Varadkar rules out offering ESB a second bite at broadband roll-out

The Taoiseach has ruled out using the ESB to deliver rural broadband claiming it would be "a bit much to ask".

Varadkar rules out offering ESB a second bite at broadband roll-out

The Taoiseach has ruled out using the ESB to deliver rural broadband claiming it would be "a bit much to ask".

Both Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Labour leader Brendan Howlin believe the State-owned electricity company could roll out the controversial National Broadband Plan (NBP).

But Leo Varadkar said this would force the Government to go back to "square one" in the tender process and said the ESB already has a significant challenge in delivering on climate action.

Mr Varadkar said the Cabinet could make a decision on the NBP as early as next week. He was in Moate, Co Westmeath yesterday for the launch of Fine Gael's European Election manifesto.

The party are putting forward seven candidates in the European elections and 405 members will contest the local elections.

The NBP, which has been dogged by delays, has spiralled in cost from €500m to €3bn and it has been reported that a number of senior officials have advised the Government against proceeding with the plan.

Mr Varadkar stressed that the provision of broadband is essential to future economic growth across the country.

Asked about using the ESB to provide rural broadband, Mr Varadkar said: "We have examined the ESB option.

"ESB pulled out as you know and it's not possible under basic fairness and European law in the 21st Century to just give the contract to a company. ESB would have to bid again so, to allow ESB to do it, we would have to go back to square one, re-tender the whole thing.

"They would have to bid again and even then they mightn't get the contract.

"Also, in our conversations with ESB, they had been asked to really focus on climate action, on delivering in terms of renewable energy, in terms of rolling out the infrastructure for electric vehicles and it may be a bit much to ask the ESB to deliver on renewable energy and also deliver broadband.

"It's two very big projects to ask one company to deliver on," said Mr Varadkar.

The Taoiseach also pointed to other public projects, claiming that if money can be found for roads and other infrastructure it can also be found for internet services.

"If we don't extend high-speed broadband to those million people living in rural Ireland we are essentially saying to them that they can't participate fully in the modern economy.

"To me, if we could find €8 billion to link all the cities by motorway, if we can find €4bn or €5bn to build a metro in Dublin, surely we can find around €3bn for broadband," he said.

Mr Varadkar previously told the Dáil that the Cabinet would make a decision on the final bidder for the NBP contract before Easter. But the deadline was missed.

Addressing the delay, the Taoiseach said: "Part of the reason why we have taken so long to make this decision is, one, it's expensive and we hoping to have some certainty around Brexit before we made any big budgetary decision like this but unfortunately that's now not possible.

"But, secondly, we wanted to make sure that there wasn't a better alternative - an option that would have been quicker or cheaper."

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