Thursday 19 September 2019

John Downing: 'Varadkar between the devil and the deep blue sea over €3bn broadband'


Barrage of criticism: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has faced growing pressure from the Opposition for answers on the broadband plan. Picture: Frank McGrath
Barrage of criticism: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has faced growing pressure from the Opposition for answers on the broadband plan. Picture: Frank McGrath
John Downing

John Downing

If you're reading this on a laptop, perched on a rock in the far corner of your garden, alas, we cannot help you with the current location of broadband.

But we can give Leo Varadkar the exact political location of broadband right now - it is equidistant between the devil and the deep blue sea.

On one hand, the Taoiseach knows his Fine Gael troops cannot fight European - and especially local council - elections over the coming seven weeks without a cogent doorstep answer on when and how rural Ireland is going to get connected. Yet another programme roll-out, with targets and colour-coded maps, would simply be political death.

Against that, hard commitment to a programme set to cost €3bn - six times the figure being talked about until very recently - carries a serious risk of endorsing another bottomless money pit to be fed by taxpayers into the next generation.

And you can add serious questions about why the system developers will keep network ownership despite such a major taxpayer subsidy.

On Tuesday, the Taoiseach almost nonchalantly owned up to a ballpark cost of €3bn during close Dáil questioning from Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald. The €3bn figure has been in the ether for months and the Taoiseach has repeatedly said the new estimate would be "many multiples" of the long-standing €500m ballpark figure.

Tuesday was the day we had expected the Cabinet to seriously tangle on the matter and publicise its decision. But things were delayed, and we are now looking at a new date after Easter, possibly Wednesday, May 1, at a special Cabinet meeting outside Dublin.

The Government was taken aback at the huge Opposition barrage of criticism of this latest delay. For its part, the Opposition, impressed by the Government's discomfort, unsurprisingly is keeping up the pressure.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin took up the cudgels yesterday saying the idea of taxpayers paying €3bn and then not owning the system at the end "needs to be fully explained".

He accused the Government of trying to "drip feed" information on the National Broadband Plan in a bid to put distance between it and the controversy over costs at National Children's Hospital.

He later pushed home his advantage when the Taoiseach argued that a final Government decision was still awaited. How could Mr Varadkar cite the €3bn overall figure in that event, Mr Martin asked in his most reasonable tone.

The Taoiseach told the Dáil that the consortium charged with bringing high-speed internet to some of the country's most remote areas will in fact own the infrastructure. He defended the €3bn cost for both rolling out a fibre network and maintaining it into the future.

"At any point if the contractor fails to deliver the Government can step in," Mr Varadkar said.

Mr Martin said the estimates had "ballooned" from the €512m figure quoted in 2014. The Taoiseach repeated his argument that the original bill was for a different project, for connecting 1,100 villages, and the State subvention was never capped at €500m.

Mr Varadkar said it was "possibly the biggest ever investment in rural Ireland" - and would be neither cheap nor quick.

By now just one bidder, Granahan McCourt, remains in the contest. This suggests that there are no huge sums of money to be made in the immediate term - but an outfit with deep pockets could possibly see longer-term dividends.

The Taoiseach clearly believes the Government has few options here. But he is not on such good ground when he argues that the €3bn will be averaged over 25 years.

If the roll-out is to gain any kind of momentum, then a huge portion of that will have to be front-loaded in the next few years. But once it is done, and done properly, it will be a huge boon both economically and socially.

The Taoiseach rightly argues that Ireland has spent much bigger sums on roads in recent times without too much controversy. But these are longer-term concerns.

For now we are looking at the perils of Leo Varadkar's long walk from the €500m estimate, with questions to be answered about future ownership, set against the desire for a local election lift.

Irish Independent

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