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Emergency Services Network delay to cost hundreds of millions

The Emergency Services Network roll-out has hit further delays and is likely to become very costly indeed, the Public Accounts Committee has heard

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Mobile networking

The cost of extending Airwave’s terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network contracts beyond September 2020, given that the new 4G Emergency Services Network (ESN) will not be deliverable nationwide by then, will certainly reach into the hundreds of millions.

In a progress review held by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on 13 November 2017, as part of its ongoing scrutiny of the troubled ESN project, Conservative MP Nigel Mills said the contractual price to extend Airwave region-by-region across the entire UK could reach £475m.

This figure was disputed by Stephen Webb, senior responsible owner for the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), who said the £475m figure was based on a National Audit Office (NAO) calculation that reflected the full cost of both the Airwave Tetra network and the existing 4G services that most blue light services already use on a case-by-case basis.

“Roughly, for the three emergency services, it will be up to £360m a year,” said Webb.

“We would be looking for considerably less than that, because we would argue there are very considerable margins in the business and that the level of investment would be nothing like the level of investment that was required to build the network in the first place. That is obviously something there will have to be commercial negotiations on.”

Webb went on to argue the capital contribution to keep the Tetra network up and running well beyond the original planned switchover date of 31 December 2019 should fall to either Airwave or its new owner, Motorola.

“The current money they get from us reflects all the capital investment. They did an enormous amount of capital investment early on, which has now dropped off and will have been written down to zero, so we would certainly argue they should absorb that,” said Webb.

No timescale for delivery

During the hearing committee members heard that the Home Office’s previous estimate of a nine-month delay in the programme to September 2020 had been too optimistic, and there is now no way that the transition of the first police, fire and ambulance service customers onto the ESN 4G network can possibly begin before next summer. Originally, the first customers were supposed to transition in September 2017.

Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam told the PAC: “We are now reviewing the timetable for the programme – both schedule and cost... It is clear the programme will take longer, but I am afraid I cannot give you a date now for when the programme transition will begin... It is clearly going to be more than nine months. I am afraid I cannot give you a timetable.”

Rutnam refused to say whether or not blame for the delayed project should be laid at the door of EE, which holds the mobile network contract, or Motorola, which is dealing with software and handsets, although he conceded that ultimately the Home Office bore lead responsibility.

Read more about the PAC’s ESN inquiry

  • The government first announced that the PAC would scrutinise the ESN programme in October 2017.
  • At initial hearings, the Home Office told the PAC it was confident that ESN could be delivered despite the known risks.
  • In February 2017, the PAC reconvened its inquiry after learning of additional complications arising from subcontracts held by Vodafone.
  • In April 2017, the PAC concluded ESN was undeliverable on the original timescale, and raised the spectre of the UK being left without critical emergency services communications for a lengthy period.

He did, however, acknowledge that the late 2015 acquisition of Airwave by Motorola had introduced unanticipated elements of commercial risk, and said the Home Office will be taking a “very robust” approach in its relationship with the supplier.

Despite its inability to commit to a revised timetable for delivery, the Home Office did reveal that some stumbling blocks have now been overcome, notably the threat by Vodafone to withdraw key services that underpin the Airwave Tetra network in March 2020.

“In February [2017] we discussed the TDM (time division multiplexing) issue and we know a solution has been agreed that will enable that to be replaced with something similar, working over IP [internet protocol],” said Webb.

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