Stopping €3bn National Broadband Plan 'could be even more expensive' - FF

Jack Chambers. Picture: Tom Burke

Hugh O'Connell

Fianna Fáil is set to effectively drop its opposition to the controversial €3bn National Broadband Plan (NBP) that will leave thousands of homes and businesses in rural Ireland waiting up to seven years for high-speed internet.

The opposition party has admitted that once Fine Gael signs the broadband contract, it may cost taxpayers even more by attempting to break it. The plan is being given final approval by ministers at a special early-morning Cabinet meeting today after it cleared the final regulatory hurdle with the European Commission last week.

National Broadband Ireland (NBI) has told the Government it will take an estimated seven years to roll out broadband to the 540,000 homes and businesses.

The Government is expected to say that the delivery of the plan will mean 1.1 million people, mainly living and working in rural Ireland, will get access to high-speed broadband and will not be left behind.

But the vast majority of those in need of high-speed internet will not be connected until long after the next general election - which is pencilled in for May 2020. Some will have to wait until the general election after that to be connected.

Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Jack Chambers said the Government had failed to examine any alternatives.

"Fine Gael is trotting out the exact same trick that was pulled during the local elections. The people of rural Ireland were not fooled then, I don't believe that they will be now. People are interested in good-quality broadband, not contracts," he said.

Mr Chambers said that if Fianna Fáil was in government it would not sign the contract but he admitted that, once this happened, "there may be legal ramifications which could cost taxpayers even more to attempt to break it".

"We won't be making a commitment that we might be prevented from legally keeping," he added.

NBI will spend much of the first year setting up approximately 300 broadband connection points in towns and villages that do not currently have any access to high-speed internet.

This will involve providing broadband access in community hubs with workers able to hot-desk in local halls and community centres. However, the first private homes in rural Ireland will not be connected to the network until the second quarter of next year.

NBI is aiming to pass 133,000 premises by the end of 2021, with 70,000 to 100,000 passed each year thereafter until roll out is completed.

The ambitious plan involves taxpayers subsidising broadband at an average cost of €5,000 per house over 25 years.

The Government has promised to bring a fibre connection to every home and business.

But the plan has been beset by controversies. All but one bidder pulled out of the procurement process, leaving a consortium led by Granahan McCourt, which is headed by Irish-American businessman David McCourt, as the sole bidder for the contract.

The Department of Public Expenditure's secretary general Robert Watt warned earlier this year that proceeding with the plan represented an unprecedented risk to the State's finances.

Former communications minister Denis Naughten had to resign last October over his contacts with Mr McCourt. A review later found the interactions did not influence the tender process. Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Naughten said he was "thrilled" that the plan was proceeding. "If this doesn't go ahead now it will never happen," he said. "So I am relieved and thrilled for the opportunity it's going to provide to rural Ireland."