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The proposed ESN system will see a long-standing radio communications network replaced with an enhanced commercial 4G network procured from from mobile network operator (MNO) EE.
According to the NOA, the proposed system is the most advanced emergency services communications programme in the world, with the possible exception of South Korea. As such, it said, there was no precedent to prove that the proposed solution was the right one.
“The programme remains inherently high risk and, while steps have been taken to manage these risks, we are concerned that these are under-rated in the Home Office and elsewhere,” said NAO head Amyas Morse.
“The programme needs to put in place more independent testing and assurance regimes for its technical solution and urgently improve its approach to engaging with the emergency services,” he added.
The audit body said the programme needed to work closely with EE to increase the coverage and resilience of its 4G network – which is already the most widely available in the UK – to match the near universal coverage currently offered by Airwave’s radio network.
The NAO went on to say it recognised ESN was the right direction strategically and accepted that the benefits should be substantial, saving more than £500 per device compared with Airwave. This will potentially generate cost benefits of £3.6bn over its lifetime, however NOA added that the business case tended to be overly optimistic.
It also criticised the programme for having responded to falling behind in its schedule by squeezing the time available rather than extending the delivery timeframe. NAO said the programme needed to improve management of key risks if ESN was to be delivered successfully.
In particular, the NAO singled out technical assurance, testing and user engagement, and called for more clarity on contingency arrangements for extending Airwave contracts if needed.
Read more about the ESN
- Emergency services communications operator Airwave takes the government to court over the awarding of Lot 3 of the ESMCP to EE.
- The Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme emerges from the government’s Spending Review a billion pounds better off.
- Incumbent network operator Airwave will take no further part in the Emergency Services Network bid process, the Home Office reveals.
An EE spokesperson responded to the criticisms: “As the report suggests, ESN is a state of the art technology programme that will allow Britain’s police, fire and ambulance services to benefit from a world-leading communications network.
“We’re proud to be a part of this programme, and we’re confident in delivering our commitments so the lives of Britain’s emergency services workers will be improved, not put at risk.
“Failing to replace the current, outdated systems will prevent Britain’s emergency services from becoming safer, more efficient and more effective. It risks leaving them behind as technology advances around them,” the spokesperson said.
The current target date for the completion of the ESN build and testing process is September 2017. The first emergency services bodies are expected to begin to transition at around this time, with the majority expected to move across in the summer of 2018.
The emergency services will be able to use the ESN and Airwave’s network concurrently through Airwave’s current expiration date of December 2019, and it will be possible to extend the Airwave contracts into 2020 if needed.
ESN procurement controversy
The lengthy ESN procurement, which began in late 2014 and dragged on for almost a year, proved extremely controversial.
A number of suppliers walked away from the process altogether, citing similar concerns over the risk inherent in replacing a well-established terrestrial trunked radio (Tetra) network with a 4G mobile network shared with the general public.
In an exclusive interview with Computer Weekly in 2015, Airwave COO John Lewis told his side of the story, and revealed why Airwave chose not to bid for any of the ESN contracts.