Government pledges to deliver broadband within seven years

‘We must pay the price of progress now or stay trapped in the past forever,’ says Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar   has announced a preferred bidder for the largest single contract in the history of the State on “a very significant day for our country”.  Photograph: Tom Honan

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has announced a preferred bidder for the largest single contract in the history of the State on “a very significant day for our country”. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

Every home, school, farm and business in the country will be connected to the internet through high-speed broadband within seven years at a cost to the State of no more than €3 billion, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pledged on Tuesday, dismissing concerns about the cost, structure and likely take-up of the scheme.

Mr Varadkar hailed “a very significant day for our country” as he announced a preferred bidder for the largest single contract in the history of the State and the effective go-ahead for a project that has been dogged by delays, controversy and objections from high-ranking officials.

As expected, the preferred bidder is the sole remaining entrant in the competition, National Broadband Ireland, a consortium led by the US businessman David McCourt.

Mr Varadkar said in the future people would not ask why the project had cost so much, but why it was not done sooner.

“We must pay the price of progress now, or we risk staying trapped in the past forever,” Mr Varadkar said.

However, opposition parties and some industry experts continued to question the plan, with one senior source dismissing as completely unrealistic Government claims that the scheme would have an 80 per cent take-up within five years – an estimate that would put it far ahead of the rate seen by commercial providers.

But Ministers brushed aside concerns about the cost of the project and the likely take-up rate at a press conference following the Cabinet meeting.

Public spending

Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe said his department had “very robustly” performed its “challenge function” to ensure sustainable public spending.

He promised to publish correspondence between his officials and other stakeholders outlining the department’s objections and criticisms of the scheme, though his spokeswoman said last night that this would not be done until Wednesday.

Senior officials in Mr Donohoe’s department were opposed to the plan because they felt it did not represent value for money, and took the unprecedented step of registering their objections in formal Cabinet documentation.

However, Mr Donohoe said he believed that alternatives could not deliver 100 per cent coverage any more cheaply and that, considering the long-term benefits of the project, he supported the adoption of the plan “on balance”.

Mr Donohoe said while officials had supplied him with advice on the plan, it was up to him and the rest of the Cabinet to make the decisions for the future of the country, and both the Taoiseach and Ministers stressed the long-term benefits of the broadband rollout.

Electrification comparison

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton likened the provision of broadband to the supply of water and electricity, while the Taoiseach repeatedly drew parallels with the rural electrification scheme, which brought electricity to every home in the country between the 1940s and 1970s.

The contract is likely to be signed in about six months, Mr Bruton said, with work commencing next year. There are no additional costs for the exchequer this year, but officials said money for the additional capital expenditure would have to be found the following year.

Opposition parties said the announcement was directly linked to the forthcoming elections. Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said it had “all the hallmarks of a PR exercise two weeks out from a local and a European election”.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin accused Fine Gael of putting electoral politics before the public good. “Labour wants to see rural broadband delivered, but this plan risks leaving people in rural Ireland totally dependent on a private monopoly, which will ultimately be able to charge what it wants for access to the internet,” he said.