Sunday 24 March 2019

Another blow for a Government whose track record on broadband is already poor

Controversy: Former minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke
Controversy: Former minister Denis Naughten. Photo: Tom Burke
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'But what does this mean for me getting broadband?"

The question was put to me by a colleague who lives a mere 30 miles from Dublin.

It cuts straight through all the political positioning to the heart of the matter. This is about the deprivation of basic infrastructure to a million Irish citizens. Up until last week, the State's rural broadband rollout looked set to start within a few months. That meant that the first of 540,000 rural homes were on course to be physically connected to high-speed fibre broadband in the second half of 2019.

Now, it's not so clear.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has temporarily outsourced responsibility for clearing the bid process to a consultant called Peter Smyth, nominated as the process's auditor.

He has been asked to produce a report on whether critical elements of the procurement plan have been "contaminated". Given the stakes, it's not hard to imagine that this could take months.

Tender: US businessman David McCourt. Photo: Claire Wood
Tender: US businessman David McCourt. Photo: Claire Wood

There is no comment from the Government on timing. The Taoiseach, likely mindful of his party's substantial number of rural voters, tried to sugar-coat things by saying the completion of the National Broadband Plan will be "a personal crusade" for him.

"I promise I'll make it happen," he told reporters.

But when? 2025? 2030?

As with so many incidences in the past, the Government executive is now retreating from giving an updated time frame for when hundreds of thousands of citizens will start to get essential communications infrastructure.

Of all the setbacks the National Broadband Plan has suffered, this is arguably the most depressing.

The Government was weeks away from signing the critical deal to start the physical rollout.

The consortium bidding for it submitted its final bid almost a month ago. Officials (not the minister) from the Department of Communications had asked the consortium for a few minor clarifications. But otherwise, nothing major had come up for the civil servants in charge of the procurement. In other words, up until Thursday, it looked likely that we'd have an actual deal, possibly by the end of this month.

Now it may not make that deal until well into next year, if at all. Sources close to the consortium say that they remain in the dark as to what's happening.

Unfortunately, the Government's track record on getting broadband rolled out in a timely fashion is pretty poor. It has repeatedly pushed delivery of the National Broadband Plan in recent years.

It now looks unlikely that any rural home or business in the geographic majority of the country will get access to the promised broadband before 2020 at the earliest.

Timeline: From Rolls Royce of internet to turmoil

:: August 2012

Then-Labour Party communications minister Pat Rabbitte announced a National Broadband Plan (NBP) for Ireland. It is said to be "as important as rural electrification". State investment of €175m was envisaged by the Fine Gael-Labour government. Estimates later rise to between €335m and €500m for what Mr Rabbitte describes in 2014 as "Rolls Royce" broadband.

:: July 2015

Labour Party TD Alex White, Mr Rabbitte's successor as minister, outlined a strategy to see 100pc broadband access delivered by 2020. The target by 2018 is 85pc.

:: May 2016

Independent TD Denis Naughten becomes communications minister in Fine Gael-led minority Government. The programme for Government renews the commitment for 100pc access to next-generation broadband by 2020, or at latest 2021.

:: April 2017

Mr Naughten announces a deal that will see telecommunications company Eir provide broadband to 300,000 homes on a commercial basis. The Government's broadband map is finalised, meaning the three consortiums shortlisted for the NBP can provide tenders.

:: July 2017

Mr Naughten indicates there will be a delay in the NBP and the State-subsidised service won't begin until 2019.

:: September 2017

Siro, a joint bid by ESB and Vodafone, pulls out of the running for the NBP, citing a lack of a compelling business case to stay.

:: February 2018

Eir drops out of the bidding process citing "uncertainty" over pricing. This leaves Enet - a consortium that's led by US businessman David McCourt's firm Granahan McCourt - and includes energy company SSE as the only bidder left in the race.

:: July 2018

There's fresh turmoil in the process as SSE drops out of the Enet consortium.

:: September 2018

The final tender by the Granahan McCourt-led bid is submitted, though there are further changes in its make-up. The evaluation process begins.

:: October 2018

Mr Naughten is embroiled in controversy over meetings he had with Mr McCourt. The Opposition claims it has contaminated the NBP process. He denies he compromised the project but resigns having lost the confidence of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The Taoiseach orders a report into the process by an auditor. At this point 75pc broadband coverage has been achieved. But 540,000 premises are still waiting. Mr Varadkar says it's a "personal crusade" for him to get the NBP over the line.

Irish Independent

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