Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 5 June 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment
National Broadband Plan: Discussion
Before taking on responsibility in respect of broadband, ComReg was already under pressure and sought extra staff. This is an enormous job of work. When one looks at the structure of this project and design of the tender, as outlined in documents released by the Department, as well as at how the contract will work, it is clear that there is a lot of regulation to be done. ComReg is going to be busy but it was already under pressure regarding staff. I do not think there is any dispute about that. ComReg has been operating with less than one quarter of the staff that it needs to fulfil its regulatory duties. The commission has made a number of pleas to the Department, according to freedom of information data, seeking additional staff. When we ask questions of the Minister or of senior officials, we are told that ComReg is looking after this and that it is going to regulate it. There is an awful lot of weight being put on the commission's shoulders. I am saying this in an effort to set the scene here.
We have been asking questions about how this is going to be monitored because it is a very precarious structure, to put it mildly. It is going to be very difficult to manage and monitor but, according to the Minister, ComReg will ensure that this is adequately monitored and regulated.
Has ComReg received guarantees from the Minister, the Department or the Government that it will receive adequate finance to do this? If not, will Mr. Blaney outline the concern in respect of his responsibility because I have many replies to the questions put to this Minister or the previous Minister in charge of putting broadband in place saying that everything will be fine because ComReg is looking after the public interest.
Second, in respect of the NDP, the public is looking at this project and saying that the risk for the investor is €180 million. A number of other risks have emerged over the past three or four years and even in the past 12 months in respect of this project but, from the investor's point of view, the €1 billion will go to another private company - Eir. The reason Eir has to be paid is it holds the trump card because it has a monopoly on the network because it controls most of the network. It comprises Eir's poles, ducting and outside of the MANs, it owns almost everything else in terms of getting around the highways and byways and between towns, villages and cities.
Mr. Fergal Mulligan, the programme director from the Department appeared before the committee on 22 May and stated:
ComReg is 100% responsible for whether we [the taxpayer] pay €900 million, €800 million or slightly more. If ComReg were to determine that the pole and duct prices should be slightly more, we have factored that into our contingency....
In light of that how does Mr. Blaney intend to regulate the prices? The subsidy to Eir could be €36 million a year. The public is looking at the sheer amount involved, with up to € 1 billion of taxpayer's money is going to a private entity, which was purchased by a French investor. We are, therefore, going to pay an entity owned by an American investor to pay the French investor for permission to hang cables on its poles and put some cables through its ducting.
I understand the predicament ComReg is in. It is not a nice one to be landed with, but how does it intend to manage this and what bargaining power has it? The private investors who own Eir hold all the cards. ComReg may under the utility regulations say to them that the company has to give its officials access, but it can make it damn awkward for anybody else. ComReg is caught arbitrating between two private entities owned by a French investor and American investor and it is going to give an ass and cart load of taxpayer's money one investor to buy off the other so that the public can have this service. How does the regulator do that, given that it is dealing with two monopolies? What bargaining power has it? ComReg is in a weak position on the taxpayer's behalf