RTÉ accused of continuing to snub northern viewers
POLITICIANS north and south of the border have demanded an end to "the digital partition of Ireland".
Amid increasing calls for northern viewers to be treated on a "fair and equitable basis", RTÉ has insisted that people experiencing difficulty accessing content online should contact their internet provider.
But SDLP assembly member Justin McNulty last night said it was "quite frankly not good enough from RTÉ".
And Sinn Féin senator Niall Ó Donnghaile said the state broadcaster should "reflect on what many see as snubs towards northern audiences".
Residents of Northern Ireland have repeatedly complained of problems accessing programmes on the RTÉ Player because they are treated as 'international' viewers.
The service, similar to the BBC iPlayer, promises "free online catch up of all your favourite RTÉ programmes".
Viewers connect to the website or app through an IP (internet protocol) address, which is used to locate computers or devices involved in online traffic.
But internet service providers sometimes allocate customers in Northern Ireland an IP address in Britain - for example, it may be associated with a technical hub or head office of the company.
RTÉ requires an IP address in the Republic or Northern Ireland in order to access the domestic version of the RTÉ Player service.
Any others trying to access the RTÉ service will be classed as an international viewer, which means access to content is blocked.
RTÉ said it is not deliberately restricting content, as it has no control over where the internet service provider allocates the IP address.
In a statement, it said: "RTÉ Player is not blocked in Northern Ireland and content should be available to all viewers.
"Occasionally viewers in NI are issued a GB rather than a NI-specific IP address by their internet service provider.
"In such cases RTÉ content will be blocked and viewers should contact their internet service provider directly."
However, an OFCOM report submitted to Stormont's Enterprise, Trade and Investment committee in 2015 found it "would be technically possible for ISPs to ring-fence a set of IP addresses and allocate them only to customers in Northern Ireland".
It said while geolocation restrictions meant it is "necessary to identify the user's location in order to establish what content they are allowed to access", there is a "legitimate expectation" that RTÉ's online content should be "similarly available to internet users in Northern Ireland".
Ofcom added that whether RTÉ "would be in a position to consider alternatives to the current industry-standard geolocation services is clearly a commercial matter" for the broadcaster and would "depend not just on the cost of implementation but, crucially, how the alternative would sit with legal requirements of the broadcaster's rights agreements".
Politicians said it was disappointing for RTÉ to pass the problem onto internet service providers and called on it to do more to cater for viewers in the north.
It has been suggested there could be other means of identifying a viewer's location, such as credit card details - but this would be at RTE's discretion.
"This is quite frankly not good enough from RTÉ," said Mr McNulty.
"RTÉ is our national broadcaster and it does not solely broadcast to the Republic of Ireland.
"To restrict access to the services hosted by RTÉ has caused much indignation within the community I represent.
"I met with RTÉ in July 2018 to raise these concerns. I will be revisiting this issue with them to ensure viewers across this island are treated on a fair and equitable basis regardless of their IP address."
Mr Ó Donnghaile also said "the digital partition of Ireland is unacceptable and unsustainable".
"Viewers in the north are rightly frustrated when programmes and major sporting events for Ireland and made unavailable via what professes to be the 'national' broadcaster," he said.
"RTÉ have a duty to represent audiences right across Ireland, but time and time again they have proven out of step with viewers in the northern part of our country.
"They should reflect on what many see as snubs towards northern audiences and live up to the obligations set by their own charter to reflect and serve audiences across the whole of Ireland."
One internet service provider, BT, said it would not comment on "how RTE provide access to their programmes".
"BT provides consumer customers in Northern Ireland with a dynamic IP address which could be located at various UK locations," a BT spokesman said.
"We also offer static IP addresses for business customers.
"We can't comment on how RTE provide access to their programmes."