MPs highlight cost and risk of emergency communications switchover

25 Jan 17

Government plans to upgrade the radio communication network used by Britain’s emergency services are likely to be delayed at a cost of £475m per year, the Public Accounts Committee has found.

In a report published today, the MPs’ also said the technology that will underpin the system is “not yet proven”.

The PAC assessed the progress of a Home Office scheme to retire the current system, Airwave, and replace it with the new Emergency Services Network by the end of 2019. 

The ESN system is designed to save money by piggy-backing on the existing commercial mobile data network belonging to EE, removing the need to build dedicated infrastructure.

However, an estimate by the National Audit Office in September last year suggested that the “inherently high risk” project was five to ten months behind schedule. According to the PAC, the Home Office has now confirmed that “some slippage will occur.” Moreover emergency services representatives are less than 50% confident the new system will be delivered on time, the report stated.

The government’s current Airwave contract with Motorola is due to expire at the end of 2019 and the cost of keeping the contract running beyond this date would be £475m each year. However, despite the high likelihood of delay, the Home Office has not set aside extra cash for an extended transition period, or put in place any detailed contingency arrangements to manage this risk, the PAC highlighted.

The PAC recommended that the Home Office budget for a potential contract extension with Motorola, and draft plans to extend the current Airwave contract.

Also flagged in the report were a series of technical concerns regarding the readiness of the new system. Only one other country in the world has attempted to piggy-back emergency communications onto a commercial network on a national scale, and the committee believes the approach pursued by the Home Office carries more risk.

As such, technology that prioritises emergency services’ communications over that of commercial users still needs to be developed.

The EE network currently only covers 74% of the country, despite the provider’s confidence that it can improve coverage to 97% by the start of the new contract, matching that offered by Airwave.

But there remain “real security concerns” about service availability on the London Underground, and other underground transport systems, such as in Glasgow, the MPs.

The Home Office told the committee that bringing together all the different elements to form an end-to-end system, for which adequately robust testing could be carried out, would be “very challenging.”

Other concerns brought by the PAC included a perceived lack of competition in the letting of the two contracts, which were eventually won by EE and Motorola, and significant competitive advantage that may be enjoyed by these suppliers.

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said the stakes in the programme were extremely high, and the technical issues must be urgently addressed.

She said: “It is absolutely right that emergency services will not commit to using ESN in potentially life-or-death situations until they are convinced it works.”

It was encouraging, she said, that the head of the ESN programme has remained in post since 2011, “providing a degree of stability absent from some high-profile projects our committee has examined”.

But it was “critical for public safety and achieving value for money that the government has a firm grasp of the implications of delays in its timetable and a costed plan to tackle them,” Hillier concluded.

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