A report by independent process auditor Peter Smyth has found that neither former Minister for Communications Denis Naughten nor National Broadband Ireland (NBI) head David McCourt had unduly influenced the National Broadband Plan’s (NBP) tender process.
The Smyth report found that the former Minister Naughten did not prejudice the bidding process for the award of the government’s National Broadband Plan contract by privately meeting with David McCourt, the head of the NBI consortium made up of his investment firm Granahan McCourt, Enet and others, on multiple occasions over the two years. Smyth added that he was satisfied neither Naughten nor McCourt had personally influenced the process and that the subsequent resignation of Naughten, under opposition pressure once the private meetings became public knowledge, had further protected the process from any bias.
However, Smyth included the caveat that he had relied on statements from Naughten and McCourt. Given the lack of formal minutes or notes from the meetings, one of which took place in McCourt’s home in County Clare, he said that it was not possible to definitively say that state-led intervention into the NBP had not been discussed. Following the report, the Government has given approval for the consideration of NBI’s tender to continue. The Department of Communications’ procurement team had continued their evaluation of the tender while the investigation proceeded, and it is now up to them to recommend to new Minister for Communications Richard Bruton whether to progress with the application.
The opposition has criticised the absence of a contingency plan should the procurement team find NBI’s 20,000 page tender unsatisfactory and without any other bidders, have suggested that semi-state organisations such as the ESB or Ervia could be mandated to deliver fibre optic broadband to the 525,000 premises and 1.1 million people awaiting roll-out. Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley has expressed a preference for ESB to deliver the plan and said in a statement in October 2018 that the government was “facing a nightmare scenario of a full collapse of the National Broadband Plan”. Siro, ESB’s telecommunications department, withdrew from the bidding process, saying that there was no longer a “business case” to continue.
Others, such as Imagine Communications Group Executive Chairman Seán Bolger, have said that the Government has been too hasty in forcing fibre optic broadband on the areas waiting to be serviced and that it should consider the use of the cheaper and easier to install options of mobile and wireless technology. Costs would especially be curbed if the country was sub-divided into smaller regions and each area given its own solution.
Reports emerging concurrent to Smyth’s also claim that the cost associated with the NBP could reach up to €3 billion, although the feeling within the telecommunications industry is that this is an overestimate. Minister Bruton has said that funding from the National Development Plan might be used for the NBP, although he did not specify any amount that could be made available.