Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Questions (20)

Brian Stanley


20. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the future of the national broadband plan in view of the fact there is only one bidder in the procurement process; and if there is a strategy in place to progress the national broadband plan if the procurement process fails. [7532/18]

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Oral answers (16 contributions) (Question to Communications)

The one bidder left in the procurement process has a lot of power in its hands, and 542,000 homes will be at the whim of that company, with no competition and very little leverage in the Department's hands. As we are in this very uncertain position, what options has the Minister considered and if the current process collapses, what is plan B?

As I have stated many times recently, it is my personal commitment and a key priority for Government to have high-speed broadband delivered to every house, business, farm and school in Ireland, and a future-proofed broadband service.  I have long advocated for this service for rural Ireland and I am determined that high-speed broadband will be delivered to every single premises in the country and that it will meet that timescale in the next 25 years of providing a quality service.  I know there is nothing between myself and the Deputies in this House on the policy or the objectives, and that we all want to deliver to the communities and businesses in the intervention area.

The procurement process to engage a company to roll out the broadband network remains at an advanced stage.  The remaining bidder, SSE-Enet, has already identified its final issues for discussion with the procurement team and these discussions are ongoing.  I am confident all parties will work to ensure the solutions will deliver a network fit for today's needs and with a capacity to adapt to new technologies over the next 25 years.

In all procurement processes, particularly where there are services to be rolled out over a prolonged period, all viable options for delivery are considered. The current procurement process is a robust process with strong risk management throughout and a broad range of scenarios and eventualities having been considered.  This process is entering its final stages, with SSE-Enet having reaffirmed its commitment to the successful conclusion of the process.

I consider that it would be imprudent to pre-empt the outcome of the ongoing engagement by publicly deliberating on other options for alternative delivery strategies at this time as this could potentially prejudice the outcome of the procurement process.

The problem with the Minister's position is that he is basing it on the hope that the Enet procurement process will not collapse. The Department and the Government must have a plan B but the Minister has not outlined such a plan. He said options are being considered, but that is within the current tendering process with just Enet involved. Some of the seeds of this disaster were sown when Eir announced the connections to 300,000 easy to reach households. While that is good and dandy for those households, as I pointed out to the Minister many times, the 540,000 homes and businesses outside of that process will be the difficult ones. That has allowed for a stranglehold of the system and yet another mistake in the entire procurement process.

Has a public ownership option ever been examined seriously by the Department? We have large pieces of State infrastructure. ESB Networks is serving 99.9% of the population. There is fibre cable running along the railway tracks. There is a back-haul system owned by the State of which we have a comprehensive map. There is also the metropolitan areas network system, MANS, so we have the MANS, ESB Networks and the back-haul system.

The Minister told me over two weeks ago that if he were doing the process all over again, he would do it differently. What exactly would he do differently? I am curious to know what he meant by that.

The Deputy has asked a lot of questions.

The final one is the most important.

First, I am restricted in what I can say because we are in a procurement process-----

You are the Minister.

-----and if I were to say something here that would jeopardise that, Deputy Stanley would be the very one who would come in here and criticise me for that, and rightly so. The procurement team will appear before the committee on Thursday and the Deputy will have the opportunity to talk directly to the individuals involved in this process.

On the issue of public ownership, that was considered. In fact, it was debated at length here in the House. I gave the Deputy my views on my reasoning for the approach we took on that.

On the Eir 300,000 connections, I have explained the reason we took that decision but one of my most vocal critics, who has a good understanding of this particular process, is Adrian Weckler. It would be worth the Deputy's while to read the article he published in the Sunday Independent last Sunday in which he clearly stated that the Government did not have a choice in that regard. What we did get, however, and which no other country in Europe in a similar situation in terms of other contracts got, was a binding commitment from Eir that has quarterly targets written into that and penalties for failing to achieve those targets. As I pointed out at the committee meeting last week, the European Commission outlined this as being a type of template that should and could be used by other member states in designing commitment agreements as part of procurement processes.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I did not see that Sunday Independent article because I do not buy it.

I will furnish the Deputy with a copy of it.

I would appreciate that.

I thought Deputy Stanley would buy it now that publication of An Phoblacht has stopped.

I have no problem reading a copy of it but I refuse to buy the Sunday Independent.

On the question of State ownership, the Minister said it was considered. I would be interested to know the reasons that was turned down because an ESB-type semi-State structure could have drawn together the MANS and the extensive back-haul systems that are being rolled out across the State, along with the other infrastructure belonging to the ESB that is in place. The Minister will have noted that the amended motion last week called for a full examination of that option. At a vital stage in the process, I do not see any problem in allowing an expert examine that option. It is vital if we are to have economic development in rural Ireland.

What has the Minister done regarding the amended Dáil motion, which was passed unanimously here in the House? According to the Minister's answers this morning, we still have no date for the contract to be signed. We know the pricing structure has not been supplied because the Minister answered that question, and the technical solutions have not been settled. The three key questions on this major national network have not yet been answered nearly two years into the term of this Government.

First, the Dáil motion was not passed unanimously.

I am sorry, it was passed by a majority. I will clarify that.

I made it crystal clear why it could not be passed unanimously. I pointed out that it would jeopardise the procurement process and, based on my best estimates, that it would delay it by six months. In his Sunday Independent article last Sunday, Adrian Weckler said it would delay it by between six and 12 months. I have given a commitment to the people and the Members of this House that I have no intention of delaying the process one day longer than is necessary. In its counter-motion last week, the Government set out the arrangements that are in place to underpin the national broadband plan procurement process. It is now time we took decisive action on this, continued apace and completed the procurement process. Having said that, I am committed to giving regular updates to colleagues in both Houses regarding the progress we are making. Members deserve that I commit to doing so.