Thursday 19 September 2019

High-speed broadband network should be kept in public ownership, Oireachtas committee recommends

The committee is looking at the National Broadband Plan (Yui Mok/PA)
The committee is looking at the National Broadband Plan (Yui Mok/PA)

Hugh O'Connell and Cormac McQuinn

The government is being told to overhaul plans to deliver rural broadband to over half-a-million homes in Ireland and to keep the new high-speed network in public ownership.

The Oireachtas Communications Committee is recommending that an independent external review be carried out into whether the government’s current €3 billion plan to deliver the National Broadband Plan (NBP) through a consortium led by businessman David McCourt is the only viable option. It also recommends that a new cost-benefit analysis independent of government departments should be carried out.

The committee wants an independent expert with international experience to establish within three months whether rural broadband can be delivered to 540,000 homes by giving the responsibility for the project the ESB or through other means without reopening the tender process. “The use of ESB infrastructure remains a credible option for the delivery of the NBP,” the report’s conclusions, seen by the independent.ie, state.

The report is also recommending that the broadband network, once delivered, should be retained in State ownership. “We assume that the final value of the asset to the bidder will be around €455 million. As the State will be providing the vast majority of the capital to pay for the development of this asset it is hard to justify why the ownership should not in the end revert to the State,” the recommendations state.

The report's conclusions are highly critical of the government’s approach to the NBP to date including the outsourcing of analysis, planning and oversight. It describes the procurement process as “overly complex, restrictive, redundant and unfit for purpose in delivering high speed broadband at an affordable price”.

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The report states: “The government has shown a reluctance to recognise that elements of the tender were no longer suitable and as a result have exacerbated the existing issues and the Committee believes that there should be greater willingness to recognise failures in the tendering processes for major projects at earlier stages.”

There was no immediate response from the Department of Communications when contacted today.

Fine Gael members of committee, who opposed the recommendations for a review, warned of delays to the delivery of rural broadband. Party chairman Martin Heydon said: “Now is the time for political honesty. Either we roll out broadband under this plan or we don’t. A fundamental change to the Plan, as recommended in some of the recommendations, cannot be made without cancelling this procurement process and starting again. To start again could take five years.”

The committee’s report comes after a series of votes were held on its conclusions and recommendations today. Opposition amendments which called for the NBP to be retained in state ownership, an independent review and a new cost-benefit analysis were backed by a majority of committee members. A Fine Gael amendment to proceed with the current government plan without any further delay was rejected.

The plan to deliver broadband to farms, homes and businesses in rural Ireland has been beset by controversy after all but one bidder pulled out. Former communications minister Denis Naughten was forced to resign last year over his engagements Mr McCourt. The government decided to proceed with the NBP through Mr McCourt’s consortium, now known as National Broadband Ireland, less than three weeks before the local and European elections in May.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan told Independent.ie there’s a “fundamental case” for the network to be owned by the State. He said: “We’re putting in €3bn, the developer is putting in €175m. We should own the asset.”

Another amendment tabled by Mr Ryan that would see the full cost of providing a connection to the NBP network for new houses borne by the occupiers as part of the planning conditions for the construction of such a home was also passed. Of this recommendation Mr Ryan said: “Why should we subsidise further unsustainable housing patterns. We need to start bringing life back into our villages.”

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Mr Ryan said he believes the committee did “good work” and threw more light on a “complex and critical project”. He said that none of the solutions are easy and “no one wants to go back to the start again”.

He conceded that the government can ignore the committee’s report but insisted there are valid views in the recommendations that arose from the committee’s probe and said: “I hope they do heed some of them”.

Responding this afternoon, the Department of Communications said it would consider Oireachtas Committee's report "once it has been published".

A spokesperson said: "The Government is committed to delivering high speed broadband to over 500,000 premises and 1m people. The Government believes that those people who live mostly in rural Ireland should not be left behind. The Government in May 2019 approved the appointment of National Broadband Ireland as preferred bidder. Work continues on finalising the contract."

A government source responded to the recommendations in the committee's report claiming that, if implemented, they would add years of delay to the NBP.

They said: "The sum total of the recommendations in the report would mean abandoning the current process and starting afresh.

"This would add years of delay."

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