Tuesday 25 June 2019

Broadband is vital but the current €3 billion plan is a recipe for disaster


Editorial Comment

Just a few short months ago, when the spiralling cost of the National Children's Hospital began to emerge, we were told that measures would be put in place to ensure such a debacle was never repeated.

In the case of the National Children's Hospital, the main problem appeared to be an almost total lack of proper oversight that, in turn, led to enormous cost overruns on the project.

Basically, a lack of awareness let the Government sleepwalk into an avoidable crisis.

In the case of the National Broadband Plan, the Government isn't so much sleepwalking into a political and financial mess as running headlong into it.

Make no mistake, like the National Children's Hospital the provision of proper broadband across the country is not only necessary, it is vital.

However, just like the Children's Hospital project, the way the Government is proposing to deliver it is bordering on the shambolic.

Last week we learned that - in the face of strident opposition from the top civil servants in the Department of Finance and Expenditure - the Government had decided to press ahead with the heavily criticised broadband plan and would spend some €3 billion on it, about €2 billion more than originally expected.

At the end of the 25 year plan the Government won't own the infrastructure which will instead by the property of Granahan McCourt, the private firm chosen to deliver the project.

Over the weekend it was reported that Granahan McCourt will be spending about €200 million on the project, compared to the Government's €3 billion.

Precisely why the cabinet opted to back this deal and the plan as a whole is unclear but they did so despite strenuous opposition from the top civil servant in the Department of Finance.

In a memo to Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, Robert Watt "strongly recommended against" the decision, pointing out that the plan before the cabinet had serious deficiencies.

Among other things Mr Watt and his civil servants were concerned about were the plan's cost and affordability; its value for money; its uncertain benefits; the "unprecedented" risk to the exchequer and the potential impact on projects included in the National Development Plan.

It is an astonishing document that lists major concerns about a project in a frank and comprehensive manner not typically associated with the Irish civil service.

It was also completely ignored.

As many others have done, Mr Watt and his staff acknowledge that rural broadband is vital and they offered up a number of cheaper alternatives, such as incentivising 5G roll-out or the development and provision of 900 free wifi hubs in rural areas.

These proposals may not be suitable but surely they deserve more than a cursory examination before the Government commits €3billion to a project it has been specifically warned about.

Rural Ireland has waited years for proper broadband. Why not wait a little longer and actually get it right?

Enniscorthy Guardian