Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Ceisteanna (33)

Timmy Dooley

Ceist:

33. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment if he will report on delays to the national broadband plan announced by the Taoiseach. [42315/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Communications)

The Minister will be aware that the Taoiseach announced recently that there would be a further delay in signing the contract for the national broadband plan. He cited the intervention by Imagine, a wireless broadband provider, whose interaction with the Department is leading to delays. Will the Minister outline the nature and extent of the delays which have been encountered as a result of that intervention?

The Deputy is aware that the Government appointed National Broadband Ireland as the preferred bidder for the national broadband plan in May. This followed a tender process designed to ensure that every home and business will have access to future-proofed high-speed broadband that will cater specifically to an estimated 1.1 million people, representing almost 25% of the population of rural Ireland who would not otherwise have access. Since then my officials have been performing the due diligence work needed before a contract can be concluded. The Taoiseach recently commented, in the context of that considerable due diligence nearing completion, that it is expected that the contract will be signed before the end of the year.

My Department recently consulted publicly in order to close the ongoing mapping exercise, seeking submissions from operators that wish to have their existing high-speed broadband networks, or who have developed plans to invest in high-speed broadband networks over the next seven years, to be included on the Department’s high-speed broadband map. In response to requests from a number of operators, the duration of that consultation was extended by more than five weeks. Over 180 submissions have been received from a variety of stakeholders, including 30 from large and small telecoms operators, with the remainder from local authority broadband officers and members of the public.

Operator submissions will be assessed against the Department’s published assessment criteria. Operators submitting planned investments were required to sign a declaration that they would enter into a commitment agreement with the Department if their plans satisfied the assessment criteria and were accepted by the Department as being concrete and credible.

The findings of the consultation will ensure that the State's intervention area is up to date and reflects commercial operators’ plans and the responses from householders and businesses, in advance of a contract being signed later this year. This will be an important element in concluding the state aid approval process with the EU Commission.

I thank the Minister for outlining the nature and extent of that consultation. It is well recognised from different media reports that Imagine intends to cover approximately 234,000 premises in the intervention area. I understand Eir has already announced its intention to cover in the region of 80,000 homes in the intervention area. The Minister indicated that there have been 180 responses, but taking those two alone, we can estimate that of the order of 214,000 homes, farms and businesses will now be covered by commercial operators. The assumption must be that they would have to be excluded from the 540,000 premises already mapped. As a result of state aid rules, the Government will not be in a position to support the provision of broadband to those premises. That leaves 214,000 or so. If one divides that number into the €3 billion cost of the provision of the service, one arrives at a figure of approximately €13,000 per home. Will the Minister comment on that?

I will not comment on a hypothetical situation of the sort the Deputy outlined. As stated, any submission by any company - and I will not name companies - will be thoroughly evaluated. Companies will be evaluated against the criteria set out, including the need to hit the 30 Mb threshold, that they themselves are future-proofed and that they can guarantee to deliver to all those within the areas to which they lay claim high-speed broadband that is future-proofed and that will not be subject to diminution. They must also show that they have financial plans which show they are capable of delivering. Those are the criteria. I will not comment on individual applications and how they will be evaluated. That must be done properly. It will be done by the Department but the process is not yet complete.

Does the Minister accept that the two companies to which I refer have considerable track records, presence and know-how and that their response to him, if it is as reported in the media, will provide a considerable dilemma for the Government, particularly in the context of state aid rules? Does he also accept that this development has the potential to delay the signing of the national broadband plan further? When there was a rush to appoint the Granahan McCourt consortium as the preferred bidder in the summer - I assume this was necessitated by the advent of the local elections - the Minister indicated that the capacity existed to have the contract signed by September. The latter has passed and October is well under way. The period for responses has been extended and the Government still requires state aid approval. Is it somewhat foolhardy to indicate that the Government hopes to have this contract signed by Christmas?

It was quite justified to provide the extra five weeks requested by companies to have their submissions evaluated. From a state aid perspective, it is clear that we must be satisfied that any intervention area excludes localities that will be provided for commercially and without the granting of state aid. Giving that extra time was justified. I will not follow the Deputy down the route of speculating as to what would happen if different companies or different applications were to emerge. Clearly, this is an important part of the process. Companies must meet the criteria I set out. It would be foolish to speculate on how this might impact on the national broadband plan until that work is done. We should bear in mind that this is not the first time the map has been subject to consultation. There have been opportunities for companies to put forward ideas before against the background of what had to be achieved for future-proofed services. Some companies have indicated that they could do various schemes for much less money but many of those schemes did not meet the standards. We must give new submissions every opportunity to be evaluated in a fair and objective way. That is what is happening.