National Broadband Plan: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

notes:

— the importance of a reliable and sustainable national broadband network to all homes and businesses in Ireland;

— the significant delays to date regarding the roll-out of a procedurally sound National Broadband Plan (NBP);

— the escalating estimate of total cost for the delivery of the NBP and the lack of clarity regarding those costs;

— that the structure of the sole remaining bidding entity has changed substantially over the course of the process and the significant concerns which exist regarding the robustness of the current iteration of the NBP and the structure of the sole remaining bidding consortium;

— the intrinsic connection between the contracts for, and the operation of, the Municipal Area Networks (MANs) and the roll-out of the NBP;

— that the company with the contracts to operate the MANs is now also a key component part of the sole remaining consortium bidding for the NBP;

— that concerns have been raised by major telecommunication companies regarding the efficacy of operations of the MANs by a company which is a key component of the sole remaining bidding consortium for the NBP;

— that the Analysys Mason review of the operation and management of MANs pricing and access has not yet been made public;

— that concerns have arisen in relation to the review, by Mr. Peter Smyth, Independent Process Auditor, in November 2018, commissioned into the current process for the NBP, in relation to its completeness and the rigour of its scrutiny of the key relationships and interactions between interested parties, the then Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Denis Naughten T.D., and Departmental officials; and

— that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, having accepted the review, by Mr. Peter Smyth, informed the Dáil in December 2018 that a decision on the contract for the NBP was imminent but that as yet no decision has been notified to the Dáil; and

calls on the Government to provide:

— an immediate update on the status of the process for the awarding of the contract for the NBP;

— a statement from the Minister regarding the report about which its author, Mr. Peter Smyth, made a public comment confirming that, when conducting his report, he didn’t ask for written statements from those involved because he said he didn’t feel it was appropriate to ‘interrogate’ people;

— an assurance that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and his Department have been satisfied as to the competitiveness of a process with only one bidder;

— an assurance that rigorous scrutiny has been given to assessing the long-term viability of the sole remaining bidder and its ability to deliver on the project;

— a commitment that no decision will be taken on the NBP contract until the Analysys Mason report is made public; and

— a commitment that any NBP roll-out will prioritise affordability for the end-user to connect to the network.

Although the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has not been in his current role for very long, I know he appreciates that the national broadband plan process has been ongoing for several years but many people in modern Ireland still have limited or no access to the tools required to participate in a modern society and economy. It is crucial that we deliver broadband to such people. However, I cannot emphasise enough that we must do so through an unimpeachable process in which the veracity of the winning bidder and its ability to deliver long term are verified as well in a way that focuses on the net result for consumers, particularly in terms of affordability and broadband speed. There is no point going ahead with the process if an average household will not be able to afford to connect to the infrastructure that is finally put in place or the network ultimately proves inadequate. This must be about empowering our citizens to connect to a globalised world in their business and personal endeavours. The process must guarantee the ability of the winning bidder to deliver the project or else the Exchequer will end paying by way of a State subsidy and-or citizens will pay the price of not being able to connect to broadband. We must remember that if the contract is awarded, it will run for a considerable period of time. If we do not get it right, it could be very problematic to reverse it and doing so may involve the payment of compensation.

The old adage is that one must learn from past mistakes, yet nothing in the broadband process to date gives me confidence that we will not repeat current and past mistakes when it comes to the tendering process and the eventual awarding of the contract. The results of the clearly flawed process for the development of the national children's hospital are coming home to roost, involving colossal cost overruns, deadlines that have been missed on more occasions than I care to count and serious frustrations on all sides of the project. Members on this side of the House are being asked to blindly trust the people responsible for projects such as the national children's hospital to make the final decision on the national broadband plan. The metro north project went through a similarly incoherent and rocky process involving numerous incarnations and setbacks. The same can be said of Luas and the eventual need for a cross-city Luas line which had been included on the original plans. In fact, there are myriad projects to which one could point as examples of the continued inability of this State to get major projects right first time. I acknowledge that this did not all happen on the Minister's watch. There is ongoing failure in regard to such projects. The penny must drop that we need to look at what we have been doing wrong in regard to such failures rather than just blame it on a system failure. If there is a system failure, one must fix the system.

The problems that have emerged with the national children's hospital, for example, are not in the main resultant from something that happened after the project began. The major cause of the issues is a laissez faire approach to the tender and contract process before the project commenced. If one does not ensure that the design plan, building blocks and builder are the correct choices, one will have a less than satisfactory outcome. That is why this period in the life cycle of the national broadband plan is of such importance. If we do not get things right now, we will pay the price at a later stage. We have a one-off chance before any contracts are awarded to ask whether we can stand over the process to date and genuinely believe that the process as it stands will deliver the best possible outcome for users and the Exchequer.

All Members are aware of the significant and serious questions which arose during 2017 regarding the handling of the national broadband plan by the then Minister, Deputy Naughten. At the crescendo of the controversy, I, as well as members of Fianna Fáil and other Deputies, stated that the national broadband plan was fatally flawed. The Government commissioned a report by Mr. Peter Smyth in a bid to prove otherwise and reassure people that the Minister attending various dinner parties and exchanging regular private calls and texts with the owner of the sole remaining bidder was not a problem.

At the time, I raised concerns about the ability of Peter Smyth to be entirely impartial in his report because he was the process auditor throughout the process which caused the controversy. It was a process failure and he was auditing that process. When the Smyth report was furnished to the House, most Members were underwhelmed by its watery findings. In the absence of minutes or a written record of many of the interactions between the then Minister, Deputy Naughten, the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, and Mr. David McCourt, Mr. Smyth took the key players at their word that nothing inappropriate had occurred. When Mr. Smyth commented at a follow-up press conference that he did not interrogate the then Minister or Mr. David McCourt because he did not think it appropriate to do so, he significantly undermined the veracity of the report and left serious question marks over the relationship between a Minister and a billionaire businessman - an all-too familiar vista in major communications contracts. In that regard, we must consider the learnings, or lack thereof, from past mistakes.

In the same way, we must look to the forerunner of the national broadband plan and ensure the lessons from its roll out and operation inform the broadband plan. The municipal area networks, MANs, project was established in 2004 and contract extensions to run to 2030 were awarded to Enet in 2016. There remain question marks and ongoing court proceedings regarding the detail behind those contracts and their extension. However, in spite of orders by the information commissioner and the High Court to release the details in the public interest, the Department has continually refused to so do. It has brought an appeal to the Court of Appeal - which, obviously, will be a costly exercise - to keep information the release of which has been determined to be in the public interest out of the public eye. Such secrecy rings warning bells and flies in the face of the stated ambition of an open government or governance approach to the process.

Leaving aside the significant questions regarding the contract process for Enet and the MANs, there are question marks over the operation, efficiency and usefulness of the plan in terms of the end user take-up of the networks. In 2014, BT Ireland wrote to the Department expressing serious concerns regarding how Enet was operating the municipal area networks. Several people and businesses, including public bodies, were unable to connect to the network due to the prohibitive cost. Many industry experts have questioned the scale, coverage and take-up of the MANs across the country. Those living in the intervention area should pay serious attention to this because if we do not learn from that process, exactly the same thing may happen with the national broadband plan.

A recent freedom of information dump from the Department to The Irish Times journalist Jack Horgan-Jones included a briefing note prepared for the then Minister in 2016 ahead of a meeting he was due to have with Mr. David McCourt who, at the time, was heading the consortium which had acquired Enet, which was operating the MANs. The briefing note was prepared two years after BT Ireland, a major telecoms player with significant expertise, outlined to the Department its serious concerns regarding the operation of the MANs by Enet.

The briefing note of 2016 makes absolutely no reference to those concerns and states the MANs programme has proven effective. It has not proven effective if concerns are being raised by businesses and individuals and if there is a proven difficulty with take-up and cost. It is surely hard to argue that a briefing that fails to acknowledge the serious concerns of a major industry expert like BT is comprehensive. One cannot just ignore that.

Thus far, only part of one of the two Department-commissioned reports into the MANs, namely, the Norcontel report, has been put into the public domain. We are still awaiting the publication of the Analysys Mason report into the operation of the MANs. It is ridiculous that we do not have the information to allow us to consider this issue adequately and determine what has gone wrong or right in order to inform our consideration of the contract. Very often one is an expert after completing a process but one really needs to be an expert in advance.

The documentation on the experience of the forerunner to the national broadband plan should seriously comprise one of the most important sets of documentation available to the Minister and Opposition. That such secrecy and obfuscation surrounds this process should be a concern in and of itself. That the Minister and his Department have pushed two court appeals - it may well have been prior to the Minister's tenure - rather than accepting the High Court judgment and a ruling of the information commissioner to release details of the MANs contracts with Enet should raise eyebrows. That the Peter Smyth report is, by its author's own admission, lacking in veracity should raise concerns in its own right. That the process has found itself with only one remaining bidder should raise eyebrows. Surely a contract of this magnitude should have had competitors beating down the doors to win it, yet we are aware that major telecommunications players such as Eir and SIRO pulled out of the process. They cited governance and regulatory concerns. Do we really know what those concerns are? Have they been properly interrogated? Have we satisfied ourselves as to what governance and regulatory concerns Eir and SIRO were referring to? I do not believe we have. At my request, Eir has agreed to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts next month. SIRO has not accepted that invitation. Enet has agreed but with some significant caveats as to what it will and will not discuss.

Both the Minister and his predecessor have been saying for some time that a decision on the awarding of the national broadband plan contract is imminent. This motion is asking the Minister to assure this House and public that such an important decision is not just being taken on the basis that we are too far along a flawed process to turn back and get it right. If getting it right means a delay in the process, that is far preferable to ploughing ahead only to find ourselves a year or two down the road hand-wringing, as we are currently doing over the national children's hospital, and wondering where it all went so badly wrong in terms of costs. Bearing in mind the make-up of the consortium, there is a very high risk in regard to the ability to deliver on this broadband plan. We have got to be concerned about the costs for the end-user, and also the Exchequer, which could end up giving very large subsidies.

As I understand it, there is no comprehensive map within the Department or regulator of the networks that might already exist or the take-up of broadband within those networks. Surely it makes sense to have an audit of current capacity before ploughing ahead with anything new so we can reduce duplication and possibly cost. For example, the ESB rolled out a significant fibre-optic domestic network using EU funds. Individuals with more technical knowledge than I have told me it would not be a major job to use those networks to tack on the necessary hardware for broadband capabilities. Could the Minister comment on that? Similarly, we are aware that Bord Gáis rolled out the Aurora network and that Esat laid lines across parts of the country - for example, between Ballina and Tubbercurry. Again, this was with EU funding. Eir is currently providing fibre-optic cabling to areas it deems economically viable in terms of its bottom line. What consideration, if any, has been given to the possibility of using any, or all, of these networks, even for a partial rolling out of broadband? As I understand it, the ESB domestic fibre-optic network was established at a cost of €59 million. To date, has any discussion taken place between the ESB and the Department about the potential use of those networks?

The MANs, despite being operated by Enet, comprise a State-owned asset. Surely we must ensure that any current or future use of the infrastructure must oblige the user benefiting from the public finances to provide the service to all, regardless of the cost to the provider. Having said that, I am acutely aware of the warning given at a conference by one of the consortia. It said a genuine discussion needed to take place on rolling out broadband to the last 15% of the country in terms of economic viability. It said we needed to have an honest discussion about that. I would like to hear the possible impediments in this regard. I am sure they would have been articulated in outlining the problems with the roll-out.

Rural areas are affected but not-so-rural areas are also affected. Pockets of my constituency, which is really seen as the commuter belt area, are affected. The constituency is not exactly the most rural part of the country but it has pockets with very unreliable broadband. Therefore, it is not an exclusively rural issue. Even in this city, there are spots where broadband is not particularly good. The required service can be guaranteed only if we get this process right while we have a chance. Otherwise, we might find that a consortium of self-interested businesspeople will be given free reign to choose when and where it suits it to prioritise and how affordable it decides to make the end product. There are those who are not taking up the MANs because of affordability. I cannot emphasise this enough. I ask the Minister to address this in particular when talking about the national broadband plan and what guarantees might exist.

This motion is attempting to ensure we do not make the same mistake yet again. It is very obvious that there is a really serious problem of institutional deficiency in the oversight of capital projects. There are some areas in which we do reasonably well because there is much expertise, such as roads, but with regard to some of the other projects it is as if we are spending Monopoly money, not the people's real money. We have got to be prudent about the process; otherwise it is going to be costly and will potentially not deliver on what has been promised.

I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy for raising this matter. This is an important debate on a hugely important project and the Deputy recognises that. It is worth recalling that the programme for Government sets out that one of the biggest challenges facing rural Ireland is to bridge the digital divide with urban areas and remedy the situation for at least the next 25 years. This is the ambition. We need to have next-generation broadband for every household and business. This is the purpose of the national broadband plan. It is a very ambitious plan because it involves reaching 100% of houses and premises in the intervention area. A high-level broadband speed was specified, with a minimum of 30 Mbps. A high standard was expected to be set and the objective required was that the charges would be the same as those applying in urban areas. It is designed to achieve exactly what the Deputy said, which is that access to a network would be available to people in the intervention area on the same basis as it would be available to anyone else. The other feature is that this is to be delivered over a 25-year period. When we approach capital projects, we normally ask how much it will cost to lay it down and people will tell us the investment will be a certain amount. This is an entirely uncommercial area. Everything commercial was carved out and what is to be delivered here is not just to create the infrastructure but to operate it over a long period of 25 years, future-proof it and maintain it as take-up develops over the period.

What we have sought to achieve is ambitious but rural Ireland will remain marginalised if it cannot participate in the cloud-based services we will have, is not able to participate in remote services that will undoubtedly deliver, and is not able to be part of the Internet of things, which is rapidly changing the way in which people consume information and control their lives. The ambition is absolutely right and Deputy Catherine Murphy has recognised this.

The choice of competitive dialogue was also important. Deputy Catherine Murphy rightly recognises that the State came to this not with a ready-made solution designed in Adelaide Road. This was about getting the best thinking available come up with ideas to solve it. As the Deputy knows, five people did come through. Many of them made bids but, as she correctly stated, two of the bids were withdrawn and only one remains.

The Deputy is correct to state we would have preferred if more than one bidder continued through to the end of the process but because there was only one bidder, we have had to take a lot more due diligence and care about overseeing what has been submitted. The Deputy and others are critical that we are not making a quicker decision but the very fact we have had to approach this in a far more rigorous way, assessing not just the technology being put forward but also the cost at a granular level, going right down into the cost structure to understand what is being bid for, and contesting the bid on an extremely close basis. This has been required by the fact there is only one bidder.

It is also important to remember part of the rules of the competitive dialogue was the State could only support through the competitive dialogue connections deemed not to be commercial. Originally, there was a much bigger intervention area with many more premises but Eir indicated that it believed it could roll them out commercially. It irritates some people to hear that the national broadband process resulted in the commercial sector stepping up to the plate and recognising that if it wanted to supply commercially, it had to make its move and it did so. Of the 300,000 premises, 66% are delivered and they are continuing. The fact of the process has stimulated the private sector and we now have close to 75% with high-speed broadband.

The Deputy was critical of the approach of Mr. Peter Smyth but I am of the view that he approached this with great rigour and he was the right person to do it. He understood the process from the very start.

He understood what the Government wanted.

He was there to ensure the integrity of the process and he approached it in the right way. He looked at four tests. These were whether the Minister was privy to sensitive information, whether he took any decisions in the process that benefitted Granahan McCourt, whether he was in position to influence changes in the tender documents and, in particular, the evaluation of the submissions. In all cases, Mr. Smyth found that the Minister was not in a position to do so and his conclusions are robust. He is 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. Mr. Smyth also stated that while it was a cause for concern that the meetings took place he believed the decision of the former Minister to resign - thereby removing himself from the process - insulated the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr. McCourt. This was a very strong finding from Mr. Peter Smyth. He attended the Oireachtas committee and has made himself available to explain how he reached his conclusion. I strongly believe he was the right person to do so.

Deputy Catherine Murphy referred to the MANs and how they developed. She has been critical of the decision, made before my time, to extend the contract for the first period to the second, which was envisaged during the first period. I assure her that we will learn anything that is to be learned from the MANs process and I am determined to do so. I only recently received the MANs report, which I am considering. I will publish it shortly and take whatever steps are appropriate. I will also ensure that any lessons that can be learned from the process will be learned, should the project be approved for the national broadband plan.

I assure the Deputy we have accurate mapping of those who can provide speeds at the required level. As she knows, the commercial providers have carved out their areas leaving the amber areas for which we will provide. Although the amber areas contain only 23% of the population, they cover 96% of the landmass. We have to reach an area in which customer density is 80 times less than in the areas provided for commercially. This is challenging.

The Deputy asked for an honest debate on the cost of provision. The ambition to achieve 100% reach is the right one. We should not decide we will leave some of our population behind, whereby some people will be marginalised from opportunities in health, education or other evolving policies the State and others will develop that will require high-speed access. It is right that we aim to deliver this ambition.

I understand that people rightly want assurance. I can provide an assurance that we will not just push ahead because, to paraphrase Shakespeare, to return were more difficult than go o'er. Whatever decision is taken, it will be taken on the grounds that it is in the best interests of delivering the service with robust technology and at an appropriate cost.

That is why the time is being taken to evaluate what has been submitted. I refer to ensuring the technology is robust, we can put in place the proper governance, and checks and balances are in the contract to protect the taxpayer and potential users in the future. I appreciate the Deputy's concern and I assure the House I am taking it, and the concerns I know other Deputies will express, extremely seriously so that, whatever way this decision goes, we will make the decision with the best information available to us.

I thank the Minister and I call Deputy Dooley, who is sharing time with a number of colleagues.

With the permission of the House, I intend to take ten minutes and then share the rest of my time with my colleagues.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this very important issue. Fianna Fáil will be supporting this motion. The Minister is aware that to this generation, broadband is what running water and electricity were to previous generations. It is of that magnitude and importance. The digital divide between urban and rural areas, and semi-urban and rural areas, is brought into stark focus daily. We have just come back to the House after the Christmas period which has given us all an opportunity to spend more time with our constituents than is normally possible.

As children were given gifts and new technologies were purchased in homes over Christmas, the difficulty associated with being unable to connect to the Internet at speeds required for people to live their lives with the kind of comforts and expectations they have come to expect became clear. I refer to students home from college preparing reports or for exams, schoolkids doing their homework and people trying to develop their small and medium enterprises in rural and semi-urban areas. They had ongoing difficulties in connecting to and communicating with the Internet because of the slow pace of this Government in rolling out broadband to any appreciable level. There is no point in even mentioning high-speed broadband.

This is something that, sadly, goes back to commitments given in 2012, principally by Fine Gael. The national broadband plan has been in gestation since then. I do not intend to bore the House by going back ad nauseam on all of the dates and times missed during that period. We find ourselves in a situation where, sadly, the Minister is still supporting the principle of the competitive dialogue. Notwithstanding what competitive dialogue processes have delivered in other jurisdictions and at other times, we have to accept that it is a monumental failure in the context of this project. It has left us in a situation where we have just one bidder. The Minister has rightly identified that requires him to go into the granular detail of the cost structure. That is not something he would have had to do if other bidders had remained in the bidding process. It would be useful for the Minister, if he has not done this to date, to communicate with those parties that did not remain in the process. I accept that since the Minister came to office in this particular Department he has had many issues to deal with.

If he gets an opportunity to go back and read the PwC report which sets out the purpose of encouraging those existing players into the process, he will find that it referred to the benefits to the State of existing operators being able to leverage the infrastructure they already had. That infrastructure already in place would also benefit the taxpayer in being able to spread the costs over that network and speed up the roll out. The competitive dialogue process has, effectively, pushed out those companies. I accept that has happened for different reasons. It has, however, left us with an entity that has no experience in broadband provision. We are left now with a private finance house from Boston with some subcontractors here. I do not believe that is a good way to proceed. It is not in the interests of the State or of the people who have been waiting on the promise of high-speed broadband since 2012.

I have had the opportunity to engage with this process for quite some time. The people I have spoken to who are affected by this in rural and semi-urban areas are deeply frustrated because of the impact it is having on their lives. They do not believe anything from any side of this House at this stage. I do not think they even tune in anymore when we talk about broadband. Those people just do not believe that it is going to happen. Perhaps the strategy of some within the Minister's Government is that the longer this is played out, the more likely it is that people will be burned out and then they will make do with what they have. If that is the case, we will see the continuous erosion of life in rural Ireland.

We have to move on from what has happened. We have to get to a point where the Government commits to whatever it is going to commit to and put in place whatever financial resources it is in a position to put behind this project. I assure the Minister that this side of the House will accept nothing less than the provision of high-speed broadband to all of the homes in rural Ireland, taking into account the plethora of technologies that can be deployed and still give the kind of speeds that are expected and necessary. I refer in particular to the last mile.

The issues which this motion raises, the delivery of the national broadband plan, the competitiveness of the project, the long-term viability of the remaining bidder and the affordability of the project, are all concerns shared on this side of the House and expressed previously. I do not propose to rehearse the timeline for how we got to this point, other than to provide my own understanding of the situation we find ourselves in within days of the award of one of the largest contracts this State has seen in modern times. The former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, resigned. We know about that and why it happened. It was as a result of his inappropriate communication with Mr. David McCourt of Granahan McCourt, the sole remaining bidder. If Granahan McCourt's bid is not accepted there is no clear pathway to the delivery of the plan. If the bid is accepted, questions remain as to the capacity of that entity, based on its experience or lack thereof, to deliver against the exacting timelines and in an environment where the availability of contractors is questionable, based on the limited number of skilled personnel in the State and, indeed, outside of it.

Whatever plan the Minister intends to announce, therefore, it is vitally important that he is upfront and honest. It is important that he sets out from the start clear timelines as to when he expects a tender to be signed, when he expects work to begin, the rate at which work will be completed and when the final connection is to be made. That is really important and we need to see in what areas, counties and regions broadband is to be delivered within particular timescales and timelines. That will be a difficult political decision for the Minister and for the Government. We all understand that. If the Minister and the Government are at least upfront and honest, and people know it will be quarter 4 of 2021, quarter 3 of 2022 or quarter 1 of 2025 before the project is completed, then people will accept that. They will accept that outcome if it is real, verifiable and if they can expect, based on the Minister's recommendations, that it is actually going to happen.

We do not need another fudge. We do not need soft language that gives everyone a sense of a warm feeling. That will not work anymore because people are absolutely burned out on this issue. People will accept that it is perhaps going to be longer than they had originally envisaged, so long as that is set out in clear terms. I think, however, that the issues regarding the national broadband plan date back much further than some of the issues mentioned. By the time the former Minister met with McCourt in New York, both SIRO and Eir had dropped out of the process and SSE was soon to follow. That speaks to the difficulties that existed with the competitive dialogue process. It is important that the Government takes stock of what has happened and tries to ascertain how or why it has happened in this way so that the same process is not used again.

Sadly, the Peter Smyth report skirted around the issue. He failed to accept that there was a lobbying intent by Mr. McCourt. All of those meetings, texts and phone calls did not happen because Mr. McCourt liked the former Minister, or vice versa, and that they needed to be having meals, dinners and texts on that basis. In the case of Mr. McCourt, in my view, he did so on the basis that he was seeking to curry favour with the Government and the former Minister. That breaches the principles set out in the guidelines for bidding for this particular project. Mr. Smyth has been complimented, but any fair-minded assessment will find that Mr. Smyth delivered what the Government wanted. When I questioned him before a committee, he made it very clear that he has never had an adverse finding in any of his audit reports. That seems bizarre.

He failed to look at the basic issue of canvassing. He accepted canvassing took place at a minimum at the dinner in New York only because there were minutes taken of the meeting. He accepted, however, the assertions of the former Minister and Mr. McCourt that, on at least three occasions when they held private meetings, the national broadband plan was never discussed. While I do not want to assign any wrongdoing to any individual, it is impossible to believe no discussion took place around the national broadband plan between these two individuals when they met on at least three occasions with no officials present.

Deputies Michael Moynihan, Gallagher, Rabbitte, Michael McGrath, Aylward and Murphy O'Mahony are sharing time.

For some time, many Deputies have stated broadband is needed for rural communities to continue what is expected for normal living in 2019. Instead, we have continual changes of deadlines for plans. For example, a roll-out plan was announced before Easter 2014 which was to be completed by the autumn of that year. It never happened.

The Government has no serious intention to get to grips with the crisis in broadband service provision or to get it rolled out. Earlier the Minister quoted Shakespeare. By the time we will have broadband under this Government, this debate will be Shakespearian. We need to grasp this issue because it is of urgent importance to the communities which I represent, as well as many others.

I acknowledge that some 65,000 households will be connected to broadband by the end of the year. However, tens of thousands of others will not be. The national broadband plan has had many false dawns, resulting in much disappointment across rural areas.

To understand how out of the touch the Government is, during the silly season the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade advised people in rural areas to apply for passports on the Internet. To say that to people who will not have high-speed broadband for years shows how out of touch the Government really is. Many people who could work from home should be provided with proper broadband. The Minister should speak to Eir. It provides a service but there are gaps in the fibre optic laid out on the national roads, even around clusters of houses and businesses. The Minister should see if Eir can bridge some of these gaps. Broadband must be provided by way of a comprehensive plan. While the Minister is in a honeymoon period, I believe he will do everything possible. We need answers on the national broadband plan soon. We are answerable to our electorate. It is like saying some can have electricity but others cannot. It is not rocket science. By way of a proper plan, as well as a commitment by the Government and the service provider, broadband could be made available sooner rather than later. I wish the Minister well. Will he take the lead and move on this matter where other Ministers have failed?

I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, is in the Chamber this evening. In Ballinakill, in east Galway, Eir is rolling out broadband. However, there will be a gap of about 1 km on either side of the village. If the Minister could engage with Eir, we could start plugging some of these gaps, providing equal coverage to all communities. The national school in Ballinakill is in that coverage gap when all other national schools in east Galway will be connected. It is unfair to the school’s pupils who will not have a shared learning experience, particularly when they go on to secondary school.

When the new contract is signed, will we have a level of priority for what will happen in the first 18 months of the roll-out?

An aspect of this debate which often goes unmentioned is how some urban settlements have poor broadband provision. Some of these urban areas affected are small settlements and others are on the fringes of large settlements. In the Cork South-Central constituency, largely an urban constituency with some hinterland, places like Ballygarvan village, Fountainstown and the outskirts of Douglas have no access to high-speed broadband.

Monkstown village is a good example of the category in which many areas find themselves. On the broadband map, it is included in a dark blue area, meaning it is deemed to be commercially viable for broadband and either broadband is available or there are plans for broadband delivery. When people in Monkstown ask Eir for a status update, they are told Eir’s priority is to deliver to the 300,000 homes as per the company’s commitment to the Government. There is no timescale, however, for the delivery of broadband in Monkstown. We have tried to get clarity for these areas with the local authority broadband officer, Eir and the Department, as well as through parliamentary questions. We still have not a timescale and it is not good enough. The people affected are expecting delivery.

Like my other colleagues, I have a short and simple message from rural Ireland. We need broadband and we need it now. People are frustrated, fed up and tired of the delays with the national broadband plan. Since May 2015, when I was elected, I have had representations from people living in rural communities and on the outskirts of rural towns who cannot understand why I cannot give them an update on the progress of the roll-out of broadband services. Frustration on the ground has reached boiling point.

There is also frustration among public representatives due to not having information to bring back to our constituents. When I check a constituent’s postcode on the national broadband plan map and it is classified in an amber area for State subvention, I cannot offer any solution. Rural communities have been kept waiting for eight years for the roll-out of high-speed broadband by the Government. I get the sense the Government is not serious about rural communities such as those in Carlow and Kilkenny.

Broadband is not a luxury for schools, families, businesses and farmers but a necessity. If it is not delivered soon, the benefits may be lost forever as investment will not flow to rural and regional areas. Several Ministers have failed miserably to bring this crucial national project to completion. It saddens me to say that I have serious doubts about when, if ever, it will be delivered. It represents one of the greatest Government failures in living memory. When it comes to thinking big and delivering for rural Ireland, the Government falls short. We will never reopen the boarded up shopfronts, create jobs and sustain enterprise in regional towns and villages if we do not have an equal platform for broadband services in order to compete with larger cities. I have numerous examples of people ringing me who want to move back to Kilkenny from Dublin but they cannot do so because their businesses depend on high-speed broadband to which they cannot get access outside of Dublin. It is time for the Minister to get this plan up and running. It is time for no more promises, just delivery.

Now for the view from west Cork from Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony.

The best place.

Broadband is no longer a luxury but a necessity of life, particularly for students and farmers. The only way farmers can access agricultural grants is online. Many farmers in west Cork do not have broadband, meaning they are unable to apply online.

On paper, the Cork South-West constituency is a great place to live and do business. For small and medium-sized enterprises, it offers close proximity to Cork Airport and two good third level educational facilities.

I know we are discussing broadband tonight but the Minister is also in charge of regulating mobile phone coverage. The lack of these two services is a major drawback for anyone looking to set up a home or business in west Cork.

Even where cable is being laid, there seems to be a lack of consistency. I know of one case at a crossroads where one house is getting the service but the house opposite is not. The cable is not being laid for it for some reason. I have submitted several parliamentary questions to the Minister's Department recently dealing with the roll-out of broadband but I have received generic answers to specific queries and cases. Perhaps the Minister could look into it.

I move amendment No. 1:

To insert the following after "for the end-user to connect to the network":

" - a guarantee that costs will not escalate over the course of the rollout of the NBP; and

- an alternative plan, encompassing the use of State infrastructure, is ready to be put forward in the event of the current procurement process failing."

I will be sharing time with Deputy Martin Kenny. The national broadband plan, NBP, is supposed to connect the remaining 542,000 households and businesses requiring high-speed broadband. Taking County Laois alone, there are 12,721 houses or premises left to be serviced, while in Offaly there are 12,420 left to be serviced. There are large areas in those counties that are not covered, including Banagher, Ferbane, Daingean, Rhode, Geashill, Kilcormac and Killeigh, along with many other places in Offaly. In Laois the areas not covered include Borris-in-Ossory, Ballaghmore, Ballinakill, Clonaslee, Rosenallis, Vicarstown, Ballylynan, Graigue and Crettyard. Almost 12,000 people commute from Laois to work every day and many of them do not need to do so. They have complained to me, saying that if they had services locally, they would not have to commute.

Seven years ago, the previous Fine Gael Government promised to roll out a national broadband plan and three years ago, the current Government committed to providing broadband "to every house and business in the country by 2020.". That commitment by this Government can never be met in the remaining 11 months to 2020. Will the process even begin by 2020, let alone finish? When will the contract be signed and when will the national broadband plan be rolled out and completed? People throughout the Twenty-six Counties are waiting. I gave the examples of Laois and Offaly but there are tens of thousands of people waiting for this.

In 2012, Sinn Féin proposed the use of State and semi-State infrastructure for this process but that suggestion was not taken up at the time. The delay arises because the Government turned to a privatised model and it is completely trapped by the process. The tender created by the Government - now with only one bidder - may also compromise future Governments and the taxpayer as costs spiral out of control over time. Will the Minister guarantee that the cost will not escalate? We are moving an amendment on that specific point. The Government has created a legal, financial and logistical nightmare. It is a mess, with a succession of delays, broken promises and inaction, and we have still not seen a shovel in the ground or a date for when the first home or business will be connected.

I have asked repeatedly, and I ask it again tonight, that if only one bidder remains in the process, and if the bidder is found incapable or unwilling to proceed, where is the plan B or where is the alternative for rural Ireland? In 2012 we proposed that the infrastructure that is already in place and State-owned should be used for the national broadband plan. In particular, we singled out the electricity infrastructure that is going to virtually every home and is being used to carry some fibre by the ESB. However, this was not considered. Along with the ESB lines was the State-owned metropolitan area network, MAN, which covers 94 towns. This has a network of fibre feeding the MAN that criss-crosses the State but again it was not considered. I can provide a map showing the cables running back and forth across the State. We have a web of fibre right across the country but the Government is trapped between two capitalist entities. Eir is privately owned, having been bought by a French millionaire, while the Granahan McCourt consortium is on the other side. Unfortunately, the taxpayer will pay the bill as it faces the prospect of subsidising the hanging of a cable on every pole. The taxpayer will have to pay a subsidy to Eir so those fibre cables can be hung on those poles. This amounts to an annual charge for our people. That will happen if the process involving the Granahan McCourt consortium is successful. Major financiers have withdrawn from the process and the current consortium is completely different from the consortium we started with. SSE Airtricity, John Laing Group plc and others have pulled out so we have the unbelievable position where the one remaining bidder is completely different from the original entity.

Two actions from the Government destroyed the national broadband plan and the cost will be borne by the taxpayer and particularly the 542,000 households and businesses still waiting for a service. The first was to rely on private industry to connect 840,000 premises and the second was the Government allowing Eir to cherry-pick the 300,000 households that were easiest to reach and the most commercially lucrative from those 840,000 premises. This ended the hope that any other bidders would participate. The Minister might say that the ESB pulled out but it had to do that once the 300,000 most lucrative premises were taken from the process. When the Minister addressed the Dáil he said the commercial or private sector stepped up to the plate and committed to delivering a service to those 300,000 premises. Eir did not step up to the plate but rather it grabbed the 300,000 premises that were easiest to reach, saying "thanks very much" and telling us to get somebody else to provide a connection to the other 540,000 premises, with the taxpayer subsidising that effort. I told the Minister's predecessor what would happen the day he made the announcement at a press conference in Government Buildings. I am sad to say it has come to pass.

What are the costs? We have heard figures of €1 billion and €3 billion but we have no idea of the cost and we cannot tell the people, so the taxpayer does not know either. One part of the amendment indicates that costs should not escalate over the period of rolling out broadband because only one bidder remains in the process. All of the power is in the hands of that one bidder. The Minister should not just take our word on this as Professor John FitzGerald commented on State contracts in general last year, indicating that if there is no queue of suppliers and bidders, there would be no saving for the State. There is no queue of companies waiting and the Government is trapped. The only way out of this is at a cost to the taxpayer, with continued delays for rural Ireland. The procurement process from the State was flawed and it is seriously banjaxed now. The Government has failed to outline a plan B and I ask again that it do so now. Will the Minister guarantee that the costs will not spiral out of control within the period of the plan? When will the contract be signed?

I live in rural Ireland and most people there have completely lost faith in the possibility that broadband will be delivered. It is a reality. That is not to say that many people do not have some service, as they might have broadband coming from a pylon or something that is grand during the day but when evening comes and children start doing their homework, the service goes to nothing. It is the experience of most people and they have come to expect nothing better. It is an indictment of the Government's promises going back to 2012.

I spoke recently to a man in County Sligo who has a small business in a rural area. He is not isolated at all and is on a main road. He has been pleading for five years for broadband as it would make a huge difference to his potential to employ more people in his business. He says he may has well have been trying to look for Osama bin Laden as somebody in Eir or similar companies to provide a service. He found it impossible and nobody told him anything; he drew a complete blank. People are frustrated and these are the very people the Government has told us it wants to help. These people get up in the morning, work hard, create employment and do stuff but they are being let down across the length and breadth of rural Ireland. They are being let down because there was a choice between the market providing the service or the State accepting that it had a responsibility to provide a service to its people. The Government chose the market.

This goes right back to 1999, when Eircom was sold. I remember the reason given for the sale was that investment was required to provide broadband. Broadband was needed and the Government could not do it so we were going to need the big investors. Everything was going to be great, so what happened? It is a total mess. It is a lesson that needs to be learned. In almost every country in the world, when it comes to proper strategic infrastructure it takes the state, which has the capacity to borrow money at the right level and the confidence to bring in investors to make things happen, to provide that infrastructure.

The state has to kick-start it and make things happen.

In this instance, the State is failing and that must be recognised. This is a failure. If somebody steps up and states that he or she made a mess of it, people might start to believe that the Government wants to do something about it. As long as it keeps denying that there is a problem, no one will believe it has any interest in resolving that problem. In my county, Leitrim, there are just over 22,000 households, of which fewer than 11,000 will be provided for by Eir and the other companies. It will be left to the State to provide for the remainder. I have seen lines being attached to top of the Eir poles - some of them have been up there for three years - but nobody has broadband. There are significant questions to be asked about Eir and how it carries out its business. The problem is that the company was allowed to cherry-pick and it cherry-picked the spots where it was going to do this. It then the lines past every other house and left matters there. We need to get a grip on this. It is time for the Government to step up to the mark and admit that this has been a total cock-up from start to finish and that it is going back to the drawing board.

The Minister was here seven weeks ago and stated that ensuring the procurement was brought to a conclusion in a fair and transparent manner was a priority for him and that he proposed to revert to Government with a recommendation. I merely wish to ask the Minister to indicate, in definitive terms, the timeline for the roll-out of the national broadband plan. Perhaps I should have inquired first as to whether it is the intention of the Government to roll out such a plan. The Minister stated that his Department is kicking the tyres on this. I imagine, therefore, that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is poring over every dot, line and comma in respect of the cost exposure relating to the national broadband plan. I also imagine that there are probably serious questions to be asked about the potential cost. I say all that on the basis that we are still in the dark about the final cost of the roll-out of the national broadband plan so there. Many questions remain. I had hoped that the Minister might be a bit more forthcoming. I recognise that there might be constraints on what he can say but, given that there is only one bidder left standing, I thought the Minister might have been a bit more forthcoming regarding information flows to the House because no more than his own office, all our offices here are inundated with testimonials from people who have a significant expectation regarding the provision of the national broadband plan and await an announcement from Government. Based on the Minister's intervention on 4 December 2018, I was given to understand that we would be near enough to an announcement, particularly at this time and allowing for some slippage over Christmas, but that has not happened. Perhaps the Minister could give us some firmer timeline as to what the Government's intentions are in that respect.

We all have testimonials from constituents. I fear for the people who will not be covered by the national broadband plan and who are not covered among the 300,000 but who are deemed to have coverage as matters stand. On 4 December 2018, the Minister indicated that 674 national schools in the State intervention would be covered by the national broadband plan. However, I have examples of situations in places such as Cobh. I will use the example of Cobh as an articulation of other towns in my constituency. When people in Rushbrook approached Eir for coverage for the school, they were informed that it could not be provided even though Eir is stating that it is providing coverage in the area. When one individual approached Open Eir on foot of advice from ComReg, the company stated that the person was not a wholesale customer and, therefore, it could not provide the person with high-speed fibre even though such fibre is being provided in the area. I fear for those people, clubs and schools that will not covered by the national broadband plan and that are deemed to be serviced currently but that are told by a provider when they approach it that it cannot provide them with the fibre they seek. What will become of them when the national broadband plan is announced? There is clear evidence in places such as Cobh on Great Island where Eir and other companies are providing but are not providing at an expectation that is commensurate with the times in which we live in view of the capacity that exists to provide X number of gigabits for an average household. What will happen to those people who, it could argued, are being discriminated against because of that active market failure? I received an email from an individual who informed me that when they asked Eir, their current broadband supplier, about fibre broadband, they were told to talk to Open Eir, which will not talk to individuals because they are not wholesale customers. The person in question stated that they had been previously been with Sky and Three but that these companies are dependent on Open Eir putting down the fibre broadband and do not appear able or willing to advance the project. There are still major gaps in the market. I am not sure what role ComReg is playing in addressing the market failure that exists throughout the country regarding those areas that will not be covered by the national broadband plan.

I will wrap up my contribution this evening by asking the Minister if it is still the case that we might not have a national broadband plan on the basis of figures that may or may not have been presented to the Minister - assessments of cost that may make it too prohibitive if it runs into billions of euro - and whether that is part of the Minister's assessment that is under way in terms of kicking the tyres on the proposal before us. If a price is agreed, what is to stop Granahan McCourt from coming back and holding us all to ransom, telling us through the tender process that it is not able to roll out the plan at the cost it will agree and having us over a barrel for an additional payment? This has already happened in this State with countless numbers of projects. As a result, there are still serious questions to be answered. We support the motion.

I support the motion. I have been here for four years. This is about the 20th time we have discussed rural broadband during Private Members' business yet the circus goes on. This has supposedly been coming to rural areas since 2012. I am from a rural area. I worry about competence in respect of what is happening. I am not saying it directly to the Minister because he is not long in the job but if someone has been trying to do something for seven years and is unable to deliver, serious questions need to be asked of the people involved in the process. Do children in rural areas not deserve to have proper broadband to allow them to do their work at school or are we talking about a different Ireland? Is there a yuppie Ireland that will have everything beaming out of it and another part that does not deserve the same type of coverage? I do not and never will accept what the Minister has come out with and what previous Ministers have come out with when Eir got the contract.

Deputy Martin Kenny and I stood beside Department officials at a meeting in 2016.

On that day, they told us that Eir had tried to get these 350,000 households three times. It was stated to us at that time that the company would not get them because, if it did, the good apples would be gone from the tree. That has now caused this fiasco. Whether the EU wrote to me or came to me, I could not give two damns about it. What are we going to do now? We are caught by the short and curlies because of this so-called letter that came from Europe. As usual, being good politicians, we Irish will tell the EU we will do what it says and it is the master. What this means is that a few more years have passed and rural areas right around this country are still left without broadband. Is there a will to do this? That is the question I ask.

In fairness to Deputies Catherine Murphy and Shortall, what we need to get out of tonight is what they and every Deputy here deserve. I heard in October that there would be an announcement shortly. I heard the same in November. Every month goes by without an announcement. Let us get down to the nuts and bolts of broadband. If the Minister waits another month, we will be left in a difficult situation. Anyone who knows how broadband wires work knows that hedges must be cut. The hedge-cutting season will be over at the end of March so it will be another budget before this work must be allowed for. The way this is going on is totally wrong. The Minister should come clean one way or the other. If he is not fit to deliver rural broadband, it is time for everyone in this Dáil to do something. We will win the vote on Thursday but what will it do? It will do nothing. There will be a feel-good factor. What will it do to the Government, however? The time is coming when politicians will have to either deliver or get out of office.

The delays to the roll-out of a reliable and sustainable national broadband service have had a serious and unacceptable impact on rural regions like the midlands. The potential for job creation in this region has been curtailed and hampered as a result of the ongoing and unacceptable delays in providing a basic but vital service. This is particularly concerning given that a few short months ago the unemployment rate in the midlands region, at 8%, was higher than the national average of 5%. The absence of high-speed broadband, or even basic broadband for that matter, in many towns and villages in the rural counties of Laois and Offaly is putting both counties at a significant disadvantage which is directly affecting businesses, farming families and schools.

This ongoing issue, which requires a resolution, is yet another fine example of this Government's neglect of rural Ireland. People in rural areas have once again been let down by a disconnected Government that does not represent them. A recent report in the media on the effects of the absence of broadband in rural Ireland highlighted the personal experience of a lady living in a rural region who stated that her job depended on being able to stay connected to high-speed broadband for eight and a half hours every day. The lady stated that she fears losing her job because the broadband speeds are not fast enough. She went on to say:

I’m sure my employer will pull me up any day now to explain the gaps in my availability. I have meetings with my managers over Skype video calls, and my 'broadband' cannot keep up. I have another one next week and I’m dreading it.

I’m at my wits end, I left my other job to do this one, and now I fear I will be let go because of my broadband. It’s an awful thing to fear losing your job all because you live in [a rural area].

This is just one of the many examples of the personal cost of this ongoing debacle to people living in rural Ireland.

With regard to the serious impact on businesses, a survey carried out by an online accounting firm showed that an overwhelming 96% of owners and managers of small and medium enterprises feel that rural businesses are at a competitive disadvantage due to inadequate and poor quality broadband. The survey of more than 250 SME owners and managers found that 56% believe that, when it comes to information technology, broadband is the single biggest challenge they face. The ongoing absence of basic infrastructure is also affecting farming families and schools. What people in rural Ireland want from the Minister is high-speed action to ensure that rural regions are provided with the basic infrastructure of high-speed broadband.

The national broadband plan and the failure to roll it out is a matter of deep concern to my constituents in County Clare, as it is to those in many other constituencies, not least that of the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, in Galway. He understands the issue as well as everybody else. It is another example of Government promising but not delivering on major infrastructural projects. This erodes confidence in the Government's ability to do so. There is deep frustration in regional and rural Ireland not just among people living at the end of the line, but among people living in our county towns and villages and urban areas who cannot access high-speed broadband.

The failure to deliver high-speed broadband inhibits balanced regional development. It drives people from our regions into our congested cities and towns, where it is increasingly unaffordable to live. Broadband is not an optional extra but basic infrastructure that is necessary for prosperity, commercial activity and education.

The decision to carve off the 300,000 easiest connections from the national broadband plan and award them to Eir was the catalyst for Eir and SIRO deciding to withdraw from the tender process for the remaining 540,000 connections in the national broadband plan. SIRO and Eir deemed the remaining connections to be commercially non-viable. This decision was a strategic mistake which resulted in only one bidder headed by Granahan McCourt remaining. With only one bidder in place, this process cannot be deemed to be competitive. The composition of this bidder has changed substantially since its initial formation. In additional, there is considerable uncertainty as to whether this bidder can deliver. I believe Deputy Naughten's greatest failing was his enthusiasm to progress the project rather than any attempt to influence procurement and tendering.

Must we wait an interminable period of time for decision on whether the Minister will have to go back to the drawing board or continue with this process? What is the timeline for his decision in this matter?

I will start by citing an article from the website, thejournal.ie.

Ireland really is in the dark ages, and rural Ireland even further behind that. No transportation links, no garda stations, terrible roads, [now no post offices and no pubs but, in particular] no broadband. All because of where you live. Rural people are forgotten about, because we obviously don’t matter.

It saddens me to the core to read a statement like that, but it could not be more true for the people of rural Ireland. I once lived in the hope that broadband would be rolled out for everyone in Ireland, including in rural areas. The longer I wait, however, the more concerned I get. Will it ever happen? The people of rural Ireland have been let down with broken promise after broken promise by this Government and previous Governments. Broadband is a necessity in rural areas. People in towns and villages have come to me in utter despair because they cannot run their businesses without broadband. People who work from home have contacted me because they have no option but to change jobs because the Internet reception in their area is shocking.

Let us not forget that broadband is an important resource for schools, private homes and other organisations. Without broadband, expensive equipment such as interactive whiteboards bought by primary schools is undermined. Efforts by Age Action to promote computer literacy among the elderly are thwarted. The Irish Rural Network estimates that up to 10,000 jobs are being lost in rural areas every year because broadband services are poor or completely absent. The haemorrhaging has to stop. Rural areas in Ireland rank among the worst served regions of Europe with regard to broadband. As the Minister knows, rural broadband is no longer a luxury but an economic necessity. That has been said many times tonight.

Deputies have spoken about rural isolation. This Government has much to answer for in respect of rural isolation because the lack of broadband in rural Ireland is exacerbating the problem. Since 2004, there have been four Government initiatives to improve broadband, all of which have worked up to a point. Major problems remain, however. Some areas of west Cork have never had a broadband service. In areas such as Ballylickey, Connonagh and Leap, and even in some parts of Ballinadee, there is still no broadband service. There is a housing estate in Inis Órga in Bandon in which every third house does not have broadband. It is incredible that they could not get it right in a housing estate. I have concerns about Eir taking the rich pickings. If it keeps picking off the areas with larger populations, with the support of this Government, many private operators may well pull the plug. That is when the nightmare will start in this country.

Has the Minister met with the private operators? If the Minister is not talking to these private operators we could be faced with a far bigger problem than we imagine going forward.

I compliment the Ceann Comhairle, the Clerk of the Dáil, Peter Finnegan, and all who were involved with the wonderful occasion, ocáid speisialta a bhí ann, for the celebration of 100 years of Dáil Éireann. It saddens me tonight to stand here to say that we have no broadband in rural areas, and no sign of it due to the Minister's ineptitude and inexperience and the uncaring attitude to the people of rural Ireland. It is an appalling vista 100 years on from those brave and noble men and women, many of whom who gave their lives, and who worked so tirelessly to build up the Republic. The Government has turned it into nothing short of a banana republic, and it is a long and twisted banana.

Earlier I listened to Deputy Dooley refer to broadband commitments being made since 2012. I was in the Fianna Fáil Party from 2007 until 2012 and I can tell this House that it was announced many times in that period also. The public is tired, weary and sick of the Government's shenanigans. The national children's hospital fiasco will cost €2 billion and it is on the wrong site, all because of medical politics. It stinks to high heaven. The late great Canon Hayes rolled out rural electrification back in the 1950s. Why does the Government not give the project to the ESB and cut out all the shenanigans?

I am a small businessman and I tender for work, as do my colleagues here. We cannot have a tender process with one person. It just does not happen and the ordinary man in the street knows this. Will the Minister please ask the ESB to do this?

With regard to the changes in legislation, I understand some changes have been made already. The ESB rolls out wires and cables and it has a connection to every house. During storms, whether it be Storm Emma, storm Ceann Comhairle or whatever one wants to call it, the ESB teams are out and have things fixed within hours or days.

There are houses in villages and towns in Tipperary, from Monard to Nenagh, Ballyporeen to Moneygall, Ahenny to Soloheadbeg, where our noble men fired the first shots in the War of Independence, Newcastle to Nenagh and Kilcornan to Hollyford, that all have no broadband. People cannot operate. Students have to do the CAO applications for their courses and try to study for their courses. They are being hugely discriminated against compared to the people in this city and elsewhere. Farmers also have to fill out application forms, which are computerised, or else they cannot get grants. However, if they cannot apply, it is their loss.

It is time the Minister copped on and paid some respect to na daoine de chuid na tuaithe. The people of rural Ireland are entitled to a modicum of respect. I go to Medjugorje once a year, which is in an impoverished country with a poor economy but it has broadband along with water and other facilities. It is a very poor place and yet this is supposed to be among the wealthiest countries where people treat themselves every day. The Government should be ashamed of itself. The sooner it gets the hell out of the place, the better in order to let someone else in who can govern. It is a disgrace.

I am glad to get the opportunity to speak tonight on this very important matter. It is about connectivity and people in rural and, indeed, in urban areas. Much has been said about rural Ireland but we must realise that within half a mile of the great Killarney town, there are many places that do not have broadband. This spells out what is wrong. There are pockets that have been left behind. If one was mowing a field of hay, one would start at one side and keep working around it until one finished at the middle point of the field. That is not happening with broadband provision. Pockets are being left behind and it is driving people absolutely crazy. Their neighbours have it but they have no idea when they will get it. That is wrong and no one can understand it. It needs to be explained. We talk of broadband roll out but we would have every field in Ireland rolled if we had the roller behind the tractor.

Things have happened that have delayed the process but it is not good enough. There are other elements that come into play. The Revenue Commissioners are demanding that certain things be done online and farmers have to make certain applications online. That is the law and these are the rules that these honest, good and hardworking people have to abide by. Nobody realises that in places, such as Lorrach, Sneem, Glencar or the Black Valley, and in many other places, the only line they have is the clothes line in the back yard. These laws and regulations are affecting honest, good people. The Government is responsible for letting those things happen on top of not providing the broadband. It is a double whammy for these people.

The connectivity of our mobile phone service is getting worse; it is not improving. If one was to travel a mile down any of the three roads from the Farranfore Airport, the only airport in Kerry, of which we are very proud, there is no mobile phone coverage. That is the truth and for people coming into the country, it is a disaster.

Can the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, supply more than a clothes line to the people of rural Ireland?

Having listened to the debate, it is very clear how passionate Deputies are about broadband, be it in rural Ireland or elsewhere. There is a lack of broadband and we all understand that. There is a determination, shared by everyone in the House, to try to get the access to high-speed broadband for everybody.

Reference was made to those people who were refused or delayed a service because they are in the blue area. If the people who have that problem give the Department the Eircode for the houses, we can get it checked out for them.

I thank the Members who have contributed to the debate on this matter of national importance. As the Deputies pointed out in the motion, it will need to be a reliable and sustainable network. The national broadband plan network will provide that reliability and sustainability both in its initial years and for the future as it will be future-proofed to deal with future demand and technological advancements. As the Minister has outlined, affordability for end users remains a central requirement.

The national broadband plan has been a catalyst in encouraging investment in the telecoms sector. In 2012, fewer than 700,000, or 30% of all 2.3 million premises, had access to high-speed broadband. When this Government came to office, this had risen to 52%.

It was a private company that did that, not the Government.

By the third quarter of 2018, 73% of premises could access high-speed broadband and the roll-out of the national broadband plan will bring this to 100%. This will help to establish Ireland as a digital world leader.

In addition to the national broadband plan, the mobile phone and broadband task force has been working with key stakeholders since 2016 to alleviate some of the telecommunications coverage issues across the State. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the Department of Rural and Community Development are working together to support the work of the implementation group that oversees the implementation of the actions and comprises all key stakeholders responsible for delivery. I chair this group and it publishes quarterly progress reports as well as an annual implementation review report. Some of the task force's key achievements to date include the establishment of a broadband officer in every local authority and the updating of planning exemptions for telecoms infrastructure. The task force has also collaborated with local authorities and mobile operators to identify the issues associated with blackspots and identify infrastructure that could potentially be used to provide additional coverage on an economic basis.

In addressing the points raised in today’s motion, the Minister has highlighted the rigorous scrutiny that has been applied to the long-term viability of the national broadband plan bidder and its ability to deliver on the project, and that there are also contractual safeguards that will be in place.

With regard to the points made on the absence of competition, the Minister has outlined the analysis and benchmarking that is being carried out. It was also confirmed that key national broadband plan procurement documents would be published and separately, that the Analysys Mason report in relation to the metropolitan area networks will be published in the coming weeks. The Minister has outlined that the priority of the Department and Government is to bring the national broadband plan procurement process to a fair and impartial conclusion and updates will continue to be provided to this House as the matter progresses in the coming weeks.

I thank all of those who contributed to this debate.

The first issue the Minister raised in his contributions in response to my opening statement was the Peter Smyth investigation. He was satisfied with it, and outlined the reasons for that. However, it was not measured against the NBP communications protocol. Indeed, it seems that the protocol was ignored. The protocol is clear. It sets down the rules, and outlines the matters that have to be complied with. On canvassing, it states:

The following prohibition on canvassing applies and is detailed in section 13.9 of the Project Information Memorandum which states;

"Direct or indirect canvassing by any Bidder, Consortium Member, Bidder Member or their suppliers or advisers in relation to the Project or the Procurement or any attempt to obtain information from any of the agents or employees of the Department, its political representatives or its appointed advisers concerning another Bidder or a Solution or Final Tender or the Procurement is prohibited.

Bidders must not offer, give or agree to give to any member of the Department (or its advisers or evaluation team) any gift, or consideration of any kind as an inducement or reward in relation to the obtaining or execution of any Contract. "Any breach of this section will entitle the Department to immediately disqualify the bidder concerned from the Procurement and/or cancel and terminate the Contract...".

The rules governing the relationship are pretty clear. The Minister went on to quote from Mr. Smyth's report, specifically a passage concerning the fact that the Minister deciding to resign was an important aspect to all of this. I was in this Chamber that day, when Deputy Naughten came in to address us. We waited for him and thought he would go through some of the detail and respond to some of the concerns we had. It was very clear that the Deputy resigned reluctantly and that it was on foot of a loss of confidence by the Taoiseach in him. This was not a matter of the Deputy deciding to resign to preserve a process. We should not seek to rewrite history. Mr. Smyth was the process auditor, and had the responsibility to ensure the process worked as it was laid out. It did not work. It is not credible to call the Smyth report robust; it was not.

Returning to the issue relating to MANs, they were put in place to ensure that everyone within those areas would be in a position to use them in a cost-efficient way. However, there is anecdotal evidence from people in the industry that usage numbers are relatively small and, in some towns, they are barely being used at all. This has as much to do with penetration as the roll-out of the MANs contract. It shows the importance of having the information in advance of any tender being awarded under the NBP. We need information on what is and what is not working. I welcome the fact that the Analysys Mason report will be published in the coming weeks. I hope it will be published before any tender is awarded. The appeal to the appeals court will be moot if the information produced in the report is suppressed by virtue of the fact that the Department has not decided to adhere to what the Information Commissioner said. Will the Minister consider stopping that appeal on the basis that this information should be in the public domain, and could be in the public domain in the form of the Analysys Mason report? The information in that report will be gathered from the same source.

We discussed the other providers, including BT. It was entirely unhappy with the process. I understand that it is a competitor, but we are talking about key players in the market, and it knows the market well. It should not be ignored. It does not appear that the Department took the concerns of BT on board when considering the extension of the MANs contract. BT stated in its letter that operators have the right to enter the competitive national leased lines market, but that it would have serious concerns if Enet was to leverage the MANs regional state aid into the competitive national market. It further stated that it was seeking to ensure that Enet traded its MANs dark fibre on a transparent and non-discriminatory wholesale basis to other parties on the same terms, conditions and prices that it sold to itself and that this would mitigate against Enet giving itself preferential treatment. The company also questioned whether state aid approval allows Enet to sell to itself since it is stated specifically that Enet cannot act as a retail service provider. This is despite the fact that it owns an associated company, Airspeed, which sells on the retail market. BT expressed valid concerns, yet the analysis was that the process was working fine.

When Eir withdrew from the bidding process for the NBP, the company stated that it had worked through the formal dialogue channels to try to ensure that the plan not only delivered on the policy objective of providing high-speed broadband throughout Ireland but did so in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Based upon the significant commercial issues and complexity within the tender process, together with the growing uncertainty on a range of regulatory and pricing issues residing outside the NBP process, the company board decided that the risks were too great. I would like a much clearer understanding of what Eir meant by that. These people had the technical expertise to deliver the plan, unlike the consortium in place at the moment. The consortium certainly has the financial wherewithal, but does it have the technical wherewithal?

I can understand the frustration people are feeling about the delay. I am not pressing the Minister to make a quick decision, but rather the correct decision. This project has the potential to come back and bite us in respect of both delivery and price. I do not believe the costs that could be associated with a subsidy, which would have to be paid to ensure this is rolled out to every household and which is the ambition of the plan, are at all clear. It may be that the roll-out will be available to every house, but the penetration may not be as good as it needs to be. It may be low if it is prohibitively expensive. It is clear that in areas served by MANs, a sizeable number of people are not taking it up. I presume that is due to the cost in many cases.

We need to know the kind of expectation for the subsidy that will be paid because of the amount that is being talked about. There are wide variations, but amounts of €500 million to €3 billion are in the range of money that is being talked about. It is important that far more information is made available to us. I am keen to stress the importance of getting this right. It may well be a case of more haste and less speed if we have to come back and review something a year or two from now or if the right people are not in place with the right technical expertise to deliver the broadband.

I thank the Deputy. That concludes the debate. The Sinn Féin Party, through Deputy Stanley, has tabled an amendment and the amendment has been moved. How stands the amendment?

I am pressing the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 23 January 2019.