Broadband deal not quite the showpiece Naughten hoped for

Analysis: Eir plans may lead to legal challenge – and cause conflict between Ministers

The Government's agreement with telecoms company Eir to provide high-speed broadband connections to 300,000 homes and premises in rural Ireland should be an unabashed good news story.

Instead, it has fuelled fears of a legal challenge to the Government’s broadband plans, accusations of further delays for the most isolated rural areas and, behind the scenes in Government, a political turf war over who gets to deliver the good news to communities, when it eventually comes.

Communications minister Denis Naughten made the announcement yesterday in Government Buildings, having secured the Cabinet's agreement earlier that day.

Under the deal agreed with Eir, the telecoms company has undertaken to connect an additional 300,000 homes over the next two years. Mr Naughten hailed it as a huge breakthrough, saying it meant that one home would be connected to broadband every minute of every working day in the next two years.


But there’s another side to this story. The 300,000 homes that Eir has committed to connecting were originally earmarked as being part of the State’s programme for providing broadband connections – also due to be rolled out in the coming years, but repeatedly delayed.

Ongoing process

That scheme will now cover about half a million homes, rather than the nearly 800,000 previously intended. The Department of Communications yesterday confirmed that the procurement process for this massive contract was ongoing and not expected to be finalised until the end of this year, or the beginning of next year. The Minister is promising “shovels in the ground” in 2018.

There are three bidders: Siro, Enet, and Eir. Ministers were warned yesterday that the downside of the deal announced with Eir is that the other bidders for the public contract could cry foul at the reduction in the scope of the proposed programme following the agreement with one of their competitors.

However, the Government believes that the risk is not substantial enough to give up the immediate progress in connecting homes and businesses that the Minister believes the Eir deal will bring.

Opposition TDs also complained that the “commercialisation” of 300,000 homes that were previously supposed to be part of the public scheme would inevitably mean that service to the remaining half a million homes would be delayed. The slow bicycle race of broadband rollout for the past several years suggests that this fear is hardly groundless, to say the least.

And although Naughten received the backing of Ministers yesterday, they all know that a turf war is brewing between Naughten and his colleague the Minister for Rural Affairs Heather Humphreys.


Last summer, in what most insiders saw as an attempt to beef up the portfolio of the new rural development department, responsibility for the post office network and the “rollout” of rural broadband (as distinct from managing the contract and procurement process) was transferred to the Department of Rural Affairs from the Department of Communications. It meant that Humphreys would get to decide (and announce; ministers love that) what towns and villages were given priority.

Last week, with the prospect of post office closures looking, and after a spirited performance at the cabinet by Michael Ring, junior minister at the Department of Rural Affairs, the Cabinet decided that responsibility for the post office network would return to its former home in the Department of Communications.

Naughten accepted it – but said that he wanted the rural broadband rollout back too. Unlike post offices, this has the potential to be a good news story – or even, a procession of them. The two ministers, Naughten and Humphreys, have agreed to discuss the transfer. Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe has been asked to referee. Rather like rural broadband itself, quick progress is not anticipated.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times