Future of national broadband plan thrown into doubt

Opposition claims trust in scheme ‘shot to pieces’ after SSE reportedly pulls out of bidding

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten announcing details of the National Broadband Plan at Government Buildings last year. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten announcing details of the National Broadband Plan at Government Buildings last year. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Fianna Fáil and Labour have expressed fears for the future of the Government’s National Broadband Plan after a key member of the last consortium bidding for the contract withdrew.

SSE is withdrawing from the Enet consortium, the company confirmed on Sunday, a development which means “it is conceivable that no contract will be signed this side of 2020,” Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said.

Enet’s chairman, David McCourt, confirmed an RTÉ news report from Saturday and said the consortium now comprises Granahan McCourt, John Laing plc and the Irish Infrastructure Fund (IIF). The IIF, which owns a 78 per cent stake in the consortium, is partly owned by the State’s National Pension Reserve Fund.

“In building this consortium, we have brought together the best global expertise in building networks, particularly in telecoms, and in co-ordinating all of the elements required to finance a project of this size in partnership with government.

“As I’ve said before, the process is very much on track. We’re just weeks away from submitting our final tender. The team is very focused on concluding the procurement phase of this project and moving swiftly into delivery,” Mr McCourt said.

The plan, which was first announced in 2012, promised to provide “next generation broadband to every home and business in the State” through a combination of commercial and State investment. More than 500,000 homes require State intervention to achieve that.

Earlier this year, Eir pulled out of the running citing “repeatedly highlighted” commercial, regulatory and governance issues.

Mr Dooley said in statement that “it’s clear as night follows day that the process has to date been so convoluted and bureaucratic that every major commercial player has not felt comfortable continuing.

“With ESB, Vodafone, Eir and now SSE all out, what hope is there for the 520,000 households in isolated and rural communities that they will see their homes and businesses connected in the next six to eight years?

“Minister [Denis] Naughten must confirm when he became aware of SSE’s decision, and what his plans are into the future?

A Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment spokesman said the procurement process is in its final stages. “We are expecting the final tender in the coming weeks with a conclusion to the process expected shortly thereafter,” the spokesman added.

Speaking to RTÉ’s This Week programme, Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Seán Kyne said the journey has been difficult but he welcomed a statment from Enet on Saturday in which the company reaffirmed its commitment to the government’s national broadband plan.

“As far as I’m concerned the process is ongoing, nothing has changed except the lineup,” he said.

Labour’s spokesman on communications Seán Sherlock said: “We’ve known since February that there is only one bidder left in this project. Public trust is shot to pieces and the broadband plan is in shambles, and citizens will bear the brunt of this latest failure.

“The Minister now has serious questions to answer. We’ve had a litany of withdrawals from the process on his watch.

“The next moves from Government on this will be critical.”