Last night's debate again made it clear that we are all united in our desire to ensure that High Speed Broadband is delivered throughout Ireland as soon as possible. Deputies highlighted the impacts of not having High Speed Broadband on people throughout rural Ireland. As I said last night, I understand and share this frustration because my neighbours, family and friends are experiencing the exact same problems every single day.
For me, I believe that high speed broadband is a basic necessity for families and businesses throughout Ireland, in cities, in towns, in villages and in rural areas, just as electricity and water was in the last century.
That is why delivering high speed broadband to every home, every business, every farm and every school in Ireland is a personal commitment from me and remains a key priority of Government.
I would like to address some specific points raised in the debate last night.
The National Broadband Plan is not just about the State Intervention, and the associated procurement process. The Plan was designed to be a combination of commercial and State investment. This has been the clear intention from the start and that is why commercial investment of over €2m per day is continuing to deliver improved broadband services every single day. The increased level of investment by commercial operators has certainly been influenced by the commitments outlined in the National Broadband Plan.
The level of commercial investment in deploying high speed broadband to all regions, towns and villages across Ireland is stimulated by the National Broadband Plan. This is part of the overall package and has been publicly acknowledged by technology commentators.
A number of Deputies made reference last night to the eir 300k and the Commitment Agreement relating to that rollout. There seems to be some misunderstanding about why the Map for the NBP State Intervention Area was revised to remove the premises within the eir 300k.
The NBP State Intervention is a State Aided project. One of the fundamental principles under the State Aid Guidelines is that State Aid for high speed broadband services should be granted only in respect of areas where market failure has been identified. Therefore, only where private investment does not deliver or does not have concrete plans to do so in the near future, should State Aid be used.
My Department had no involvement in the selection of premises for inclusion in this commercial role out and that was entirely a decision for eir, as it would be for any commercial company. Following examination of the commercial plans submitted by eir, I entered into a "Commitment Agreement" in respect of the eir 300k rollout.
While the State Aid Guidelines envisage clear milestones being set out in commercial plans, the Commitment Agreement I delivered, considerably exceeded those guidelines, as it included not only milestones for delivery but also robust monitoring and enforcement provisions.
I hope that it is now clear to the House, that it is not a case that the Commitment Agreement in some way determined where eir's high speed broadband infrastructure was to be built. That is always a matter for commercial companies. The Commitment Agreement provided a very strong assurance that planned infrastructure would be built and the Commitment Agreement set out clearly the quarterly milestones to be achieved.
If the Intervention Area was not reduced to reflect the eir Commercial roll out, there would have been a very real risk that the State would have been in breach of the State Aid Guidelines. Such a breach would have resulted in Ireland not receiving approval for State Aid and potentially mean that the Contract could not be awarded. It was the emergence of concrete commercial plans from eir that led to the need to reduce the Intervention Area and not the Commitment Agreement.
Deputy Dooley last night said that his proposed independent review could be concluded in two months and I explained that this was an entirely unrealistic expectation.
It is now being suggested that a review could run in parallel to the current procurement process. This too is totally unrealistic and suggests either a naivety or that the NBP is being used as a political football. The conduct of a parallel review would significantly impact on the procurement team's ability to engage effectively with the bidder in dialoguing the final issues for resolution. The exercise would introduce uncertainty to the process, and legitimately the Bidder could decide to disengage from the process until the review was concluded. In any event, I reject the suggestion that there is any basis for carrying out a review.
The Government in its countermotion last night recognised the significant uncertainty that would be created by embarking on an unnecessary review at this late stage of the procurement process and recognised that this could undermine and indeed collapse that procurement process.
Putting the procurement off course at this key stage would seriously jeopardise the achievement of the objectives of the NBP and would in fact thwart the will of Dáil Éireann and the people of this country – which is to make high speed broadband available throughout Rural Ireland.
I recognise the time that has elapsed since the NBP was first mooted. I understand the impatience of those who are waiting on the NBP to bring high speed broadband to their communities. But now we are at the final stages of the procurement process that can deliver high speed broadband to those communities. Now is a time for strong and steady resolve to see the procurement process through to a conclusion.
That is why we should continue apace with the public procurement process to select a company to build a future proofed high speed broadband network in those areas, in every county in Ireland, which will not be served by commercial operators.
Members of the Opposition have decried the delay in delivering high speed broadband time and time again. Delivery of this vital service is too important to be treated as a political football.
I would like to conclude on this point by confirming that no decision will be made on the award of an NBP contract without the consent of Government and it is my intention to keep this House, and its members regularly updated on progress in delivering the objectives of the National Broadband Plan, as I have done to date both formally and informally.
As I said during last night's debate, when I became Minister twenty one months ago, five out of ten premises had access to high speed broadband, today that is closer to seven out of ten premises. By the end of the year, I expect it will rise to eight out of ten and by 2020, nine out of ten premises will have access to high speed broadband. By the end of this year, 79% of the population, 87% of schools, 96% of business parks will have access to high speed broadband.
In summary of progress to date, in the past 12 months alone new telecoms infrastructure has been delivered to over 280k premises providing high speed broadband with services up to 1 gigabit per second download speeds
The 300k rollout alone will deliver high speed broadband to 810,000 people, one third of farms in this country and over 1000 schools.
It is also important to remember the ongoing efforts being made to ensure delivery of the National Broadband Plan.
In July, 2016, I established the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce as part of the Programme for a Partnership Government. The Taskforce's role is to identify solutions to obstacles faced by the roll out of the National Broadband Plan and to facilitate the faster delivery of mobile and wireless broadband solutions across rural Ireland.
I am planning to shortly release the Taskforce's Annual Report which details the progress made to date. Every Local Authority now has a dedicated Broadband Officer, acting as a single point of contact for operators on coverage and roll out issues. There is considerable cooperation between Local Authorities operators and across Department, including my own, on this Taskforce to continue to deliver on their agreed actions.
Openness and Transparency
I have endeavoured to ensure maximum openness and transparency for members of Dáil Éireann, our National Parliament and the public in relation to the NBP procurement process, while respecting the need to protect the integrity of that process.
I took the initiative to arrange special information sessions for Deputies and Senators in relation to the NBP on three occasions in the past ten months. I held an information session last April when the Map for the procurement process was finalised. I held a further information session for Deputies and Senators last September when the procurement reached the Detailed Solutions stage. Last week I held a further information session to provide an update following the withdrawal of eir from the procurement process and last night I supplied each Deputy and Senator with a copy of the letter I received from Richard Moat informing me of this decision. I also supplied a copy of my response. And this evening ahead of these Statements you would have received an updated comprehensive briefing document from me.
This week I have contributed openly and positively to two debates in the House and tomorrow I will attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to discuss the NBP. I will be accompanied by officials from my Department that are directly managing the Procurement Process.
I have ensured that citizens can get information in relation to the availability of high speed broadband through my Department's website, including in particular, the interactive High Speed Broadband Map.
Every week I provide detailed information to Deputies in response to Parliamentary Questions and my Department helps citizens by replying to emails received through the dedicated Broadband inbox.
As the procurement process proceeds and as deployment of high speed broadband continues, I will continue to provide updates to Deputies and Senators and to the public.