The Government should mandate the ESB to deliver the National Broadband Plan (NBP) as a means of breaking the current impasse, Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley has said.
The Government's flagship communications strategy has become mired in controversy following revelations that former minister for communications Denis Naughten held meetings and private dinners with the lead bidder during the procurement process.
Independent auditor Peter Smyth is currently assessing whether Mr Naughten's contacts with David McCourt, chairman and founder of US investment firm Granahan McCourt, have compromised the tender.
Mr Dooley said that while he did not want to pre-judge the outcome of Mr Smyth’s report, he believes Mr McCourt’s interaction with the Mr Naughten has compromised the process under the canvassing disqualifies principle.
Mr Dooley told The Irish Times: "I think McCourt has excluded himself from the process. If it follows that the tender process has failed, then it has failed because McCourt has compromised his own bid."
The State’s procurement rules forbid direct canvassing of government and government ministers during a tender.
Mr Dooley said it was now time for the Government to start scenario planning for the outcome of Mr Smyth’s audit, which he believes will conclude that the tender process has been compromised.
"And an obvious plan B would be to re-engage with the two other bidders [Eir and ESB-Vodafone joint venture Siro]," the Clare TD said. "Perhaps the State will just have to bring this inhouse and mandate the ESB to do the job."
Siro, the ESB's telecommunications arm, dropped out of the NBP process last year, saying there was no longer a "business case" for its continued participation.
The company, which is using the ESB's electricity network to build a fibre broadband network, is now providing services in 30 towns, including Dundalk, Sligo, Tralee, Cavan, Wexford, Skibbereen and Drogheda, and last week reported a sharp rise in annual revenue to nearly €3.2 million.
Mr Dooley dismissed suggestions that the NBP process would have to start from scratch if the tender collapses on foot of Mr Smyth’s report, insisting the plan to deliver high-speed broadband to 540,000 mainly rural households and businesses was separate from the tender.
There is concern, however, that the Government’s proposed subsidy for the plan, which is expected to cost up to €1.5 billion, is too low, and that is why the main industry players here have dropped out. Eir, the pre-race favourite, exited in January.
Separately, the controversy over Mr Naughten's meetings with Mr McCourt has extended to Minister for State for Communications Pat Breen, who held a number of previously unreported meetings with the lead bidder for the NBP, according to media reports. Mr Breen met Mr McCourt on three occasions in 2016, and visited him at his home in Co Clare on several occasions "in a private capacity" over the last two years.