Denis Naughten resigned from the government last year. Leah Farrell/

'Not about bringing Netflix to rural Ireland': Naughten says broadband plan ready to go 'for months'

The former minister took part in a heated debate on RTÉ’s Saturday with Katie Hannon this afternoon.

FORMER COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER Denis Naughten has said that the timing of the government announcing it had approved the national broadband plan was “very unfortunate”.

In an often heated debate on RTÉ Radio One’s Saturday with Katie Hannon, Naughten defended aspects of the plan and said that it had been “ready to go” since he resigned as minister last October and was replaced with Richard Bruton. 

The independent TD stepped down as minister after it emerged he had a number of meetings, including private dinners, with businessman David McCourt outside of the procurement process.

McCourt was the chairperson at Granahan McCourt, the last remaining consortium left bidding for the National Broadband Plan contract, worth up to €500 million.

The National Broadband Plan, first announced in 2012, aims to bring high-speed internet to parts of the country – smaller towns and one-off homes – that are unlikely to be viable business prospects for commercial providers.

Less than three weeks before the local and European elections, Cabinet approved the plan

However, the government has been heavily criticised for the high cost of the plan – put at €2.97 billion and has been under pressure to say why the taxpayer will have to pay the most for the plan with the private bidder set to own the infrastructure afterwards.

Speaking today, Naughten said that he was “aware of the figures” being talked about when he was minister.

But he also defended the plan, and said it would be essential in delivering foreign direct investment and jobs, as well as being a support to the health service. 

“I think it’s important we explain, there’s a misconception it’s about bringing Netflix to rural Ireland,” he said. “It’s not.”

Naughten also said that contractors could have been laying down fibre cables as early as January as things were “ready to go” from last October when he resigned. He said the government’s timing to announce the broadband plan – coming just prior to an election -  was “unfortunate”. 

Minister of State John Paul Phelan said that it was necessary “given the circumstances” in which Naughten resigned to take some time to ask questions as to whether this was the best route. 

He said that it was one of the most important topics in the minds of constituents coming into previous elections and it was essential the government take the decision it has to approve the plan.

Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan, while agreeing that broadband for rural Ireland is essential, accused the government of announcing it now “purely for electoral purposes”.

And, given the warnings from senior civil servant Robert Watt over the project’s value for money and risk to the taxpayer, O’Callaghan said: “I’m astonished the government sees themselves as being able to go ahead with it.”

Phelan added that one of the mooted plans from the opposition – financing the ESB to conduct the work – would be illegal under EU procurement laws. Sinn Féin are set to bring a Dáil motion proposing the appointment of ESB to deliver broadband next week. 

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