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National broadband network should remain in public ownership, committee recommends

The project which will see the roll-out of a State-subsidised broadband service across the country.

Image: Shutterstock.com

AN OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE is to recommend that the national broadband network remain in public ownership.

The Joint Oireachtas Communications Committee – which investigated the government’s decision to award Granahan McCourt preferred bidder status for the multi-billion euro contract – is to recommend that the government reopen talks over the network. 

The project, which will see the rollout of a State-subsidised broadband service across the country, has been beset by delays since it was first announced in 2012.

Speaking today, Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley, who sits on the committee, has said the government should re-engage with the ESB to deliver the major infrastructure project. 

“The ESB has the infrastructure there. The ESB is a competent and trusted communications company. And the State has the authority to mandate the ESB to do the job.”

Most importantly of all, the network would stay in public ownership.

One of the only recommendations not adopted by the committee today was a proposal from Fine Gael members to sign the contract and to roll-out the network as soon as possible.

The report, which runs to about 70 pages long, also recommends that the government commission an external and independent review on whether the current proposal is value for money.

Speaking to reporters at Leinster House this afternoon, Fianna Fáil’s Communications Minister Timmy Dooley said throughout committee hearings on the National Broadband Plan, it became apparent that the tendering process “was not fit for purpose”.

Eir

He said the contribution by Eir that they could roll out broadband for a lot less money is something that needs to be investigated further, he added. 

Dooley said an independent expert, from outside the State, who has expertise in EU law as well as broadband network provision should carry out the review. He added that he did not believe one of the established consultancy firms, often used to carry out reviews into government matters, should be asked to do the review.

When asked about how a new review might delay the provision of broadband further, he said a delay that could possibly save €2 billion for the taxpayer is worth it.

The government is not obliged to accept the committees recommendations, but the report will put political pressure on the Taoiseach. 

Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan said it will be a “tough political call” for the government to make, stating that the recommendations which have cross-party support, places the Fine Gael government in a “difficult situation”. 

“The ball is back in their court now,” he said, adding that if there is enough political will, he believes changes can be made, without having to start a whole new tendering process.

Dooley added that the government would be wise not to ignore the committee’s recommendations, stating that the public are astute to the recent overspends in a lot of major projects, and will not tolerate the waste of public money on broadband without an alternative being considered. 

A spokesperson of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment said:

The Government is committed to delivering high speed broadband to over 500,000 premises and 1m people. The Government believes that those people who live mostly in rural Ireland should not be left behind.
The Government in May 2019 approved the appointment of National Broadband Ireland as preferred bidder. Work continues on finalising the contract.
The Department will consider the report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee once it has been published.

Controversy

The project has been an ongoing source of controversy, following a number of rejected proposals, plans for the proposed ownership of the network, and a Ministerial resignation last year.

Several bidders pulled out of contention for the tender for the project, which was awarded to the Granahan McCourt consortium in May, while the escalating cost of the subsidy the government will provide for the plan has also been criticised.  

As early as September last year, Finance and Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe questioned a decision to grant ownership of the plan to the winning bidder, after it emerged that the Government would pay €2.9 billion for the project over 25 years, with Granahan McCourt investing €220 million. 

Fine Gael members sitting on the Oireachtas committee have voiced their disappointment at today’s vote. 

Senator Tim Lombard the National Broadband Plan has been reviewed continuously for four months now, stating that no new information will be available in six months’ time that is not available today.

Hee said carrying out a further review will delay the signing of the contract, which the government wanted to sign-off on in the autumn.

“This project has been conducted under a procurement process which had detailed due diligence, with independent outside expertise, stress testing the costings, the capability, the risk management and the quality of service in a systematic manner.

“The decision regarding ownership has been made. A change could not be made at this stage without re-running the whole procurement process, which could take up to five years,” said Lombard.

The senator dismissed Stanley’s idea that the ESB could roll out broadband stating that the committee got consistent advice that a State contract such as the national broadband plan could not be given to the ESB without a procurement process taking place.

He added that this is also the advice that the European Commission and the Attorney General.

He said there are now two choices: 

Either we sign the contract and commence the roll out of high speed broadband to 500,000 premises and one million people or we don’t. It’s as simple as that. If we don’t sign this contract, then the only option is to go back to the drawing board. The committee was told that to start the process again could take up to five years. That would only bring us back to where we are today.
I am not willing to accept this sort of delay for rural Ireland.

With reporting by Christina Finn

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