Broadband plan: Bruton ‘very coy’ on firm’s liability

Communications Minister Richard Bruton has refused to say how much money a private firm will have to invest in the rollout of broadband despite pressure from opposition parties.

Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin rounded on the minister in the Dáil and called for transparency in relation to the cost of the National Broadband Plan (NBP).

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said the €3bn to be put up by the State was “rolling off Mr Bruton’s tongue” but accused him of being “very coy” on the liability for the private firm approved to deliver rural broadband.

“Even in the best case scenario, should this proceed, the Government will give with one hand to rural Ireland and take away with the other. There is actually a worst case scenario wherein billions of taxpayers’ money gets poured down a black hole, we are left with what amounts to a very expensive white elephant, and rural Ireland is still left without the broadband it needs,” she said.

Leaders’ questions in the Dáil was suspended after opposition parties hit out at the Government for publishing a raft of documentation relating to the NBP just minutes before TDs entered the chamber.

Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy described the publication as a “cynical move”.

Holding up a large bundle of pages, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the publication of documents relating to the NBP “illustrates the sharp practice of Government in its management and handling of this project from the start and its attempts to spin its way out of any serious questions or accountability about the project itself”.

“What is the upfront contribution of the remaining bidder to this project?” he said.

“Why will the minister not be fully transparent and give us that figure now? Why is the State taking all of the risk?”

Mr Bruton refused to answer this, stating that it could “prejudice the final signing off” of the contract.

Referring to written warnings made by Department of Public Expenditure secretary general Robert Watt, Mr Martin said: “It is a very basic question because the secretary general and his officials raised questions about the viability of the plan and the capacity of the bidder to deliver it.

“Having had many missed targets in the last seven years, we could be facing more missed targets.

“There is a complete lack of confidence in the documentation about the capacity of the remaining bidder to deliver.”

Labour leader Brendan Howlin called for the public to own the proposed national broadband company rather than a private monopoly.

“Labour wants to see high-speed rural broadband delivered as soon as possible, and all parties in Dáil Éireann agree on this point,” he said.

“But Labour also wants to protect people living in rural Ireland from being exploited down the line. By giving so much control over the rural broadband network to a private monopoly, there is a risk that the cost of broadband could become much more expensive once the 25-year contract is over.”

Speaking on behalf of the rural Independent grouping, Mattie McGrath described this as another “sorry chapter” in the rural broadband saga and claimed it is simply an election stunt.

“I believe this should be scrapped, it’s too risky.”

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