Thursday, 24 January 2019

Questions (4)

Mattie McGrath


4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the current and projected costs for the roll-out of the national broadband plan; the status of the plan; the timeline for completion of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3141/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I am asking the Minister for details on the current and projected costs for the roll-out of the national broadband plan and the status of the plan. When does he think rural business people, householders, schoolgoers and farmers will have some modicum of broadband service in order that they can transact their business? I ask the Minister to make a statement on his commitments in this matter.

The Deputy missed earlier exchanges that might have answered some of his questions. I ask the House to forgive me if I am being repetitive. As I said in response to earlier questions, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has received a final tender submission from the bidder in respect of the ongoing procurement process for the national broadband plan. My priority is to bring the procurement process to a fair and impartial conclusion as quickly as possible. I will bring a recommendation to the Government in this regard in the coming weeks. The level of subsidy required to bring high-speed broadband services to the 540,000 premises in the national broadband plan State intervention area will be determined through this procurement process. Until the assessment is concluded, I will not be in a position to formulate a recommendation for the Government. I am not yet in a position to discuss cost. With regard to the completion of the build of the infrastructure, if a contract is awarded and signed, deployment will commence at the earliest possible opportunity with activity across all counties in the first year of deployment. Given that deployment is likely to take some years, if a contract is awarded the bidder will be required to provide almost 300 broadband connection points across all counties in the first year of deployment. These broadband connection points have been selected by local authorities and are locations of community importance such as schools and community centres.

The Minister said he did not want to be repetitive, but there is nothing to repeat in what he has said. There is nothing in it. The motion we discussed earlier this week made it clear that the estimated total cost of the delivery of the national broadband plan is escalating. The lack of clarity regarding those costs is a real concern. The Minister's response is a source of further concern. We know from this week's debate that the structure of the sole remaining bidding entity has changed substantially over the course of the process. Significant concerns now exist regarding the robustness of the national broadband plan and the structure of the sole remaining bidder. What happens if we have legal challenges? As I said during this week's debate, I am a small contractor who tenders for projects. The tender process has to be robust. There cannot be a tender process if just one person or company is involved. It just does not happen in that way. I wish it did, because all of us would have great fun and we would have a great country. The Minister knows that this is a right unholy mess. It is just not good enough for businesses in my area, right from Carrick-on-Suir up to Nenagh. I was contacted this morning by a man who is involved in a substantial long-standing business in Nenagh. He does not have a broadband service. It is 350 yd. away from him, but he cannot get it.

I have indicated that I will not be in a position to clarify costs until we have completed the process. The Deputy will understand that people who are considering tenders do not talk about those tenders ahead of a decision. That is normal practice. The Deputy has expressed concern about a change in the composition of the bidding consortium. There has been a very detailed pre-qualification process. Any change in the composition of the consortium, or indeed of the contractors, has to go through that process. An evaluation committee looks at technical and commercial compliance requirements. When a change occurs, the committee looks at the financial standing and the technical and professional capability as a result of the change, as well as the suitability from a compliance perspective. Every time there is a change, those tests have to be run and the State has to be satisfied that the requirements are met.

This is a riddle. I am worried that this project will turn out like the children's hospital project. The Minister has said that the non-disclosure of tender prices is a normal part of the tender process. This process is not normal. It is abnormal because we have just one bidder. There is no political or commercial sensitivity here. The only problem I have here is that taxpayers are being fleeced and homeowners are getting no service. The Minister made it clear that following the review conducted by an independent process auditor, Mr. Peter Smith, a recommendation would be made to the Government on whether to appoint the Granahan McCourt-led consortium as the preferred bidder. This is riddled with opportunities for legal litigation. I represent people from Puckane to Ballingarry and everywhere else. I represent homeowners, schoolgoers who want to get information on courses and fill out their CAO application forms, farmers and ordinary business people. We are talking about providing hubs and giving community access. This is farcical. It is going nowhere. The Minister is down a cul-de-sac. It is not normal. It is abnormal. The Minister should do something about it because it could end up in the High Court or the Supreme Court. If the Minister knew anything about tendering, he would know that he cannot deal with one bidder.

The Deputy has to remember that we have had a competitive process. There was more than one bidder in the early stages. We have had to contend with the withdrawal of some of those who initially entered the process. That has been the reality.

As a result of that, to meet the concerns that Deputy Mattie McGrath's constituents are expressing to him, which concerns were eloquently expressed during the debate here the other night, we need to attest to the robustness of the technology, the deployment strategy, the terms of the contract, the governance, the protection of the State interest, the terms for connection of individuals who will be connected, and the fulfilment of the brief as set out. These are things on which we have to conduct due diligence because there is only one bidder. We must ensure that the State interest is protected. The care that my Department and its officials are taking is proper in light of the concerns that the Deputy's constituents are expressing to him. The Deputy would not thank me if we did not do that robust evaluation and that is the reality. The Deputy would be the first person to ask why we did not evaluate this or that.

Of course I would. I would be holding the Minister to account. I will not listen to waffle.

The House facilitated Deputy McGrath to intervene. We are now going to move on.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.