Massive blunders exposed in €87m broadband rollout
THE Government has spent €87m building a broadband network that is largely unused, an Irish Independent investigation has found.
Now Communications Minister Eamon Ryan has been forced to suspend further investment in the programme after it emerged just four of 59 high-speed internet networks are being used in small rural towns across the country.
The revelation again raises serious questions about the ability of Government to manage major infrastructure projects.
It comes on the back of the €52m e-voting fiasco and the health service's PPARS payment system, which ran €180m over budget. Construction of the broadband network, known as Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs), began in 2003 in two phases and cost €172m.
MANs are broadband networks of high-capacity fibre optic cable laid underground in towns and cities.
The first phase saw MANs delivered to 27 towns and cities at a cost of €85m. Some 23 are now being used. Phase two was announced in November 2003 and has so far seen 59 MANs completed at a cost of €87m. Just four are being used -- in Longford, Carrigaline, Co Cork, Tralee and Killarney. Not until next week will a company be appointed to manage the networks and sell broadband capacity to operators.
A value-for-money report commissioned by the Department of Communications reveals:
- Department of Finance guidelines were not followed when the network was planned and built.
- "Careful application" of these rules would have prevented many of the problems.
- Broadband was offered to towns that were too small to warrant the investment.
- Towns earmarked as growth centres over the coming decades will not have access to a high-speed internet link.
- The "prioritisation of urgency" in rolling out the network over "proper planning" had serious consequences for the project.
Small business groups last night criticised the scheme, claiming huge amounts of public money had been pumped into the wrong areas.
"It is absolutely shocking. The question has to be asked whether this is political cronyism gone mad," ISME chief executive Mark Fielding said.
"The Government really have let down small and medium enterprises in towns which will now not benefit from the network by putting resources in areas where they were not needed."
Among the reasons for the low take-up include the significant cost to operators of connecting with the network in areas with low populations.
Five towns identified in the National Spatial Strategy as growth centres -- Tuam, Ennis, Shannon, Castlebar and Mallow -- will still not have any MAN infrastructure by the end of the programme, despite it being a major driver in attracting foreign direct investment.
Some of these towns already have access to broadband through private companies such as Eircom and through wireless networks, but will not have the high-speed network considered vital to businesses.
The Irish Independent can also reveal:
- Four of the 27 MANs built as part of the first rollout of the programme -- in Carrickmacross, Gweedore, Kiltimagh and Kingscourt -- are not used despite costing €2.8m to deliver.
- A further 59 networks servicing 65 towns have been built in phase two since 2003, but just four are being used.
- Some 55 of these are servicing towns with populations of less than 9,000 people.
The report says plans to extend the network to towns with a population of less than 9,000 people should be "called into question" because of the low take-up. MANs have been built in dozens of towns with such low populations, including Gort, Co Galway, which has a population of 2,734; and Carndonagh, in Co Donegal, where just 1,923 people live.
The report said many of these MANs "will remain unused for the foreseeable future".
Yesterday Mr Ryan admitted there was an "issue of usage" but that the MANs were "long-term" investments.
His department also insists that guidelines on capital investment projects were followed, and that a "huge amount" of analysis of various reports was undertaken before decisions on the location of MANs were made.
However, Fine Gael's Fergus O'Dowd described the expenditure as an "appalling and shameful" waste of taxpayers' money.
"It was arrogance and incompetence. They obviously didn't understand what they were doing," he said.