Tuesday 20 November 2018

FF to make broadband plan 'failings' a central topic in new deal talks

‘Ignored’: Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley had voiced concerns. Photo: Tom Burke
‘Ignored’: Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley had voiced concerns. Photo: Tom Burke
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The future of the Government could now depend on its ability to rescue the National Broadband Plan (NBP) from the brink of collapse.

Fianna Fáil is preparing to ratchet up the pressure on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to get the roll-out of high-speed broadband back on track.

It comes after the Irish Independent revealed officials are preparing to announce a new delay to a broadband roll-out for one million people living outside our cities.

This will push back new rural broadband connections until 2020 at the earliest.

The issue is set to become a central theme in the review of the confidence and supply arrangement which formally begins this week.

Senior Fianna Fáil sources told this newspaper they feel the Government has "ignored" their concerns about the process for the past 14 months - but won't be able to any longer.

Broadband will now feature among the headline topics for the confidence and supply negotiations, in the same way that the abolition of water charges did in 2016.

Fianna Fáil's communications spokesman Timmy Dooley would not comment on the talks last night, but he did say: "The Taoiseach's failure to address the concerns and problems raised by Fianna Fáil over the last 14 months is a matter of very serious concern.

"For the avoidance of doubt, the Government should know that Fianna Fáil sees the non-delivery of the National Broadband Plan as a major failing."

There is only one reference to broadband in the original seven-page deal struck by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael two-and-a-half years ago. It merely states that the Government would "increase capital investment" in broadband - but there are no figures or timelines mentioned.

If a new document is to be agreed, it is likely Mr Varadkar will have to give much more precise commitments. The Programme for Government did specify a deadline of a 2019 connection date for the NBP.

However, telecoms industry executives believe there is a slowing of enthusiasm in Government circles for an expedited rollout of the NBP.

There are also concerns that the original €500m estimated cost of the project could fall dramatically short of the final bill, with some reports suggesting it could hit €3bn.

The Government is waiting on an audit report from consultant Peter Smyth on whether meetings between former communications minister Denis Naughten and Granahan McCourt boss David McCourt disrupted "the integrity of the procurement process". The final tender was received on September 18 from the consortium headed by Mr McCourt.

Mr Dooley said any further delays to the NBP will cause "even more worry and concern in the rural communities up and down the county".

"Over the past 14 months, Fianna Fáil has been making it clear that there was a problem with the procurement process - a process that resulted in all of the major telecoms companies withdrawing from the contest," he said.

"Fianna Fáil identified flaws in the process, and raised them repeatedly with the Government since September 2017. At the time, we requested the Government to intervene.

"Fourteen months have now passed and we are now facing a nightmare scenario of a full collapse of the National Broadband Plan."

Irish Independent

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