Saturday 25 May 2019

Resetting the broadband bid would set back installation years

Stock image / PA
Stock image / PA
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

As the dust settles on Denis Naughten's resignation as communications minister, what of the National Broadband Plan itself?

Is the process, which has dragged on for years but is now at the point of being signed, fatally tainted? Is there a real risk of a legal challenge? Or are we at least facing another delay?

The timing of all this couldn't be much worse. The Government is, or was, merely weeks away from formally striking a deal for work to begin on rolling out a rural broadband service to 540,000 homes and businesses - a third of the population.

But the revelation that Mr Naughten had a series of undocumented dinners with David McCourt, the man spearheading the consortium bidding for the huge State contract, led to a situation where Taoiseach Leo Varadkar lost confidence in him. Does Mr Naughten's resignation threaten to legally scupper the process?

Sources close to previous bidders have indicated, so far, that they do not intend to consider legal action over the revelations.

"We have no interest in that, even though arguably there's an open path there," one executive of a major previous bidding firm told the Irish Independent. "The following days will be crucial. There are some potential winners from a delayed - or abandoned - broadband plan.

In theory, Eir would be better off with no fibre network to compete with its relatively weak copper lines that still serve as the best available service for a million homes. Siro, too, would not shed any tears. The joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB is building out its own fibre network around regional parts of the country.

But if no legal hurdle emerges, objections to the continuation of the process will largely be political. Nevertheless, there are calls from some interest groups to go "back to the drawing board". The suggestion has been floated that the Government should tear up the procurement process and start a new one. Whatever the political exigencies of considering this, it would undoubtedly set rural broadband connectivity back at least three years. Bear in mind the current process has taken six years to stagger to this point. For better or worse, it is on the cusp of being brought to fruition.

Even at this advanced stage, actual connection to homes is not expected until late next year, which is already far too late for many communities. To abandon this process would be to condemn up to a million rural homes to another four or five years with utterly insufficient communications infrastructure. That does not always weigh on the priorities of city-based pundits and politicians who take modern communications for granted. But it will surely loom over whatever the next steps are.

Irish Independent

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