Broadband plan in fresh doubt after Eir turns its back on bidding process
The future of rural broadband in Ireland is in disarray after the State's biggest telecoms operator Eir dramatically pulled out of the National Broadband Plan.
The move raises new questions about Eir's commitment to rural Ireland following its takeover by a French billionaire.
Homes and businesses desperate for high speed internet have been left with uncertainty as to the future.
The State-subsidised rural broadband scheme promises to connect 540,000 homes and businesses to high-speed internet services over the next four years.
In a statement, Eir blamed ComReg for withdrawing from the process, citing new "uncertainty" over pricing in Ireland.
Its withdrawal follows a similar exit last year by Siro, the joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB.
Now only one bidder, Enet, remains in the running for the massive broadband contract.
The National Broadband Plan, which promises to provide every rural dwelling with high-speed internet, has been hit by delays since it was touted in 2012.
Eir will now face accusations that its recent acquisition deal by French billionaire Xavier Niel has immediately resulted in a shifting of strategy away from rural Ireland, and more towards cities.
Until recent weeks, Eir was an enthusiastic supporter of the National Broadband Plan, with chief executive Richard Moat promising to compete and win the tender. But Mr Moat is to step down as chief executive once Mr Niel's acquisition, which values Eir at €3.5bn, is complete.
The Government last night insisted the National Broadband Plan process remained intact, with physical construction due to begin within the next year.
But Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government was not sure what the implications of Eir withdrawing from the contract bidding process are as yet.
He said one bidder was left in the field and the Government would need to have discussions with them. Mr Varadkar said: "On the plus side it may allow us to award the contract early and get on with it."
Communications Minister Denis Naughten pledged that the overall bill to the taxpayer - likely to run into hundreds of millions - would not be higher because of Eir's decision to quit.
Meanwhile the person in charge of Enet's bid, David McCourt, told the Irish Independent his company remained focused on rolling out the State-subsidised rural network. "We are totally committed to Ireland," said Mr McCourt. "We are fully confident that we will deliver on time. We have huge experience of doing this in other countries."
Mr McCourt also said Eir's withdrawal from the competitive process would not mean a higher price to taxpayers.
"The Government is in no position to let us go backwards on things we've already agreed on," he said.
However, he warned that Eir still had the power to hold the process up if it did not grant access to rural infrastructure.
"Accessing Eir's infrastructure is a critical issue for us," he said.
The Government may now come under pressure to ensure that Enet, as National Broadband Plan winner, gets access to rural Eir infrastructure.
Sources indicated that upcoming legislation may deal with this issue.
The Eir withdrawal has sparked criticism.
"The news represents a breach of a commitment made to the industry and to the State on Eir's part," said a spokesman for Alto, the organisation comprised of rival operators. "The news comes at a very critical time when the market faces a lack of adequate rural broadband and huge competitive pressure on the market from Eir."