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National Broadband Plan

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 4 November 2021

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Ceisteanna (4)

Denis Naughten

Ceist:

4. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the plans he has to address delays in the delivery of the national broadband plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53973/21]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Environment)

By the end of 2022, 75,000 fewer homes will have access to high-speed broadband than was planned two years ago under the national broadband plan. The build of the national broadband plan will be behind by a full 12 months after the first two years of the project. This will have a significant impact on the uptake of remote working across the country and an overall impact on climate emissions, especially in rural areas.

In addition to the challenges to the delivery of the national broadband plan, NBP, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, National Broadband Ireland, NBI, has faced a range of other challenges due to the sheer scale and complexity of rolling out fibre to the home in a rural environment. These include significant tree trimming to ensure cable can be placed on overhead poles, remediation of ducting that has been in place for many decades, the co-ordination of hundreds of contracting crews and addressing the many issues arising weekly which could not have been foreseen until the building crews commenced work on the ground. My Department has worked closely with NBI to put in place a remedial plan under the contract. The plan addresses delays experienced by NBI, primarily arising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and set new baselines for milestones for 2021. Work is underway to set new baselines for milestones for 2022 and beyond.

NBI has implemented a number of measures to help lessen the impact that these challenges have had on the roll-out including increasing the rate of pole replacement and duct remediation per month, bringing in additional NBI resources, earlier procurement of material used in the build stages and bringing in additional subcontractors. Despite the unprecedented challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, National Broadband Ireland has made steady progress on delivery of the new high-speed fibre broadband network under the National Broadband Plan with over 30,000 premises available to order and pre-order across 11 counties. It remains the ambition of the Government to roll out the National Broadband Plan as quickly as possible. My Department continues to engage with NBI to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the NBP roll-out to establish the possibility of bringing forward premises which are currently scheduled in years six and seven of the current plan to an earlier date. However, the primary focus must be on addressing the delays which have arisen and ensuring that the National Broadband Ireland building programme gets back on track and is building momentum month on month.

It is good that NBI is coming to Oireachtas committees and being directly cross-examined so that its testimony can line up with what we are saying. It is essential that we make progress on the national broadband plan. I work on it every day.

There is a contradiction in what we are being told. We are told that the primary reason for delays in the roll-out is Covid-19. That just does not stack up. There have been ongoing delays in engagement with local authorities, with CIÉ and with Transport Infrastructure Ireland with regard to getting access to infrastructure. That does not seem to be acknowledged by everyone. Why is there a cover-up and failure to acknowledge that?

Will the Minister of State answer a simple question? The single biggest subcontractor that National Broadband Ireland has is Eir. Eir has achieved its timelines last year, in 2021 and is expected to overachieve in 2022. It had to deal with Covid. How could Eir deliver when National Broadband Ireland cannot?

All of the major fibre installers have had delays and have been affected by Covid. I have spoken with them directly about that. NBI is a brand new company which is not directly comparable with Eir. It is reliant on contractors with which it has shorter relationships. Regarding TII, CIÉ, and any difficulties, I have heard the Deputy's comments. I am willing to investigate those and see what can be done to improve that situation. Deputy Naughten knows that Covid caused real problems for installation in remote rural areas which would not have been the case if installing fibre in a city or town. If all of the bed and breakfast accommodation is closed in a remote part of Cork or Donegal and contractors cannot be housed overnight, or if contractors from another country are being relied on who cannot travel because of international travel restrictions, problems arise, which are due to Covid. It is not all due to Covid. Some of the issues that I outlined are not covered by force majeure and will be subject to penalty clauses.

Any Deputy or Senator from rural Ireland was able to get accommodation throughout the lockdown. There are hotels, restaurants and guest houses across the country that would have thrown open their doors if they were approached about it.

Some of them did, in relation to contractors. Local authorities can find emergency accommodation and they have a relationship with many bed and breakfasts throughout the country, so that just does not wash.

I will give the Minister of State a piece of advice. Two years ago last month, a month before the contract for the national broadband plan was signed, the mobile phone and broadband task force was the agency that brought the local authorities and State and semi-State agencies around the table at which I sat as a Cabinet Minister and drove forward the bottlenecks in terms of access issues. That needs to be re-established immediately.

I will re-establish the task force and I agree with the Deputy. In the meantime, I meet regularly with National Broadband Ireland, NBI. I attended its last board meeting and I spent a couple of hours with its chief executive on Tuesday in Limerick when installations were being done there. I see the fibre being installed at the data centre end and at the home end. I met with the chief executive of Eir earlier this week and I am offering to facilitate and make sure all stakeholders can work together and that there is a role for Government being between a number of parties who are competing or contracting with each other. It is to ensure hurdles are overcome, regulatory changes can be made where needed and to act as an honest broker and as the major customer for making sure the project is delivered. It is one of the most important projects in the history of Ireland. It is essential people in rural Ireland have high-speed broadband so they can live their lives, and I will do everything I can to ensure the project is delivered correctly and on time.

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