Wednesday 11 December 2019

John Downing: 'National Broadband Plan is an FG bid for survival with rural voters as the clock ticks'

Communications Minister Richard Bruton (Michelle Devane/PA)
Communications Minister Richard Bruton (Michelle Devane/PA)
John Downing

John Downing

Ideally, you would want to be up early to get ahead of trends in cyberspace. And you always have to keep a weather eye on how those money markets swing in and out.

So, the Government pulled its meeting forward to 7.30am today when it will sign off on the €3bn National Broadband Plan contract. But the more banal reality is that this move is Fine Gael's bid for election survival in rural Ireland.

It will move, safe in the knowledge that Fianna Fáil will snipe from the sidelines about runaway costs and delays, but cannot throw the harness after the horse and oppose this one.

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So, Fine Gael's latter-day St Jude of the Cabinet, Communications Minister Richard Bruton, will get his rural broadband plan approved. Readers of a certain age will know that St Jude is patron of hopeless cases, and the more politically-focused ones will know that Mr Bruton also has responsibility for retrieving Ireland's worst-pupil-in-the-class status on climate change.

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

Delivering rural broadband and taking tough actions to tackle climate change are, of course, "good things". But there is a serious political "lose-lose" side to both these big-ticket items that steer them towards the St Jude department.

Today's decision comes just days after the European Commission said the National Broadband Plan did not break EU state aid rules. That EU clearance means the contract between the Government and National Broadband Ireland, awarded last May, can go ahead seven years on from first moves.

It is an attractive and ambitious plan, aiming to bring high-speed internet to more than 540,000 homes and businesses in rural Ireland. But it has been engulfed in controversy for several years amid the withdrawal of several leading bidders.

READ MORE: Editorial: 'No more excuses, we must Now breach digital divide'

The Granahan McCourt consortium, the sole remaining bidder, got preferred bidder status earlier this year. Comments by the Taoiseach at the weekend strongly signalled he hopes to see those high-vis jackets, boots and vans buzzing around rural areas from early next year. The reality is that many of those homes promised broadband soon will not have it by the next election, sometime after Easter 2020. The likelihood is that many may not have it in the run-in to the following general election - even if that was pushed out to maximum stretch in 2025.

Still, the Government's decision to proceed comes despite the repeated pleas from the Public Expenditure Department secretary-general Robert Watt to pull back from the €3bn broadband plan and what could be runaway expenditure.

Given the history of these projects, we will hear more about spiralling costs. But this is by now intensely political, and it is mirrored by the UK Labour Party's broadband promises for its election on December 12.

For Fine Gael, today is central to efforts counteracting persistent moves by Fianna Fáil, and many Independents, to caricature the Government party as indifferent to rural Ireland. So, broadband is crucial.

READ MORE: Broadband pledged for 300 rural towns next year as EU signs off on €2.6bn scheme

Irish Independent

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