Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has signalled a further delay to the National Broadband Plan (NBP), which was first promised in 2012, by at least a year.
The plan to equip 542,000 rural homes and businesses with high-speed broadband has been beset with problems and delays due to the complexity of the procurement process and the failure of the department to finalise the number of premises to be covered earlier.
In the Dáil last week, Mr Naughten indicated he did not expect the first homes to be connected to the State-subsidised scheme until after Eir, the State’s largest telco, had finished a separate project to connect 300,000 rural homes on a commercial basis, which will take until the end of 2018.
The 300,000 homes had originally been earmarked for the Government’s scheme but were controversially removed at the last minute following an agreement between the department and Eir earlier this year.
The department last night denied the timeline for delivery of its broadband initiative had shifted again, insisting the procurement process would continue in parallel with the rollout of infrastructure by commercial operators.
However, it failed to contradict Mr Naughten’s statement in the Dáil that the 542,000 rural customers would be connected only after Eir had completed its contract with the department.
This pushes delivery of the Government’s plan out by another year to 2019 at a time when rural communities are already struggling to keep pace economically with their urban counterparts.
The scheme is expected to take between three and five years to complete and involve a State subsidy of up to €600 million.
While most premises targeted under the scheme will be equipped with high-speed broadband within the first two years of the contract, many may now have to wait until 2023 or 2024 to see any progress.
Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley described the latest delay as a scandal that would further erode the public's confidence in the Government's ability to deliver the plan.
“Minister Naughten had the audacity to come into the Dáil to answer questions on the NBP last week and announce that nothing will happen with these households until Eir finishes a project connecting 300,000 other households which they are doing on a commercial basis,” he said.
“For the next 77 weeks, it will be the households that Eir are connecting on a commercial basis that will be prioritised, and not the households that have no hope of ever being connected via a normal commercial connection.
“What’s worse is Minister Naughten’s attempt at jumping on the coat-tails of Eir’s work by claiming it as a phase under the NBP, and referring to the State’s work in connecting the remaining 542,000 households as the next phase.”
Mr Dooley said Mr Naughten’s actions were akin to a minister for transport claiming to provide public transport by letting car dealers sell cars to the public.
“The NBP is beyond a joke now. Every few months, we see the Minister announcing changes to the plan which fundamentally diminishes its impact,” he said.