If the story of the National Broadband Plan is one day turned into a book, it will probably require several volumes to tell the tale.
That’s because the saga has had more ups and downs than an unreliable internet connection in rural west Kerry.
What is the National Broadband Plan?
The National Broadband Plan has been in the works since 2012 and was described at the time it was announced as being akin to the "rural electrification of the 21st century".
Its aim is to bring high-speed broadband to every home and business in the country where such a service is not currently available, because commercial operators say it is not commercially viable to offer it.
That’s a total of 542,000 premises or 1.1 million people that still have to be connected. The plan as it stands is to have a commercial operator roll out this network, with the state paying a subsidy to cover the extra cost beyond what is commercially viable.
A sizeable project team in the Department of Communications has been working on an incredibly large and complicated procurement process to get an operator to bring fibre optic cable to pretty much every one of those 542,000 homes and businesses.
The competition for the contract was whittled down to three bidders in 2016 – SIRO (a joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone), Eir and a consortium involving US technology and telecoms investment firm Granahan McCourt along with Enet and others.
But then SIRO dropped out, followed by Eir leaving just the Granahan McCourt and Enet consortium.
Despite there being only one bidder left, the Government ploughed ahead with the procurement process though and had been hoping to be in a position to sign a contract by now, if the final tender from the Granahan McCourt consortium, now called National Broadband Ireland, was acceptable.
So what is the controversy about?
Last month it emerged that the then Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten, had met David McCourt, the founder and chairman of Granahan McCourt, a number of times over the past two years as the final stages of the procurement process were still under way.
That led to further opposition questions and pressure and eventually Denis Naughten resigned after the Taoiseach asked him to reflect on his position when Mr Naughten told him he had a further four private dinners with Mr McCourt, including one in Mr McCourt’s home in Co Clare.
Mr Naughten has always maintained he did nothing wrong. But at the same time, the Taoiseach asked the independent process auditor to the National Broadband Plan, Peter Smyth, to carry out a review of the contacts between Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt.
This was to allow the Government to assess whether or not the integrity of the procurement process had been undermined by the meetings between Mr McCourt and Mr Naughten.
And that’s what’s now been completed?
Yes, Mr Smyth’s report has now been published. It found that neither former minister Naughten nor David McCourt influenced the tender process for the plan.
It says the fact that the former minister met Mr McCourt or representatives of the other bidders outside the process is not in and of itself a basis for a finding that the procurement process has been tainted.
Mr Smyth said he is satisfied that neither the former Minister nor Mr McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process in favour of Granahan McCourt or otherwise.
He also stated that the decision of Mr Naughten to resign insulates the process from any apparent bias created by his engagements with Mr McCourt.
Mr Smyth does though state that the absence of formal minutes or meeting notes for a number of encounters meant he was reliant on statements from Mr Naughten and Mr McCourt and others for verifying the contents of the meetings.
As a result he said he could not unequivocally state that State-led intervention under the NBP was not discussed at the meetings between the former minister and Mr McCourt outside the procurement process.
So what happens next then?
Well the new Minister for Communications, Richard Bruton, said having considered the report, the Government has given approval for the ongoing evaluation by his department of the tender submitted by National Broadband Ireland should continue.
The bid is made up of some 20,000 pages of documents including technical and financial solutions.
It isn’t clear when that process will end, but the tender evaluation has been continuing alongside the Smyth review, and the government will be anxious to make a decision soon.
When the procurement team has finished its evaluation it will present its findings to the Minister, who will then bring a recommendation to cabinet to either accept or reject the tender.
And if it is rejected, is there a Plan B?
It certainly seems that the Government’s preference would be to try to make the current process work.
To scrap it and return to the drawing board at this stage would certainly delay the project even more. With a potential election always looming in the background, it knows it must have something definitive to sell when it sends its troops out to the doorsteps.
There has been much talk of and plenty of calls for work on a Plan B though. The opposition has expressed concern that the current process is flawed and that the only remaining bidder may not be in a position to deliver what is required.
It has suggested that perhaps one of the semi-state organisations like the ESB or Ervia could be mandated to takeover the delivery of broadband to rural Ireland.
But within the industry, there’s a significant degree of scepticism around whether that would be realistic.
In what way might a Plan B be different?
Another suggestion that has gained legs in recent weeks is that instead of trying to bring fibre optic cable to every premises in the country, the government should be reconsidering the use of mobile or wireless technology instead.
This is because it might be cheaper and quicker to deploy, particularly if the country were to be carved up into smaller pockets, with different technological solutions for different areas.
However, there are differing views on whether mobile technology would be adequate in the future.
The other issue that has raised its head recently is concern that not everyone in rural Ireland might want the kind of service levels offered by having a fibre optic cable going into every premises.
This is because it has been argued that where such cables have already been installed, the take-up of the service so far appears low. However, industry sources say that’s not actually the case, and the demand is around where they would expect it to be.
And what is all this likely to cost us?
All these developments have been accompanied by reports that the likely cost of the National Broadband Plan as currently envisaged has spiralled to as much as €3bn.
Again, there are varying views within the telecoms industry about the probably bill, but most seem to think that €3bn figure is on the high side.
Today the Minister for Finance said National Development Plan funding could be used to deliver broadband to rural Ireland. The question though is how much?
A question that will only be answered in the coming weeks when we find out whether the National Broadband Ireland consortium’s tender has been accepted.