Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 5 June 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment
National Broadband Plan: Discussion
Like others, I contend that some of the objectives could have been achieved by using a different model. Some of what Ms Connolly has stated is incorrect. I have been monitoring the overall project. I have been discussing it with various people in this room and elsewhere for three years. This is the most unusual contract I have ever seen. It is a most unusual process. There were five interested parties at the start. Three of them got involved in the bidding process. This entity spawned from Enet. I was told by representatives of Enet that the company's preferred option was for the main infrastructure to be in public ownership. That is what was stated at the time. There were changes among the personnel in that entity, including the people in charge. SSE, Enet and Laing were involved when the bidding part of the game and the tender process got under way. There have been others along the way. All of them have big economic firepower and a history of being involved in major infrastructural projects in England, Scotland, Wales and other parts of the world. They have pulled out. I do not know whether Ms Connolly agrees with what I have to say about the cost. If it emerged at a county council meeting that the cost of a project had multiplied almost fourfold, it would not get off the blocks. The extent to which taxpayers will be leaned on to pay for this project has increased from €800 million to €2.95 billion.
That is extraordinary. The changes in entity that took place since the earlier changes and since Eir and the ESB pulled out changed the whole game. Once Eir and the ESB pulled out, the tendering process was banjaxed. I have listened to the delegates explain their view and it is good that they are here because I am interested to hear their explanations, they having designed the tendering process. Government spokespersons have defended the process, but no matter what way one turns it, reliance was placed on the examination and a lot of faith put in ComReg, representatives of which appeared before the committee this morning and which does not have enough resources to do what it is now doing, even before this show gets on the road. We know that from documents it released on foot of freedom of information requests. Even at this late stage, Enet has changed again, with Frank McCourt turning out to be the main investor.
Another unusual aspect to the process is that the original cost seems to have been based on it being likely that SIRO, comprising the ESB and Vodafone, or Eir, which had just been bought by a French investor and is in its ownership, would be the chosen bidder. Now that neither of those bidders was chosen, the taxpayer will fund a subsidy of between €900 million and €1 billion - nobody has disputed this - which is to be paid to hang cables on their poles.
Those are just some of the highlights that stick out as being extraordinary, to say the least. There are other extraordinary things about the process. By any standard, it does not have an ounce of credibility in the eyes of a large section of the public and many in the industry. It was the wrong process from day one to go with the gap-funding model, but that is a separate issue. Even assuming that we put our faith in the gap-funding model, it is extraordinary in terms of the standards by which it ought to operate and with what we have been left. I do not see any advantage to it. I listened very carefully to what Ms Connolly had to say and I respect that she is here to do a job, but I do not see the advantages as outlined in her initial appraisal.
On page 8 of the 2018 reappraisal it is stated that the purpose of the report is to provide a reappraisal of the NBP in line with the public spending code. As the public spending code benchmark figure of €800 million was determined on the basis of value for money, how can it now be said that the NBP constitutes value for money if it will cost more than three and a half times that figure?