Saturday 21 September 2019

FG promises high-speed broadband by 'street light'

Local election manifesto reveals roll-out plan as Government prepares for special Cabinet meeting

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

Philip Ryan

Fine Gael will use roadside street lights to introduce high-speed broadband to every part of the country, according to the party's local election manifesto.

A draft copy of the election manifesto, which has been obtained by the Sunday Independent, says Fine Gael will roll out broadband for every home, business or school, "regardless of how remote or rural" their location is.

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As part of the plan, Fine Gael councillors will be tasked with ensuring street lights in their local authority areas can be used as antennae for "small cell technologies" which would "greatly improve the speed of 5G roll-out".

The pre-election commitment comes as the Government prepares to announce the outcome of discussions surrounding the long-promised National Broadband Plan, which became mired in controversy last year.

The project, which was originally estimated to cost around €500m, is now expected to cost the taxpayer in the region of €3bn. The Government claims the first plan aimed to connect 11,000 towns and villages while the current project will see high-speed broadband rolled out for 540,000 homes and businesses in some of the most remote parts of the country.

Ministers are set to discuss the plan at a special Cabinet meeting in Cork after the Dail's Easter recess. It is understood there are differing approaches within Cabinet over the best approach.

There are concerns among senior ministers that the current plan, which involves fibre optic cables, could become outdated before the project is completed.

However, other ministers, who are mostly from rural communities, are determined to see work on the state contract begin as soon as possible.

Fine Gael's local election manifesto says the National Broadband Plan will be achieved through a combination of commercial investment and state intervention in areas of the country where private operators are unlikely to invest. The document says 75pc of the country's homes, businesses and farms currently have access to high-speed broadband. However, the remaining 25pc of the country remains "difficult to reach".

"Fine Gael will ensure that every part of the country can partake in the digital future and the opportunities that that presents," it adds.

The manifesto says the Government's Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce is working on ways to improve connectivity for thousands of homes and businesses currently struggling to access online services.

In addition to the party's street-lights plan for broadband, Fine Gael will also instruct councils to share road improvement schedules with telecoms providers to assist with the introduction of infrastructure which will improve connectivity.

It also proposes new standardised procedures for applying for planning permission for telecoms masts. Last week in the Dail, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government was looking at the tender for the National Broadband Plan in "excruciating detail".

"The cost, including VAT, contingencies and so on, could be in the region of €3bn, albeit spread over 25 years," the Taoiseach said. "However, the benefits must be borne in mind. It is 540,000 homes, farms and businesses and over one million people," he added.

He said before a decision is brought to Cabinet, he wanted to ensure there was "no better alternative".

One senior minister said there will be a clash of ideas when the plan is discussed by the Cabinet next month.

"You will have people in Cabinet who believe passionately that this is the same as rural electrification and will deliver regional equity," the minister said.

However, the minister said other Cabinet members will want to know what "bang for their buck" the Government is getting from spending €3bn.

Meanwhile, Fine Gael's local election manifesto claims it is the "party of home ownership".

The document says Fine Gael's mission is to "ensure home ownership becomes achievable and affordable again for many who today feel it is beyond their reach".

Sunday Independent

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