Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Questions (19)

Timmy Dooley


19. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the date by which the 542,000 homes and businesses in the national broadband plan's State intervention area will be connected to broadband; the date by which he plans to award the contract to connect these homes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7721/18]

View answer

Oral answers (16 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I will begin by wishing the Acting Chairman a happy St. Valentine's Day. I also extend that greeting to the staff of the House and to the Minister, lest he feel that there is no love between us.

I ask the Minister to outline, in light of recent developments, the current status of the procurement process for the national development plan. In particular, I ask him to provide some timelines for when he expects to have signed a contract with the remaining bidder, when work is due to begin and when it will be completed.

I am sure I will be love-bombed by Deputy Dooley this morning. I apologise, first of all, that I have a severe case of man flu. Were it not for Deputy Harty I would not be here at all today.

Deputy Naughten would not be in the Cabinet without him either.

He did warn me to be very careful. He said it is highly contagious.

He is a constituency colleague of Deputy Dooley.

In an institution like this it could grind the country to a halt, so keep clear.

I welcome the opportunity to speak again in the House on the national broadband plan. Right now, as I speak, seven out of ten premises in this country have access to a high-speed broadband service. By the end of this year I expect this proportion to rise to nearly eight out of ten, and by the end of 2020, when the roll-out of the national broadband plan State-led intervention is well under way, nine out of ten premises in this country will have access to a high-speed broadband service. The contract for a company to deliver high-speed broadband to approximately 540,000 premises in the intervention area will be awarded once a compliant technical and financial solution that delivers value for money to the Irish taxpayer is received.

Before Eir withdrew from the procurement process, I understand that the national broadband plan, NBP, procurement team was working to a timeline whereby it would have selected a preferred bidder by September. The procurement team is now considering whether the procurement timelines can be brought forward in a single-bidder scenario. Once a contract is signed and the State-led intervention has begun to roll out, it is estimated that the vast majority of premises in the intervention area will have access to a high-speed broadband service within three years. It is a reality of any infrastructure roll-out of this scale and scope that there will be those isolated and harder-to-reach premises and areas which may take longer than this to serve. This is an unavoidable fact. However, it is my firm resolve that the occupants of these premises will not have to wait one day longer than absolutely necessary to receive the service they need.

The Minister will have a further opportunity to speak on this question.

I thank the Minister. Will he confirm for the House that the one remaining bidder has yet to submit pricing details and a technical solution on the work to be carried out? Prior to the Minister's assumption of office the delay was estimated at six months. The programme for Government confirmed, based on the Minister's discussions at the time, that a contract would be signed in June 2017. Will the Minister now confirm, on behalf of the Government, that this has been delayed until today at least? Can he provide an estimate as to when he expects that agreement to be signed? He talks about proportions of seven or eight out of ten homes. I do not want to go back over this, but the Minister and I both know why and how this has happened, and it is not as a result of the Government's intervention. We need clarity around those 540,000 homes and around the timelines, or the Minister's best estimates thereof. That will allow us all to keep the process on track and on target.

First, I will address Deputy Dooley's question regarding the documentation that has or has not been submitted. The Deputy asked that question of me last Thursday and I told him that it was not within my competency to answer it. I believe Deputy Dooley has a meeting this week with the procurement team, which will respond to this query for him. I pointed that out last week.

That was at a committee, was it not?

The intention was to have a preferred bidder by June 2017, and we have missed that particular target, absolutely. There are reasons for that, and I presume that officials will go through some of those with Deputy Dooley when they appear before the committee later this week. However, the timeline at which we are looking at the moment involves having a preferred bidder by September. On foot of the decision by Eir, we are now reviewing those timelines to see if we can firm up, and to see where we can speed up this process. That is what we are doing.

For clarity, does that timeline aim for a preferred bidder by September? My understanding is that when there is only one bidder, that is the preferred bidder. Is the objective to have a contract signature by September, or is it just the announcement that the main bidder is the preferred bidder?

Let me be crystal clear on this. When there were two bidders in the process, it was our expectation that we would have a preferred bidder by September. There is now one bidder in the process. As the Deputy knows, the procurement team has been sitting beside me for the last fortnight dealing with specific questions which were rightly put by Members of the Oireachtas, both formally and informally, and I wanted to provide as much information as I could. I know there has been some engagement with the consortium within the last several days. I believe the procurement team is meeting with the committee tomorrow, and its members will provide information that is within their competency but is not within my remit.

My apologies for interrupting. The Minister will have one more minute. I will give Deputy Dooley a minute, and then I will give the Minister a minute.

I thank the Minister for that response. I need to be clear. My understanding was that the Minister had effectively achieved preferred bidder status now, and the intention was to have a contract signed in September. If the contract will not be signed in September, and the objective is merely for preferred bidder status to be conferred on the company, then there will be a further period before a contract is signed. I ask the Minister to provide at least a best estimate of when a contract will be signed, recognising now that September is the date for preferred bidder status.

Will the Minister also update the House on the actions he has taken since the vote here last week on the appointment of some external expertise to review the entire procurement process?

I cannot give the Deputy a date on when the contract will be signed because this decision was only taken last Tuesday week and was only notified to me at that stage. We have not had the opportunity to consider the implications relating to the procurement process. I have given the Deputy the timelines we were looking at prior to that. I have also said that, based on the information available to me, it is likely that we will get shovels in the ground quicker. The reason for that is that once we have a preferred bidder, that preferred bidder could then engage with the banks and the contractors which could build the network across the country. The SSE-Enet consortium can now start that process. Representatives from the European Investment Bank were with me last month. They are very anxious to invest in this process. They have been engaging with SSE-Enet and Eir on that. They can now directly engage with SSE-Enet. It allows them to truncate that entire process and get shovels in the ground. At this stage, however, I honestly cannot give the Deputy a date on that because we have to assess the full implications of it. We cannot be definitive in that regard until we sign that contract. At that stage, as I did with the Eir commitment agreement where we published as much of that documentation as we could and gave clear timelines in that regard every quarter, it would be my intention to do the exact same with this process to ensure that people clearly know when they will get broadband and the targets for that.