The delivery of high-speed broadband to rural Ireland may have taken a step closer today after the last remaining bidder for the National Broadband Plan submitted its tender.

The move by the consortium was confirmed by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten in the Dáil this afternoon.

However, it has emerged that there have been significant changes to the consortium.

In a statement the group calling itself National Broadband Ireland, said it is now led by private investment firm Granahan McCourt and not by enet.

enet is listed as a partner that "will be an integral part of the ongoing operation of the network when built".

Other partners named include Nokia, Denis O'Brien's Actavo, The Kelly Group and KN Group.

The alterations represent a significant change in the structure of the group since SSE pulled out of it in July.

The Irish Infrastructure Fund is no longer listed as a part of the consortium in its own right, although it continues to own 78% of enet.

The statement also confirms that the company will have long-term access to open eir's 1.2 million rural pole infrastructure, as well as its duct network.

Responding to a question from Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley, Mr Naughten said the plan was "ambitious" and it had the objective of delivering high-speed broadband to every premises in Ireland.

He said the remaining bidder has had to meet the relevant thresholds set out in the procurement process.

Analysis: Many unknowns remain about broadband plan

Mr Naughten said: "I am pleased to inform the deputy, Dáil Éireann and more importanbtly the 540,000 families and businesses across rural Ireland that are awaiting high-speed broadband that today marks the historic milestone in the Government's procurement of the National Broadband Plan.

"Earlier today the remaining bidder in National Braodband Plan process submitted its final tender to my department."

The minister said it would now be evaluated and he was looking forward to the outcome of that process.

He acknowledged that "the procurement process has been, by necessity, complex and thorough".

The National Broadband Plan aims to connect 542,000 homes and businesses that currently do not have access to high-speed broadband, giving them a minimum download speed of 30Mbps.

That represents a total of 990,000 citizens or 21% of the population, including 52,000 farms, 47,000 SMEs and 437 schools.

However, the process has been bedevilled by delays and setbacks, including the decision by SIRO last year and Eir earlier this year to withdraw from the tendering process.

That left just the consortium in the race, something critics say has left the Government with little room for negotiation.

In July, it emerged that SSE had withdrawn from the consortium and had been replaced by the Irish Infrastructure Fund.

Fianna Fáil's Communications spokesperson Timmy Dooley questioned how the minister had said enet was no longer the lead bidder and it seemed that the consortium did not have enet as part of it.

He said it appeared that John Laing Group PLC was no longer part of the consortium and that SSE removed itself from it some time ago.

"So it seems to me that while you are not going to tell us very much, you are confirming by your failure to respond to the question that the only remaining bidder here is Granahan McCourt?" he said.

The minister said he could not or would not comment on that.

Earlier, Mr Stanley said: "You haven't been able to tell us what size of a blank cheque that this is going to cost the taxpayers of Ireland."

He said the process has been "like a slow bicycle race" and "the taxpayer is now going to subsidise the company that now has control of the network, eir, to hang cables on poles erected by the taxpayers' and public funds from this State".

Minister Naughten said a team of about 80 people will go through the tender submitted today.

He said that the Irish situation is "unique in European terms" and the challenge for the procurement process had been to design a technical solution to meet the needs of the next generation and the generation after that.

Additional reporting: Conor McMorrow