2026 before rural areas linked up in €3bn plan to end ‘digital apartheid’

Businesses and home owners in Ireland’s most rural areas must wait until 2026 to access high-speed broadband — and may have to pay more out of their own pocket.

After repeated delays since 2012, the Government yesterday announced its preferred bidder for the €3bn National Broadband Plan “to end digital apartheid”.

More than 1.1m people will get access to a network officials have said will make Ireland “the envy of Europe”.

However, after “robust” challenges to the deal from senior civil servants, there are questions over why the State will not end up owning the network over the lifetime of the 25-year deal.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his ministers insisted that the deal, with a group led by Irish-American businessman David McCourt and which will take six months to get across the line, is the best option available.

Under the contract, 120,000 of the targeted mainly rural homes will be connected in the first two years. Up to 100,000 premises will be connected each year thereafter. It will take seven years before the most isolated parts of rural Ireland get access to the high-speed connections.

Mr Varadkar yesterday conceded that there is a “caveat” whereby if it costs over €5,000 to connect a home, the premises could be asked to pay a contribution over and above the standard €100 connection fee.

“If it costs more than €5,000 to connect to your particular premises, you’ll be asked for a contribution [for any cost] over the €5,000,” he said. “We suspect that’s going to be a very small number.”

Ministers defended the deal. Agriculture Minister Michael Creed told the Irish Examiner it would end “digital apartheid” in rural Ireland.

Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe also overruled “robust” criticism of the €3bn deal by his most senior department officials, saying it is time for digital “fairness” for all citizens.

Business Minister Heather Humphreys said it is “a game-changer for rural Ireland” and would end the “digital divide”.

The Cabinet debated the plan for six hours yesterday. It is understood no minister wanted to delay the project.

The McCourt-led consortium — to be called National Broadband Ireland — said households, when connected, would be able to “buy the same services at the same prices” as other parts of the country.

The Government said premises would be offered special broadband bundles by different providers, which would include TV, phonelines, and home security.

It emerged yesterday that the cost of the project rose from €1bn to €3bn between 2015 and 2018.

An initial estimate given to Government at €1bn was for 770,000 homes and businesses. A decision by Eir to take control of providing commercial broadband to over 330,000 properties put a significant dent in those plans. After a review of three bids, the Government settled on a contract for €3bn to connect over 540,000 properties.

Opposition parties criticised the plan, claiming it has come in six times overbudget, a decade late, and without any guarantee the State would own the service.

Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said:

Our big concern is this announcement has all the hallmarks of a PR exercise two weeks out from the local and European elections, and I think people waiting for rural broadband will treat this with an air of scepticism.

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said he believes people in rural areas could end up having to pay twice — as taxpayers and as individuals — to receive the service.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy said the Cabinet is “cynically using broadband as an electioneering tool”.

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