Ministers back €3bn plan in ‘digital fairness’ for all of Ireland

Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe has overruled his most senior officials to back the €3bn broadband plan in what he deems is “digital fairness” for the whole country.

Mr Donohoe said there is a requirement to “hardwire the country” for future needs — despite his department officials giving a “robust” criticism of the value-for-money elements of the plan.

The Cabinet debated the project for six hours yesterday, discussing alternative options and concerns about the cost of the plan. Sources said “nobody threatened to jump ship” and that it was agreed the money would be well spent over the lifetime of the 25-year digital deal.

Under the plan, there is a commitment for almost 100% broadband coverage across the country. Up to 80% of homes and premises targeted are over 1km away from towns and villages that will be delivered by commercial fibre.

Mr Donohoe said his department had “robustly” challenged the deal, including concerns raised by its most senior civil servant, public expenditure secretary general Robert Watt.

Nonetheless, Mr Donohoe said he is a minister who represents the entire country and a “fairer” Ireland depends on “digital inclusion” for all its citizens.

He said he believes the plan to deliver high-speed connections to over 540,000 premises could not be completed in a more “rapid and affordable manner” than with the consortium bid led by Irish-American businessman David McCourt. Several ministers compared the digital plan to the electrification of Ireland.

Communications Minister Richard Bruton said it is unlikely the communications regulator would need to intervene during the seven years needed to connect all premises.

It was also pledged that rural areas would not pay more than urban households to be connected and that all counties will see a start to the high-speed broadband access within two years.

Mr Bruton said the take-up expected by homes under the McCourt deal would be 80% by 2025.

The new consortium, called National Broadband Ireland, will set out 110 zones where connections are planned. The Government could not answer how areas would be prioritised and which communities will be connected last or first. NBI will be in charge of this.

Mr Bruton defended the project, saying the cost would be higher but for the fact NBI is renting or using over 1.4m existing poles of private operators to attach on the fibre. Furthermore, maintenance of the network would be NBI’s responsibility for the 25 years.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the State has the option of terminating the contract if it was not happy and taking ownership of the network. The Government is today expected to publish a series of documents that looked at alternative options for the broadband plan. Up to 11 alternatives were considered.

Ministers also maintain the contract, which will take six months to be agreed with NBI, is watertight. It will cost €2.1bn, when Vat and contingency payments are removed.

The providers will only be paid when actual infrastructure or connections are completed. There is also a clawback clause that allows the State take back up to 60% of extra profits.

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