I am delighted to address this National Broadband Conference and I look forward to some engaging discussion today on the Irish broadband market from a range of speakers. Even to witness such a conference taking place and the interest it has generated is testimony that we have reached a milestone in the history of broadband rollout in Ireland. I am very encouraged.
ICT is an essential enabler of both economic growth and social inclusion in Ireland. As you are aware, the ICT sector employs over 93,000 people in over 4,000 enterprises/companies. Total exports of ICT products and services amounted to €31 billion in 2001 representing 33% of all exports.
Ireland ranks as the largest exporter of software, the sixth fastest growing ICT equipment exporter, with Ireland's top three exporters (Dell, Microsoft and Intel) accounting for approximately 20% of total exports. Exports by the indigenous software sector grew by 28% in 2002 and amounted to €1.4 billion.
As a result of such impressive growth Ireland has quickly gained a worldwide reputation in the ICT and software sectors. Many, now look to us as an example of what can be achieved by a small country with forward thinking ideas. Indeed, with so much of our economic well being dependent on the ICT sector, it is vital that we maintain both the image and the reality of being successful in this area.
The Irish Government believes that broadband connectivity forms a significant part of ICT development. High-speed, resilient, low cost broadband is an essential feedstock for that sector. It will play a vital role in moving Ireland to the forefront of knowledge-based economies in the world.
Indeed, I believe we are on the cusp of a very new and exciting opportunity in the broadband market. Voice Over IP is just one of the new technologies which will offer tremendous opportunity. Voice Over IP will be a key driver of demand for broadband and will generate new business practices which will improve business efficiencies and increase our competitiveness.
It is imperative that Ireland is positioned to take advantage of such technological developments in becoming an economy where open access, affordable, always-on broadband infrastructure and services are available to all businesses and citizens, as they are throughout other countries in Europe and indeed across the globe.
It is precisely because broadband has become such an essential tool of industry, commerce, education, health care and social inclusion…. Because it influences investment decisions by foreign companies and reinforces investment decisions already made…Because it gives indigenous firms a competitive edge that this Fianna Fáil led Government has strongly committed to putting in place open-access broadband on a nationwide basis.
I often refer to 2002 as the ‘dark days’ as far as Broadband in Ireland is concerned. That was when the industry struggled to take even a short-term view of investment in broadband.
As a Government we were unconvinced that there was sufficient dynamic or competitive pressure in the market to ensure that the broadband needs of all towns in Ireland would be addressed in the near term or even in the mid-term.
As a consequence Government assumed a leading and prominent role in driving broadband delivery with a phased, targeted investment programme of €200 million under the NDP 2000-2006.
This Government’s investment in the construction of the Metropolitian Area Networks (MANs) is paving the way for the establishment of quality broadband infrastructure in every corner of the country, in partnership with the Local and Regional Authorities and industry.
The first 19 MANs are now completed, and commercial traffic is already being carried. These networks have been built on time, under budget, and to the highest engineering and technical standards.
The commitment and enthusiasm from the local and regional authorities has been tremendous in driving this project forward. I would once again like to put on the record my appreciation for such enthusiasm and assistance.
The next seven MANs in Sligo and the North East are under construction, and are due to be completed by early Autumn.
The success of the first phase of the MANs Programme, targeting 26 towns, has led to a second call for proposals, with funding of €80 million earmarked from 2005-2007 for broadband provision in approximately 90 towns with a population in excess of 1,500 people. Galway itself is currently developing projects under Phase II of the Regional Broadband Programme for Athenry, Ballinasloe, Clifden, Furbo, Gort and Loughrea.
Some people, not exactly uninterested parties, have been critical of this programme suggesting it is duplicating the existing telephone networks.
This is, quite simply untrue…
The MANs Programme is providing a fibre-based option that offers broadband speeds of up to 100,000 times the speed of the copper-wire telephone networks with enough capacity to serve generations to come.
The MANs are managed on an open-access basis, offering service providers access to a level of broadband capacity that the industry simply could not afford to build for itself.
The MANs infrastructure will remain in State ownership – an important consideration for future development. These MANs are projects of long-term economic value. They are a once in a generation investment, in the same way that the digitising of the national telephone network was in the 80s.
It is the job of Government to take this medium to long-term view on major infrastructural requirements. It is the job of Government to take these kind of strategic decisions, in the national interest.
I want to make it clear to industry that I am prepared to intervene in the market where market failure is impacting on key strategic Government objectives such as balanced regional development, participation in the information economy and improved international competitiveness.
Broadband must become available in all parts of Ireland, and not just in the larger towns, which are being addressed through the MANs Programme. Broadband is crucial for the economic survival of rural communities. Just as in previous decades when electricity and telephone services were being rolled out, SMEs, schools, and families across rural Ireland need affordable access to quality broadband.
The Group Broadband Scheme, initiated by this Government, offers even the most remote communities with populations of less than 1,500 the chance of competing on level terms with the major cities. Under the 1st Call, thirty-four projects were approved covering a population base of approximately 36,000.
In January this year, I launched the second Call under the Group Broadband Scheme. There has been an overwhelming response. I set a target of attracting 150 communities under this call. In fact, when I met the regional coordinators last week, they told me that almost 500 communities were involved in preparing broadband projects.
Clearly the demand is there and the opportunity is there!
The Broadband For Schools Programme is a very good example of Government and the industry working together in the national interest. This initiative is a joint undertaking between industry, the Department of Education and Science and my own Department. It involves installation of a mix of broadband technologies, bringing broadband to all 4,000 of the primary and post primary schools in the country. The rollout of this programme is now successfully underway with a target date of end 2005 for completion.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank those companies contributing to the voluntary Schools Broadband fund and for all efforts to date.
Broadband will shape our children’s future in ways we can only dream about, offering instant access to the world’s reference libraries, and networking with other schools and colleges at the touch of a keyboard. It will also require changes in teaching methods and curriculum content to reflect the huge opportunity such access to information presents.
However, we are only starting to see a difference and the efforts must continue. Many areas of the market remain untapped and those companies with the hunger and appetite for market growth will seek them out. I still hold that we can achieve much greater things and I will not be satisfied until every business and citizen has broadband access.
I am looking forward to working with industry to achieve this aim. The challenge for industry now is to build on Government’s contribution to the MANs, the Group Broadband Scheme and the schools programmes.
However, where market forces or private investment are unable or unwilling to meet broader economic and social requirements, I will intervene, on an operator-neutral basis, in the market, to promote competition and choice for Irish consumers.
It is clear to me from discussions with people involved in the MANs and GBS initiatives that backhaul is a critical issue for regional Ireland, especially the West of Ireland. Backhaul charges are making cheap broadband in the regions unsustainable. This undermines the prospects for employment growth in regional and rural Ireland.
If the market does not provide affordable national backhaul, this is a strategic weakness for Ireland, that we ignore at our peril. I will have no alternative but to examine all available options to resolve this difficulty. However, I am confident that we can work together to find the right solutions to ensure that Ireland is at the forefront of knowledge-based economies in the world.
I wish you well in your deliberations today.