Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Questions (53)

Timmy Dooley


53. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment when the contract for the national broadband plan will be signed. [21777/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

As the Minister knows, this is an issue of timing. As he is aware, the Oireachtas communications committee has started an investigation into the national broadband plan, as signalled previously. The past few weeks have seen a number of announcements that a cynic might say are timed to coincide with the elections on Friday. I refer to announcements on the NBP, sports capital grants and the transport plan from Cork. It has been a busy couple of weeks for the Government on the trail of announcements.

While a certain milestone was reached with the NBP, we have still been given no idea when a contract will be signed with the remaining bidder. Could the Minister enlighten us a little more on that process?

As I have outlined to the House, and to the Deputy at the joint Oireachtas committee meeting last week, following rigorous evaluation by my Department, I recently brought a recommendation to the Government to confer preferred bidder status on Granahan McCourt, the remaining bidder in the NBP procurement process, and the Government agreed to this at its meeting on 7 May. This is an important step towards achieving the overarching goal of the plan, which is to provide access to high-speed broadband to every home, farm, school and business in Ireland, no matter where they are located.

The Government decision means that it is intended to award the State intervention contract to National Broadband Ireland, subject to contract close, including the finalisation of financial and legal documents. A period of final due diligence on all elements of the contract is part of the normal conclusion of a procurement process.

National Broadband Ireland will be supported by a number of experienced subcontractors and is currently tasked with finalising negotiations on contracts with approximately 40 subcontractors to assist in the delivery of the NBP. It is anticipated that a subset of approximately 15 to 20 of these subcontracts will be required prior to contract close to support deployment. The state aid notification relating to the NBP will also be submitted to the European Commission.

It is anticipated these elements will require a number of months, with contract close expected later this year and deployment commencing shortly after that.

Is the Minister not in a position to give greater clarity, rather than stating the date will be later this year? As I stated previously, a number of issues remain to be addressed before the NBP can be delivered. The committee is carrying out an investigation that must be completed before a contract can be signed. That can happen.

In light of the continued drip of information on the remaining bidder, which has taken place over the past two weeks, it is not unreasonable to expect that further revelations may come to light. For example, it appears that Mr. Peter Smyth, when he carried out his review, did not seek to resolve the presence of Mr. Frank McCourt of McCourt Global LLC at the meeting in New York. Could the Minister outline the issues that must be resolved before any contract is signed? Could he confirm that the Government has, to date, not committed to signing the final contract?

The position is that the Government has appointed a preferred bidder. The preferred bidder has been successful in the tendering process but it is only on the satisfactory completion of the contract details that the Government will sign. We will have to be satisfied that all the financial agreements, guarantees and performance bonds are in place. We will have to be satisfied that there are credible subcontractors in place with contracts so we can proceed. There are a number of significantly important steps to protect the taxpayer, which will be finalised during the months I mentioned. They comprise a very important part of any contract. Neither the Deputy nor the House would thank me if I sought to foreshorten them to commence earlier.

It is very important that we nail down these protections for the protection of taxpayers and, indeed, the potential beneficiaries from the system. While I can understand the Deputy is impatient, I have to make sure this is done right.

My impatience was not with the Minister's appropriate due diligence in regard to the signing of the contract. It was the fact that he rushed to the pulpit at the first possible opportunity, right in the throes of an election, to announce that he had conferred preferred bidder status on the only bidder that has been in existence for 15 months and so it would not be lost on the general public and the people who are waiting for broadband that this is not at all a done deal and that he still has an awful lot of i's to dot and t's to cross along the way. It speaks to the way in which this Government attempts to spin information. While I am not suggesting the Minister does that, there is an effort to spin and to give the impression that all is well and good and that all is ready to happen. In truth, however, when we lift the bonnet, we realise there is a hell of a lot more detail required and a hell of a lot more work to be done. It would be appropriate that the Minister would at least accept that, which I think he has done in his previous contribution.

I am not going to comment on spin but let me be honest. Every week, I was coming into the House and Members of the Deputy's party, including himself, and Members of the other parties were asking what was the delay in bringing forward a decision on the preferred bidder. Now, it seems, the very same people who were clamouring for that decision to be brought forward are saying this was rushed. It was not rushed. This was done in a proper fashion. We did the work and all of the due diligence that was appropriate. This is a very important decision and I am glad it is getting the scrutiny it is getting. I am absolutely confident that it is robust and will stand up to every scrutiny. This is the cheapest and best way of delivering it, this is the best technology and it will transform rural Ireland. It is, of course, right the House scrutinises it but I believe this system is robust. I have taken a lot of time to satisfy myself and I hope I will also be able to satisfy my colleagues.