Brexit will affect if public finances ‘can bear cost of broadband’ - Taoiseach

Decision by Easter but project an issue for current and future administrations, says Varadkar

The Taoiseach said the Government had delivered on the issue with 80 per cent of homes and businesses now served but he acknowledged the lack of service to the remaining 20 per cent. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

The Taoiseach said the Government had delivered on the issue with 80 per cent of homes and businesses now served but he acknowledged the lack of service to the remaining 20 per cent. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

The Government hopes to make a decision on the national broadband plan before Easter, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told the Dáil.

But in a stark warning he said they would have to see if the public finances could bear the cost of providing broadband to some 540,000 homes and businesses in mainly rural areas.

And he said it would be a decision not just for this Government but for future administrations because it will be public private project to be paid for over about 30 years.

Mr Varadkar said that developments in the Brexit crisis would inform the Government’s decision on whether the public finances can bear the impact of broadband.

He was responding to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who asked why there was such a delay in making a decision on the last remaining bid E-Net led by US businessman David McCourt.

Mr Martin said that when the then Fine Gael-led government in 2012 announced the plan it promised to provide broadband by 2020 at a cost of €350 million but had risen significantly since then.

Then minister for communications Denis Naughten resigned in October after controversy about his meetings with Mr McCourt.

His success as Minister Richard Bruton then promised a decision on the issue within weeks.

“He has been saying ‘in the coming weeks’ since last October and it’s now (almost) March,” Mr Martin said.

Increased costs

The Taoiseach said the Government had delivered on the issue with 80 per cent of homes and businesses now served but he acknowledged the lack of service to the remaining 20 per cent.

“For that 20 per cent, who don’t have access, it’s all the more frustrating, it’s all the more annoying,” he said.

It was the Government’s plan to announce a decision before Easter.

Due diligence is still under way by the Departments of Public Expenditure and of Communications.

Mr Varadkar said that “because the cost will be many multiples of what had been anticipated originally it will have an impact on the public finances.

“The events of the next couple of weeks will help us decide whether we can bear that impact on the public finances.”

He added that the impact this year will be “minuscule” but “there will be a significant impact in 2020, 2021 and onwards”.

The costs would be spread over about 30 years and “I don’t think this should be a decision for this Government alone because the impact will fall on future governments too.

“That’s why we want to be transparent about it and consult the Oireachtas on it.”