Richard Curran: ‘Broadband plan is heading down yet another bog road dead end’
On the first day that Jim Hacker became a government minister in the classic British TV comedy series ‘Yes Minister’, his private secretary Bernard Woolley showed him around his new office. Woolley explained: “It used to be said there were two kinds of chairs to go with two kinds of ministers: one sort that folds up instantly and the other sort that goes round and round in circles.”
As reports surface of further delays to the National Broadband Plan (NBP), rural residents around Ireland could be forgiven for thinking that at the Department of Communications both chairs have been in use in recent weeks.
Former Minister Denis Naughten’s chair folded up instantly as he was forced to resign from office in the wake of totally inappropriate communications with the last remaining bidder.
Now his successor, Richard Bruton, runs the risk of going round and round in circles as the process is delayed further.
Deciding to push back the start date for the project may not be simply about political tactics but facing up reality. Mr Bruton has probably looked at the level of progress on the one hand, and the commitments on time frames on the other and said this is not realistic. But the uncertainty and possible procrastination goes a lot further than that. The independent process auditor for the NBP, Peter Smyth, is reviewing the process to determine whether the tender process has been compromised. There are several possible outcomes to his analysis, none of which looks particularly good for seeing the NBP anytime soon.
Scenario one sees Mr Smyth conclude the process has been compromised and cannot go ahead as currently constructed. The implications here would be very serious. Even if he concludes that inappropriate communications between Mr Naughten and the remaining bidder were an inadvertent breach of the rules, it will have to be followed up.
In such a scenario, Mr Naughten should face some kind of sanction because of his complete naivety and carelessness. This process has cost tens of millions of euro so far in consultancy and legal costs. Mr Naughten’s blind enthusiasm may have ensured this money was effectively poured down the drain.
Then there are the consequences for the bidder. If the process was compromised, even through no wrongdoing on the consortium’s part, should they be allowed continue or resubmit again in a brand new tender?
After all, a compromised process implies some kind of head start for them. However, bear in mind, nobody else seems interested in the tender as drafted.
Scenario two sees a conclusion that the process was not compromised. Even in that scenario, could it go ahead without a cloud over the process through which many would ask whether the State is getting the best value for money? Fianna Fáil are not happy about what has happened and their stance could be important regardless of Mr Smyth’s conclusions.
Different ministers take different views on the work of their predecessors. It is not the practice for one minister to arrive in a department and just reverse decisions made previously. However, Mr Naughten seems to have been so determined to deliver this project that Mr Bruton may take a close look at the work so far and conclude it is not the best solution for the State and the people of rural Ireland.
A fresh pair of eyes on the project may lead to a very different approach. Mr Bruton is an experienced minister and may feel it is time to stall this one.
Scenario three sees the conclusion that the process was not technically or formally compromised, but cannot go ahead anyway because of the perception Mr Naughten’s behaviour has created. So, no procurement rules broken, but enough of a balls-up to warrant stopping the tender.
In this scenario, would Granahan McCourt, the last remaining bidder, have grounds to sue the State for reputational damage, wasting its time and the costs associated with the process so far?
Each of these scenarios is messy. The plan to bring high-speed broadband past every boreen in the country is heading down a cul-de-sac. There are some basic truths running in he background through all of this.
1. Rural Ireland needs high-speed broadband.
City-dwellers say if you want to live in rural Ireland then you should pay for it. When delivered, this broadband would not be free, but would be provided on a commercial basis, with a state subsidy towards building it in the first place. People choose to live in rural Ireland for different reasons. If they chose not to, large swathes of our country would become empty, or occupied by the holiday homes of a wealthy urban elite – theme parks for city dwellers.
As a rural dweller myself, people sometimes ask me, how bad is the broadband around the country?
Is it just an expensive way to bring Netflix to culchies? There is a massive opportunity cost in not having high-speed broadband.
There are quality of life, social, educational and business opportunities at stake. Many people, looking to set up businesses, will not come to an area if it doesn’t have broadband. They will choose one locality over another for their new life and new venture. It is difficult to put a price on the economic cost of that.
2. After trying to get this plan off the ground since 2012, it is far from clear if it is viable.
Perhaps the Government needs to take a very large financial hit and say we will build it, own it and sub-contract somebody to run it. This would cost a lot more than €1bn, but perhaps it is the only way it can be achieved.
3. If the current tender process is abandoned, a fundamental unfairness and even inequality will continue.
Not the one between urban and rural, but between the different parts of rural Ireland themselves. For the first five years after I moved from Dublin to Donegal, I had 3.5mbps of broadband. I was lucky and could work with that. Many of my neighbours had less.
Two years ago, Eir put fibre to the home in my area and I now have a couple of hundred mbps if I want them. All of my neighbours for several miles up the road have access to this brilliant service. My neighbours down the same road in the other direction do not. They were not included in the Eir programme.
4. The longer the delays, the greater the cost and the greater the allure of other new technological solutions.
Is there a case for a different model using 5G and other mobile platforms? Possibly, but mobile phones in Ireland don’t use 5G. Starting again may result in a more roundabout route down a new cul-de-sac.
5. We know far too little about the existing plan.
How commercially viable is this plan for anybody, given that so many investors have pulled out?
A good deal for the State on paper might be false economy because the project could have to be bailed out in the future if broadband take-up by these rural homes is lower than expected.
Right now this entire project is a mess. When first explored, the country was on its uppers. But it has been growing strongly for four or five years now. Promises have been made and not delivered.
There is a political pragmatism or even tactical advantage to pausing for breath now and taking time to decide the next move.
But the Taoiseach has said broadband would be a “personal crusade” for him now.
Political tactics won’t help rural Ireland. The Taoiseach may be buoyed by recent opinion polls and feel this issue won’t come back to bite him. It would be unwise to bet on that.