from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour, Sinn Fein, the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats — issued a far-reaching report aimed at guiding the Government in resolving a worsening situation that has seen Ireland move from the top of the telecoms league tables in the 1990s to almost bottom in the OECD and EU15.

The 200-page report produced two years ago was the result of six Oireachtas Committee meetings held last year that saw presentations from 47 community, industry and State groups.

The report contained 12 key recommendations. The first objective was to define broadband as a service that provides at least 512Kbps connectivity and set as a target 5Mbps by 2006 with widely available 10Mbps connectivity in 2008 as a further target. To make this happen, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources was advised to develop a National Broadband Infrastructure Plan.

Another key recommendation was the appointment of a single Minister of State with cross-departmental responsibility for the rollout of national broadband infrastructure and the development of e-government services. The report called for a mandate that all national, regional, county and city development plans incorporate the provision of broadband infrastructure with such plans and that all new developments, housing and office, are future-proofed for broadband.

Since then not a single recommendation has been acted upon, O’Flynn remarked. The most recent report produced yesterday, he explained, contains the same recommendation as well as 35 questions the committee would like to ask of Government, the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) and incumbent operator Eircom.

Asked who was to blame for the failure, Government or industry, O’Flynn pointed to question 15 of the latest report: “What specific policy is in place for the development of broadband services?

“This is the sixth report of the Joint Committee, but it is the second committee report on broadband.

“Sadly I have to say that in two years since the launch almost no account has been taken of the recommendations contained in that report,” O’Flynn said.

He added: “There is a fundamental problem with the Government’s approach to broadband. There is no driving force behind it.”

The Green Party’s Eamon Ryan TD backed up his Fianna Fail counterpart’s assertion with the observation that the responsibility of Government to roll out broadband at present is divided between at least eight ministers.

Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkin pointed out that not only was Ireland’s poor broadband performance due to the lack of an overriding strategy at Government level but also a major regulatory failure. “This situation is clearly not working,” Durkin said.

Labour’s Tommy Broughan TD pointed to the fact that the Telecoms Miscellaneous Provisions Bill that should have granted stronger powers to ComReg two years ago, such as fining operators up to 10pc of turnover, has still not been enacted.

“This is one of the weakest regulatory regimes in Europe. It should have similar powers that OfCom in the UK has. We’re going to have to wait for Babcock & Brown to give us a network responsive to the needs of the country,” Broughan predicted. “Right now less than 10pc of Irish homes are connected to broadband and less than half of businesses have broadband.”

Present at a press conference for the publication of the report was a representative of a Group Broadband Scheme in Craughwell-Athenry who said that such schemes were struggling with red tape and bureaucracy and pointed out that accessing available funding was proving difficult.

Responding to the publication of the report, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources Noel Dempsey TD defended allegations of Government inactivity on broadband. “It is inaccurate to say that ‘progress has been almost non-existent’. The Irish broadband market is growing strongly and many indicators reflect this. The fact is that there were more than a quarter of a million broadband subscribers by the end of 2005, which represents growth of 90pc in 12 months. This shows real demand for broadband. The CSO recently found that almost 150,000 new households purchased PCs over a 12-month period. The share of small to medium-sized enterprises using broadband has almost doubled.”

The Minster added: “It is disappointing that demand by the end-user, the consumer, is being identified as the problem. My department engages with various stakeholders in the broadband market and I believe that improved broadband access and more competition are the priorities in the broadband market,” Dempsey concluded.

By John Kennedy