Confusion surrounds the progress of the bidding process for the Emergency Services Network (ESN) after reports emerged that incumbent supplier Airwave may have dropped out of the bidding process for Lot 4 of the replacement ESN, possibly alongside one or more of the other suppliers invited to bid for the lot.
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Airwave, which supplies the currently existing ESN, was widely considered to be in an excellent position to hoover up many more contracts for its next incarnation.
Along with the UK’s three largest mobile network operators (MNOs), EE, Vodafone and Telefonica, and infrastructure and broadcast transmission specialist Arqiva, Airwave was invited to tender for Lot 4 of the new ESN in July 2014.
The lot in question, ESN Extension Services, covers provision of mobile coverage beyond the Lot 3 network and enables the Lot 3 supplier to extend its coverage. It was designed to complement Lot 3, ESN Mobile Services, which will cover the provision of a resilient mobile network, with highly available full coverage, across the UK. The bidders invited to tender for Lot 3 are Airwave, EE, Telefonica, UK Broadband Ltd, and Vodafone.
The alleged walk-out, which was first reported by The Times, centres on the provision of mobile masts in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), as well as other locations where disputes over planning permission for mobile infrastructure was thought likely to cause problems.
According to the newspaper an undisclosed source at one of the bidders claimed that it would be impossible to deliver the masts within the timeframe laid down by the Home Office. The Labour Party had also warned late in 2014 that the haste with which the government was proceeding with the tender process could put lives at risk.
A source close to the bid process said Lot 3, and by extension Lot 4, was coming down to a straight fight between LTE, advocated by the MNOs, and Airwave's Tetra radio technology. With this in mind, he suggested, it would suit Tetra advocates to spread misinformation about the process.
An Airwave spokesperson told Computer Weekly: “As we are now in a competitive bid process, we are not able to comment. However, Airwave remains committed to serving its customers well into the future.”
The other bidders on the lot declined to comment.
The ESN contracts are set to be awarded this year, and the new network will begin to go live as existing contracts expire, beginning in 2017.
ESN vital to effective emergency services
The government believes a modernised communications network is vital to enabling the emergency services to work more effectively.
"We are on track to deliver this critical part of our national infrastructure by 2017,” minister of state for policing, criminal justice and victims, Mike Penning, said last year.
“We have seen strong interest in providing the ESN and its supporting elements. I am confident the organisations we select will create a communications network that is the best in the world.”
The future ESN will cover about a quarter of a million staff and devices, 44 police services, 50 fire and rescue authorities, 13 ambulance services, the National Crime Agency, the British Transport Police, the Ministry of Defence Police, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the National Police Air Service.
A number of other bodies that interact with the emergency services, which could include central and local government departments, local authorities, and some NGOs, will also get access, adding up to 50,000 further users to the network.
In related news, the Home Office’s Emergency Services Mobile Communication Programme will be holding a supplier briefing event later in January 2015 to outline the additional services required for and during transition to the new ESN that fall outside the scope of the main procurement.
These services will include user devices and accessories, air-to-ground network and devices, vehicle communications replacement, the London Underground network, and control room and interworking services.