Is Ireland’s National Broadband Plan turning into a game of ‘political football’?

8 Feb 2018

Houses of the Oireachtas building in Dublin. Image: EQRoy/Shutterstock

Removing 300,000 premises from original intervention plan was necessary under State Aid rules, says Denis Naughten.

Instead of getting on with the vital task of bringing broadband to the 540,000 premises in regional Ireland that need it, calls for a review of the procurement process have turned it into a game of political football.

That’s the view of Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, TD, who yesterday (7 February) rubbished calls for a review of the process to run “in parallel” with the roll-out of infrastructure that could transform the economic future of Ireland’s regions, labelling it “unrealistic”.

‘I reject the suggestion that there is any basis for carrying out a review’

In the aftermath of Eir exiting the National Broadband Plan (NBP) procurement process, which left one consortium, Enet-SSE, in the race, Naughten earlier this week rejected a Fianna Fáil motion seeking a review of the contract process for the NBP.

The NBP is an EU-supported strategy to deploy a minimum of 30Mbps future-proofed broadband connectivity to 540,000 homes in areas that lack this vital infrastructure.

Calls for a review rubbished

Naughten said that such a review would delay the start of the plan – which originally began in 2012 and was due to be complete by 2016 – until at least 2019 at the earliest.

In response to TDs’ calls for a parallel review while the roll-out takes place, Naughten dismissed this as time-wasting.

In a speech to the Dáil, Naughten railed: “This too is totally unrealistic and suggests either a naivety or that the NBP is being used as a political football.

“The conduct of a parallel review would significantly impact on the procurement team’s ability to engage effectively with the bidder in dialoguing the final issues for resolution. The exercise would introduce uncertainty to the process and, legitimately, the bidder could decide to disengage from the process until the review was concluded. In any event, I reject the suggestion that there is any basis for carrying out a review.”

Why did Government grant a deal with Eir?

Last year, Eir signed a deal with the Irish Government to take 300,000 homes and businesses out of the orignal intervention area, reducing the final number to 540,000 premises that would need future-proofed broadband connectivity.

Last night, Naughten defended the deal, saying it was necessary under EU State aid rules.

He said that if the intervention was not reduced to reflect the Eir commercial roll-out, there was a very real risk that the Irish Government would have been in breach of State aid guidelines, jeopardising the NBP altogether as no money would have been forthcoming from Europe.

“One of the fundamental principles under the State aid guidelines is that State aid for high-speed broadband services should be granted only in respect of areas where market failure has been identified. Therefore, only where private investment does not deliver or does not have concrete plans to do so in the near future, should State aid be used.

“My department had no involvement in the selection of premises for inclusion in this commercial roll-out, and that was entirely a decision for Eir, as it would be for any commercial company. Following examination of the commercial plans submitted by Eir, I entered into a commitment agreement in respect of the Eir 300,000 roll-out.

“While the State aid guidelines envisage clear milestones being set out in commercial plans, the commitment agreement I delivered considerably exceeded those guidelines, as it included not only milestones for delivery, but also robust monitoring and enforcement provisions,” Naughten said.

Houses of the Oireachtas building in Dublin. Image: EQRoy/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years