Dáil committee calls for freeze of €3bn broadband project

Dáil committee calls for freeze of €3bn broadband project

The Government’s multi-billion euro broadband plan is at risk of being derailed after an Oireachtas committee called for a three-month freeze of the project to force a re-examination of its €3bn cost and the entire tendering process.

The communications committee demanded the action in a non-binding report, which also insisted that any broadband system must not be privatised and that preferred bidder, Granahan McCourt, should potentially be replaced by ESB or Eir.

After 16 weeks of meetings with Government officials and broadband experts, the committee said that while it is in favour of rolling out high-speed broadband as soon as possible to all parts of the country, it cannot back the existing plan.

Despite Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the entire Cabinet launching the broadband plan last May, fears over surging costs and ongoing questions surrounding Granahan McCourt have led to calls for the current project to be re-assessed.

Fine Gael has since insisted that any review of the existing €3bn plan could see the project postponed for between three to five years, due to the need to start the entire tendering process again.

However, in a series of non-binding recommendations, the Oireachtas communications committee said:

  • a three-month external independent review by an expert “with international experience” should take place into the Government’s existing broadband plan, its €3bn cost, and tendering process
  • this review should be given the right to recommend a universal service obligation, which would ensure any broadband system remains in public ownership
  • it should also be allowed to recommend directly awarding a new contract to ESB or Eir to allow either firm to provide broadband at a fraction of the existing €3bn predicted cost, after Eir claimed earlier this year it could provide the service for around €1bn
  • a full cost-benefit analysis into the National Broadband Plan should take place before any contract with Granahan McCourt is signed
  • and that the Government’s previous broadband review by Peter Smyth should be “updated” within a month due to fresh evidence “which emerged linking Frank McCourt with the Granahan McCourt bid”.

The recommendations were backed by all parties except Fine Gael and will now pile pressure on the Government to either accept or reject the calls.

In a statement last night, the Department of Communications — which will be asked to reply to the committee with a submission after the report’s formal launch next Tuesday — said it will only “consider” the findings.

Fine Gael senators Tim Lombard and Joe O’Reilly separately blamed opposition parties for “wanting to keep rural Ireland waiting for broadband”, with Mr Lombard saying “a change could not be made at this stage without re-running the whole procurement process”.

However, Fianna Fáil’s communications spokesman and committee member Timmy Dooley hit back, saying the plan does not offer value for money.

“The Government has ignored our views on this on more than one occasion, but I think there is an observant public out there that are attuned to the fact that spending €3bn to get the value of €1bn would seem like a very excessive waste,” he said.

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