Sunday 13 October 2019

State will spend €3bn and still not own broadband infrastructure - Dáil told

Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)
Leo Varadkar (Niall Carson/PA)

Kevin Doyle and John Downing

THE infrastructure used to rollout broadband to rural Ireland will not be owned by the State despite plans to invest €3bn over the next 25 years.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told the Dáil that the consortium charged with bringing high-speed interest to some of the country’s most remote parts will own the infrastructure.

He said the €3bn cost would be for both rolling out a fibre network and maintaining it into the future.

“At any point if the contractor fails to deliver the Government can step in,” he said.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the idea of taxpayers paying €3bn and not owning the system at the end “needs to be fully explained”.

He accused the Government of trying to “dip feed” information on the National Broadband Plan (NBP) in a bid to put distance between it and the controversy over costs at National Children’s Hospital.

Mr Martin told the Dáil that the estimates had “ballooned” from the €512m figure quoted in 2014.

The Taoiseach argued the original bill was for a different project.

“That was a cost for connecting 1,100 villages. The State subvention was never capped at €500m,” he said.

Mr Varadkar described the NBP as “possibly the biggest ever investment in rural Ireland”.

“It’s not going to be done cheaply and it’s not going to be done quickly,” he said.

The Cabinet is expected to have a special meeting in early May to sign-off on the contract for the NBP. Just one bidder, Granahan McCourt, remains in the contest.

Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said the Taoiseach had on Tuesday told the Dáil – for the very first time – that the broadband project would cost €3bn.

She accused Mr Varadkar of trying to represent this as a different plan to the one originally estimated to cost €500,000 – but in 2012 then Communications Minister, Pat Rabbitte, had said the plan was to roll out broadband to every home and business in the State.

“What has changed, incredibly, is its costs. It’s now going to cost six times the original cost,” Ms McDonald said.

The Sinn Féin leader said there were serious concerns about the ownership of the new network with the prospect of the Government paying in 25 years time to buy it back from the developers. She said the Taoiseach’s claim to make broadband “a personal crusade” was not credible and if he was .

Mr Varadkar rejected the Sinn Féin arguments saying various plans and strategies had been considered.  He believed her party would oppose the broadband rollout if they got into government and he argued that Sinn Féin’s suggestion of giving the project to a semi-state company was illegal under EU public procurement law.

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