Tuesday, 6 February 2018
National Broadband Plan: Motion [Private Members]
That Dáil Éireann recognises that:— 542,000 homes, schools and businesses, representing 40 per cent of our population and 96 per cent of our geographic cover, have no access to broadband, with no possibility of connection on the horizon;
— the ability of rural enterprises and farms to remain competitive and to carry out their administrative and commercial functions is being seriously harmed by the unavailability of broadband to them;
— the National Competitiveness Council of Ireland has stated that regional job growth is being stymied by the lack of connectivity in rural areas;
— children and young people in rural Ireland are being denied the same educational opportunities as their urban peers, owing to the lack of broadband in their homes and schools; and
— there is now effectively a two-tier internet landscape in Ireland, where rural areas rank among the worst-served areas in all of Europe;notes that:— in 2011, the previous Fine Gael-led Government first committed to the roll-out of high-speed broadband to every home and premises in Ireland by 2016;
— the ongoing tendering process for the National Broadband Plan (NBP) first commenced in 2015;
— the decision by SIRO to withdraw from the NBP in September 2017, owing to the overly onerous and complex bidding structure, highlighted wider deficits within the implementation of the NBP; and
— the recent decision by eir to withdraw from the NBP bidding process, leaving only one bidder remaining, has seriously compromised the tendering process and raises doubts over whether the NBP, as currently designed, can ever be implemented; andcalls on the Government to:— guarantee that high-speed broadband is delivered to every Irish home and business in a prompt manner, even if this requires greater or full State intervention; and
— conduct a full independent expert review of the tendering process, to be concluded within two months, that will provide a full examination of the following aspects of the NBP:
— the design and implementation of the tendering process, and the degree to which the tendering process is inhibiting participation by suitable bidders;
— whether the existent NBP is future-proofed to meet Ireland’s future societal and economic needs;
— the impacts of key decisions made during the tendering process on the overall viability and delivery of the NBP, including, the decision by the Government to sign a commitment agreement with eir to serve 300,000 homes that had previously been within the State intervention area, the decision by SIRO to withdraw from the bidding process, and the subsequent decision by eir to also withdraw; and
— the case for State ownership of the infrastructure.
It gives me no pleasure to have to move this motion. Behind this motion are 542,000 premises dotted around Ireland, largely in the dispersed rural areas. Yes, it is rural Ireland that is yet again being put under pressure by the Government. It is not always about Donegal, Kerry, Clare and Roscommon. Parts of north County Dublin, south Wicklow and places we can see from the top window of this House, fall within the catchment area where high-speed broadband is not available. This should stand as a shocking indictment of the failure of the Government, of which the Minister is part, in rolling out this plan.
These 542,000 premises are made up of: homes with parents who cannot conduct basic online banking transactions; children who cannot do their homework; students who cannot file their assignments; farms and farmers who cannot access the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's schemes, services and records; and small business that cannot trade online.
The impact of slow or no broadband is making life ever more intolerable for people who find themselves in these areas. It is about time the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, and his Government took full stock and full recognition of the pressures being foisted on the people who live in these areas.
The broadband plan is in disarray. The Government and the previous Government set out a plan in 2011 that would have seen broadband being rolled out from 2016 onwards. I am not laying all of this issue at the Minister's door as he has only been in office for the last 16 or 17 months. It is, therefore, only his time in office that he has to account for. The Minister was handed a plan that was largely decided upon in advance of his coming to the position. If, however, we go back to shortly after the Minister's appointment, in his associations with the then Rural Alliance, he acted as a champion for the cause of rural Ireland and he negotiated the programme for Government with the Fine Gael Party.
Soon after his appointment, the Minister rushed into this House to support and speak on a motion put down by some Deputies from the Rural Alliance. At 3.30 p.m. on 6 July 2016, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, told this House that: "Delivering high speed broadband to every home, business and school in Ireland is a personal promise from me and my top priority as the responsible Minister." If it is the Minister's top priority it leaves a lot to be desired in the context of his capacity to deliver on it over the past two years. The Minister also said in the same debate:
The process is finally moving and is on time [...] The last homes and businesses will be connected within three to five years. No one will be left behind.
The 542,000 homeowners who are still waiting for a contract to be signed two years later believe that they have been left behind.
I am not sure if the Minister had input into drafting that self-congratulatory motion but it certainly appeared that he was in cahoots with the Deputies from the Rural Alliance. The Minister was delighted that the motion had been put before the House and it gave him an opportunity to extol his virtues in this regard. I raised serious concerns at the time. The Minister may recall that I proposed an amendment that would see the State take full control of the roll-out of the broadband network to these areas and to those 542,000 homes, and for the State to assume full ownership at the end of that contract period. The Minister rubbished that proposal at the time. The Minister said that Fianna Fáil's proposal: "would take at the very least six months more to negotiate with bidders, a delay the people in need of broadband cannot afford". That was back in July 2016. We have had the passage of all that time since. This time period far surpasses the six months the Minister threatened would happen if my proposal went ahead, and there is still no contract signed.
It is some 19 months ago since the Minister made those statements and still there is no contract signed. Last week the Minister's officials were under pressure at a briefing given to journalists when Eir exited the race. They talked about next September as being the date at which a contract would be signed. This would represent more than two years of a delay, all on the Minister's watch. It was the Minister's priority, he accepted it, he came into this House and he set himself his own targets. In July 2016 the Minister rejected my proposal on the basis that it could delay the contract award by six months. Against my better judgment at the time I accepted the Minister's request to withdraw my amendment on the basis that it had the potential to delay the process. Instead of the possible six month delay the Minister projected with my intervention, we now have a best case of a 26-month delay, based on what his officials have said.
Scarcely a month has gone by in the intervening period that I have not asked the Minister to outline a timescale for the contract signing, the commencement of work and for a completion deadline. I give it to the Minister directly that all I have heard is bluff and bluster about what has happened, how many homes, farms, post offices the cables and the fibre have gone by and what a great job is being done. All the time, the Minister is failing to recognise that the roll-out of that fibre has nothing to do with the Government. It was done based on commercial decisions made by Eir and others who sought to gain a level of commercial advantage. When the Minister makes those statements he further infuriates the 542,000 people. They believe the Government is shying away from them, is hiding behind the work of others and is failing to present a credible plan as to when, where and how soon they will see broadband.
With that very significant delay since 2016 can we ever expect to see the tender process, which is under way, coming to a conclusion? I do not claim to have particular insight or expertise in this area but it seems that if companies of the size, scale, standing, reputation and experience such as Eir and SIRO, which is Vodafone and ESB, have shied away from the Government's proposal, then there is a problem.