Broad­band plan is head­ing down yet an­other bog road dead end

Irish Independent - Business Week - - TECHNOLOGY -

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.

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.

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-con-

Chal­lenge:

Min­is­ter for Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Richard Bru­ton faces an up­hill task to get the Na­tional Broad­band plan back on track

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.

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.

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