Yesterday the Taoiseach, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and, crucially, the Minister for Finance stated that no decision had been made or would be made on the broadband tendering process and particularly that no decision would be made on the last remaining bid. However, in today's Irish Independent we read that the lead bidder for the national broadband plan is preparing to fast-track rural connections next year. The report stated:
The move would mean that the first of 540,000 rural homes and businesses under the State-sponsored scheme would get high-speed broadband in 2019, ahead of the expected 2020 rollout...
A contract is expected to be signed in January, with the subsidy cost and other contractual terms to be finalised in the coming weeks.
It is all in marked contrast to what we were told yesterday in this House. Is this the case? Can the Taoiseach confirm that a decision to proceed has actually been taken behind the scenes? We note that only €74 million was allocated in the 2019 Estimate for the roll-out of this plan, which compares with an industry estimate of anything from €1 billion to €1.5 billion as the actual cost of the plan.
Two discussions seem to be under way in parallel: one in the Dáil where nothing is actually disclosed by Government and where the actual potential cost of the project is not spelled out or detailed in any way; and then in the media, helped by Government and other sources, a different story is spun. There is a need for much more transparency and honesty in the Dáil about the national broadband plan roll-out. We need to ground the plan in some reality and not with repeated broken promises.
Yesterday I asked the Taoiseach a very basic question as to whether the new bidder was a new consortium. His reply was quite remarkable. He said:
The consortium has changed but it is not a new consortium. It is a consortium that has changed in its composition during the process, not a new one.
For the record, the September 2017 consortium that submitted to the tendering process comprised Enet - the leader, Granahan McCourt Capital, SSE plc and John Laing Group. By the final tender in September 2018 it was Granahan McCourt Capital - the leader, Nokia, Actavo, the Kelly Group and the KN Group are all now suddenly at the 11th hour in there. That is a changed consortium. The key question is whether the Government is satisfied that the new consortium has the capacity to deliver this project.
The Irish Times has an interesting article by Eoin Burke Kennedy with substantial questions. Why has the industry in Ireland shunned this particular project given the significant Government subsidy?