Broadband investigation will also look at how best to roll out rural network

A cross-party investigation into the €5bn national broadband plan will also look at the best way to roll out a high-speed network to rural Ireland.

Public Expenditure secretary-general Robert Watt, whose concerns about the plan have triggered surprise, is one of the first witnesses TDs and senators want to question about the project.

The Oireachtas Communications Committee has invited the top civil servant to appear next Wednesday as well officials from the same department, who oppose the government broadband plan.

Earlier this month the Government approved a consortium, led by Granahan McCourt, as the preferred bidder for the project, which aims to deliver high-speed broadband to more than 540,000 homes and business across the country in the next seven years.

Responding to a 12-year-old's questions about broadband coverage in rural areas yesterday while in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said:

In the second year [of the plan] and every year after that between 100,000 and 150,000 could be be connected which still means it will take six or seven years to do it.

"I wish we could do it quicker but the experts and the people who work in the business tell us that is as quickly as it can be done," he added.

TDs with the communications committee yesterday agreed that the inquiry will take six weeks to consider the broadband plan agreed with Granahan McCourt. It will then take another two weeks to write up a report which will include identifying the best options to roll out broadband to rural areas.

Fianna Fáil's Timmy Dooley has said he wants more analysis of Granahan McCourt's limited €220m equity investment in the plan as against the taxpayers' contribution of €3bn. Mr Dooley also wants answers as to the role played by Frank McCourt, a brother of the principal investor, in the bid.

Furthermore, the TD wants answers as to why consultants KPMG advised that a gap-funded model was the best option for the project.

“This investigation that the committee is holding over the next six weeks will hopefully bring clarity to the issues pertaining to the national broadband plan," Committee member and Fine Gael senator Tim Lombard said.

"The testimony next week from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and Department of Communications [at a later stage] will go along way to informing the committee of how the process was followed in making the decision. The most important thing is that we deliver high-speed broadband to rural Ireland without any more delays.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein launched its proposal for state-owned ESB to lead the way with the rural broadband plan. The party will table a Dáil motion on June 11 during its private members’ time.

This motion will call for an immediate study to examine the best model for delivery of a new broadband plan through the ESB to every home, farm and business in rural Ireland. It will also call for the infrastructure to remain in public ownership.

The government has already called the proposed Dáil motion a “political stunt”, which critics say is designed to embarrass Fianna Fáil.

Mr Varadkar said he is worried there will be pressure to scrap the plan. "I wish we could do things quicker. But my fear is the opposition and some other political people will stop the contract being signed and then it's back to square one."

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