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Emergency Services Network progress ‘deeply unsatisfactory’, says PAC

A Home Office review of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme will not be finished before the end of July, the Public Accounts Committee has been told

Some progress has been made on overcoming the barriers to the successful implementation of the Emergency Services Network (ESN), but a planned in-depth review of what has gone wrong has not been delivered on time and now won’t be completed for at least five months, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has heard.

In a brief hearing on progress, committee member Shabhana Mahmood – Labour MP for Ladywood in Birmingham – said the PAC had received an update letter from [Home Office permanent secretary] Philip Rutnam that “does bring us up to speed in some respects, but is also deeply unsatisfactory in other ways”.

Home Office chief data, digital and technology officer Joanna Davinson – who joined the government from IBM in November 2017 to replace the outgoing Sarah Wilkinson – said the review was taking time to get “underneath the dependencies and the critical path” of each of the disparate parts of the beleaguered Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), which include an enhanced 4G network, brand new mobile devices, and a transition, integration and support services wrap.

“If we look at where we’ve had problems in the past, it has generally been where we’ve not had enough detail to sufficiently understand the relationships between the different parts of the programme,” said Davinson.

In addition, she said, the review was looking at alternative approaches to delivering ESN that might be employed to push elements of the new service out ahead of schedule. Davinson said there were some categories of blue light network users who could potentially capture benefits early, such as those whose primary need is the data component of ESN and for whom voice services may not be so important.

“We expect to be able to complete all of that work by the summer. I appreciate that’s longer than we had said previously, but I do think one of the things that I brought in with my experience of having run large programmes before is that in doing this kind of reset it is really important to bottom out the detail and really understand where those dependencies lie,” she said.

Davinson said the Home Office was now planning to deliver its report by the end of July 2018, shortly after MPs break up for the summer recess.

Agreement struck on Vodafone problem

Home Office senior responsible owner for ESMCP, Stephen Webb – described by PAC chair Meg Hillier as a “frequent flier” at its ESN hearings – said one major obstacle had been overcome, this being the threat by mobile operator Vodafone to switch off the time division multiplexing (TDM) component of the old Airwave terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network before ESN was ready.

It is understood that in the past couple of weeks Airwave-owner Motorola Solutions and Vodafone have struck an accord to bridge the looming gap with a temporary IP network build, which Webb said could be done at no extra cost to the taxpayer.

This will be possible, he explained, because Vodafone’s involvement is as Motorola’s subcontractor, meaning it will bear the costs under the terms of an agreement that does not include the Home Office.

“Essentially, Vodafone is building this new solution to enable it to retire its old solution,” said Webb, “so we would expect it to meet that timescale, and if not to keep the old solution going for longer.

“It’s clearly been a strategic decision for Vodafone to withdraw it, but we will not expect it to withdraw it until it has built the replacement, which is part of this deal with Motorola.”

MP’s frustration

Mahmood responded: “You seem hands-off about this relationship as if it’s their problem. That’s not really acceptable given the mess we’re in.”

Mahmood also said those responsible for ESMCP at the Home Office had left emergency services bodies completely unable to plan for other aspects of the eventual roll-out, such as device refreshes, and accused Webb of suggesting that chief constables might have to “root around in a cupboard” for unused mobiles they could use to bridge service gaps.

“It’s down to local forces to decide if they should spend on devices that’ll be out of date soon, [but] I’ve got police stations closing in my constituency, and the thought they can’t plan budget to work out what equipment they need – it’s a very difficult position,” she said.

Home Office milestones

Meanwhile, the Home Office has reported on a number of milestones that it has hit during the ongoing ESN roll-out, including the first live system test, which took place on 8 February 2018 between an EE mast in Bristol and Basingstoke, marking the first time Motorola’s software has connected to the public EE 4G network to demonstrate prioritisation of emergency services communications.

Policing and fire service minister Nick Hurd said members of the public might already be able to see some of the incidental benefits of the ESN project, such as improved 4G coverage in remote areas.

Elsewhere, 130 ESN devices have now been produced for testing, a rapid response vehicle has been trialled, Transport for London has laid so-called “leaky feeder” cables across a quarter of the sub-surface London Underground network, and more than 100 genuine 999 calls have now been placed and received through masts that have been built under the ESMCP.

Read more about the PAC’s ESN inquiry

  • The government first announced that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) would scrutinise the Emergency Services Network (ESN) programme in October 2016.
  • At initial hearings, the Home Office told the PAC it was confident the 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.
  • In November 2017, the committee heard that the roll-out had hit further delays, and these were likely to become extremely costly.

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