It is an honour to speak to the House as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I look forward to working with colleagues, who I know have put considerable work into this area.
I want to talk about the background to the Smyth report. The report was before Government recently and has been published. The background, as Deputies are aware, is that the national broadband plan is an ambitious plan. It set out to ensure that every home, school and business in Ireland, regardless of how remote or rural, will have access to high-speed broadband. In international terms this is a highly ambitious plan. No one is to be left behind in terms of getting access to broadband. The broadband specification set out, namely, a minimum of 30 megabits, will be considerably exceeded. Indeed it was considerably exceeded by all three. The plan aims to deliver fibre to the home in the great majority of cases. It will be a high standard of broadband access.
We all know from our lives about the importance of access to broadband. We know about its impact on what people can do. We know about the ease with which people can communicate, stay in touch and get options for business, leisure, social contacts and so on.
The position is that the final tender was submitted to the Department on 18 September. That is now under a process of detailed assessment and the assessment is continuing. In parallel, the independent process auditor to the procurement process was asked to provide a report to the Taoiseach and me to assess whether the process has been compromised by meetings which took place between the former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, and Mr. David McCourt. Mr. Peter Smyth's primary role is as an independent consultant who has been contracted as process auditor in respect of the national broadband plan procurement process. He was secured by an independent tender on the basis of which he was selected. In that capacity he is required to audit the procurement process against the appropriate guidelines and processes. The auditor is independent of the Department and in this capacity formally reports to the Secretary General as Accounting Officer for the Department.
Last week the Government noted and accepted the conclusions of the independent auditor's report. I imagine all those present have read the report. Essentially, the auditor took four critical tests against which he judged what had occurred with regard to meetings, in particular meetings that were neither minuted nor where an independent person was in attendance. The four tests are set out in page 16 of the report. The independent auditor considered whether the former Minister was privy to any sensitive information that could have been of benefit to Granahan McCourt. The second test was whether the former Minister took any decisions within the process that benefited Granahan McCourt. The third test was whether the former Minister was in a position to influence changes in the tender documents. The final test was whether the former Minister was in a position to influence the evaluation of the submissions. Based on the consideration of these four elements, the independent process auditor was satisfied that the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, did not influence or seek to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise.
The auditor went on in his general conclusions to say that the meetings between the former Minister and Mr. David McCourt gave cause for concern as they suggest an ongoing engagement outside of any formal need for them to engage with each other in the normal course of the Department business, including the business of the State-led intervention under the national broadband plan. Mr. Smyth indicated that these meetings in and of themselves gave cause for concern. However, when he considered them against the four tests and when he reviewed all the information to which he had access, including the decision register, the evolution of the tender documents, the evaluation process for the various submissions and the information that could have been available to the bidder through contact with the former Minster and so on, he drew the conclusion that he was satisfied that neither the former Minister nor Mr. McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise. He also concluded that the decision of the former Minister to resign, thereby removing himself from the process, insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr. McCourt. Those are the important conclusions.
I wish to comment on the overall procurement process. The process auditor has had access to all the key documentation over the 2.5 years of his engagement with the project to date. This has given him extensive knowledge of the practices, procedures and processes relating to this procurement. In his role, he has found appropriate guidelines have been adhered to in the procurement process. He has confirmed that the processes and decision-making are fair and objective and follow agreed processes.
It is now my priority that the procurement process is brought to a conclusion in a fair and transparent manner. I propose to revert to Government in the coming weeks with a recommendation. In bringing this process to a close I recognise, as do all my colleagues in the House, the profound benefits that high-speed broadband will bring to our citizens, urban and rural, living and working in Ireland. These benefits and opportunities are at the heart of why the national broadband plan exists and why the Government is determined to deliver it. We have all had personal interactions with many people throughout the country, especially in rural areas, who have been seeking a solution to the issue of connectivity. Digital connectivity has multiple positive impacts on the lives and livelihood of citizens throughout the country. The objectives of the national broadband plan aim to ensure that high quality reliable and future-proofed connectivity is available to every home and every business nationwide.
Some 1.1 million people live in the areas covered by the State intervention. The towns, villages, parishes and townlands are home to communities which need this service to thrive and prosper. These are communities with many self-employed people engaged in running more than 44,000 small to medium enterprises and more than 55,000 farms. The direct effect of the State investment will ensure that all citizens across the country will have the same access to quality, high-speed broadband. People of all ages and backgrounds will benefit from the roll-out. The benefits of access to high-speed broadband are as diverse as the people whose lives will be affected by this major advance in service.
As people who already avail of this service know, high-speed broadband is a transformative tool and is essential for the operations, compliance and services of businesses in every corner of the State. Access to reliable broadband services has the potential to support net job creation. This will happen through the growth of existing enterprises and the formation of start-ups in areas that previously did not have access to high-speed broadband. Farmers, for example, are already keenly aware of the benefits precision farming techniques can bring to their lifestyles and Iivelihoods. Agricultural benefits can be realised now and in the future by the adoption of smart farming methods. These methods can improve productivity and herd nutrition and allow for data-driven crop management, all of which lead to techniques that can reduce carbon emissions and improve environmental outcomes.
Digital resources are increasingly becoming part of the day-to-day education system. Using technology can benefit children in the school and at home, but children will require access to broadband in the home to fully avail of these resources. There are 674 national schools in the State intervention area. The national broadband plan will ensure that these children benefit from an equality of opportunity available to all pupils and students in the country.
I am conscious of the time remaining so I will short-circuit my remaining comments. I have already outlined the benefits of the roll-out of the national broadband plan. The Government's commitment to broadband has acted as a catalyst to the industry, which has responded in rolling out high-speed broadband. The increase in commercial availability has been dramatic. We have close to 75% coverage for commercial broadband. The challenge relates to the 23% in the intervention area, which covers almost 96% of the land area of the State. Providing equality of opportunity, to which the Government is very committed, is a challenging task. I hope we can develop a proposal that will commend itself, but at this stage evaluations are continuing. I hope they will conclude soon so that I can bring a recommendation to the Government shortly.