Thursday, 24 January 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
National Broadband Plan
1. To ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the completion of the tendering process for the national broadband plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3370/19]
I welcome the opportunity to update the House on the status of the national broadband plan and the progress of this initiative towards its goal of ensuring high-speed broadband to all premises in Ireland, regardless of location.
The Deputy will be aware that the national broadband plan, NBP, has both a commercial element and a State intervention element.
The commercial element has been hugely successful, encouraging significant investment by the telecoms sector. Commercial operators have invested more than €2.75 billion in upgrading and modernising their networks over the past five years. In 2012 fewer than 700,000, or 30%, of all 2.3 million Irish premises had access to high-speed broadband. When this Government came into office, this had risen to 52%. Today 74% of premises can access high-speed broadband.
Under a commitment agreement signed with my Department in April 2017, Eir is in the process of passing 300,000 predominantly rural homes with high-speed broadband. According to data for quarter 3 of 2018 submitted by Eir to my Department, the company has passed almost 210,000 premises nationwide as part of its ongoing deployment.
Regarding the State intervention element of the NBP, my Department is now in the final stages of a procurement process to engage a company which will build, maintain and operate the State intervention network.
My Department has received a final tender submission from the bidder which is tendering for this contract. This submission is under assessment by my officials.
It is my priority that the procurement process be brought to a fair and impartial conclusion as quickly as possible. In the coming weeks I will bring a recommendation to Government on the remaining bidder's submission.
There is somewhat of a recurring theme to the response the Minister has issued. It is a theme that preceded his arrival into the office he now holds, an effort on the part of the Government to take credit for the work being done by the private contractors in the overall roll-out of broadband. The facts remain that the Government committed back in 2012 to roll out high-speed broadband to areas that were not commercially viable. People made decisions in this regard but there has been little or no progress since. It is the case that a final tender was submitted in September. However, back when the Government negotiated the programme for Government, the projected date for the signing of that contract was June 2017. We are no closer to it now than we were then. What we need from Government is a clear timeline of completion of its work. I have some issues with the Smyth report but it is completed. I cannot understand, nor can most people, the necessity of these ongoing discussions within the Minister's Department. He knows what is required. This has been ongoing for a very considerable period. What we now need is action and timelines in order that we bring some certainty to the people who have waited far too long for this really important service. The work the Department agreed under an arrangement with Eir to roll out broadband to 300,000 homes throughout the country has infuriated as many people as it has resolved issues for them. A house that is one house beyond an area that Eir has committed to serving will not get broadband. There is no sign of it happening. The Department's work has created almost as many problems as it has attempted to solve.
We are very clearly a lot further on. A detailed final bid was submitted in September. It is a comprehensive bid to deliver a broadband plan. The Deputy asks why my officials and I are taking so much time to evaluate this. I think he himself the other evening raised questions, as did numerous other Deputies, about issues such as the robustness of the technology, the deployment strategy, the contract terms, the governance of the project and the terms for connection.
Deputy Dooley heard them himself. Numerous legitimate issues were raised. It is right that we would tease them out and be satisfied. If I am in a position to bring a recommendation to the Government it will be based on having teased out the very issues Deputies here are raising with me. That is the reason time is being taken for that.
The Deputy complained that the Government is taking credit for commercial operators deciding to carve out part of the original 750,000 households, but that is under the terms of State aid. Once one enters into the provision of State support to a project such as this, there has to be an opportunity for others to come in, and that has triggered the arrival of others to make provision for 300,000 households. They are the facts.
I have raised very serious concerns about the capacity of the remaining bidder to deliver. I and others have been raising them for the past year and a half and, sadly, it seems that it has only dawned on the Government in recent weeks. Perhaps the concerns are being taken more seriously following the Minister's arrival in office. I have been raising concerns since the main contractors that had the capacity to deliver the project, who were identified in the KPMG report before this process ever started, pulled out. What I cannot understand is the continued delay of the Government in reaching a decision. Surely the information is there. If tough decisions have to be taken then the Minister will find support on this side of the House, but let us make them and then move on.
I am sure anyone would have preferred that the five bidders who originally entered into the process stayed right to the end, but as Deputy Dooley knows, the number reduced to three and, in turn, they reduced to one. That is the nature of any procurement process. Having just one bidder left required far greater due process by the State to ensure that the State interests are protected. That is the reason there has been this level of work to evaluate carefully the risks and benefits, technically and financially. I do not think anyone would forgive me for short-circuiting that work. It is important that when I go to the Government with a recommendation it is based on a thorough evaluation. That is clearly what I am attempting to achieve.