To ask the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources the reason the national broadband service provided by 3 Ireland was discontinued; the provisions his Department are making for those living in rural Ireland who had relied on this service; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

– Martin Heydon.

* For WRITTEN answer on Thursday, 25th September, 2014.

Ref No:

36366/14 Proof: 297


Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (Mr. Alex White T.D.)

The provision of telecommunications services, including broadband services, is a matter in the first instance for private sector service providers operating in a liberalised market, regulated by the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg). Developments in the broadband market over recent years means that there is now a choice of commercial operators offering broadband services over a diverse range of technology platforms throughout much of rural Ireland, including the area previously covered by the National Broadband Scheme. Details of commercial services available in each county can be found on a number of websites, including the websites of individual operators.

The State can only intervene to ensure access to broadband services in areas where the competitive market has failed to deliver such services, as in the case of the National Broadband Scheme (NBS). Following a competitive tendering process, my Department entered into a contract in late 2008 with Hutchison 3G Ireland Ltd (“3”) for the delivery of the NBS. The Scheme offered a basic and affordable broadband service to fixed residences and businesses located within certain designated rural areas where the extent of broadband coverage by commercial operators, at the time the Scheme was launched in 2008, was deemed to be inadequate. EU State Aid approval was granted for a scheme of limited duration and, following a 68 month operational period, the Scheme expired on 25th August 2014.

“3” have confirmed that, following the expiry of the Scheme, they will continue to provide coverage throughout NBS areas on a commercial basis offering consumers the same choice of Broadband plans and tariffs as those offered to consumers outside of the NBS areas. Furthermore, they have also informed my Department of their plans to extend 4G coverage across all of the NBS Coverage Areas within the next 3 years. Digiweb, who provided the NBS satellite service on behalf of Three, will continue to offer satellite broadband on a commercial basis. I can therefore assure the Deputy that there is no discontinuation of services in former NBS areas.

The Government’s Statement of Priorities for the period 2014 to 2016 reaffirms our commitment to delivering a State-led broadband intervention in rural areas. Through the National Broadband Plan (NBP) the Government aims to ensure that high speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses in Ireland. This is being achieved through measures designed to accelerate commercial investment and the development of a State-led intervention for non-commercial areas.

Under EU State Aid Guidelines Member States cannot intervene where commercial investors have plans to roll out services. A comprehensive mapping exercise is underway in my Department to identify those areas that require a State intervention.

As part of the mapping process, an initial stakeholder consultation on certain technical aspects of the proposed Plan was launched in June with a deadline of 15th September. 31 submissions were received as part of this process and non-commercially sensitive versions of these responses will be published over the coming weeks.

I expect to publish the maps for public consultation later this year. These will include details of the areas requiring State intervention. It is important to note that these maps will be dynamic and will be subject to change if new commercial investments are announced in the future.

EU State Aid clearance will be required for the proposed State intervention. My Department will be working closely with the European Commission on this important aspect of the programme.

Finally, a detailed procurement process will have to be undertaken in order to select a potential preferred bidder(s) prior to commencing the roll out of high speed broadband services.

This complex and ambitious project is a key priority for Government and for my Department. It aims to conclusively address current connectivity challenges in a sustainable and meaningful way. Our goal is to ensure that quality broadband services are available to all citizens regardless of where they are located.