UK Competition and Markets Authority opens investigation into Motorola’s Airwave

Three months after considering whether to launch a probe, UK competition watchdog opens market investigation of role played by tech firm in mobile radio network used by emergency services

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is to open an investigation into the role of the Airwave network from Motorola Solutions in the UK’s new Emergency Services Network (ESN) which is used by all of the country’s first responders.

The Airwave network is the infrastructure and services that enable the police, fire and other emergency services to communicate securely with each other when first responders are working in the field. The Airwave network is a secure private mobile radio communications network for all organisations involved in public safety in the UK and, when commissioned, there was no alternative method for emergency services staff to communicate securely with each other in the field.

It was commissioned by the Home Office in 2000 under a private finance initiative (PFI) framework arrangement that was due to end in December 2019. At that point, the network was expected to be shut down and a different secure communications system using a commercial 4G mobile network was to become operational. In fact, the merger was first cleared by the CMA, in part because of the general expectation that the Airwave network would be shut down by 2019.

Motorola Solutions won one of the key contracts for the delivery of ESN in 2015 and acquired Airwave Solutions, the owner and operator of the Airwave network, in 2016. There have been increasing concerns about the delays to the roll-out of ESN and costs to the UK taxpayer of the continuing operation of the Airwave network, which is now expected to continue operating until the end of 2026.

Concerns were first expressed in the summer of 2021 about the impact of Motorola’s dual role as the owner of the company providing the current mobile radio network and as a key supplier in the roll-out of the planned new network.

The CMA’s decision to launch a market investigation followed a consultation that set out concerns about the impact of the dual role of Motorola as the owner of the company providing the current mobile radio network (Airwave Solutions) and as a key supplier in the roll-out of the new ESN. After the CMA considered the evidence gathered and reviewed the responses to this consultation, an independent group will now investigate the sector and decide whether there are problems, and if so, put in place appropriate solutions.

The CMA is concerned that the market for the supply of the mobile radio network used by all emergency services in the UK might not be working well, resulting in a more expensive service for customers and, ultimately, the taxpayer.

The main reasons cited by the CMA for opening investigations were twofold: insufficient information (particularly in relation to the projects and associated costs needed to maintain and refresh the current network) being provided to the Home Office in negotiations on the pricing of the Airwave network and, as a result of this and the importance of the Airwave network for public safety in the UK, the Home Office was in a weak bargaining position and unable to secure value for money; and secondly, due to Motorola’s dual role, Motorola has an incentive to delay or shape the roll-out of the ESN to its advantage, given the significant profits it currently receives from operating the Airwave network.

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“As the sole provider of critical mobile radio network services used by our emergency services, we are concerned that Motorola could be cashing in on its position, leaving taxpayers to cover the cost,” said CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli. “We are now referring this market for a full investigation so that we can thoroughly examine these concerns and, if necessary, take action to address any problems.”

Motorola Solutions expressed disappointment with the CMA’s decision. A company spokesperson told Computer Weekly that it believed strongly that a market investigation was not warranted. “We have provided financial transparency throughout this project, including audited, statutory financial statements, detailed reviews of capex and spend, and financial plans for the Airwave network,” the spokesperson said.

“The Airwave service delivers exceptional value for money for the UK taxpayer. Motorola Solutions has provided price reductions even while making significant investments to maintain the network, which is relied upon by the UK emergency services every day and continues to function at the highest levels. We reject the assertion that we have an incentive to delay the implementation of the ESN.

“In fact, we continue to deliver on our commitments and invest heavily in the ESN programme and its launch remains our key priority for the benefit of public safety professionals and citizens across the country. This is a contractual matter between the Home Office and Motorola Solutions and this investigation threatens the principles of long-term government contracting in the UK. 

“We look forward to working with the CMA independent group to demonstrate that Motorola Solutions continues to provide exceptional value for the UK emergency services.”

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