Good morning Ladies and Gentleman. It’s a pleasure to be invited to speak to you here today at this, the 14th Annual TIF Conference. This is my first time to address this conference as Minister for Communications. Certainly the title of the conference shows an admirable degree of ambition - as the old Irish saying goes “Is Tús maith leath na hoibre” and I am glad to be around for the start of the journey to Next Generation Broadband.
As Minister for Communications, I have overall responsibility for telecoms’ policy. My job is to look after the public interest and in my view the public interest is best served by having state of the art, affordable and accessible telecom services that are sustainable and can be used for social and economic reasons.
The telecoms sector is making a significant contribution to the economy as a whole, representing approximately 3% of GNP and it plays a key role in the constant effort to maintain competitiveness. As Minister for Communications, I feel that we are at a stepping point. Moving forward, delivering a high-end economy relying on knowledge, nimbleness and savvy requires a responsive cutting edge telecommunications infrastructure. Rather than lagging behind consumer demand, we should be anticipating consumer needs, especially those of the enterprise sector by providing the products and services integral to a knowledge economy and thereby allowing them to deliver high-end performance.
This next generation of telecoms infrastructure will also have a profound effect on the cultural and social life for the next generation of young Irish people. Learning to text and email and to Google has changed our lives in ways that could not have been imagined ten years ago. I cannot forecast exactly what lifestyle changes will happen over the next ten years but I feel sure that faster and cheaper broadband availability is going to play a central role in the way we live and learn and communicate to each other.
The personal computer, the television and the mobile phone will surely evolve in a manner which requires much higher connectivity. The boundary between broadcasting and telecommunications companies is already starting to break down. The hand held phone is already able to take on many of the tasks that once required a desk bound office computer system.
Access to next generation broadband will allow people to work nearer to home and work from home – leading to less traffic, less emissions, and better quality of life. Online collaboration using high speed networks and smart technologies have the capacity to bring about behavioural transformation and this will help tackle the challenge of moving to a more sustainable world.
The volume of digital data being carried on existing networks is already growing at multiplying rates each year. The questions is no longer whether there will be the demand for greater bandwidth but rather what platforms will work best to provide the new services that customers will want delivered.
Yes there are challenges out there to be faced in relation to the development of Next Generation Networks, but we are not alone in this regard. There are other countries that are facing the same challenges and questions as we are, and while we look to some for lessons, we must not fail to seize the opportunity to build, and be bold. Clearly the rollout of next generation broadband requires significant investment on your part and as always with new technologies there are significant risks.
In talking to different international experts in the field it is remarkable how completely different opinions can be held on the likelihood that either wireless or fixed line solutions are likely to provide the ultimate solution. Perhaps in Ireland with our unique demographic mix with a large rural housing stock we will adopt two different systems. One set of solutions might be refined in our cities and large towns while a separate technological evolution takes hold elsewhere.
As stakeholders – policy-makers, industry and regulators - we all have a role to play to ensure that all of Ireland is brought where we want it to be, and indeed we all have something to benefit in making it happen.
While the development of the telecoms market is clearly dependant on the input from a number of players, both private and public - my role as Minister is not to deliver the services possible in a next generation environment, but to ensure that the market allows you, the experts to do that. My main goal in office will be to implement telecoms policy in a coherent way using the tools available to me - so that Ireland is best placed to avail of the emerging opportunities that present themselves.
Some of you have already outlined to me your plans to upgrade and build and I wish you success with your projects. My previous business experience tells me that in order to support you in your investment decisions you need certainty. The Programme for Government contains a commitment to encourage a progressive shift to Next Generation Networks.
My Department is currently preparing a draft policy paper that will review current communications infrastructure policy, and analyse policy options, in light of industry developments, in relation to the optimum role for the Government in the planning and rollout of next generation broadband.
I intend to establish a National Advisory Forum of telecoms experts towards the end of the year to critically evaluate the policy options contained in the draft paper. Following that, I plan to publish the paper early next year and I will welcome your views on it. I expect that it will be a guide for you on Government thinking on next generation broadband and where we see ourselves in this space.
I understand that companies operating in a competitive environment can only invest where it makes sense to do so on a commercial basis. Government investment is not subject to the same criteria but, at the same time we can only invest where we have a clear idea of the outcomes. Investment criteria for Government include market failure, social equity and balanced regional development.
An example of this is Government investment in the Metropolitan Area Networks programme which were designed to promote better quality, price and choice of broadband, especially in the regions. In my view the investment in the MANS did play a key role in the exponential increase in broadband numbers in recent years. I welcome the significant increases we are starting to see in data traffic on the existing lit up networks.
The same logic underpins our investment in the National Broadband Scheme which will ensure broadband reaches all parts of the country. Balanced regional development is a key priority for this Government and will remain so. The new scheme was established to improve on the Group broadband scheme which has now concluded.
I look forward to the selection of a winner from the competitive tendering process. We will then be able to moving on from debating the basic availability of broadband to the issue of what speeds are provided and at what cost.
Another key priority is the promotion of competition. Competition spurs innovation in terms of products, services and customer experience. I welcome the fact that we now have a much more competitive market in Ireland between the wide variety of fixed line, mobile, cable, 3g, wireless and other telecom providers.
The Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act which came into force earlier this year greatly strengthens the power of ComReg to enable more competition in the electronic communications market. ComReg now has a suite of powers second to no other sectoral regulator here and tougher fines for companies in breach of telecoms laws have been introduced.
While my preference is for light handed regulation, and while I am not saying there is a problem necessarily with compliance in the industry, I am glad the regulator now has strong teeth. Given my earlier comments about lagging behind, it is key that ComReg has the necessary enforcement tools to address any potential anti-competitive problems that may arise as we move to the next stage of broadband.
Government also has a role to play on the demand side of the sector – and my vision for the future includes a public sector that is not afraid to embrace new technologies. As we invest in e-Government, e-Health and e-Inclusion, efficiencies and accessibility improves.
There is no limit or ceiling to what the technology and new networks can deliver – other than the limits of our own imaginations. Demand will be dictated by consumers and while it is hard to predict today what the killer applications of tomorrow will be, you, the industry are best placed to deliver what the market demands.
As communications becomes more and more integral to our daily lives, so too has the social role of telecoms changed dramatically and with this comes social responsibility too. I know many of the industry players here today take this role very seriously and this is to be welcomed.
I have a particular interest in the customer experience side of the market and while I am delighted that the experiences out there are mostly positive, I do feel there are some areas that need to be addressed. You the industry know better than anyone the benefits of positive customer experience and the customer loyalty that ensues but I think it’s perhaps opportune to voice my concerns – particularly in the area of premium rate text messaging.
While the area of consumer protection within which premium rate telecoms services falls is mainly the remit of the National Consumer Agency, I would like to remind you today of your responsibilities in this area - and I refer in particular to services that are aimed at children - as these services are delivered over your networks. Across the industry customer service needs to improve – from the premium rate telecoms service providers, to you the industry, all the way up to the regulator of Premium Rates Telecoms Services, RegTel.
I would urge you to take away my message today and see if there are steps you can take to address the undoubted problems that exist in this area.
We have come a long way over the last 10 years and there have been many lessons to learn. The telecoms area is dynamic and is at an interesting stage of development - not least as we look forward to “Beyond Broadband”, but also as we look forward with interest to the publishing next month of the European Commission’s proposals for the draft legislative changes to the regulatory framework. There has been much talk and speculation about what is expected from the Commission’s proposals - including possible new regulatory models; and indeed there has been much talk more locally about proposals for separation of networks.
I believe greater open access to networks can bring real gains for the telecommunications industry as a whole. However, we must make sure that the creation of new market structures enhances the ability of the industry to innovate and compete on service level delivery so that the customer is in the end the real beneficiary.
Ireland now has a mix of mobile, wireless, cable and fixed networks, all of which are capable of delivering high quality, innovative telecommunications services including broadband. My priority is to provide the policy framework for the sector as a whole to facilitate the provision of competitive high quality communications services across a range of infrastructure platforms.
Ultimately, I think we know the key to success is investment, regulatory certainty and competitiveness. The transition to NGNs is a necessity rather than a luxury. I look forward to the continued improvement in the range and quality of services available to consumers, both business and personal. I think we would agree that ultimately what is good for the consumer is good for Ireland and is good for you.