An astonishing row is now emerging at the heart of government. Robert Watt, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform’s secretary general has explicitly told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Pascal Donohue, the Minister for Finance, that they should forthwith abandon plans to install high-speed broadband to every home in the country and in the urban centres.
Robert Watt is one of the senior-most civil servants and has categorically warned cabinet ministers that the planned €3bn National Broadband Plan does not represent value for taxpayers’ money.
Reports indicate that Mr. Watt, who is in the running for the next governor of the Central bank, was vehemently opposed to the proposed plan. He firmly believes the €3bn price cannot be justified. Following several closed-door meetings, Mr. Watt is said to have told the Taoiseach and the Finance Minister that spending that kind of money on rolling out fibre optic cables to every home in the country would not pay off in the long run.
A government source said that Robert’s job was to give the unpopular view and the kind of advice that the politicians mostly did not want to hear. “Sometimes it makes him unpopular but it is his job to give this advice,” said the government source.
From all indications, Mr Varadkar and Mr. Donohoe look set to completely ignore this advice. They are hellbent on becoming the first government in the world to roll out high-speed broadband across the country.
Mr. Donohoe said that he and his officials have already engaged thoroughly on this plan for a couple of months. The Finance Minister has refused to address some of the concerns raised by one of the most senior civil servants in his own department, especially after the cost significantly shot up from €500m to €3bn.
Ministers and Opposition TDs already have major concerns with the project and Mr. Watt’s warning is likely to set off all kinds of alarms among them. It is believed that Cabinet will likely discuss the National Broadband plan next week. Ministers will be asked to sign off on the proposed plan for high-speed online connectivity across the country and for areas not currently served by commercial operators.
Once Cabinet reaches an agreement, a consortium led by American businessman Frank McCourt will be commissioned with rolling out the first-of-its-kind broadband project.
However, Cabinet ministers will likely raise concerns with Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance, and the Minister for Communications Mr. Richard Burton. In the aftermath of the National Children’s Hospital project controversy, a number of ministers are already apprehensive about sinking billions of euros into another state capital project.
Others raised concerns that the taxpayer is being asked to pay billions of euros for a massive infrastructure project that the state will ultimately not own. The Cabinet will focus on the value for money in bringing high-speed broadband many rural parts of the country.
According to sources close to the plan, bringing the broadband to about 443,000 homes may be real effective but the costs would dramatically increase for the other 100,000 remaining homes. Therefore, some of the more unreachable homes would have to fitted with domestic broadband receivers which would then connect to local transmitter outposts.
Meanwhile, Brendan Howlin, the former Public Expenditure and Reform Minister, accused Fine Gael of “abandoning all spending controls” and completely ignoring official advice. The Labour Party leader pointed out that the Government’s ambitious plan to bring high speed broadband to 543,000 homes and businesses would place a €5,500 burden on every property.
“The Government needs to publish far more information to clarify the numbers involved, and to confirm its assumptions about the average cost to connect homes to the broadband network,” Mr Howlin said.
Howlin further commented that Taoiseach was “weighing the short-term political benefit of winning seats at the local election over the long-term financial stability of our country.” He implored voters not to be fooled by Fine Gael and that it was “outrageous” to compel taxpayers to pay for a big project that the state would not eventually own.
Describing the Government’s handling of the proposed project, Fianna Fail’s communication spokesperson said it was “a monumental failure of the procurement process” that the state was pumping billions of euros into the plan yet it will not even own the infrastructure once it is in place.
The terms of the current contract stipulate that Mr. McCourt’s consortium will build, operate, service and manage the nation’s biggest broadband network for a period of 25 years, after which the state will have the option to purchase the infrastructure.
Former Minister for Communications Denis Naughten was forced to resign after his alleged contacts with Mr. McCourt. He had attacked Taoiseach at the time, and said that the decision to sack him had more to do with “opinion polls rather than telecom poles,” and “more about optics than fibre optics.”
Mr. Naughten said that the introduction of high-speed broadband ought to be treated with the same importance as the rural electrification program almost 100 years ago.