Fear of fee hikes as broadband plan for rural Ireland unveiled

Denis Naughten: Private option is best for the country.

The long-awaited Government announcement of broadband services for rural Ireland is already facing criticism amid opposition claims the involvement of private firms could see fee hikes and service cuts in the years to come.

Fianna Fáil and Labour took aim at the published framework for the new rural broadband network, as Communications Minister Denis Naughten insisted the chosen model offers the fastest and best-value way to ensure the long- promised service can be put in place.

Under plans agreed by the Cabinet yesterday, the Government has agreed to use a commercial stimulus model to fund the creation of a broadband network for 1.8m people living in rural Ireland over the next 25 years, with work beginning next June.

The model was chosen after a recommendation by independent group KPMG, and will see private firms fund, design, build, own, and operate the network under strict government contractual obligations.

The alternative model — which would have seen the network handed to the State after the 25-year contract — was turned down over a belief it would cost up to €500m more and potentially delay the commencement of broadband services by at least six months.

Mr Naughten said the private-sector option is the best for the country and referred to the new scheme as the modern-day equivalent of the 20th- century electrification of rural Ireland.

He said rural communities cannot wait any longer, and noted the value the network will bring for isolated businesses.

Asked about the network ultimately being handed over to the private sector, Mr Naughten said the reality is that “you cannot drive a car without an engine”.

Fianna Fáil and Labour criticised the model, saying it gives “the whip hand” to private firms and risks resulting in private firms hiking fees for certain areas when they finally take full control of the network in 25 years.

“Similar plans in the past have caused major long-term difficulties as they leave control of key infrastructure in private hands,” said Sean Sherlock, Labour’s communications spokesman and a TD for Cork East.

“At the end of the agreed period it is a very real possibility we will see a ramping up of costs to make it profitable, or the pulling of the service as they deem it too costly to provide.”

Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said the new system is “deeply flawed” and may not be “in the long-term best interests of the State”.

The Clare TD said even if an entirely public ownership model would cost up to €500m more than the public-private process, money should have been unavailable.

However, speaking on RTÉ’s News at One programme, Mr Dooley failed to explain which existing services would lose funding as a result of such an increase in financial demand.


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