Electronic Communications Networks Bill 2013

I welcome the legislation and acknowledge that it as another part of the Minister’s effort to modernise the communications and energy sectors, with a resulting positive impact on job creation. That is the logic underpinning all of the strategies employed by the Minister and his Department. That has to be the ultimate result of any initiative the House approves. It should be about job creation and getting people working. Everything else will follow from this.
I am happy to acknowledge that under the programme for Government, we committed to ensuring 90% of homes and businesses would be provided with next generation broadband. This can only be achieved by delivering fibre optic cables to homes kerbs. The Bill is a confirmation of that commitment and an expression of how important investment in broadband infrastructure is to the country. It is welcome that a basic broadband service is available in most of the country, but Members who represent constituencies such as that represented by Deputy Heather Humphreys and me want the Government to go one step further and ensure the service is better than this. The Minister is committed to rolling out high speed broadband to every home and business. We are making great strides in the provision of national high speed broadband. Market giants such as eircom, UPC, Vodafone and Meteor have increased the speed of their services and 3G and 4G coverage is available. However, many small towns and villages in rural communities have yet to experience the impact of these services. My constituency is predominantly rural and owing to geographical and commercial reasons, some areas have a poor to non-existent broadband service. While acknowledging all that is good in the legislation, I would fail in my duty if I did not remind the Minister of State of this. However, he is acutely aware of the issue which is of great concern to the people I represent. This puts homeowners, small businesses and farmers in these areas at a severe disadvantage compared to those in other parts of the country.
A regulatory impact assessment conducted of the legislation last year found that if it was fully enacted, it would have the potential “to reduce the existing digital divide between geographic locations” and was in line with the objectives of the national digital strategy which aimed “to address social inclusion by encouraging citizens to engage with the Internet and Internet services”. One of the aims of the strategy is to get 10,000 businesses online for the first time and have a further 2,000 small business trading online in the next two years. We need to get into that market. Irish consumers spend €3 billion on average online annually, but, sadly, approximately 70% of that spend goes abroad and we must try to correct this. This legislation is critical in that regard. The Bill will enable many SMEs to tap into the online market, which would otherwise be unavailable to them. For counties such as Cavan and Monaghan, it will also make a difference in the context of inward investment, particularly by large multinational companies, as we do not do well in that regard. The lack of an adequate broadband service is one of the contributory factors to a lack of investment by such companies.
One of the key recommendations in the Forfás report commissioned last year is that significant investment in upgrading the broadband infrastructure is required at a time when ongoing global uncertainty makes raising capital more expensive. While our larger towns and cities have access to quality, speedy broadband, large numbers of medium-sized towns do not have access to competitively priced advanced broadband services, hence the significance of the legislation. One of the ways in which this issue can be rectified is through the prioritisation of the removal of barriers to private sector investment, in parallel with State investment and intervention. As was mentioned, the wireless system is erratic and not universally and uniformly satisfactory in drumlin territory, given the topography of the area.
Section 2 permits the ESB to engage in electronic communications networks and services, either on its own or in conjunction with another communications company. According to OECD reports, Ireland’s volume of fibre optic connections is low. Fibre optic cables can provide voice, data and televisual services with enhanced quality and speed. The ESB is seeking a partnership to roll out a €400 million fibre optic network across the State, which is significant. Sections 2 and 3 of the Bill enable the company to enter into such a partnership with a private telecommunications company and give that company access to the ESB’s infrastructure, which is a wonderful development. It is a logical step, but it will not happen until the legislation is enacted.
The regulatory impact assessment also found that if a decision was made to retain the status quo and not allow the ESB to carry out these activities, any opportunity for the increased availability of high speed broadband could be negatively impacted on. It is, therefore, objectively established, as well as appearing logical, even to lay people. Furthermore, the assessment found that by giving the company the necessary legislative footing, the increased availability of high speed broadband would be a more likely outcome. This important legislation will tie in with EU proposals and commitments relating to broadband services, provide for market competitiveness, which is crucial, and make good on the commitments laid out in the national broadband plan and the programme for Government.
Section 5 gives the ESB authority to grant wayleave powers to companies accessing electricity infrastructure. This will be vital when the legislation is implemented. The legislation will be important in the context of job creation and enhancing the ability of small businesses to market their products and create an online market. That is where the potential to develop lies nowadays and it is important that small traders can get into the online market. The Bill also has the potential to attract multinationals and large industries to areas to which they were not traditionally attracted. There will be quality of life implications owing to improved access to knowledge and entertainment and enrichment of a range of lifestyle choices.

We are achieving the objective of job creation and modernisation, while also addressing quality of life issues. Why should we not disperse quality of life and opportunities for job creation widely across the country? This is progressive and modernising legislation in that respect and we should enthusiastically support its rapid passage through the House as a signal that we are serious about job creation, quality of life issues and modernisation. Broadband is the modern equivalent of the road network in ancient Rome and the trains and other communications developments that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. It allows for the dispersal of opportunities.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website