The network that Leo built

Minister for Communications Richard Bruton with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and David McCourt, National Broadband Ireland
Minister for Communications Richard Bruton with An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and David McCourt, National Broadband Ireland

Cost overruns are only the start of the NBP's woes, says Billy MacInnes

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Billy

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29 November 2019 | 0

Imagine if you wanted to build a house and were told it was going to cost €500,000 but then, four years down the track, you were blithely informed it would actually cost six times as much. And then you found that the contract you were going to sign stipulated you wouldn’t actually own the house after it was built but it would be given to the contractor after 25 years. What would your reaction be? Outrage. Pure and simple.

So how bizarre is it that the exact scenario outlined above has played out in front of us with the National Broadband Plan (NBP) but accompanied only by muted criticism from politicians and press? Especially when we already have a very public poster child for how a badly planned and managed privately delivered government project can result in massive over-runs and what should be huge embarrassment for the government with the National Children’s Hospital (NCH).

I say “what should be” because aside from grudgingly acknowledging the eye-watering rise in cost from a low point of €300 million to €2 billion, the government appears to be doing very little to contain the spiralling expense, unwilling even to pledge that the price will not break the €2 billion barrier.

Ireland will soon have one of the most expensive hospitals in the world, so it’s perhaps only right that the country should try and achieve the same milestone with its broadband provision. I don’t believe that should be a matter of pride but the government doesn’t seem to have anywhere near the same concern over what it does with the money it takes in from citizens and businesses. As Sinn Fein’s finance spokesman Pearse Doherty helpfully pointed out in the Dail, the price over-runs for the NCH and NBP are now in the order of €3.5 billion.

We can but hope that the debacle over the NCH will provide a blueprint for the government in terms of what to avoid in the NBP. Certainly, they appear to have tried their best to avoid the embarrassment of future cost over-runs by setting what looks to be a very high figure for the contract in the first place. As challenges go, splurging more than €3 billion on providing broadband to 540,000 homes should take some doing.

One of the biggest controversies in the NBP is that ownership of the network and infrastructure will revert to the National Broadband Ireland (NBI) consortium at the end of the 25 year contract. In effect, the government is paying €3 billion to NBI to deliver the network and run the contract for 25 years and then handing the network over to the consortium for free. To get an idea of how outrageous this plan is, try and imagine the response if the government had proposed a similar scenario for the NCH.

At the public signing of the contract, RTE business editor Will Goodbody asked Taoiseach Varadkar: “How can you be sure that you’re not making an historic mistake that we will live to regret in two and a half decades?” The honest answer is that he can’t. And the unpalatable fact is that, it doesn’t matter because Varadkar and all the other ministers and TDs who gathered for the signing of the contract are unlikely to be serving politicians in 25 years time. The sad reality is it will be someone else’s problem.

As for regrets? They’ll have plenty of time to learn the words to their Edith Piaf by then. There should be no excuses if they haven’t, especially when the NCH has given them so much practice. Perhaps they could even form a choir.

“Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien.”

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