Proposals to keep the new broadband network in public ownership will be voted on on Tuesday by members of a key Oireachtas committee.
The Oireachtas Committee on Communications is due to finalise a report on the national broadband plan and will decide what recommendations it will give to the Government in relation to the future of the €3 billion project.
The plan aims to connect some 540,000 rural homes and businesses to high-speed broadband with a consortium led by US investment firm Granahan McCourt chosen as preferred bidder for the project
Fianna Fáil is seeking cross-party support for a new cost/benefit analysis of the plan. This would be conducted before the broadband contract is signed and would be developed independently of government departments.
The party’s communications spokesman Timmy Dooley has said in committee documentation that the original cost/benefit analysis justifying the plan was “the subject of disagreement between the Department of Public Expenditure and the Department of Communications. Similar issues arose surrounding the national children’s hospital.”
Fine Gael TD and committee chairwoman Hildegarde Naughten is seeking the support of other members to recommend that the contracts should be signed and the rollout of rural broadband commenced “as soon as possible”.
Two sources on the committee indicated there is not widespread support for this recommendation as the report is likely to be critical of the process to date.
Other contentious proposals which will be voted on include potential recommendations on the ownership of the network once the contract for the work has expired.
Despite paying the bulk of the cost, €3 billion, the Government will not own the network once built. Typically in public-private partnerships the asset reverts to the State after the contract expires.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is seeking cross-party support to ensure State ownership of the network.
“As the State will be providing the vast majority of the capital to pay for the development of this asset it is hard to justify why the ownership should not in the end revert to the State,” he has suggested.
He says the committee should accept that any change in the bid process could lead to a slight delay in the rollout of services to the public.
Despite this, he says there is “no reason why this could not be achieved in a much shorter period than that suggested by the advisers to the existing bid process”.
Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane is also pushing for the committee to agree that the “infrastructure developed through the National Broadband Plan should remain in public ownership.”
He also wants the committee to recommend the Government re-engage with the ESB “to examine the best model for delivery of a new National Broadband Plan through the ESB”.
Concerns are also likely to be raised about why only one member of the board of the National Broadband Ireland company will be appointed by the Minister, while eight will be appointed by the investors.
Mr Cullinane has suggested the “the taxpayers’ interests will not be served by having only one member of a board of eight. It needs to be at the very least 60:40 ministerial appointees.”
Members of the committee will vote on 11 possible recommendations for the future of the plan before the final report is published.