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.
I do not want to interrupt Deputy Dooley but with the shared time I want to remind him that Deputy Fitzmaurice is getting the last two minutes. The Deputy might not be aware of that. This is the list.
I was not aware of that but I am happy to sit on that again.
With regard to the Minister's response to the situation, if it was not so serious it would certainly represent a comical gesture in this House. With one bidder left to take up this contract the Minister believes he will get shovels in the ground more quickly, he will get the job done ahead of schedule and he will get value for money. I do not think that anybody believes that is possible. The motion before the House gives Members an opportunity to get behind it and look for a review of where the Minister is at today. A review does not have to delay the plan and it can happen in parallel with the work that is under way.
I ask the Minister to go back to Government, to give serious consideration to the proposal put before him and,once and for all, to put in place a plan that gives some hope to the people who are most affected by this debacle.
One of the constants since I was elected to this House almost two years ago, and since I entered public life almost two years previously, has been the failure of the national broadband plan and of the various attempts to deliver and roll out broadband. It seems to be a hardy annual that the process is stalled, fudged and delayed. The can is kicked down the road again. This process seems to trundle on year after year. This pattern has been evident since 2012, when Pat Rabbitte made various announcements. In 2015, Alex White said that the devil and all would be delivered when it came to rural broadband. As Deputy Dooley has said, we have heard further promises of delivery from the Minister, Deputy Naughten, since he came into his current position two years ago. Each of these announcements came a couple of years after the previous one. The latest estimate for broadband to be rolled out is 2023. It beggars belief that ten years after it was announced this would be done by 2012, some 540,000 homes are still not connected to a piece of fibre in the ground. I remind the House that it will take between three and five years to build the network. It seems extraordinary that the tender has not yet been put in place.
It may be considered unfortunate to lose one bidder, but surely it is careless to lose two bidders. What happens if we lose the third bidder? What is plan B? I have heard the Minister, his officials and various others saying that 80 people have been working on the delivery of this plan for the past five years. God bless their energy, but what has actually been achieved? Two of the top three bidders have walked away from the process and the other one remains as the last man standing. I am reminded of Homer Simpson's belief that the best way to win a game is by default. That may be the case in a cartoon show, but it is hardly a way to award one the largest contracts in the history of the State.
We have seen multiple reports, Bills and regulations, but none of them has advanced. As the Minister knows, I have had a Bill on the Order Paper of this House for the past year. The aim of the Bill is to tackle many of these issues. The legislative schedule for the new term confirms that there is a Government Bill on the agenda which does essentially the same thing. I noticed another Bill - the telecommunications infrastructure Bill 2018 - in the House today. I assume it represents a third attempt to do the same thing. A ComReg report on competition in the broadband market has been delayed since 2016. Two years on, it has yet to be published.
What about the EU cost reduction directive which the Minister brought into Irish law in July 2016? It makes State assets and State infrastructure available to any provider, as needed. If other State infrastructure under State control were utilised to the full, it could result in the roll-out of the national broadband plan to the 540,000 homes that currently lack broadband. We cannot keep reinventing the wheel. At some stage, we will have to start delivering.
I wonder whether the decision that was made six months ago to allow Eir to cherry-pick 300,000 homes and lift them from the tender was the right one in retrospect. Eir was allowed to take the semi-viable parts of the business away so that what remained was essentially unviable, as we have now seen.
I wonder whether the adherence to a particular mode of technology - fibre to the home - at the expense of everything else might be obstructing and delaying the roll-out of broadband to many homes. We should consider alternative technologies like fixed wireless, which can deliver speeds of up to 70 Mbps, which is essentially twice as fast as the minimum standard under the national broadband plan. We should consider things like fibre to the cabinet. We could even utilise the old copper cables that are still there in many cases. Surely that would provide an interim solution for the many people who will now be waiting until 2023, at the very earliest.
I am sure we will hear many stories in the next couple of hours about how rural Ireland is being denied broadband and access to all the services provided through broadband. I represent commuter-belt Ireland. My constituency is less than 30 km from Dublin city centre, but it is being denied broadband. I think this is a national emergency that requires emergency measures. I hope the Minister will act accordingly.
The Government's handling of the national broadband plan is a story of incompetence and secrecy. In 2011, the Government promised to deliver fibre to 90% of homes and businesses within four years. Seven years later, the contract has not been signed. Last year, one of the bidders pulled out. Another bidder, Eir, said at that time that it would do the profitable bits of the business in a manner that involved cherry-picking at a house-by-house level. The last time Eir became a privately-owned monopoly, the Irish Examinerreported that: "the group racked up €4.1 billion of debt amid five ownership changes before it was forced into the State’s largest-ever examinership", and pointed out that the company has had many owners who have: "asset stripped with abandon". The same article suggested that Eir's: "broadband service [...] was - and often still is - hopelessly inadequate despite being among the most expensive in Europe".
The Government has said that Eir's proposed cherry-picked new monopoly is great news. When Eir pulled out of what was left of the bid after it had hollowed it out, which meant that the Government was down to one bidder, the Government said it was great news that this had happened. The remaining bidder, Enet, already operates a fibre network for the State under a concession agreement. When Mr. Gavin Sheridan submitted a freedom of information request in search of that agreement, the Department said "No". When the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner said the agreement should be made available, the Department said "No". When the High Court said the agreement should be provided, the Department said "No". The Government is now bringing the matter to the Court of Appeal. What is the Government so desperate to hide in its existing agreement with the last remaining bidder, Enet? Fianna Fáil wants a quick independent review of what has happened to date, but the Government has said "No" on the basis that this would cause a delay. It has delayed for seven years, but God forbid that there would be a quick review of what has happened. If this Government really has nothing to hide, believes it has done a good job in this area and wants to make sure the Irish people are not screwed on broadband prices for the next 25 years, it should do the right thing and commission a short review, just as Deputy Dooley and his Fianna Fáil colleagues are asking for.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion, which has been proposed by my colleague, Deputy Dooley. I support the case that has been made for it this evening. The reality is that the Taoiseach acknowledged to me last year, in response to a question I asked about the programme for Government during Questions on Promised Legislation, that broadband is no longer a luxury but is an absolute necessity for people who want to work or study at home or run businesses. How quickly and urgently can the Minister get the contract signed so that the 540,000 homes and businesses which need broadband can be connected to it?
The big frustration in places I represent in Kildare North, such as Celbridge, Leixlip and Maynooth, is that people living beside Intel and Hewlett Packard have no access to broadband. There are problems where the service has been supplied through private entities. It is frustrating to hear statistics being churned out by the Taoiseach every week when he speaks about the number of homes that have been connected. To be fair, these figures have nothing to do with the national broadband plan, which we are discussing here this evening. It is frustrating and annoying for people who are waiting to be connected to hear statistics that are neither true nor accurate and to see private entities bringing cables a certain distance up the road before turning back, thereby leaving the people who live further up the road unconnected.
There is a problem in schools as well. Last week, I visited a school that has 20 fabulous computers but cannot turn them on because there is no broadband in the school. The broadband is 50 m. away. The school authorities have been trying to get in touch with the Department of Education and Skills since last September, but they still have no connection. I know the Minister is aware that this is a real problem. It needs to be treated as a matter of urgency. This contract needs to be signed so that these homes and businesses can be connected. This is really urgent.
I thank Deputy Collins. Like many constituencies around the country, Cavan-Monaghan feels completely neglected because of the non-availability of broadband. As my colleagues have rightly outlined, we expect farmers to get their house in order even though they are unable to access departmental schemes online. Schools cannot access or use teaching tools because they do not have broadband. Every time an elderly person goes into a local bank, if there is a bank left in his or her local area, he or she is constantly pushed by the officials behind the counter to use online banking.
Pockets of my constituency from Bawnboy to Kilmainhamwood and from Canningstown to Corduff are suffering from depopulation. Tanagh outdoor education service, which receives up to 15,000 visitors each year, is also being affected by depopulation. Young people cannot aspire to live in the areas they come from because they do not have basics like broadband. People are bewildered, exasperated and fed up of the broken promises in this regard. We are constantly talking about rural crime.
When I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister recently, I received feedback to the effect that Garda stations in my constituency are not using the PULSE system because they have no broadband.
A mistake was made, not in this Dáil but in a previous Dáil, when it was decided to sell Telecom Éireann. I have always said we should own our own infrastructure.
I note that one official is with the Minister in the Chamber. He probably heard the same; that they were fed up of promises of private operators saying what they would do and that there was no more licences being given out. Six months later, Eir got the ripe apples off the tree and I think that was the fatal mistake that was made.
It is like three engines on a aeroplane. In any tender, if people fall off the wagon there is nothing anybody can do because they are the rules in the EU and so on. To be honest, Eir has picked the ripe apples. It is engaging in skullduggery in this country at the moment, abandoning houses up and down roads.
I would like the Minister to answer a few questions. Can we do without Eir's poles when we are going with this broadband? Can we use the ESB's poles? I think there will be a problem with Eir down the road from what I hear of the new owners. Will the Minister give a guarantee that by 2020 it will be sorted out? I know there are delays. It may cost more but if it solves the problem for 530,000 people across this country, we have to do that. We want shovels in the ground. We can look for heads but at the end of the day what we want is broadband for everybody.
I urge the Minister, Deputy Naughten, to talk to the Minister, Deputy Creed. At the moment, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is sending things out to farmers under the BPS, of which the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is well aware. It is looking for all farmers to go online. Given this fiasco and the delays, could the Minister, Deputy Naughten, ask the Minister, Deputy Creed, to hold off this year until farmers have proper broadband?
I move amendment No. 2:
To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:“recognises:— the importance of the Government’s National Broadband Plan (NBP), which will bring high-speed broadband to every home and business in Ireland;and
— the NBP will economically transform rural Ireland in the same way that rural electrification did in the last century;
— that the NBP is designed to ensure that the high-speed broadband network is futureproofed for advances in technology and increases in demand over the next 25 years;— that the NBP is underpinned by:notes:— the Programme for a Partnership Government;
— the European Commission’s Europe 2020 Strategy - Digital Agenda for Europe;
— the National Digital Strategy;
— the Action Plan for Jobs;
— the Action Plan for Rural Development; and
— the Digital Strategy for Schools;— the appointment, through a public procurement process, of a team of circa 80 national and international experts in procurement, finance, funding, network design, project management, technical specialists and commercial and financial analysts, as well as legal specialists and support staff to support the development of the NBP contract;considers:
— the governance arrangements in place for the procurement process, including a separate Steering Group and Procurement Board which also include national and international experts;
— that ComReg, the statutory body responsible for the regulation of the electronic communication sector, sits as an observer on the Steering Group;
— that the final proposed subsidy is reviewed from a value for money perspective by the National Development Finance Agency against the project budget;
— that the NBP programme is subject to the Public Spending Code;
— that Government agreement will be required before a contract can be awarded and a final subsidy agreed; and
— that expenditure incurred under the NBP is subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General;— that stalling the NBP procurement process to undertake a review would delay the award of the NBP contract and of the deployment of broadband infrastructure by a minimum of six months, to allow time for procurement of experts and to carry out a meaningful review;calls on the Government to continue apace with the public procurement process to select a company to build a future-proofed high-speed broadband network in those areas which will not be served by commercial operators, to ensure that every place name, in every county in Ireland is put on the digital map.”
— the strong governance framework in place for the NBP procurement process;
— that the NBP procurement process is about to enter the final stages and the remaining bidding consortium in the procurement process has reaffirmed its commitment to the successful conclusion of that process; and
— the significant uncertainty that would be created by embarking on an unnecessary review at this late stage of the procurement process could undermine and collapse that procurement process; and
I will come back to Deputy Fitzmaurice on his points, which are very fair.
The national broadband plan will put every place name, in every county, on the digital map. Delivering high-speed broadband to every home, every business, every farm and every school in Ireland is a personal commitment from me. I have continuously said that I would not allow this process to continue one minute longer than was absolutely necessary in order to deliver a future-proofed broadband network for every single place name in rural Ireland. I am the only Deputy who has consistently pursued this issue for the last two decades in this House and the record proves that fact. Just as roads were built, and then electricity supplied, the Government is determined that broadband will be delivered. It will leave a lasting legacy across rural Ireland.
The Government cannot accept Fianna Fáil's motion on a number of levels. The motion calls for a review of the procurement process to examine several aspects of the tender, including the degree to which it is "inhibiting the participation of suitable bidders”. This suggests the remaining bidder, the consortium comprising of enet, sse, Granahan McCourt and John Laing plc is not a suitable bidder.
This is a group with significant international experience across the telecoms, engineering and infrastructure sectors. The fact is that the Fianna Fáil review would push this procurement process into 2019 and plunge the entire project into uncertainty.
Deputy Dooley, by his own admission today, said his review has "the potential to cause delays" to this process. Deputy Dooley has admitted the consequences of his motion will result in people in rural Ireland waiting even longer for high-speed broadband. This is just not acceptable to me or this Government.
Indeed this evening on national radio, Deputy Dooley called for a period of reflection. I doubt the families, businesses, farmers, and people of rural Ireland, including those in County Clare who are waiting for high-speed broadband require a period of reflection.
The Fianna Fáil motion states that an independent review comprising European experts could be concluded within two months. Leaving aside the potential damage to the integrity of the ongoing procurement process, to embark on such a review makes absolutely no sense now as we approach the final stage, nor could it be achieved within the timeline suggested by Deputy Dooley. My Department has advised me that it would take a minimum of six months to procure and engage international experts to ensure a meaningful review. They then would, of course, be required to review 25 months' worth of material. This would mean time for interviews, reports, discussions, publications and complex legal work.
Over the last 25 months the 80-strong procurement team has been supported and governed by a range of national and international experts in the relevant fields of commercial, legal, technical, procurement, insurance, contract and environmental expertise. Some of the most capable people in Europe with experience in highly complex procurement projects have been working on the project from day one.
I mention international experts like Analysys Mason, PwC, Deloitte, Marsh Insurance, Mason Hayes & Curran, RPS Group, KPMG and Here and Now Business Intelligence. Does Deputy Dooley now want to second guess these experts?
The procurement board provides independent advice on the procurement process and the separate steering group provides independent oversight on the strategy and again includes national and international experts in the field. International benchmarks for projects such as these have been incorporated into the governance and procurement processes. The steering group and procurement board are separate from the procurement team’s evaluations and engagement with bidders. The governance model is consistent with EU state aid guidelines and structured to address the requirements of the European Regional Development Fund and the Government’s public spending code.
Fianna Fáil is also conceding the point that what it calls a sealed tender process is not the appropriate process to appoint a company to roll out this network. It is important that people at least acknowledge that this is not a tender process in the traditional sense. In fairness, most people accept that the competitive dialogue procurement procedure which we are using is common practice internationally for projects of this nature and complexity. It enables and does not inhibit greater participation throughout the process.
The procurement process opens up a dialogue with selected candidates in order to identify and define the means best suited to deliver a national broadband plan. It is also important to point out that a bidder cannot go back on matters. Complexity is not coming from the procurement process; it is coming from the nature and scale of the project.
The remaining bidder, enet, has already identified its final issues for discussion with the procurement team and this list was submitted some weeks ago while competition remained in the process. Yes, for commercial reasons two companies have pulled out; but Deputies must also remember that for commercial reasons we have seen the build-out of broadband across this country. The national broadband plan has been the catalyst for this massive investment. That has been publicly acknowledged by the commentators and technical journalists in this field.
When I became Minister 21 months ago, five out of ten homes in this country had access to high-speed broadband. Today that figure is seven out of ten. By the end of this year it will be close to eight out of ten and it also means that the vast majority of villages across Ireland will have access up to 1,000 Mbps high-speed broadband by the end of this year. Villages like New Inn in east Galway will now have broadband speeds equivalent to what is available in New York city.
That is something that could not have been contemplated 21 months ago.
The motion before the House also asks whether the national broadband plan is future proofed. The submissions provided to date indicate that the technical solution will be predominantly fibre to the home. This solution is considered by industry to be the most future-proofed technology because there is nothing faster than light.
Bearing all this in mind I would ask Fianna Fáil to consider the implications of what they are asking and how this would affect families, businesses and rural communities.
Deputy James Lawless has published a Bill that would have practical and positive implications on delivering broadband to people rural Ireland. I agree with Deputy Lawless when he said that there have already been numerous delays on the roll-out and there is simply no justification for me, as Minister, to start the clock again. The review that Deputy Dooley is calling for will rewind the clock considerably, with serious consequences. If Fianna Fáil wanted to help rural Ireland it would have brought forward Deputy Lawless's Bill tonight, which would have helped to improve broadband access in a practical way. Is it not time that this Dáil and politicians start to work together to deliver for the electorate?
I gave a commitment to the people of rural Ireland that I would not allow this process to continue one minute longer than was absolutely necessary in order to deliver a future-proofed broadband network for every place name in rural Ireland. Standing on the eve of delivering that, an historic project for the economic development of rural Ireland, I do not intend to allow politics to push this procurement process out further. I intend to supply real high-speed broadband to rural Ireland, and I have the confidence that this contract and its infrastructure will stand the test of time. I believe there is unanimous support in this House for the speedy and efficient delivery of the national broadband plan. Now is the time to continue that momentum, not the time for indecision, reflection, point scoring or diversion. It is the time for resolve in our ambition, not for uncertainty. Rural Ireland is waiting and we must step up and deliver. I understand and share the frustration of the people across this country who do not have access to high-speed broadband, but the finishing line is in sight. Rural Ireland has waited long enough. Let us all work together and deliver high-speed broadband to every single home and every single premises, business, farm and community in Ireland.
Thebroadband plan to connect 542,000 homes and businesses with high-speed broadband is in complete disarray. With only one bidder left in the procurement process the Government has lost control. I have warned it of this outcome many times over the last two years. The seeds of the fiasco were sewn in the privatisation of the State telecom company, Telecom Éireann, in 1999, which has turned out to be a disaster. Investments were made with taxpayers' money and it was built into a modern, state of the art communications network in the 1980s and 1990s by the workforce, only to be sold off under the Fianna Fáil Government in 1999. Sinn Féin said that the privatisation route with national broadband was not the way to go.
The rural broadband scheme was first announced six years ago and people are still waiting for access to broadband. We are no closer to connection today, or to shovels going into the ground, or indeed shovels even being put into the back of a lorry. The recent much heralded roll-out by Eir of 300,000 cherry-picked, easy to reach households means that a private company has the State over a barrel when it comes to negotiating the remaining connection of 542,000 homes and businesses without access. I warned the Minister of this eventuality on the day of the press conference which announced 300,000 household connections by Eir. The Minister's officials were there, and I remember the Minister's response. I have raised this issue with the Minister many times since then. I told him that once a private company was allowed to cherry-pick the connections the scheme would be in difficulty. That is the main reason that SIRO, the ESB and Vodafone pulled out, and the Minister and his officials know that. It is going to affect jobs in rural Ireland. It is going to affect farming, rural businesses and education.
State ownership would have facilitated a less complex and less expensive process. We in Sinn Féin are calling for a full examination of State ownership on the roll-out of this essential infrastructure. We have waited for six years, and for many years before that, to get to where we are now. Six, seven, eight or nine weeks is not going to make a big difference. We are also calling for a feasibility study of using the State infrastructure that is held by the ESB for broadband roll-out and for the Government to place an obligation on existing and future broadband service providers to provide guaranteed minimum speeds. The Minister speaks about the maximum speed he wants. We need minimum speeds. That is the key to it. The access to and quality of broadband speeds fluctuates, depending on what time of the day it is, in parts of rural Ireland. Broadband is vital if we are to have any form of economic development in rural Ireland.
The communications network is a perfect example of what not to do with State infrastructure and where privatisation has not served the people. Fianna Fáil is now calling for public ownership, and that is to be welcomed. We agree with it, but it is joining the party late. We have repeatedly called for public ownership. It is good that Fianna Fáil is now supporting this, but what happened with Telecom Éireann in 1999 was a pity. If it could do it again, would Fianna Fáil have privatised Telecom Éireann? Was it a bad decision? As a result of privatisation we are now in a situation where, through the national broadband plan, the State will be renting back poles at €20 plus which were bought, paid for and erected by Telecom Éireann using public money.
The chain of negative events that encompasses our telecommunications infrastructure is now having the effect of reducing any potential economic growth in the regions in this State. The Minister spoke about 20% coverage. The facts are that 540,000 households and businesses - almost one third of households - are waiting for this under the national broadband scheme.
We cannot hope to achieve any kind of proper decentralisation or regional planning, organise the distribution of economic growth across the State or increase the output of what the IDA and Enterprise Ireland are doing in rural Ireland unless we get this broadband scheme up and running properly. We cannot do any of these things until we have a functioning communications network in rural Ireland. We do not have that, and it does not seem likely that we will have it in the near future. The Minister has said that it is amazing that there is a team of 80 or more civil servants and outside experts working on this. He listed them off and said that we should not question this scheme. Of course, they are hired, and considering who these people are, it is clear that their agenda is to privatise the scheme. That is what they were hired to do. They have provided the advice that has brought us to where we are now. The Government has gone down the privatisation route, and the scheme has become the play thing of international capitalists. The Minister has hit a brick wall with it. The Department has a theme of 80 plus. There are tender documents involved that contain millions of words. The companies will have the Department tied up in knots. As a result there is only one bidder left in the procurement process, with Eir having circled and donuted around towns and villages, where there are now hubs of houses in rural areas among the first 300,000 easy to reach customers. The next bidder is going to have an effective monopoly. Eir pulled out mainly because the Government allowed the connections to be cherry-picked.
This is the largest contract the State has ever undertaken, and the only bidder is a reasonably small telecoms company. The heavyweights have pulled out. The Minister of State can shake his head.
-----that more than 400 schools are still without high-speed connectivity, over 60% are without connections, and 96% of the landmass is in the State black-spot areas. Households and businesses are suffering because of the standstill with the national broadband plan. Those who are lucky to have some broadband also suffer because of the current communication services in Ireland. It ranks low in terms of broadband speed and quality. Ireland ranks behind Azerbaijan in terms of broadband speed. It is ranked 62nd for its average mobile download speed and 81st for upload speed at the end of 2017. We are 21 out 25 EU member states in terms of broadband speeds, behind Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia and Jersey.
Sinn Féin is proposing that an obligation be placed on suppliers to provide a minimum level of speed. That would help those currently in rural Ireland who have access to some broadband. I am aware of many of them who are trying to run small businesses but they cannot do that with an intermittent level of services. At some parts of the day they have a good quality service but at others it is very bad, which is very difficult for small businesses. I have met some of those people in Laois and in other counties who explained to me exactly the problems they are facing. There are times when the service is virtually unusable. It is vital that is what is there now is brought up to a proper standard. We need to get that minimum connectivity level put in place for existing providers. That is vital for a modern communications network and that cannot be overstated in terms of what we need.
The national roll-out of high-speed broadband is necessary for Ireland to meet any kind of modern economic development and the social, educational and agricultural needs must be facilitated. We spoke about a national planning framework this week. If we are to have a proper national planning framework we need to have the infrastructure to back it up.
The Government must deliver on its commitment to connect the entire country, even in remote areas, at speeds necessary for connectivity now and into the future and ensure that this will be achieved in a timely manner. Also, it must keep the infrastructure in public ownership and ensure that the roll-out of the national broadband plan is based on an all-Ireland framework to enhance the Irish economy to the benefit of Irish citizens.
Much is dependent on this service. Many people are watching this debate tonight and hoping that progress can be made on this matter. It is a hugely important issue that involves quality of life and educational issues. It will affect farmers because from this year, farmers have to apply for their payments and farm subsidies on-line. They do not have broadband connection so how will they do that? Our international reputation is resting on the progress of this and the State needs to gain control. It has a good deal of control; it needs to regain. There are 442,000 households and businesses waiting on it.
Broadband is to rural Ireland today what running water and electrification was back in the 1960s. It is a vital and necessary service provision that is a core essential for business development, community development and connectivity for the most infrastructurally deprived areas of our island.
Universal roll-out will be a massive infrastructure undertaking reported to be costing up to €1 billion. That is a serious amount of money in anybody’s understanding. It is, therefore, quite incomprehensible that we have gone from a tendering process involving five bidders to a situation presently where we are left with just one bidder, namely, eNet. What is the reason for the withdrawal of four of the original bidders in what looks like, on paper at least, a most commercially lucrative contract?
I have to say it is convenient for Fianna Fáil to come in here tonight and call on the Fine Gael-led 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”. I remember very well, as a Dáil Deputy here over many years, in May 2002 the then Fianna Fáil Minister for Public Enterprise, Mary O'Rourke, announcing Fianna Fáil’s pre-election technology policy. This included a plan to “provide broadband infrastructure throughout the state, placing Ireland within the top 10 percent of OECD countries for broadband connectivity”. It went on to declare, in bold terms, that, “Within five years we will have wired the island”. My God, have they what?
Five years later, in 2007, the Fianna Fáil manifesto included a pledge to “Complete the roll-out of broadband throughout the country with the National Broadband Scheme”. I could continue in this vein highlighting even more recent similar pledges but, sadly, the past will not change where we are now though. What it does, however, is prove that Fianna Fáil failed rural Ireland for a period of nine years at a time the country was, as others say, awash with money. It preferred to dish it out in tax breaks. It is ironic in the extreme, therefore, to see this Fianna Fáil motion calling for possible “greater or full State intervention”. Fianna Fáil sold off and privatised Telecom Éireann, a company that would have been best placed to roll out a truly national broadband scheme that would have made its way up every boreen and byway to install broadband without taking profit into account. This is what public service companies do.
Fianna Fáil began the sell off of virtually all our publicly-owned companies and it was Fianna Fáil which began the journey towards privatisation. Let us be clear, and the Minister can have no comfort in this, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the Minister's former party, are as culpable as each other in failing to roll out the national broadband scheme.
In my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan the broadband coverage is nothing short of scandalous. In County Cavan, there is a 40% geographic area relating to 17,150 premises requiring State intervention through a national broadband scheme. In County Monaghan, the figures are even worse. There is a 47% geographic area not covered relating to 15,792 premises. That is a very serious situation and is part of the reason we have a serious absence of that young cohort of people, 18 to 35 years of age. We should look at the profile of Cavan-Monaghan today. Our young people have been forced if not to emigrate certainly to migrate within this State.
This week we are talking about national planning frameworks, future planning and capital infrastructure investment. I want to state clearly to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, in their respective capacities as Government partners through their confidence and supply agreement, that this project cannot be held up for any further period.
We have put forward an amendment to this motion calling for the progressing of the national broadband plan through State ownership. That would be my strong preference.
Let there be no question about it. We believe in addressing this issue, as the Kelvin project would indicate, on an all-island basis. That is something to be commended. We look at the potential of great instability post-Brexit. I believe that serious capital infrastructure investment should be looked at from a 32-county perspective and on an all-Ireland economy basis. It makes absolute sense.
We call on all parties to stop the neglect of rural Ireland, to allow rural communities reach their full potential and to prosper, and to retain our young people with a real future in the counties and communities of their birth. Let us commence the roll-out of broadband to all communities and with the urgent resolve that is now so clearly needed.
I would like to ask, through the Leas-Ceann Comhairle, what the status of the motion will be if the Government is defeated on its amendment. If Fianna Fáil wins the day on this motion, is the Government obliged to carry out Fianna's Fail's ask, so to speak, and de factoconduct a review? I ask the Minister that if, in the event the Government is defeated, it is obliged to carry out the review being called for in the motion? It is a technical question but there is a little political edge to it also.
Tonight all Members received from the Minister, and I do not know if it was by accident or design, correspondence relating to the current situation that pertains to what some have called a fiasco. The correspondence is between Mr. Moat and the Minister, Deputy Naughten. I will quote from a letter dated 30 January addressed to the Minister in which Mr. Moat states:
eir entered the [national broadband process] NBP in good faith with the ambition of winning the entire tender. We have spent over €7m during the past 30 months and have fully engaged in the process. Notwithstanding our well-communicated 'red line' issues, eir remained in the process and submitted our ISDS in September in the hope that these issues would be addressed in the final months of the contract negotiation.
"Red line" is the key phrase there. In his response dated 31 January, the Minister stated:
When we met last Tuesday (23rd January 2018) my officials set out clearly that the completion of the draft contract negotiation phase of the project would not occur for several weeks yet. There was ample opportunity to continue to engage on outstanding "red line" issues, and it would, therefore, appear premature for eir to take a decision to exit the process. You indicated an Intent to consult further with your Board.
We know what happened subsequently. What is perplexing everyone in and out of the political realm is the question of how this transpired. How did it transpire that there were still red line issues at this stage of the process such that Eir, as one of the bidders, decided to pull out of the market? What were those red line issues? Everyone here and outside these walls wants to know. If we had some articulation from the Minister or his officials as to what the red line issues were without invoking the cloak of commercial sensitivity, it would be very helpful for us to further understand the ongoing process. What is very confusing for me and thousands of others is that not too terribly long ago a deal, as I understand it, was done to facilitate Eir to provide for an extra 300,000 houses and premises. In the intervening period, approximately 100,000 of those have been covered. The Minister will clarify that.
Arguably, that is progress. How was that deal done and why did Eir do that deal but a few short months later, completely and utterly pulled the plug? We all have our theories on what is happening but it is incumbent on the Minister, perhaps not during Private Members' time tonight, but certainly tomorrow when we have statements, to clarify the correspondence he has sent to every Member on his interaction with Eir. There are serious questions in that regard.
We all have scenarios in our constituencies of relevance to this issue. There is one pocket or enclave of 12 houses in my constituency, for example, where Eir came within 12 poles on either side before stopping the roll out. That is typical of west Cork and parts of Kilkenny. If one were to move around the Chamber, Members from every county would have an articulation of the very scenario I have just painted. The question now is whether the last bidder, in effect the winner given the scenario we are in, can come in and plug that gap. There is some scepticism out there, including on my part, given that it is reasonable to wonder what price it will take for the last bidder standing to come in and close the loop in those black spots if Eir could not do so within the current competitive architecture. Will that bidder in fact be able to name its price and hold the Government to ransom as a result?
I am conscious of the time and those are just some of the issues we have. We will support the motion, but we do so under advisement in circumstances where there is a further opportunity for the Minister to come to the House tomorrow for statements. It is an opportunity for him, without using any couching language, to clarify matters for everybody here and outside who is depending on the national broadband plan, as well as on him for answers, and to set out his stall. He has come out fighting tonight, for which I give him credit, but he has stood over the facilitation of a crucial market share for a monopolistic player. The Minister will answer the point tomorrow night and I will give him time to think about it. There are still question marks over why it was done. I appreciate that a commitment was given to bring in 300,000 players, but where stands SIRO now? What is the nature of the communications with SIRO and does it exist as an entity? What are those other players doing within the market? Are they creating parallel processes or networks on which they can deliver products? There are a lot of questions but time, unfortunately, is against me. I look forward to having this debate with the Minister again tomorrow evening.
The story of rural broadband is a damning indictment of the love affair of establishment parties with privatisation. In 2007, 2012 and 2014, all Ministers with responsibility for communications promised broadband for rural Ireland. In reality, over 800,000 houses in rural Ireland have no access to broadband. To give the debate historical context, I note the hypocrisy of Fianna Fáil in tabling this motion when it was the party which privatised Telecom Éireann in 1999. We all know what has happened since. The hundreds of thousands of people who bought shares in that privatised company lost 30% of their money. The only winners in that plunder were vulture capitalists. Even worse, albeit it is only a footnote to the debate, two banks, Merrill Lynch and AIB, made €94 million from the flotation debacle. It makes me nauseous when I see that. The new company, Eircom, was sold a number of times and had its assets plundered in turn to pay huge dividends to vulture capitalists. In the orgy of greed and privatisation, they saw no need to invest in broadband facilities, in particular in rural parts of Ireland. This is the legacy with which people in rural Ireland are faced.
The latest events further evidence the cherry-picking that goes along with the national broadband plan. Eir was allowed to cherry-pick 300,000 homes, or one third of those in need of the service. Why were these 300,000 homes removed from the overall tender for broadband? We can only assume these were the easiest and most profitable houses to connect. The effect of this was that the third bidder, SIRO, pulled out of the tender process. After that, Eir got its way and also pulled out to leave a sole bidder to supply broadband in Ireland. That company is Enet. It makes one wonder whether this was the intention all along and whether a sweetheart deal was done with these multinational companies to determine who would be the end bidder. The whole saga is an absolute debacle and the losers are the people in rural Ireland who cannot access broadband, which is something I take for granted where I live.
In fact, for most people in Dublin having 4G broadband is something they take for granted, yet other citizens cannot get access to broadband because of privatisation and the ideological mistakes of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. People living in rural areas have been disadvantaged by their bankrupt policies. If there is anything to come out of this - I know that the Minister will not agree with me ideologically - it is that privatisation does not work. The service needs to be in public ownership to give people what they need. Privatisation has been a complete failure.
It has not been a great week for rural Ireland and County Donegal, in particular. For one thing, the national planning framework promises to once again bypass an entire portion of the country, while broadband provision has been hit with the latest scandal, after eir pulled out of the tendering process in the past week.
I would like to take a moment to consider the national planning framework because, as I will discuss shortly, it is relevant to the ongoing fiasco that is the national broadband plan. What I want to discuss, in particular, is the narrative hashed out by the Government that it could not possibly get a return on its investment in rural Ireland and that it would be best to focus on the main cities and their never-ending growth. This narrative should be turned on its head because the dominant political parties have long pandered to the idea that what is good for Dublin is good for rural Ireland, even though that has not been the case. What is good for rural Ireland can only be good for Dublin and all other urban centres. If rural Ireland was well connected both in terms of transport infrastructure and broadband, jobs could remain local and thus create sustainable employment. The unsustainable growth in urban areas can be curbed to bring about a better quality of life for all those living in rural and urban areas. A new complementary relationship could then develop between rural and urban living. However, I suspect it would not serve the interests of big international financial investors and the multinational future the Government is so eager to create.
The plagued national broadband plan is another reiteration of the negative narrative for rural Ireland. It is an example of how centralised policy decision-making and private sector dominance has plagued public services. Rural towns have suffered enough in losing out on post office services, banks, Garda stations and even community hospitals. We then have the Government selling national broadband plan infrastructure to the private sector, which facilitated eir in getting the cream of the crop, the best premises covered by the plan, leaving a difficult and fragmented procurement process for the remaining 500,000 homes. The Minister announced all of those involved in the process but who still could not see it happening. There were 80 people working within his Department, as well as international experts such as Analysys Mason, PwC, Deloitte, Marsh Insurance, Mason Hayes & Curran, RPS Group, KPMG and Here and Now Business Intelligence, all of which could not see anything like this happening, which is amazing.
I want to give an example to highlight the pressing issue of broadband connectivity and what it means for development in County Donegal. One constituent emailed me recently to highlight his constant struggle to get any Internet connection after he had learned that eir's fibre to the home service stopped at the pole just before the turn-off to his house. He has missed out on a fibre broadband connection by mere metres and it takes him a couple of hours to do online what should only take 15 minutes. Meanwhile, his partner, a lecturer, struggles to work from home and both have decided to stop trying to work from home altogether. The person concerned is also engaged in a community project which is hugely beneficial to County Donegal. However, he cannot do much of the work involved from home because of the lack of broadband connectivity. For how long will he and other constituents in County Donegal have to wait to be connected? I am asked this question on a weekly basis by many people who are suffering the same issue and I have to tell them that I do not even think the Government knows the answer. It is not just about connecting fibre broadband to the home; it is also about connecting people, services and rural and urban communities. If we cannot see how broadband provision in rural Ireland would give a so-called return on State investment, the Government has serious questions that it needs to answer for people living in County Donegal and the 42% of the population who are classified as rural dwellers.
I thank Fianna Fáil for bringing forward the motion and allowing us an opportunity to discuss this issue, although I share the deep cynicism in the background when it was Fianna Fáil that set out the privatisation agenda for Telecom Éireann which led to the creation of billionaires and the loss of an opportunity to roll out major infrastructure owned by a State company. Many comparisons have been made with the rural electrification scheme, while completely ignoring the fact that it was a State company that rolled out that scheme. While I have great respect for the Minister on a personal basis, the nature of his contribution was frightening, in particular his failure to learn anything from the mistakes of the past. Once again, both he and his officials - I am not sure which - are lecturing us and asking how dare we question the expertise available. He went on to set out the list of experts which, as my speaking time is short, I will not go through. However, it is frightening to name the companies involved, with the list finishing with Here and Now Business Intelligence. If anything is utterly lacking, it is business intelligence. We are in a situation where 542,000 houses are without broadband. The Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, knows that there are the most ludicrous situations in Connemara where, although two houses are almost as near as Deputy Thomas Pringle is to me, one house has access to broadband, while the other does not. As public representatives, we have been writing letters and been told that it is not commercially viable but that the State will provide a service in due course. It has not provided it; it has once again foolishly relied on the private market to provide it and we have ended up with this process after many pronouncements. It is idiotic to talk about a delay of six months. Of course, a review is the most basic thing that is necessary.
We had pronouncements by Ministers in the past. Deputy Eamon Ryan made the first in 2010, when he told us that we would have a rollout by 2012. He was followed by former Deputy Pat Rabbitte who was very articulate in telling us when we would have broadband. He was followed by former Deputy Alex White who told us when we were going to have it. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, was left with a very bad legacy, but there was a golden opportunity for him to do something different and he did not.
What is forgotten in all of this is that e-net set up by the State. I understand the Government is in the process of selling it, or perhaps it is more appropriate to say it is getting rid of it. Was it not set up by it? Surely questions have to be asked about how last year it made a decision to allow eir to effectively remove 300,000 homes from the original plan. Where were all of the experts mentioned? What risk assessment was made? There are many other questions to be raised, although I see that my speaking time is almost up.
I support Sinn Féin's amendment and the tenor of what has been tabled by Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin's amendment is right and proper at this point. Let us learn something. Let us not use the same language that we used about Anglo Irish Irish and the bankers. They knew best and were so big that they could not fail, but, most of all, democracy was ignored and we had no role. We are being told again tonight that we have no role.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to this important motion. However, I have yet to be convinced that it will help to have broadband provided in rural Ireland any more speedily. Areas in which there is an efficient broadband service in my constituency of Cork South-West are few and far between. Before I continue, I acknowledge and thank the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, for visiting my constituency during the summer and meeting many of my constituents to discuss issues related to communications. They are among the 542,000 homes, schools and businesses which account for 40% of the population that have no Internet access.
The Minister inherited a complete mess. During the years Minister after Minister made crazy announcements which sounded good but which were only farcical and the people on the ground knew it.
I note the Minister's dedication and interest in his communications portfolio and appreciate that he inherited the national broadband plan from the 2011 Fine Gael-led Government when it first committed to the roll-out of high-speed broadband to every home and premises in Ireland by 2016. However, given that the ongoing tendering process for the national broadband plan only commenced in 2015, it is little wonder that we have seen the withdrawal of tenders and other general issues in the overall process.
The Government and the Department must review its model. I have long said that the only way we will achieve efficient broadband roll-out is to go back to the communities, but of course we could not do that because then no one would make a nice fortune that way. The communities are the people who know best how to deliver for their own people. In many other European counties, the Leader programme funded communities to roll out broadband locally. No one has ever listened to these suggestions over the years. I was involved in the community council that first brought broadband, and it was wireless, to a rural village in Goleen in west Cork at a time when nobody knew what broadband was. We delivered it by working with the company. We rolled it out, and in many cases it is still there.
I was elected to the Dáil on a mandate to protect and stand up for rural Ireland and my constituency of Cork South-West. I am proud to be a member of the Rural Independent Group. The failure of rural towns and villages to access sufficient broadband is yet another example of how we are being left behind by a booming Dublin. Broadband in the 21st century is a necessity. It is relied upon daily for our educational needs, work and doing business and even keeping in contact with friends and family in every corner of the globe. It is necessary that the Government puts realistic steps in place to allow rural Ireland catch up to the rest of the world.
Eir has gone off the pitch. Many have suggested here tonight that was always its intention. That is something we can leave to our own imaginations. I felt it was only cherry-picking all along. It was a very nice set-up, where it was going to get 300,000 homes connected in areas where Eir itself wanted it. I fully agreed with Deputy Fitzmaurice's comment that its carry-on was nothing short of skulduggery. To try to work with the company is a joke, whether it is its telephone lines or trying to discuss the roll-out of broadband in rural communities. I shudder to think that if we had allowed it continue and it had won the contract, where the people would be. Eir does not listen to the public representatives. It is a law unto itself in its phone service. We saw what happened with Storm Ophelia. Its workers on the ground were murdered trying to bring telephone lines back to people's houses, but if they were asked to go next door they would say they were not allowed because of rules and regulations. Everything had to go through the system and things were going round and round to the point that I expect some houses have only just been reconnected. How was Eir going to roll out broadband to rural communities? I know of a housing estate in Bandon where there are several houses and among them only every second house has broadband. It is a farcical set-up from Eir and no one is answerable. Eir is not answerable to anyone. We are better off without it. I hope this mess can be resolved for the greater good of the people of rural Ireland.
I am glad to get the opportunity to speak about this important issue but I believe that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would be better advised to work together rather than attacking each other across the floor of the House. It ought to be remembered that the two are in Government together. Whether it is called a coalition or whatever is called, one party is holding the other up or supporting it. That is a fact.
The lack of high-speed broadband is a serious issue throughout the country. It was one of the most dominant issues at the previous election and will be again in the next one whenever that is. People are sick to death of taking about broadband instead of the powers that be getting on with it and organising proper broadband in the country for all the people.
Some 33% of households in Kerry need State intervention to acquire broadband. They are entitled to that connectivity with the world. The implications of Eir pulling out of this tendering process is that Enet will have the monopoly but in fact Eir will still have the monopoly as Enet must use Eir's infrastructure. The big question is whether Enet has the capacity to carry out the operation and to do so on its own. Many people wonder if it has the ability to do so.
This story puts me in mind of 50 years ago when a place called the Black Valley did not have electricity. At that time, my father had a massive battle to get the Black Valley electrified. Ten or 15 years later the same thing happened again with the Black Valley, with places such as the pocket in Glenmore where they could not get mobile phone coverage. Happily, the Black Valley has mobile phone coverage now, but not all of it. We are told that farmers must submit applications online, or subcontractors' payments must be agreed online when they are looking for approval from the Revenue Commissioners. Everything is online and the only line they have at the present time is their clothes line. That is God's gospel truth. It affects them when using online banking. Small companies have problems paying wages when they do not have broadband. Take places such as Mangerton in Killarney. We cannot understand what is happening. There were 40 houses to be connected there. For some reason, management pulled Eir away, closed up the trench and left the people there standing, as it were. There are pockets in different places across Kerry where there could be 12, 20 or it could be 30 houses where houses have broadband around them but and they cannot understand how they have been left behind and have none. Why was it not carried out methodically? Who is running this show? Who is responsible? I have asked the Minister, whom I do not blame personally, but I do blame both sides of the House who are attacking each other tonight. They ought to get into some room in here - there are plenty of them - get around a table and talk it out to secure all-party agreement as to what must be done. If they go out to the people, whenever the next election is, everyone of us will be roasted.
If the Government goes before the people without doing something about the broadband before the next election, they will have the kettle and the frying pan and the whole lot at them. I am very sorry, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
I do not think that anyone disputes that broadband is essential to all parts of the country. My own area is very good in parts and terrible in others. I live in an area that is very good, and we are lucky, but I have spoken to people who have considered moving house because their service is so bad. Working at home or running a business is impossible for people in that case. In a digital age, broadband is not a luxury but a basic necessity. That is particularly true for those running businesses, but whatever the use, whether it is for children using it for homework or older people using Skype to stay in contact with people who have left the country, it is required across all society.
This process concerns me a great deal. Something about it feels very wrong. The very fact that it is afait accompliwith one bidder means it is not a competitive tendering process.
It does not have the kind of competitive tension that one would expect to see in a process that is properly run. If we do not stop and have some consideration at this point, and have some answers as to why this is happening, down the road we are likely to have some sort of inquiry as to what happened exactly. Why can we not hear it now in real time rather than in five years' time, having awarded a tender where there is not really a tender process, discovering there is a problem with it and then having an inquiry as to why it did not work as was intended?
The Minister can come out all guns blazing - I was watching him. He gave us every class of expert as the reason we should just go with our betters and know what our betters are telling us. I have got to say we are here to interrogate matters. We are here to ensure that the process works as it should.
I have an uneasy feeling about this process and the adequacy of it and I do not want to delay for one minute. The Minister talked about not wanting to delay and being anxious to get on with this process, as people outside are. None of us wants to delay this process but neither do we want a process that will cause us a significant problem. For example, is it not a valid question to ask why the bidders are pulling out of this process? Is it because they feel they cannot make money on it? Do they feel they will not make money on it because people will not be able to afford to connect to it? If they cannot afford to connect to it, is there the spread of broadband that the Government is seeking to roll out? The Minister, instead of coming in here and talking out loud, and all guns blazing and telling us about all the expertise, should answer some of the questions about why this process has failed to live up to what one would expect for such a big project. It is a one-horse race and it is inadequate from that point of view.
We regularly see what happens when responsibility for vital public services is outsourced to the private sector. This is a vital public service. I have no problem with the market or the private sector where appropriate but this is a fairly basic necessary service. Essentially, if it is only judged on a profit motive, we have a difficulty in that there is a public service without considering public access to it. That is a really serious problem.
The Minister needs to come in here and answer the questions rather than lecture us.
The Minister, Deputy Naughten, stated in a speech earlier that he is the only Deputy who has consistently pursued this issue for the past two decades and the record proves the fact. There is no one else in this Parliament who has an interest in broadband. The Minister is not here. It is 120 minutes into the debate. The Minister is the only Deputy who has an interest in broadband and has proved it over the past two decades. Come on, that is hubris and nonsense.
I was involved, as a Minister. We set up the national broadband scheme. We started in 2007. We had the contract signed the next year and we rolled it out on time and to budget. I heard someone else state it could have been faster. I agree, but it was complex. I had to do a similar scheme to that which is being attempted here in having a map and all sorts of complex legal arrangements. We did it in a year. We got the contract signed. This process started in June 2011 with the establishment of the broadband task force. Almost seven years later, we do not even have a contract, let alone a single wire hung on a pole, and that is the real problem.
The Department and the three Ministers have to answer questions as to why we have been seven years. The Minister listed out all the experts. He is crowded out. He seems to have nothing but technicians and lawyers at every turn and what is missing is political leadership to get it over the line.
There is a particular problem because it seems the Minister has made a fundamental mistake by taking the bait that Eir put out there, in terms of delivering 300,000 houses in his time. It was the lucrative idea, politically, with eight areas in Roscommon, of there being 7,000 houses in Roscommon it could deliver to the Minister in the next year. As we all will be aware, this Dáil was probably not long for this world and there was a temptation to say, as a Minister, that he would take those 7,000 houses in Roscommon and be the man who is delivering here and today. However, it was a fatal mistake. It seems that was the reason SIRO pulled out of the detail, namely, that all the lucrative parts of the contract were gone. In fact, even more than that, SIRO would have to have leapt over Eir's engineers and all the work they were doing in certain rural areas to get to the outer fields. It just did not make sense and SIRO pulled out. It was one of the best engineering and telecommunications companies in the world stating that it was interested, it was doing it, it was signed up, it was ready to tender but the Minister changed the nature of the business proposition and it was pulling out.
The Minister stated at the time that one should not worry as we still have a highly competitive race with two experienced consortia, which they were. However, I believe Eir pulled out then with the change of ownership when it realised the business case here. Looking at it, Eir has all the nice lucrative stuff - 300,000 already contract agreed and a done deal - and it does not need to go after the others. Eir even has an agreement with the Department that Eir will get €20 a pole per annum, that is, a €45 million cheque no matter what. Why would Eir continue with the process? The Minister would need to recognise that hubris I mentioned at the start that all is well and fine, or this might help us have a faster deal. He is signing a 25-year deal in a one-horse race and depicting it as a good news story that we have less competitive tendering risk now and maybe we can get it done quicker. We should be honest in saying it was a really bad day for this process when the last of the other competitive tendering companies pulled out.
What do we do, because there is an urgency? I am reluctant to go back and start again. For those houses and for the development of rural Ireland, we need to proceed. However, we have to be very careful because we are locking ourselves into a 25-year system where one could have an impossible situation where Eir is saying that those poles are fine and one does not need an old pole there - they are grand. We are dealing with a company, Enet and SSE, which does not have the same experience that ESB or Eir would have in delivering wires across the State.
The next is a Fianna Fáil ten-minute slot. Before Deputy MacSharry starts, I want to clarify the position in relation to the two-minute slot for Deputy Fitzmaurice. I vacated the Chair at 7.30 p.m. during the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. I returned at 8.30 p.m., when this debate had commenced. I had no act or part in allocating or, as was suggested, slipping in, Deputy Fitzmaurice. As anyone familiar with proceedings will be aware, Deputy Fitzmaurice is granted two minutes from time to time by various parties and groups, and that is agreed at the Business Committee. Any Deputy who has an issue can check that with his or her Whip. I just wanted to clarify my own position because that is not my form.
Perhaps Deputy MacSharry should indicate who he is sharing time with.
I would like to share two minutes of time each with Deputies Butler, Aylward, Murphy O'Mahony and Casey. I myself will keep a close eye on the clock.
I am glad to have the opportunity to make a few points on this issue. I am sorry the senior Minister is not present. I accept it is a long day. The Minister has a demanding media schedule being the comical or chemical Ali of the Cabinet, as he has been described by a national media organisation with the level of denial that is associated with his constant pronouncements in terms of the health of the broadband plan. I refer to the broadband plan, as christened by Mr. Peter Casey, a Donegal man of Claddagh Resources, when he correctly stated it should be changed to the Donegal shambles. That is what it is.
I do now know who are responsible for this process since 2013 but there are two words that accurately sum up those involved, and the first one begins with "G". At this point in time, we have no contracts in place. As Deputy Eamon Ryan states, we have no wires in place. We have endless amounts of brochures, photocalls, announcements, tours around the country and more announcements. We have Ministers looking good, Ministers who are now retired, Ministers who are now broadcasters, all responsible for announcing different plans. The reality is nothing happened. It is constant lip-service. It is similar to the draft national planning framework, which I think I will rename the plan to standstill, but we will see what is published as part of the real plan.
Will the Minister of State tell the senior Minister that what we want is a price, a delivery schedule and construction, commencement and finish dates? That is what the people require. Let him come back here in a month. My colleague, Deputy Dooley, rightly said we want to review this. That will take the Government ten years. We do not have time for that kind of a review. I therefore ask the Minister of State to give us, within a month, a start date and an indication of how much it will cost and when it will be finished. I have one little tip. The Government should get the providers to carry out the less lucrative work first. I refer to Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Cavan and Monaghan. Perhaps then we will not have another Carillion on our hands or another Eir that will tell us it has already picked all the gold and will leave the silver and copper to someone else. I will hand over the floor to my colleagues now, but that is what needs to happen. There are three things we need to know within one month: when it is starting, who is doing it and how much it will cost.
In the past week challenges facing rural Ireland have been to the fore. We hear much talk of the national planning framework, the vision for the next 20 years, and what it will mean for our country. The roll-out of fibre-to-the-home broadband is key to bridging rural Ireland's digital deficit. To halt the decline in our rural communities, this issue must be addressed. However, the Government's national rural broadband roll-out is in a complete shambles. Having started the tendering process in 2015, the Government has dragged its heels to the extent that there is now only one bidder left in the process, Enet. In September 2017, one of the three bidders in the process withdrew owing to the lengthy and complicated tendering process. This should have triggered alarm bells for the Government but, unfortunately, it did not. We learned last week, in January 2018, that Eir, another large and experienced operator, has also pulled out. The process had become so complicated that potential bidders found it impossible to respond in a commercially viable way. These blackspots of broadband wasteland are costing jobs, threatening rural sustainability and creating a digital divide. I have serious reservations about the national planning framework, the vision for the next 20 years, if we cannot deliver broadband to 500,000 houses in Ireland.
I commend my colleague, Deputy Dooley, on bringing this motion before the House and on all his great work in communications in general. I represent the most picturesque constituency of all, namely, Cork South-West. We are on the beautiful Wild Atlantic Way, yet due to a lack of broadband and poor mobile phone coverage, or in some areas none, which also comes under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Naughten, we are like birds with our wings caught. We cannot reach our full potential in the tourism sector. Cork South-West has much to offer people who want to set up home or business, but again, the lack of broadband in many areas is a huge deterrent to both. Farmers in west Cork, as everywhere else, now have to access many payments online, but many of them cannot. Does the Minister of State know why they cannot? It is because they have no broadband.
I am advised that Bantry General Hospital attempts to run high-tech equipment in the course of its daily duties. However, the IT infrastructure available to it is simply unacceptable. It is unacceptable in an environment in which people's lives are at risk and it is unacceptable in circumstances in which hospitals such as Bantry General Hospital endeavour to take the pressure off the bigger hospitals, such as Cork University Hospital, and they are being impeded in this way. The matter is now much more serious than just missing deadlines, in which the Government is expert. An urgent review is necessary with a view to ascertaining definite timescales without any further delay.
I come to the Minister of State with a short and simple message from rural Ireland. We need broadband now or as soon as possible. The people are frustrated, fed up and tired of the delays with the national broadband plan. I have representations that have been sitting in my office since my by-election victory in May 2015 from people living in rural communities and the outskirts of regional towns who cannot understand why I cannot give them updates on the progress of broadband services in their localities. The frustration on the ground is reaching boiling point. There is frustration for us as public representatives as well as we have no information with which to go back to our constituents. When people contact me with their Eircode postcodes and I check the national broadband plan map and their houses are classified as being in the amber area for State subvention, I cannot offer any solution whatsoever. Rural communities throughout the country have been kept waiting seven years for the roll-out of high-speed broadband by this Government. I get the sense that the Government is not really serious about rural Ireland and rural communities such as those in Carlow and Kilkenny.
Broadband is not a luxury for schools, families, businesses and farmers; it is an absolute necessity. If it is not delivered soon, the benefits may be lost forever as investment will not flow to rural and regional Ireland. Successive Ministers have failed miserably to bring this crucial national project to completion. I am sad to say I have serious doubts as to when, if ever, it will be delivered. It represents one of the greatest Government failures in living memory and demonstrates that when it comes to thinking big and delivering for rural Ireland, this Government always falls short. We will never reopen the boarded up shopfronts, create jobs and sustain enterprise in our regional towns and villages if we do not have the equal platform of broadband services to compete with the larger cities. The current digital divide is completely undermining the economic viability of rural Ireland. SMEs are walking out of rural Ireland because they cannot rely on reliable broadband services. They are not expanding and growing their businesses or creating jobs in their localities because the services and infrastructure are simply not on a par with the larger population centres and cities. I ask the Minister of State not to give us platitudes, but answers and solutions. That is what the people of rural Ireland want, and the sooner it is done, the better.
I support Deputy Dooley in bringing forward this welcome motion to address sensibly the shambles that is the seven-year saga of the roll-out of rural broadband. In Wicklow more than 34,000 people are still awaiting a connection. A perfect example is my home village of Laragh and Glendalough, where the primary school is not connected, the Brockagh Resource Centre is not connected, farmers who need to complete forms online are not connected, local residents have no broadband, business needs are not connected and - forgive my indulgence - my own hotel business is still not connected. Glendalough, the most beautiful valley in Ireland - sorry, Margaret - is in a rural location that attracts more than 1 million visitors a year, and in 2018 it still has no broadband. There is a connection between those rural parts of west and south Wicklow, including parts of some of our towns and villages where there is no broadband, and those areas where the economic recovery has not yet happened.
In Wicklow we have seen many opportunities to develop our economy and our society. We have all worked to develop these opportunities. However, in every industry broadband is as important as electricity. There is no point having a rural development programme, no point having an agribusiness strategy and no point having a national planning framework if rural Ireland does not have broadband connectivity. However, this crisis is being managed as a political communications problem, with the appalling spin that with one buyer left, this process is actually improving. This would be laughable if it were not so important to people living in rural Wicklow. Time and time again, people in rural Wicklow are treated as second-class citizens. We are told we should not expect the same treatment as urban Ireland. We are told to stay quiet and wait. Rural Wicklow is sick and tired of being treated in this manner. We want our voices listened to. We are citizens and we will no longer be ignored. I urge the Minister of State to do the right thing and to listen. We want responsible leadership. Process is as important here as results. Rural Ireland wants broadband delivered in a responsible way, with oversight and control. Rural people are rightly angered, having had enough of Fine Gael's patronising attitude.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo a thaispeáineann tábhacht faoi leith le cur i bhfeidhm leathanbhanda ardluasa i ngach foirgneamh, scoil agus gnólacht sa tír. Is áis riachtanach an leathanbhanda ardluasa agus tá sé ráite ag an Rialtas sa phlean náisiúnta leathanbhanda go gcuirfí é ar fáil i ngach teach in Éirinn. Rinne an tAire, an Teachta Naughten, tagairt don leibhéal suntasach den infheistíocht ón earnáil teileacumarsáide cheana féin. Mar gheall ar an bplean náisiúnta leathanbhanda, tá méadú suntasach tar éis teacht ar chlúdach leathanbhanda in áiteanna áirithe. Bhí rochtain ar leathanbhanda ardluas ar trí as deich nó 700,000 den 2.3 milliún foigneamh in Éirinn sa bhliain 2012.
In 2012, three out of ten or 700,000 of 2.3 million premises had access to high-speed broadband. Today, more than six in ten or 1.5 million of all premises throughout the country can get access to high-speed broadband.
The Government is highly aware that the commercial operators will not provide coverage everywhere. This is where the State must step in with the national broadband plan State intervention area.
As Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and at the Department of Rural and Community Development, where my key responsibilities include community affairs and digital development, I recognise that the national broadband plan is essential to the future economic prosperity and social development of rural Ireland. High-speed broadband is a powerful instrument for the solutions sought by numerous sectors, including business, farming, schools and local communities. It utilises and enhances the potential of existing infrastructure in provincial towns and boosts rural viability. I acknowledge many Deputies have alluded to this.
High-speed broadband provides opportunity for the regeneration of rural areas and the fostering and supporting of small businesses, to allow our citizens who chose to live in rural areas enjoy similar economic and social benefits to those in urban areas. We must realise the immense benefits which will be brought by the national broadband plan and the profoundly positive impacts quality connectivity can bring to the lifestyles and livelihoods of those living and working throughout Ireland, especially in rural areas. As the Minister, Deputy Naughten, has described, the national broadband plan State intervention will bring high-speed broadband access to places which would most likely just have to go without.
As Deputies have also said, too many people in rural Ireland need the State to intervene and bring essential broadband access. They include 542,000 postal addresses, 990,000 citizens, 381,000 members of the labour force, 52,057 farms, 47,096 SMEs, 437 schools and 310 business parks. The motion before the House asks for a review of the case for State ownership. In July of last year, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, stood in this House and confirmed that full State ownership would likely increase the cost of the subsidy for the State. Both models, namely gap funded and full concession, would deliver the same thing to the taxpayer with State ownership being a notional benefit at the end of the contract.
Are Deputies trying to pretend to the people of Ireland, not just in rural Ireland but in towns and villages throughout the country, that a solution to a national project, to build a network that will serve this generation and the next, funded with their own money, should be simple? Of course it is not simple. Do Deputies believe that necessary measures to ensure long-term viability, governance, oversight and transparency in a project such as this are overly onerous and complex? If it were that easy these things would have been rolled out years ago.
Much of the debate has focused on the delivery of the national broadband plan to individual premises. The national broadband plan consists of many strands working together to deliver a digital Ireland. It is not just procurement, as there are other elements on which the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and I have been working to improve connectivity across the country. Many of our citizens and businesses rely on mobile phone and existing broadband. Through the mobile phone and broadband taskforce the Government is making sure that as many as possible of our citizens and businesses have the services they immediately need. This was an issue for the Independent Deputies during the Government formation talks and the taskforce was created.
Prior to the roll-out of the State-led intervention, the Government’s mobile phone and broadband taskforce identified immediate solutions to broadband and mobile phone coverage deficits and investigated how better services could be provided to consumers. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, is planning to release shortly the taskforce’s annual report, which will show the great progress being made. Every local authority now has a dedicated broadband officer, acting as a single point of contact for operators on coverage and roll-out issues. This means that once the national broadband plan roll-out begins, every county in the country will be ready to engage and ensure a smooth roll-out. Local digital strategies will mean that once the national broadband plan infrastructure is in place, every local authority will be able to fully realise all the benefits that high-speed connectivity brings.
Work is ongoing to cut through the red tape around planning issues, with most local authorities now applying waivers in respect of development contributions for telecoms development, and the updating of planning exemptions to make them fit for today's and tomorrow's mobile technologies. Mobile coverage black spots are also being tackled. Local authorities are mapping priority black spots in their own areas and identifying infrastructure that could potentially be used by mobile operators to provide additional coverage.
Other initiatives are under way to maximise and enhance existing connectivity. The release of the 3.6 GHz 5G spectrum in May 2017, to a value of €78 million, will enable operators to provide faster fixed wireless and mobile services to their customers. A total of €8 million is being invested to facilitate the reallocation of the 700 MHz spectrum away from TV broadcasting to support broadband and mobile telephony plans in rural areas. This means valuable spectrum band is being freed up to deliver better mobile data services in rural areas. As the Minister, Deputy Naughten, has emphasised, the national broadband plan State intervention procurement is firmly on track and moving into the final stages.
Considerable effort and oversight by numerous individuals and stakeholders have been mobilised to ensure that the process has progressed to its current advance stage. To divert the process off course at this moment would only serve to delay the roll-out of the essential services, and disadvantage those living and working in rural areas which are covered by the State intervention area. I can see no sense in being told on one hand that the process is taking too long, and on the other to pause it for a period of up to six months. I unequivocally support the countermotion that urges the Government to continue apace with the public procurement to select a company to build a future proofed high-speed broadband network in those areas which will not be served by commercial operators, to ensure that every place in every county in Ireland is put on the digital map.
I will address some of the issues raised by Deputies. Almost every Deputy stressed the importance of high-speed broadband and the need to deliver the service soon. I acknowledge the frustration of people that is evident in the Chamber and in many rural communities with the timelines and the delays. Deputies seem to be reluctant to accept the impact of the Government's national broadband plan in leveraging telecoms investment. In April 2016 52% of premises had access to high-speed broadband and today that figure is at 69%. Why is that? It is because commercial providers upped the ante and upped their game over the last period of time in advance of the national broadband plan because they could see the Government's commitment to delivering broadband to all rural areas. Deputies, including Deputy Ryan, spoke about the national broadband strategy. When it was published in 2008 I was a member of the local authority and vast swathes of my area were deemed to be covered and deemed to have a service, which they clearly did not. Some of that is now being rolled out under the Eir commitment contract and some of it is still to be rolled out under the national broadband plan. The map in 2008 was designed to deliver basic broadband at a low speed of 2 Mb per second. This is about bringing high-speed broadband and having it future proofed for the next 25 years. To suggest it is the same as the 2008 national broadband strategy would be misleading. It is not as it is much more highly complex.
People have spoken about privatisation and hindsight is wonderful. Privatisation happened at that time and we know its history. Unfortunately, the full network of poles and lines and the critical infrastructure throughout rural Ireland went with it and Telecom Eireann, Eircom and now Eir have gone through a series of changes and buyouts during that time, which, I imagine, has not helped the process of delivery.
Deputies have spoken about the 300,000 houses in the commitment contract whereby Eir committed to connecting 300,000 houses, of which 130,000 are connected, and said if it did not do so the State would enact fines. The Minister, Deputy Naughten, will speak more about this in tomorrow's statements. I understand the concerns people have about it, but part of the issue and part of the complexity is when this was decided and when we were in the process of mapping out the national broadband plan, commercial companies did not stop. They did not lay down their tools and state they would connect no more houses. It was an ongoing process. Commercial activity was still taking place while we were trying to get the mapping done. At that stage, it is fair to say, that Eir, knowing how the national broadband plan was going, decided to roll out extra houses. Unfortunately it could have done this for a long number of years before but did not. That led to part of the complexity. At that stage the Government made a decision and, as I have said, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, will speak more about it tomorrow in terms of the 300,000 houses connected under the commitment contract.
I thank all of the Deputies for speaking. I accept and understand the frustrations of people in the Chamber and in rural communities with regard to the roll-out and delivery of the national broadband plan.
I will share time with Deputies Dooley, Aindrias Moynihan and O'Keeffe.
The biggest issue in my constituency of County Limerick, and throughout the country at the most recent general election and, I want to emphasise, every day since, is the lack of adequate high-speed broadband connectivity. It is impacting on many communities throughout my constituency in Limerick. If I were to list them out it would take the whole night. It is fair to say this has been interpreted by these communities, people and businesses as another attack on rural Ireland. This is how it is perceived, rightly or wrongly, and it behoves all of us to try to find a common sense solution as soon as possible because it cannot pertain. We can see the pattern of the previous Government and this Government with regard to the withdrawal of front-line services from our communities in rural Ireland, including post offices, Garda stations, credit unions, public health clinics and GP clinics.
I refer to the whole unravelling of services. The Government is telling people to do business with it on the online platforms, including applying for medical cards, passports and basic farm payments and dealing with Revenue, but it is failing to roll out basic broadband services. It is simply not good enough.
The motion tabled by Deputy Dooley asking for an independent review in parallel with the continuation of the process is the way to go. The population needs to have assurances this is going to be dealt with properly once and for all. The motion should be supported by everybody in the House and, most importantly, by the Government.
I am concerned about the way the national broadband plan has been stumbling along and about how it is being rolled out. In 2011, the Government promised that 90% of homes would have high-speed broadband by 2015 and everybody would have it by 2020. By 2016, this had slipped to 85% of homes by this year. The Taoiseach recently said that only 75% of homes were being targeted by the end of this year. It is slipping constantly and the attempt to deliver is slow. We see poor Internet connections, torturing people in so many rural communities. It is constantly buffering and then suddenly collapses. That is how people see the national broadband programme in my constituency of Cork North-West.
Last September, SIRO backed out owing to the lengthy and complicated process. Eir has now dropped out. Householders are concerned the whole thing could collapse or they could be left with highly expensive connections. That is frustrating for thousands of people across rural Cork desperately in need of high-speed broadband. Last night I met with people in Ballinora which overlooks Cork city and is adjacent to EMC, one of the largest cloud computing companies in the world. However, they struggle to get an Internet connection or even a mobile phone connection. It is the same in places like Ballinageary, Ballinagree, Barrahaurin and in so many other places across rural Cork.
Access to broadband is one of the biggest issues in rural Ireland. Farmers need it to apply for their agricultural payments, students need it and householders need it for online banking and county council services, including housing applications. Broadband has the potential to be a game-changer for so many rural communities giving opportunities to attract business, tourism, etc. The Government needs to stop talking about it and start delivering realistic high-speed quality affordable services for communities.
The first line of the motion puts the scale of the crisis into perspective. Some 542,000 homes, schools and businesses, representing 40% of our population and 90% of our geographic cover, have no access to high-speed broadband. There is no possibility of a connection on the horizon. It has taken another Fianna Fáil motion in Private Members' time to get the Government to even discuss the issue. This is despite the fact that my party has called on the Government over the past number of months to provide clarity on the matter.
I have no doubt the usual Fine Gael rhetoric will come into play here with it asking what Fianna Fáil did when it was in government. This will no longer wash with the public. We are now into our seventh year of a Fine Gael-led Government. It has further isolated our rural areas, turning them into some of the most backward in Europe. The ongoing tendering process has been nothing less than a farce. It must be recognised that the tendering process began in 2015 with the then Labour Party Minister, Pat Rabbitte, initiating the process, some time before the Minister, Deputy Naughten, assumed his role. It would be unfair to lay the full blame at the current Minister's door. He inherited a national broadband plan with no structure or forward planning. It was just another Government plan with fancy graphs and text to fill the Government press launch.
The warning signs were there last September when SIRO decided to exit the tendering process. Fianna Fáil then asked for the criteria of the tendering process to be published. There was no transparency forthcoming. Over a week ago we heard a report that the Government was trying to pull a fast one with the hope of carrying out the work on the cheap by slashing the price of access to Eir's telephone poles. This had the potential to cause further delay. This is, in effect, like asking a mechanic to go into another man's garage and carry out the work for a cheaper fee. It was ignorance on behalf of the Government to think that this would not aggravate one of the potential bidders.
Prior to my becoming a Member of the Dáil, road repairs were a big issue. Now broadband is my pothole issue.
For the past year and a half the Minister has failed to provide this House with answers to basic questions. When will the contract be signed, when will work begin and when will it be completed? When I have asked him those questions, he made it clear it is not about timing but about getting it right. However, all of a sudden, he has a plan and there are dates and times but my intervention and that of Fianna Fail is going to throw it to the four winds. The Minister should publish the timeline now, if he has one, and stop hiding behind this bluff and bluster.
For the Minister and for me, it is a case of déjà vu. He delivered virtually the same speech tonight that he delivered in 2016. On 6 July 2016, he was on the cusp of signing a contract but 19 months later there is no sign of that contract being signed. On the last occasion, I was convinced to withdraw my motion, as I said, against my better judgment. That was a proposal for the State to intervene directly, take control and ultimate ownership. That was 19 months ago but the contract has still not been signed. The Minister had the gall to repeat the same request and ask me to again withdraw my proposals. In 19 months nothing has been achieved but there is further indication that this is a flawed process. Three companies with the experience and the know-how have pulled away from the process.
It is as simple as this. On that occasion, the Minister fooled 542,000 homeowners but I will not let him fool them again.