Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Questions (6)

Paul Murphy


6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he has given consideration to a model that does not rely on the private sector to roll out broadband infrastructure in view of the difficulties with the national broadband plan's tendering process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41223/18]

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Oral answers (15 contributions) (Question to Communications)

This question relates to the roll-out of the national broadband plan, NBP. I have particular questions that flow from the earlier exchanges, which I will perhaps put in the form of supplementary questions. The more general question I have is whether the Minister accepts that the farce of a process, which has effectively seen a bidder, a US venture capitalist, win on the basis of everybody else dropping out of the race, illustrates precisely the problem of relying on the private market to provide for a public utility. Would we not be better off looking at the history of the roll-out of, for example, electricity, telecommunications, etc., and the key role of the State in providing a vital public service?

The Government's strategy for the NBP was devised following a detailed public consultation. The consultation was undertaken against a backdrop where the telecommunications sector in Ireland operates in a liberalised market that relies on commercial operators investing in building infrastructure and offering services to citizens and businesses on a commercial basis.

The commercial sector acting alone, however, has failed to bring high speed broadband to large parts of Ireland. As a consequence, the Government consulted on and brought forward the NBP to address this market failure. Ireland is not alone in facing this challenge. It is a challenge faced by other digitally ambitious EU member states and a number of these member states are making significant interventions in the market to ensure the deployment of high speed broadband connectivity.

As the Deputy will be aware, Ireland does not have a State-owned telecommunications company that owns, operates or builds telecommunications infrastructure. Accordingly, any intervention by the State in the broadband market must rely on commercial entities.  It is worth noting that the previously State-owned company, Eir, now subcontracts the physical building of infrastructure, as do the majority of major telecommunications operators in the State.

The procurement process to appoint a bidder for the State intervention network is at the final stage. Evaluation of the final tender submission is ongoing and will be allowed the time required.  On conclusion of the evaluation, my Department will make a recommendation to me on whether to appoint the bidder as preferred bidder and I will bring the matter to Government for decision.

I want to follow up on particulars from the exchange earlier about relations with Mr. David McCourt. Deputy Dooley asked a question, which potentially presented new information about this controversy, regarding a lunch in Leinster House on 18 April. The Minister replied that he did not have lunch with Mr. McCourt on that day.

Were there plans to meet with Mr. McCourt on or around that day? Were there plans for the Minister to have lunch with Mr. McCourt around that day? Is there a diary entry referring to a lunch or a meeting with Mr. McCourt in Leinster House on or around that day? Can the Minister provide any other information on that?

I have a more general question, as the Minister made a more general statement defending his right to meet with those involved in telecommunications, they being a small number of people and so on. Does the Minister accept the basic proposition that from the point of view of doing things correctly and being seen to do things correctly, it is incorrect to meet bidders during a bidding process?

I will say this again. The vast majority of telecommunications companies in this country have had some role in this procurement process at some stage over its course. If I were the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the effect of what it has been alleged I should have done would be that I would not meet the farm organisations from the day of my appointment until next month or the month after when this process had been finalised. A great deal of work needs to be done in the telecommunications area. The biggest issue we encountered as public representatives going around the country was broadband coverage but the second biggest was mobile phone coverage. Quite a number of the people involved in mobile phone networks in this country were also involved in this process. I decided in the negotiations on the programme for Government, when I did not know I would be in this or any other role, that we should establish a mobile phone and broadband task force to unlock many of the bottlenecks within the system and we have done that. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, and I have been successful in addressing mobile phone black spots, wireless deployment, mobile broadband and getting access to State ducting and infrastructure.

I will repeat the first question, which is the only question I am going to ask to avoid any possibility that another one is answered. Was the Minister due to meet with Mr. McCourt in Leinster House on or around 18 April? Is there a diary entry for a lunch or meeting with Mr. McCourt in Leinster House on or around 18 April? If that is the case, what was going to be the nature of the meeting? What was the meeting going to be about and who was going to attend? Was anyone from the Department going to attend?

It is the same question. On 18 April, the Minister's diary shows an entry for lunch with David McCourt in Leinster House. I confirm to the Minister that David McCourt had lunch in Leinster House on that day. Whether or not the Minister joined him is a matter for the Minister to clarify to the House. I want to know what the purpose of the meeting was, why it was arranged, whether the Minister intended to have officials present, what the expected outcome was from Mr. McCourt's perspective and why, in God's name, the Minister allowed himself to be embroiled yet again on the very day he was explaining to the House why he had inappropriately involved himself in the Celtic Media controversy.

I did not attend the lunch. My understanding is that Mr. McCourt and his family came in for lunch that day to celebrate a birthday, as they had been in Dublin. That was the reason for that particular lunch.

It was the Members' restaurant.

I did not attend it.

Was it in the Minister's diary?

If Deputy Dooley says it was in my diary, it was in my diary. I do not know.

The Deputies can take this up elsewhere. The time is up.

This is the place to ask questions of Ministers.

I do not have my diary here.

Deputies, please. Deputy McConalogue is not here to ask Question No. 7. I call Deputy Browne on Question No. 8.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.