Minister for Business Heather Humphreys has said Government plans for a national rural broadband plan remain "on track" and a contract will be signed next month.
"The Government is absolutely committed to providing broadband in rural areas," Ms Humphreys said, speaking at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) on Thursday .
The broadband strategy incurred its latest setback last month, when Scottish energy firm SSE pulled out of the remaining bidding consortium for the contract.
Not even the rain can dampen spirits at @GMITOfficial this morning! Govt has supported the new iHub extension with funding of €3m through @Entirl which will allow it to double in size and support many more start-ups and jobs in the West pic.twitter.com/y0RROcVNiN— Heather Humphreys (@HHumphreysFG) August 9, 2018
Asked if the State should increase its input to the €1.5 billion project, Ms Humphreys said that the State was “still in process with the remaining bidder”.
The final Enet consortium now comprises Granahan McCourt, John Laing plc and the Irish Infrastructure Fund, the majority stakeholder owned in part by the State’s national pension reserve fund.
Ms Humphreys noted that “you do find that many of the commercial operators are providing broadband, and a lot of homes are being connected every day.”
However, she said the national broadband plan was “very important for those people in remote areas that the commercial providers don’t go to”.
The plan aims to bring high-speed broadband to the 542,000 most isolated homes and businesses. The controversial move in April 2017 to remove 300,000 homes from the scheme, after Eir said it would roll out broadband to them on a commercial basis, has been blamed for the withdrawal of the two other bidders, the ESB-Vodafone venture Siro and Eir itself. Eir cited complexity in the tendering process when it withdrew earlier this year from the bidding.
Ms Humphreys said State and third level institutional supports for business were even more important than ever in the context of Brexit, when she turned the first sod on the site of a new extension to an innovation hub or “iHub” at the GMIT Galway campus.
The extension, to be built with €3 million from Enterprise Ireland, will double the size of the existing GMIT hub.
It will provide space for an additional three dedicated medical technology research and development units, along with 17 incubation units for start-up ventures in areas like software, digital technology and connected health sectors.
“Now more than ever, companies need to innovate to meet the changing needs of markets,”Ms Humphreys said, and “the evidence tells us that new companies that start out in an incubator are more inclined to remain in that region.”
GMIT says its “iHubs” have supported the creation of about 600 new jobs to date.
The "iHub" at the Galway campus currently provides an entrepreneurship eco-system for 23 enterprises, and supports dedicated programmes including Empower, an initiative to support women in business.
GMIT head of innovation and enterprise, George McCourt, outlined one example of a company which had grown with its support – a connected health platform linking clinicians, care home providers, patients and family.
It began in 2014 and has now moved from the hub into its own premises in Oranmore, Co Galway, employing nine people, he said.