BEING a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, the government has made a very costly decision – which is set to be borne by the taxpayer – to go ahead with the long-awaited National Broadband Plan, subject to the signing of a final contract with the sole remaining preferred bidder, which just happens to be a venture capital fund.
The estimated cost of bringing high-speed broadband to every home in rural Ireland that requires it has shot up to €2.9bn – almost six times the €500m the project was originally estimated at. A lot of scorn has been directed towards the government’s announcement, especially the timing of it just over a fortnight before the local and European elections.
The anger surrounding the announcement has been heightened by the fact that the government and Prudent Paschal, the Minister for Finance, has chosen to disregard advice given by one of the country’s most senior civil servants, Robert Watt, the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, that the proposed contract with Granaghan McCourt Capital involves excessive costs and risks for the Irish taxpayer with questionable benefits, especially as ownership of the network will be vested in the private operator even though Irish taxpayers will have paid half the cost of it. Also, cuts of €1.5bn in other areas of public expenditure will have to be made to fund the broadband plan.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted the preferred bidder contract to deliver broadband was a ‘real contract’ – even though it is not expected to be signed until the autumn – that can be ‘delivered.’ Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has said his party would find an alternative to the National Broadband Plan if the party is in government when the contracts have to be signed, which is a bit of a cop-out because he knows that, as things stand, they won’t be; crying wolf is not enough in this instance.
Rural Ireland needs decent broadband speeds – and urgently – but the Public Accounts Committee first needs to investigate why Robert Watt’s advice was ignored before any contract is finalised.