Over 500,000 homes and businesses across the country are still without broadband and high-speed connectivity, which is having a significantly negative impact on the capacity of rural enterprise to develop and prosper and on the quality of life of many rural households. The original national broadband plan was published in 2012. The procurement process was approved by Cabinet in December 2015. It is now almost December 2018. Progress has been at a snail's pace and many people are deeply frustrated despite all of the political promises made before and after election campaigns.
The procurement process has become mired in controversy. We have the report from the independent auditor, Peter Smyth, which I was reading prior to Leaders' Questions. The extraordinary level of connectivity between Granahan McCourt and the former Minister stands out. There were 18 meetings, nine telephone calls and five dinners. The majority, especially the 12-minute phone call, clearly related to the broadband plan. This is a level of engagement that is without precedent in the context of ministerial involvement with a lead bidder in a tender process. It is extraordinary by any yardstick. One has to ask why Mr. McCourt would feel it so necessary to have such regular engagement with the lead Minister. The auditor acknowledges that those meetings gave rise to concern. He also indicates that he cannot state unequivocally that the broadband procurement process was not discussed during two of those dinner meetings.
It is also important to put on the record that the New York meeting dealt with the character and nature of the consortium. The independent auditor does not deal with this but it seems to us from an objective reading that the lead bidder and the character and composition of the consortium changed. There is a question as to whether the final bidder in the race would have passed the pre-qualification stage. We do not know that because we do not know the criteria. Enet was the lead bidder. That changed with the sale of Enet and Mr. McCourt's investment fund became the lead bidder. An investment fund with a list of subcontractors is now the final bidder in the race as opposed to a number of major telecommunications companies that were involved initially. This raises questions about the capacity to drive this through. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the final bidder is the same as the original consortium that made a bid and passed prequalification?
I am told an economic evaluation is under way. When did that start and who commissioned it? Who is conducting this evaluation, which is being done in parallel to the tender evaluation process? What are the new timelines and deadlines for the roll-out of broadband to rural Ireland?