I will share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Canney.
Before speaking to the substance of the matter, I take this opportunity to thank my predecessors and, in particular, Deputy Naughten, who put great effort into developing the national broadband plan, NBP. I also thank my officials who have worked tirelessly over a long period. They have done the State a great service, regardless of what one believes about the decision we are taking. A massive effort has gone into teasing this matter out and putting us in a position to make this decision.
I make no apology for stating that we have made a very important decision. In every office I have held as a Minister in recent years I have seen the powerful transformation that digital technology is delivering in business, enterprise, education and every walk of life. The reality for rural Ireland is that 1.1 million people would be left behind if we did not make this commitment to intervention by the State to deliver this technology. We would be cutting them off. Worse, rural Ireland would be hollowed out as opportunities go elsewhere. I cannot countenance that, and that has been the motivation of the Government in making this decision.
Since we decided to sell off Telecom Éireann the reality is that we have depended exclusively on the commercial sector to decide the state of our telecommunications network. That has worked very well for 75% of our population. That 75% will have access to a largely fibre-based system within the next five years. The process has worked very efficiently. However, from the State point of view, it is clear what has happened. The State has not intervened apart from the €400 million investment in metropolitan area networks, MANs, which was an important decision. There has been no other investment in telecommunications. The contrast is there for all to see. The investment the State has made in telecommunications has been that €400 million, compared to €10 billion in water and €40 billion on roads. Between 1985 and 1996, some €2 billion was invested by the State in telecommunication infrastructure in just one decade. The reliance on the private sector has, unfortunately, left almost a quarter of our population behind in terms of access to the sort of broadband service that is now being universally adopted by the European Union as the standard we have to reach. It is important that we make this decision.
There has been considerable questioning as to why we chose a model that involves subsidisation and not ownership. The reason is that we have been very strongly advised that the best and most cost-effective way of dealing with this is to use the existing infrastructure, including the MANs network, as the base, and the existing Eircom and ESB lines and poles as a platform from which to roll out 146,000 km of fibre. We are piggybacking on that existing infrastructure, which keeps down the cost. By leaving it as something that will be owned and managed by the successful bidder, we ensure that continuous investment occurs so that in 25 years or 35 years a system simply consisting of fibre on rented poles that requires substantial reinvestment is not handed back to the State. This ensures that we will have a stand-alone service, standing on its own two feet and delivering a high-quality service to 1.1 million people in the country.
There has been much comment on the sceptical scrutiny of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. As I have said, that is exactly what that the Department is there to do. Any healthy system has sceptical scrutiny within government, and, at the end of the day, politicians and governments must make decisions. I assure the House, and I will be happy to repeat this next week before the committee, that every one of those concerns has been carefully scrutinised. We looked at all the costs and all of the possible alternatives, which amounted to 12 or 14 alternatives all together. We looked at how best to manage risk and worked out a way to do it. We ensured that the cost is spread over a significant period. We carried out the detailed scrutiny and due diligence necessary when only one bidder was left in the process. We have ensured that the State is protected by clawbacks, rigorous performance clauses and governance requirements, which will ensure that this company will deliver in the State in a way which protects the taxpayer.
There has been criticism, too, of the benefit to cost ratio, and that the ratio is relatively low, at 1:3. The reality is that this is based on a very conservative assessment of what can be included as potential benefits. It cannot look at the future potential that e-health, e-government services, digital learning, the use of the cloud or an increase in the uptake of remote working. None of those can be taken into account in this. Those reasons, not taken into account, have provided much of the impetus for committing to providing high-speed broadband. I also assure the House that the only cheaper alternative to doing this is to leave some of our people in rural Ireland behind. That is something that the Government is not willing to countenance.
I strongly recommend this proposal to the House as being the best way of delivering equality of opportunity for 1.1 million people in rural Ireland. I also assure the House that no other capital projects will be postponed, delayed or in any way affected by the decision the Government has taken. Part of that decision is that this will be funded from future revenues.