Clearly we have learned nothing in this country about wasting money

Picture: Leo Varadkar

We have been waiting seven years for it and will be waiting at least seven more for it to be finished.

The aim of the National Broadband Plan, announced in 2012, was to bring top-of-the-range high-speed internet to parts of the country — smaller towns and one-off homes — that would otherwise be ignored by commercial companies. To level the playing field in the increasingly digitised world.

Since then, the plan has been dogged and beset by foul-ups, controversy, and a raft of withdrawals from the bidding process by interested parties. Eir and rival broadband infrastructure giant Siro, a joint venture between Vodafone and ESB, both withdrew, leaving one bidder.

US-based investment firm Granahan McCourt was the only group left standing, but it too saw part of its consortium fall away. Energy provider SSE exited last summer, making the whole thing looking extremely fragile and shaky.

Things were further delayed after it emerged that then communications minister Denis Naughten had a series of meetings with David McCourt, the lead figure at Granahan McCourt. Naughten, who lashed out on his resignation, was forced from office by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. More alarming than the withdrawal of bidders has been the spiralling costs.

In a scenario shockingly similar to the National Children’s Hospital, the costs of which spiked from €450m to almost €2bn, the NBP costs have risen sixfold, from €500m to €3bn.

But it’s only €3bn, Leo says. Well, that’s grand then. The updated projected cost of our NBP is reasonable and timely, our Taoiseach told us yesterday. Forget your concerns, he said. Think of rural electrification, think of the introduction of free education, free travel.

None of these things were cheap but no one now says they were the wrong decision, the Taoiseach argued.

It is a case of the difference in the cost of doing something versus the cost of not doing it. We must pay the cost of progress now or risk being trapped.

"In 10 years’ time, people will not question the price but ask why we didn’t do it sooner,” he said.

Forget the concerns of the most senior official in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Robert Watt, who told ministers the price tag does not represent value for money.

This is the context in which we are left with just one bidder. This is in the context that at the end of the process, when €3bn of taxpayers’ money has been spent, we, the taxpayer, won’t even own the network.

His boss, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, said he would publish those concerns but was ignoring them, saying it will all be worth it in the end.

“The decision I have made to on balance to go ahead with the project relates to the many issues I have touched upon about the future of our economy,” Mr Donohoe told reporters.

The future is a long way away and it will be 2026, at the earliest, before people in the most isolated parts of Ireland will get broadband.

There was a highly defensive tone to the announcement by people who know they are on shaky ground. No one is disputing the potential rewards in delivering broadband, but the numbers are dodgy, the bidding process has been shambolic, and the reality is that politics has trumped prudence.

At €3bn, it is the greatest gamble, in money terms, that Varadkar and his increasingly dysfunctional Government will ever make.

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