Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has denied the cost of the national broadband plan has “ballooned” to €3bn and also said the Government will have the option to buy out services in 25 years.
Addressing concerns about ongoing delays in delivering high-speed broadband to half a million homes and premises in rural areas, Mr Varadkar defended the expected high cost for the project.
He insisted that a €512m original estimate by the previous Fine Gael-Labour government in 2012 was to deliver broadband to 1,100 villages and not to the entire remaining parts of the country.
While Mr Varadkar earlier this week admitted the rural broadband project could cost taxpayers €3bn, he rejected claims from Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald that the final cost had “ballooned” to that figure.
Mr Varadkar said the Government could, if a deal is agreed, intervene in 25 years and would have the option to “buy out” the broadband services.
The same option could apply if the Government was unhappy with any private operator’s work on the plan in the meantime, he said.
Three departments, including his own, were currently examining the next steps for a contract which, he said, it was hoped could be agreed in the “next couple of weeks”.
It could then take a number of months to actually get that contract finalised, he said.
Mr Varadkar also pointed out that governments had spent over €40bn on roads in the last two decades, and over €10bn in sewage and water services, but that very little had been dedicated to the areas of communications.
Nonetheless, opposition leaders pressed Mr Varadkar to commit to a date when the broadband plan would be agreed by the Government.
This follows a further delay this week, despite promises by Mr Varadkar that a decision on it would be made by Cabinet before Easter.
“Obviously, some more work needs to be done,” he said. “This matter is being analysed by Government, by my own department, by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and, of course, by the Department of Communications, Energy and Climate Action which is the lead department for this issue.
“The next step will be for the Government to make a decision on whether to accept the bid and designate a preferred bidder.
Nonetheless, Ms McDonald zoned in on the cost for taxpayers, arguing:
“We can argue the toss around semantics. The fact is that the aim of the national broadband plan has not changed, but what has changed, incredibly, is its cost.”