Connectivity and future of work

Heavily redacted National Broadband Plan contract published

The Government has published the details of the contract for the National Broadband Plan but many key details, including those useful for public accountability, have been redacted or omitted.

Deemed “commercially sensitive”, key details of the contract for the €3 billion State aided national infrastructure project have been redacted or omitted on its publication.

Noticeably, omitted by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment are agreed targets which could be held up to public scrutiny.

Milestones which much be reached, dubbed “strategic community points” are redacted, as are the outlined requirements for the number of premises that must be reached each quarter. Additionally, sections on subsidy payments and operational performance have been partially redacted and sections on key subcontractor provisions and key personnel have not been published at all. Nor have sections on the “consequences of termination” or “termination events”.

The publication of the contract for the National Broadband Plan comes nine months after it was first signed following the award to the National Broadband Ireland (NBI) consortium, chaired by David McCourt.

Of the 50 schedules outlined in the published contract, which the Department says represents one of the most complex and comprehensive contracts ever to have been entered into in the State, just 21 were published in full.

Work on the 25-year long contract, which requires the delivery of high speed broadband to 540,000 homes, farms and businesses which cannot currently access it over a seven-year period, is already underway with the first premises set to be connected late this year or early next year.

The initial tender sought service provision of a minimum download speed of 30Mbps but NBI have promised a minimum of 500Mbps. The consortium has also stated that it expects to complete the project earlier than expected and under budget.

NBI have previously stated that it expects to pass 10,000 homes by the network by the end of 2020 and detailed design plans for 20 per cent of households under the project. Its previously discussed target is to pass 115,000 premises by 2021, with 70,000-120,000 household passed each year after until the rollout is complete, raising questions as to why details of rollout milestones have been redacted from the published contract.

In July, it was announced that 300 sites had been identified across the country as Broadband Connection Points that would be prioritised for connection within the first year of the rollout of the National Broadband Plan. The scheme aims to ensure that remote areas likely to wait longest for connection to the network will have access to high-speed broadband in places such as community centres and sports clubs.

Interestingly, the contract outlines that not only should the infrastructure be capable of providing the necessary services to 100 per cent of premises in a way that is “consistent with the provision of value for money in line with industry best practice” but that the contractor is required to “stimulate demand” for its infrastructure.

The National Broadband Plan has been controversial since it was first announced in 2012, with a projected cost of 1 billion. In 2018, the then Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten TD, resigned amidst controversy over private meetings with NBI Chair McCourt, meetings which a government-commissioned review later found not to have influenced the procurement process.

The cost of the project has also risen. In 2019, Eir CEO Carolan Lennon, whose company withdrew from the tendering process, told an Oireachtas committee her company could still deliver national broadband at a price lower than the original projected cost of 1 billion. Then Communications Minister Richard Bruton dismissed the claim as “not a feasible alternative”, while Finance Minister Pacschal Donohoe said that the bid lacked the protections for taxpayers put forward by NBI.

Also controversial was been the Government’s decision to opt for a model that will see NBI retain ownership of the network at the end of the 25 year contract. Prior to entering government, current Communications Minister Eamon Ryan outlined his preference for an option to retain the network in public ownership.

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