Parties grilled online over tech policies

10 May 2007

The Green Party has called for the permanent free broadcast of Dail proceedings once digital television is a reality in Ireland. Green Party spokesperson Eamon Ryan TD made the call during a webchat on RTE’s website which also featured Communications Minister Noel Dempsey TD, Fine Gael spokesperson Bernard Durkan TD and Labour spokesperson Tommy Broughan TD.

The politicians responded to questions submitted by the public during an hour-long webchat in real time.

Commenting on the impetus for and potential of digital television, Ryan said: “The development of broadcasting will move toward digital services and there is a difficulty for RTE in providing that. Without a strong digital platform we will be reliant on Rupert Murdoch for our services. The public may not realise that many of the UK analogue services will be switched off in two years’ time. We need to prepare now to have digital services on RTE. Dail business should be permanently free to air on digital for our democracy. To make RTE viable we are suggesting we provide Northern Ireland channels free to air down here and vice versa. That needs political agreement between Ireland and Britain.”

Responding to claims that digital television rollout in Ireland has been delayed, Dempsey said: “The legislation to allow the rollout of DTT originally passed in 2001-2002. We set up a trial as quickly as feasible after the passage of that. We have now provided for the rollout of DTT throughout the country. We have reserved transmission systems for RTE and free-to-air. RTE is confident it can roll it out within 18 months of the end of the test. There is no point in an analogue switch-off date before the end of the trial period but I expect it well before 2012.”
Dempsey also said he felt the licence fee will continue to be used to fund RTE.

On the topic of education, the Minister was at odds with his Fine Gael and Labour counterparts on the issue of providing a laptop for every pupil. He said: “I’m not at all convinced that the idea of a laptop for every pupil will solve all our problems. If the courses are not available digitally you are wasting your time, or if teachers are not trained on how to use the computers themselves. You need teachers comfortable with technology that can show how to use it and use their judgement.”

When asked whether their parties have plans to make computer technology a subject in the Leaving Certificate, most sidestepped the specific question and gave a more general commitment to support ICT in schools, a diversionary tactic many people will no doubt be experiencing courtesy of their representatives on doorsteps in the weeks ahead.

Durkan responded: “FG has the view an elevated role is needed for IT in the future. A laptop for every child in second level will bring about a very rapid development in that area.”

Broughan said: “We have made a commitment for a laptop for every second-level child. I used to teach maths and the laptop technology and pedagogical approach will be very different: I think it’s quite revolutionary. The last couple of generations at third level have used it extensively but it can become central at second level too. The next government needs a totally different approach to ICT and it should be in the Leaving Cert programme.”

Ryan said: “A lot of our education is back in the last century in what we teach. Many children have special needs and we should recognise that they may be better suited to learning with computers. Let’s be flexible and say a child with dyslexia for example would be better with a computer. Increasingly you need to access information, trust it, judge it and use it. Our system needs to get away from learning by rote. That’s out-of-date education. You need to know how to use information.”

Dempsey was more fortright in his answer: “As a separate subject it is useless for the future for young people.”

Dempsey was asked by Ireland Offline whether the Department of Communications planned the National Broadband Scheme tender with the “consent” of Eircom, to which the Minister replied: “We didn’t plan it with the consent of anybody. We planned it on the basis of what we thought would succeed. We mapped Ireland, where coverage is available, and saw where the black spots were and put that out to tender. We don’t want to run into State aid difficulty. We have to comply with those rules and that’s why they were designed.”

Ryan chipped in: “One of the reasons we have not had real broadband here is we don’t have real competition. Eircom still hold all the cards to my mind. When we sold that it was a national fixed asset. I have a real concern that the Minister’s scheme will further entrench Eircom’s position. We need to get the mobile companies into the broadband provision business, the cable companies and the broadband companies into competition with one another. Any changes we make should get those companies competing with one another to avoid one company making super normal profits.”

Broughan was also critical of aspects of the National Broadband Scheme. “There are areas like Co Wexford where there are many blackspots; these areas will excluded from the National Broadband Scheme,” he remarked. “There are also the problems with the old Eircom delivery schemes. The Minister has failed to provide 100pc enablement. Advocates for broadband are rightly unhappy. The Minister has not even given us costs for this programme.”

Durkan attacked the Government over its failure to prioritise broadband rollout some years ago. “What was needed five or seven years ago was a strategic decision to ensure that all bodies involved be brought around the table and an agreement reach on how it was going to be achieved. I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to compete with the very best. The whole area of the sciences, education, medicine, industry is hugely dependent on technology.”

Ryan added: “On Eircom it makes sense to have phone wires in State ownership and then allow for new service innovation and so on with open access. The government is digging holes for fibre optic networks that are not connecting to homes. We sold Eircom for a high price but buying it back would be less expensive by comparison.”

The Minister made a surprise admission early on in the webchat when he said: “I have an iPod as well but I haven’t figured out how to use it yet.”

He amended this a few paragraphs later when he said: “I have figured out how to use my iPod. I just haven’t had the time to put music on it!”

The hour-long debate received 8,000 hits, according to RTE.

By Niall Byrne