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A significant delay to the go-live of the new Emergency Services Network (ESN), coupled with Vodafone’s decision to set a hard deadline for the cancellation of part of the old Airwave network, could leave the country without emergency services communications for six months, according to a report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
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Earlier in 2017, PAC found that the project to introduce an enhanced 4G mobile network supplied by EE, which aims to replace the current Airwave-owned terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network, was unlikely to be ready on time.
The Home Office, which is managing the contract, continued to say it was confident in the delivery of the service, and had contingency plans in place to use the old network.
In January 2017, however, Vodafone – which is subcontracted to supply infrastructure support services to the network under the old contract – announced it planned to withdraw the services by 31 March 2020.
Following the news, PAC launched an inquiry into ESN and in its report, published 21 April 2017, members of Parliament (MPs) said they were concerned the go-live of the new service “is not only delayed but is not likely to be deliverable”.
“The Home Office was running the planned programme to ambitiously tight deadlines, which have now slipped,” the report said.
The Home Office was originally due to begin transitioning emergency services onto ESN in September 2017, but has now pushed back the date to July 2018.
In a PAC evidence session in February 2017, the Home Office told the committee that “emergency services would not be forced onto ESN and that it would not be compressing the 27-month transition period any further”.
“Consequently, the transition period for ESN now runs to September 2020, nine months later than originally planned. Airwave contracts will therefore need to be extended to provide emergency services with the ability to communicate without an interruption in service,” the report said.
It added that it was “disappointed” in the Home Office’s risk management of the contract as ESN could now be delayed until September 2020. “It is not clear how emergency services communications will be provided from March 2020, given that it might not be possible to extend Airwave beyond that date,” the report said.
“The department’s contingency measure to manage the transition to the new system was to extend Airwave month by month until the new system was in place. The news that part of the existing Airwave system will be taken out of service early strikes a major, potentially catastrophic, blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe.”
PAC chair Meg Hillier said the “potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable”.
“Government needs to tackle this now or the result will be a tragedy in waiting. Addressing this and other serious concerns about ESN raised by our committee today and in January are significant challenges for the new management at the Home Office,” she said.
However, the Home Office continues to iterate that the delays won’t lead to any gap in the services. Mark Sedwill, permanent secretary at the Home Office, told the committee in February that he doesn’t think “we should exaggerate the impact of this notification”.
“We have been given it early, we will work through whether it has a material effect and, if it does, we will mitigate it,” he said.
Home Office must negotiate
Airwave’s owners Motorola were notified by Vodafone of the issue at the beginning of December 2016, but the Home Office was not told of this until 16 January 2017.
The department told PAC that although its risk registers did include a “general risk around extending what was ageing equipment”, it didn’t anticipate “the specific issue that has emerged”.
“The department had since 2000 – when the original Airwave contract was signed – to identify this issue, and this programme to replace it began in 2011,” the report said.
“It is also surprising that this issue was not identified by Motorola when it conducted due diligence ahead of its purchase of Airwave in February 2016.”
The Home Office told PAC that although Motorola has a contractual obligation to provide the Airwave service post-March 2020 as part of the previous extension contract, enforcing that could “damage supplier relationships”.
The committee has called on the Home Office to “urgently” engage in discussions with Motorola and Vodafone to explore options to resolve the issue.
“It is extremely disappointing that the department’s risk management and assurance arrangements did not pick up earlier the risk that emergency services communications could be unsupported from April to September 2020,” it said.
It added that the suppliers must “accept their share of responsibility and ensure they are upfront about problems in delivering the network”.
Brandon Lewis, minister for policing and the fire service, said the government “won’t take any risks with public safety and there will be no gap in the emergency services’ communications provision”.
“The existing Airwave system will continue until transition onto the ESN is completed,” he said.
Read more about the ESN
- Airwave COO John Lewis talked to Computer Weekly about why he decided to walk away from the ESN procurement, and the future of emergency services comms.
- A Public Accounts Committee examination of the Emergency Services Network concludes that the controversial project may need more testing and assurance than its delivery date allows for.
- The Home Office officials in charge of delivering the Emergency Services Network have been questioned by the Public Accounts Committee after new information came to light concerning some of the existing subcontracts.