Sunday 25 August 2019

Top civil servant backed proposal to get ESB to deliver high-speed internet plan

Robert Watt. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Robert Watt. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

One of the country's top civil servants backed a proposal to use the ESB to deliver rural broadband, the Irish Independent can reveal.

Robert Watt, Department of Public Expenditure secretary general, said there was "merit" in a proposal by two Limerick University academics who said the Government should use ESB and existing State utilities to deliver the National Broadband Plan (NBP). Fianna Fáil has also repeatedly called for the ESB and its existing infrastructure to be used.

"There is merit in this approach I think," Mr Watt wrote in an email last October in response to being sent an opinion piece by Dr Dónal Palcic and Professor Eoin Reeves from UL's economics department. Mr Watt has heavily criticised the Government's decision to award the NBP to the Granahan McCourt-led consortium, warning earlier this year that the €3bn cost represented an unprecedented risk to the State finances weeks before Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe overruled him.

Emails released under Freedom of Information reveal how Mr Watt repeatedly impressed upon officials the need to inform the Government of their opposition, saying ministers needed a "very clear summary" of "why this is a bad idea".

He wrote that the cost-benefit analysis was not credible; there were higher finance costs; the State would be paying for infrastructure it may not need; there was no competition in the process, meaning there was a "monopoly bidder"; the procurement process had caused reputational damage and the financial assessment did not look at alternatives.

A senior official also told Mr Watt that the Department of Communications was "wedded" to the procurement process which resulted in the broadband contract being awarded to the sole remaining bidder.

Senior official Patricia Coleman wrote last November that she was concerned about the reported low take-up of rural broadband by Eir, and said: "I get the impression that DCCAE [The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment] are wedded to the current procurement process."

Mr Watt responded: "We need to be very clear and strong about this."

As the Government pressed ahead with the procurement process before confirming GMC's National Broadband Ireland as the preferred bidder, Mr Watt wrote to officials in February: "The project will now cost almost €3bn. This is unaffordable and poor value for money for the reasons we have set out previously."

As the Government finalised its plans, Mr Watt found himself excluded. He emailed Mr Donohoe's special adviser Ed Brophy in April, saying: "I understand there was a meeting on broadband yesterday with our Minister and the Taoiseach not attended by officials. I would be grateful if you could send me a note of the meeting."

Irish Independent

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