Broadband plan faces existential threats, Oireachtas body to hear

Plan faces significant risk of overspend and delays, Imagine group chief to tell committee

Imagine Communications Group chief executive Seán Bolger will flag seven “existential threats” to the National Broadband Plan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Imagine Communications Group chief executive Seán Bolger will flag seven “existential threats” to the National Broadband Plan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The State’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) faces “existential threats”, including “significant risk” of overspend and delays in its current guise, an Oireachtas committee will be told on Thursday.

In his opening statement to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which has been seen by The Irish Times, Imagine Communications Group chief executive Seán Bolger will also ask whether changes to the membership of the last remaining consortium bidding for the project have “consequences for the integrity of the project and the outcome”.

The statement flags seven “existential threats”, starting with changes to the Granahan McCourt consortium, led by Irish American businessman David McCourt. Last year UK infrastructure and energy heavyweights SSE and John Laing exited the consortium, while Denis O’Brien’s Actavo was named as a key partner.

Mr Bolger will ask whether the existing Granahan McCourt consortium would pass the pre-qualification questionnaire (PQQ), which potential bidders had to submit.

“The significant changes in the last remaining consortium’s membership raise concerns. Does the remaining bid member meet the PQQ criteria or not, and if not, what are the consequences for the integrity of the process and the outcome.”

The Imagine chief executive will also raise the fact that two bidders, Eir and Siro, which is a joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB, both dropped out of the race, “apparently on the basis that they could not make a commercial business case”. “The inevitable conclusion is that either there is a significant risk to the successful rollout of the network and/or that there will be a significant increase in the final cost.”

He will also suggest that the technical approach of “fibre to the home” favoured by the NBP runs the risk of some areas facing significant delays in high-speed internet access coming on stream.

5G network

Imagine is currently working on a €300 million plan to use the 5G network to roll out broadband which it says will measure at 150 megabits per second (Mbps). It is targeting 1.6 million homes and businesses with the plan, which was announced earlier this week.

The company made an unsuccessful attempt to qualify as a potential operator of the NBP in 2016 when it formed a consortium alongside Australian investor Macquarie, Chinese technology giant Huawei and US telecoms infrastructure specialist Black and Vetech.

On Thursday the PAC will also hear from BT, Eir, Imagine, Enet and the regional internet providers’ association. In a letter to committee chair Seán Fleming, Enet says “certain one-sided comments” have been made about it at PAC which it believes are inaccurate. It will complain about “innuendo” and argue that its “role has been about value creation for the State”.

Denis Naughten was forced to resign as minister for communications last year when it emerged he had held several meetings with Mr McCourt. A review of the procurement process found that Mr Naughten’s actions had not tainted it.

A spokesman for Enet had no comment. A spokesman for Granahan McCourt did not respond to queries at time of going to press.