New doubts cast over ru­ral broad­band plan

Irish Independent - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - Adrian Weck­ler

NEW ques­tions over the fu­ture of the Na­tional Broad­band Plan are emerg­ing with sources close to the State ten­der­ing process cast­ing doubt over its fu­ture.

The Ir­ish In­de­pen­dent un­der­stands that the sole re­main­ing bid­der for the ten­der is re­assess­ing its po­si­tion in light of what it sees as po­lit­i­cal de­lays to a time-sen­si­tive process.

If the Grana­han-McCourt-led con­sor­tium pulls out, it would cre­ate a huge prob­lem for the Gov­ern­ment, which would face the prospect of scrap­ping the cur­rent ten­der and telling 540,000 ru­ral res­i­dents that they will not re­ceive broad­band for at least an­other five years.

The Gov­ern­ment is cur­rently wait­ing on an au­dit re­port from con­sul­tant Peter Smyth on whether meet­ings be­tween for­mer Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter De­nis Naugh­ten and Grana­han McCourt boss David McCourt dis­rupted “the in­tegrity of the pro­cure­ment process”.

Mr Naugh­ten was re­placed by Richard Bru­ton af­ter he was forced to re­sign ear­lier this month when Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar in­di­cated that he had lost con­fi­dence in his judge­ment fol­low­ing a series of meet­ings with Mr McCourt.

Both Mr McCourt and Mr Naugh­ten have vo­cif­er­ously de­nied any im­proper con­duct re­lated to the meet­ings, de­spite pro­cure­ment rules that se­verely re­strict any bid-re­lated con­tact be­tween a serv­ing Min­is­ter and a bid­der for a ten­der.

Un­der the Na­tional Broad­band Plan, ru­ral fi­bre con­nec­tions to 540,000 homes and busi­nesses were due to be­gin in 2019 but that now looks likely to be de­layed un­til 2020 at the ear­li­est.

The cur­rent bid is be­ing fi­nanced by McCourt, Oak Hill and the pri­vate fam­ily fund of Wal­ter Scott, the Ne­braska bil­lion­aire who sits on the board of Warren Buf­fett’s Berk­shire Hath­away.

The Na­tional Broad­band Plan has been dogged by a series of de­lays and with­drawals, with the two largest bid­ders, Eir and Siro pulling out due to doubts over the scheme’s vi­a­bil­ity.

Last week, Eir CEO Carolan Len­non sug­gested that the Na­tional Broad­band Plan may be fun­da­men­tally un­work­able, in­di­cat­ing a hard­en­ing of in­dus­try at­ti­tude against the project.

Gov­ern­ment sources in­sist that the scheme can still pro­ceed and that a pos­i­tive re­port from au­di­tor Peter Smyth in early Novem­ber would bring the process back on track.

New Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Richard Bru­ton re­placed De­nis Naugh­ten

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