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Government signs off on contract for controversial €3 billion National Broadband Plan

The cabinet met this morning to facilitate signing off on the multi-billion euro plan.

aoiseach Leo Varadkar and US business man David McCourt who leads The Irish Broadband consortium sign the National Broadband plan at St Kevin’s National School in Co Wicklow this morning.
aoiseach Leo Varadkar and US business man David McCourt who leads The Irish Broadband consortium sign the National Broadband plan at St Kevin’s National School in Co Wicklow this morning.
Image: Niall Carson

Updated Nov 19th 2019, 2:00 PM

THE GOVERNMENT HAS signed off on the €3 billion National Broadband Plan contract at its weekly cabinet meeting today.

It comes after the European Commission granted State aid approval for the plan last week.

The Cabinet met this morning to facilitate the plan being signed off on ahead of an event to mark the occasion at a school in Wicklow later in the morning.

Speaking this morning, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said:

“It is the biggest investment in rural Ireland ever and the most significant since rural electrification.”

“An average of over 100 million euro in every local authority in the country” is to be invested in the infrastructural project.”

Initially 300 broadband connection points will be set up in community settings such as GAA clubs, community centres and public libraries.

These hubs will provide free high-speed broadband to people living in rural areas until broadband is delivered to their homes.

Varadkar referred to the case of a young girl with an interest in coding who had to go to the carpark of her local supermarket to pick up Wi-Fi as it was so poor in her own home.

The National Broadband Plan is the government’s plan to rollout high speed broadband to 1.1 million people living and working in the nearly 540,000 premises – including homes, schools, businesses and farms – where commercial operators will not commit to deliver the service. 

Opposition criticisms

The plan, which has been beset by delays and setbacks, will see high-speed broadband being rolled out across the country within eight weeks. 

Opposition parties have criticised the government for pressing ahead with the contract, calling on the broadband network to publicly owned, as the State is investing such a significant amount in the project.

PA-48438080 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and US businessman David McCourt Source: Niall Carson

However, Varadkar defended the signing of the contract today:

“This contract means that every home, school, farm and business in Ireland will get access to high speed broadband. No part of the country will be left behind in securing the jobs and opportunities of the future.”

Sinn Féin communications spokesperson David Cullinane today said that while rural broadband is a necessity, the government’s plan is not the right option.
 
“The government should not be proceeding with this particular option. It is one that has received almost universal criticism – from political parties, Oireachtas committees, senior civil servants, and the industry itself,” he said.
 
He said “there is nobody except Fine Gael who thinks this plan is a good idea”. 
 
Cullinane said that while rollout of broadband is needed in rural Ireland, it should not end up costing the State more than is necessary, stating:

“We won’t even own it at the end – indeed, the network can be sold off after nine years.”

Labour’s Brendan Howlin said the government had no regard for public money, stating that they were “throwing money” at the broadband plan in a bid to get it over the line. 

He said the Labour Party would be consulting legal experts to ascertain if the contract could be reneged on by the next party in government, if needed.

“Obviously we have to look at the detail of the contract once it is signed, whether it can be undone. I don’t know the answer to that, we have to have a look at the details of the contract, but I do know that the perseverance of the government is bad public policy. And it just echoes again the expensive nature of the government. They have no regard for public money after the decade of difficulties the Irish people have gone through so they can throw money at broadband or they can throw money at the National Children’s Hospital,” he said.

Fianna Fáil’s Stephen Donnelly said the government has failed in the entire broadband process, and stated that the delays in the rollout has been “appalling”. 

“I think everyone should be worried when government starts announcing big capital plans, right in the middle of a by-election,” he said. 

Donnelly said Fianna Fáil wants to now hear from the Department of Expenditure and Public Reform on what it thinks about the current plan, highlighting that the secretary general of the department has previously stated that it is not value for money. 

The Wicklow TD said he believed the Irish people have “been led down the garden path” with the National Broadband Plan”.

Delays

The signing of the contract does bring an end to the delays with the plan. National Broadband Ireland was awarded the contract for the project in May after a controversial bidding process which saw several leading bidders withdraw themselves from consideration.

It had been expected that a contract would be awarded last year but former communications minister Denis Naughten quit his post after revelations about a series of meetings with the head of the Granahan McCourt consortium David McCourt.

Granahan McCourt was the sole remaining bidder when it was granted preferred bidder status earlier this year.

In a statement today, Naughten said today’s signing of the contract is “one of the defining days in the history of our country and will be the turning point for the revitalisation of rural Ireland”. 

The decision to sign off on the plan comes despite the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure Robert Watt repeatedly urging the government not to proceed with the multi-billion euro project.

- With reporting by Christina Finn, Hayley Halpin and Press Association

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Ceimin Burke

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