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Home Office failing on Emergency Services Network, says NAO

The delayed Emergency Services Network is slipping further behind schedule and is getting more expensive all the time – and the Home Office’s management of the project is to blame, says the National Audit Office

The already-delayed Emergence Services Network (ESN) – the new national 4G mobile network designed to serve the needs of the UK’s ambulance, fire and police services and assorted associated bodies – is likely to be delivered even later than thought and at a hugely increased cost to the taxpayer, according to a damning new report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

This means that the ESN network, which replaces the reliable and well-liked Airwave terrestrial trunked radio network (Tetra), is not likely to be ready by the revised date of 31 December 2022. Tetra was supposed to be switched off on 31 December 2019, and it will cost £1.4bn to pay Airwave to extend it. The Home Office now forecasts that the project will cost £9.3bn all told – £3.1bn more than was initially planned.

Crucially, the savings expected from using 4G over Tetra will now not outweigh the costs until the middle of 2029, a full seven years later than originally intended. The Home Office has claimed that ESN will bring £1.5bn in financial and economic benefits by 2037 (£643m from police productivity improvements), but the NAO said police representatives had told it they had never agreed those figures with the Home Office.

The NAO said that, ultimately, poor management of a critical programme had led to delays, increased costs and poor value for taxpayers.

“The success of the Emergency Services Network is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe,” said NAO head Amyas Morse. “The Home Office needs a comprehensive plan with a realistic timetable that properly considers risks and uncertainties. It has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order.”

Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who has quizzed the Home Office at multiple evidence sessions over the past few years, said: “As my committee predicted, the delays to the delivery of Airwave’s replacement have continued and the costs have escalated. The Emergency Services Network is to be used by police, firefighters and ambulance crews for the communications they need to do their life-saving jobs.

“The revised forecast cost of ESN is now £9.3bn, an increase of almost 50%. Worryingly, the NAO finds that the Home Office’s cost estimate for ESN is highly uncertain and that it is unlikely to meet the already-delayed 2022 date to switch off Airwave.

“The Home Office must take an urgent and honest examination of its ability to deliver to its new schedule for this critical project.”

The NAO report levelled multiple accusations at the Home Office, saying it had failed to demonstrate that it understood any of the challenges faced by the emergency services in introducing ESN, such as how much they need to spend to improve coverage and make their control rooms compatible with the new technology.

Many services do not yet know how expensive the switchover is likely to be, and there are growing concerns that this will place further financial burdens on services that are already under huge pressure after nearly a decade of austerity.

The report went on to say that the Home Office does not have the capability it needs to integrate and test ESN, which comprises multiple different technological elements, all of which will have to work together, and has not yet let a new contract to provide programme advisory and deliver services.

The NAO also noted that a number of the needed technological elements were not even ready, citing concerns around signals between aircraft and people on the ground, and difficulties in communicating between devices without a network signal. First responders will need to be able to make essentially instantaneous calls at the push of a button to replicate Tetra functionality, and this technology is still being developed.

There are also a number of commercial risks – renegotiation of the main ESN contracts with key suppliers EE and Motorola are falling further behind schedule, and Motorola’s acquisition of Airwave at the end of 2015 has complicated these talks, to the extent that there is now a clear risk that Motorola would financially benefit from further delays if they cause more extensions to the Airwave contract.

Read more about the ESN

  • There is little doubt that the Home Office’s plan to update the Emergency Services Network is transformational, but how does it compare internationally? Kable’s Josh Hewer investigates.
  • After walking away from the ESN procurement process in 2015, Airwave COO John Lewis revealed exclusively to Computer Weekly why his company could take no further part in the process, and discussed the future of the project.

Also, said the NAO, the overall delivery of the programme would ultimately depend on emergency services being satisfied that it was a suitable replacement for the Airwave network. However, many bodies have expressed serious concerns that the coverage and resilience of the EE ESN network will not match Airwave.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Emergency Services Network (ESN) is on track to deliver an ambitious, world-leading, digital communications network for the emergency services by 2022, resulting in savings of £200m a year.

“It is already allowing people to make 999 calls from areas where it was previously impossible, with 300 new masts built so far in some of the most remote areas of Britain.

“When fully implemented, its mobile technology and infrastructure will transform the emergency response of police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews. This will result in faster and better treatment for victims, including by allowing first responders to transmit footage of crime and accident scenes back to specialists in hospitals and police stations.”

The Home Office said the development of ESN was “in line” with countries embarking on similar projects, such as Finland, France, South Korea and the US. It plans to respond to the NAO’s report more fully in the near future.

Last year, the Home Office revealed it had come close to abandoning the overarching Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), contradicting its refutation of an earlier story that appeared on The Register.

Programme director Bryan Clarke told an evidence session at the Greater London Authority that the first phase of the reset had been to “really look very seriously as to whether we should continue with the programme or not”.

He added: “We did a very serious comparison of the two alternatives and we concluded, quite clearly, I think, that if we could find a way of completing the project effectively, it was quite clearly the right thing to do – and the advantages were significant.”

The NAO did, however, note two areas of the programme that had progressed in the past three years. EE was singled out for progress in upgrading its 4G network to enable traffic prioritisation for the emergency services, and extending its geographic coverage, and the NAO also conceded that the Home Office’s reset of the programme in autumn 2018 had addressed “some of” the issues.

In its conclusion, the NAO recommended the Home Office to conduct further testing of the overall programme to determine whether the revised schedule really is achievable, and put in place a contingency plan to set out what it will do if the underlying technology turns out not to work.

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