3 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director of Telecommunications marks her territory
23 Jul 1998 :

In "The Future of TV Transmission" released recently, Etaine Doyle Director of Telecommunications, states her departments objective is "to create an environment where competition may flourish, licensees earn sufficient returns to make necessary investments and consumers are protected from the consequences of anti-competitive practices". This report laid the foundation for todays (22/7/98) announcement of legislation on digital television.

The Minister Sile deValera, among others, had raised questions about the role of RTE in the coming digital revolution, as Britain moves forward on Digital Terrestrial Television raising fears that Ireland will be left behind and consumers will opt for more foreign channels. RTE had pressed hard for the right to run DTT with a strategic partner. Although the involvement of RTE's in DTT does not exactly fall within the telecom regulator's remit, Ms Doyle urged the government to clarify the situation as soon as possible, which it has done with the announcement of radical legislation to bring Irish television into the digital age.

Ms Doyle firmly dismissed suggestions by RTE that costings in an earlier report on DTT were misleading and appeared to come out against the station dominating the transmission of these services. Under the legislation announced today there will be a 40% share for RTE in the new company, with a strategic partner. Outside her remit or not she is letting it be known that her office has a voice on these issues. Ministers have equally made it clear that DTT is a matter of policy to be agreed by the Cabinet where RTE's strategy found favour.

Cablelink are reported to be furious about the report which may devalue the company as it attempts to seek a commercial buyer after RTE and Telecom who currently own it release control and the announcement of RTE's 40% stake in the digital infastructure will not help their position. Many cable operators had made their opposition to RTE's involvement known. Cablelink are fighting back this week announcing new services via cable including access to the World Wide Web which would be 100 times faster than conventional phone lines at an estimated price of 25 per month.

Cable and Microrave Multi-Directional System operators believe that Ms Doyle has overturned promises by successive governments relating to their business. Given the recent uproar over the payments to Ray Burke, the then Minister for Telecommunications, by the main MMDS operator, Princes Holdings and the provision of a 'letter of comfort' (see related articles) and the ongoing dispute over illegal deflector operators, it is hard to believe that they could expect to trust such political promises.

Firstly Ms Doyle states that "the existing licenses held by cable and MMDS operators do not permit the carriage of digital TV services". The Government has obviously agreed with this and moved swiftly ahead.

Secondly she clearly rejects any claims that MMDS-licensed operators should be given protection from other transmission operators, or that they should have any special status, on the ground as this would not be in the public interest. Ms Doyle has taken a technical approach on the issue of whether MMDS operators have "exclusive" licenses and has taken, wisely, an entirely legal point of view, avoiding politics completely, which ignores indications by successive governments whose policy was that these licenses were "exclusive". Especially it would appear if these companies provided well stuffed brown envelopes to certain politicians.

Thirdly, Ms Doyle has taken a similar approach to the automatic renewal of licenses, which some MMDS operators claim they are entitled to and her views could affect the resale value of companies such as Cablelink. In a strongly worded statement Ms Doyle lays down the law by saying that "the Director also considers that it would not be in the public interest or in the interest of fair competition that these licenses be renewed for the reasons apparently claimed and she is strongly minded not to renew them on that account". Ms Doyle also states that "current cable regulations contain a provision enabling the Director to revoke cable licenses on giving two years notice and she is strongly minded to use this provision". Operators had only expected this provision to be invoked in highly unusual circumstances of malpractice and its potential use could depress their value even further.

There are rumblings that the Director of Telecommunications could become embroiled in a legal dispute with MMDS operators, as some argue that, rightly or wrongly, these assurances were given and investment made on the strength of them. This is a hard to agree with, as it would only institutionalise the ad hoc, nod and wink basis of operating that has existed up until now and encourage cronyism and outright corruption, which undermines the entire area of business and investment in telecommunications and digital TV for the future. Ms Doyle appears to be sticking to her guns and the report states: "the Director believes that if these issues remain unresolved the disputes could impede the development of the industry" and she is keen to resolve these issues, through legal proceeding if necessary. It is of course questionable whether any of the operators, and indeed the politicians, have the stomach to delve further into that can of worms. Ms Doyle has, however left the door open somewhat in promising to "give sympathetic considerations to submissions from operators as to why on other grounds fresh licenses should be granted to them".

The political 'Hot Potato' of unlicensed TV deflectors which the regulator estimates provide services to between 100,000 - 150,000 subscribers have been given some breathing space for the moment at least. She is "aware of their current market position" and "the Director is minded to provide licensing for them by way of short-term licenses or ones which are revocable following a short period of notice". But Ms Doyle has clearly stated that they will not be a part of an advanced telecommunications infrastructure and the spectrum available to deflectors will be eroded. This diffuses the politically sensitive situation for the present.

Considering Etain Doyle is only one year in office she is certainly making her presence felt and has introduced the first comprehensive outline of how advanced digital TV and other services can be delivered in Ireland which has been acted upon with stunning swiftness by the FF/PD Government with Sile deValera unveiling ambitious plans for Ireland entry into the digital revolution (see related article). It is without doubt the first serious attempt to provide a basis for these developments and begin creating a framework for stability and an environment to attract international investors into the Irish telecommunications industry.

And not a brown envelope in sight.

Michael McMahon 22/7/98

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