Broadband plan to be approved despite department’s objections

Government bracing for criticism after estimated cost rose from €500m to €3bn

Denis Naughten, then minister for communications, announcing details of the National Broadband Plan in 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Denis Naughten, then minister for communications, announcing details of the National Broadband Plan in 2017. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Government is expected to approve the plan to spend €3 billion bringing high-speed broadband to remote rural areas today, and Ministers and officials were last night preparing a major effort to sell the decision across local and national media.

The decision to award preferred bidder status to the sole remaining bidder in the process, a consortium led by the Irish-American businessman David McCourt, is likely to be announced later today once Ministers formally approve it at the weekly Cabinet meeting.

The contract, agreeing the largest investment ever made by the State, is likely to be signed within a few months.

Although a number of Ministers have privately confessed to reservations about the plan, and there are strong objections from the Department of Public Expenditure on record in circulated Cabinet documents, several political sources last night said there was little question that the package would be agreed by Cabinet today.

However, senior figures are bracing themselves for criticism of the plan. The original estimated cost has risen from €500 million to €3 billion, and there are doubts about the likely take-up of the scheme, which will bring high-speed broadband to 500,000 remote rural homes and premises not served by commercial operators.

The chairman of the Dáil’s powerful Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming, has estimated on the basis of documents and evidence provided by officials to the PAC that the costs of providing broadband connections to the homes that will actually avail of it could be as high as €40,000 each.

Mr Fleming said evidence given by Government officials before the PAC also shows that three-quarters of households under the scheme will not be connected until after 2022.

Large subsidy

He has also questioned the assumption that the only way for half a million premises to get broadband is for the Government to pay for it.

“It can be argued that the commercial providers are now holding back on delivering [high-speed broadband] to premises, because they know if they wait, the taxpayer will give them a large subsidy if they connect premises under the [National Broadband Plan],” he said.

But Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan defended the scheme yesterday. “There’s a commitment in the programme for government that we will deliver broadband to every person in the country, and that’s our intention,” she said.

Asked about the potential lack of take-up of the scheme, Ms Madigan said: “Once the facility is available they will take it up. It’s very important to people’s livelihood that they have adequate broadband.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he was a rural TD and he wanted to “acknowledge the importance of broadband for my constituents. We will be having a comprehensive debate on this issue tomorrow.”

“I believe it’s important in encouraging people to live and work in the regions that they would have an entitlement to broadband facilities. I believe that’s absolutely essential,” he said.