Adrian Weckler: 'Government wobbles on notion of a 'right' to rural broadband access'
The eyes of 1.1 million rural citizens will turn next week to a crucial broadband report delivered by the State-appointed auditor, Peter Smyth.
Mr Smyth has indicated that he will hand over his verdict on whether the National Broadband Plan, which aims to connect 540,000 rural homes and businesses to high-speed internet, is tainted.
If it's a bad report, the Government will look to put the scheme on ice.
But if it's a good report, the Government may still look for ways to delay it, if recent leaks are to be believed.
Last week, stories appeared in the national press claiming that Government sources are "alarmed" about "low take-up" of rural fibre broadband being rolled out by Eir.
Although industry statistics contradict the claims, the intent of the leaks will lead to questions over the Government's resolve on rural infrastructure.
The 'right' to rural high speed broadband access, a previously settled issue, looks like it may be reopened.
Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley says that "inspired leaks" from the Government may "signal an effort to soften up the public for a significant change in direction in the National Broadband Plan".
Alternative proposals are being floated, ranging from mobile dongles to satellite broadband and aerials on rooftops.
However, telecoms industry executives dispute what were reported as Government claims last week that rural take-up of Eir's fibre broadband is "slow" and causing "alarm" in Government circles.
Even Eir's bitter broadband rivals, Siro and Alto, said that take-up of the recently introduced service, which is running at around 15pc, is statistically comparable with any other broadband rollout.
However, the leaks suggest that senior figures in the Government are beginning to question whether rural people need broadband.
Other Government sources have reportedly cast doubt on whether paying for rural broadband is actually in the country's best economic interest, suggesting that the cost may be too high against the backdrop of rival projects such as a new Dublin Metro line.
Officially, the positions outlined in these leaks have been refuted by the Department of Communications. A spokesperson said that no decision has been made on the future of the rural rollout yet, and that much depends on the audit report from Mr Smyth.
"The National Broadband Plan was not paused as a result of the change of minister," said a spokeswoman for the department. "The review of the final bid has been ongoing and is happening in parallel to the Smyth review. Regarding costs, the evaluation of the final bid is ongoing and due to concluded in the coming weeks. At that point, if concluded satisfactorily, a recommendation will go to Government and a decision will be taken. This will include a consideration of costs. The Government has made no decision at this point."
As for a 'Plan B', sources say that alternative options are being looked at in case the Smyth report compels the Government to scrap the current National Broadband Plan process. Despite Communications Minister Richard Bruton downplaying a 'Plan B' to the current tender, sources say that an alternative plan will be announced.