A much-anticipated report by the Public Accounts Committee has highlighted fears that the new Emergency Services Network will not be ready for its scheduled start date of December 2019. Contracts for the old Airwave network may have to be extended, which would cost the taxpayer £475m a year.
While the report agreed that the new technology, based on EE’s 4G mobile network, would be the ‘most advanced of its kind’, it emphasised that it is not yet proven and has many technical challenges to solve.
The 105 police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales currently communicate using the radio network Airwave, but these contracts expire in two years, by which time ESN would have to be tested and installed. The PAC report says that the Home Office had not budgeted for any delay, and has no detailed contingency plans in place.
It has also called on ministers to address what it says are ‘real security concerns’ about how well ESN will work on underground systems in London, Glasgow and elsewhere.
Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier said: ‘It is 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. We will expect it to demonstrate real progress in this area when it reports back to us later this year… the current plan is that all emergency services transition to ESN by end-December 2019. By that time, £1.2 billion will have been spent developing the ESN and a further £1.4 billion on running down Airwave. The estimated cost once ESN is fully operational is a further £2.6 billion between 2020 and 2032.’
The report continues ‘It seems unlikely that the ambitious target date for delivering the Emergency Services Network will be met. Any further compression of the timetable will increase the risk to successful delivery of this critical programme. The National Audit Office estimated that the programme was between five and ten months behind target and representatives of the 105 police, fire and ambulance services in Great Britain (the emergency services) are less than 50% confident that the Emergency Services Network (ESN) will be delivered on time.’
The Committee’s report concludes ‘Emergency services will not use ESN until they are firmly convinced that it works, which may require more testing and assurance work than the current December 2019 delivery date seems to allow for. Despite the prospect of delay the Department has not budgeted for an extended transition period or put in place detailed contingency arrangements to manage this risk. The Department did not manage to maintain competitive pressure in letting either of the two main ESN contracts and when these contracts are recompleted the incumbent suppliers will be in a very strong position.’
It’s true that ESN would deliver significant savings for the taxpayer, as the current Airwave system is very expensive to support. Unlike the narrowband TETRA (terrestrial trunked radio) system supported by Airwave, broadband ESN could deliver enhanced 4G functionality, such as group calls, damage alerts, and data and video support, so emergency services could send documents, images and even video over the network.
The ESN system is being rolled out one at a time over 12 regions, but problems with scheduling, refitting and training are hampering progress. If fire, police and ambulance services will be sharing spectrum with 28m EE customers, the ESN system has to be proven to be functional, reliable and resilient, and as part of the programme, EE is building 250 masts funded by the Home Office.
But there are many technical challenges to implementing the system, such as whether instant communication can be guaranteed, and whether systems will be maintained in cases of power failure.
The PAC’s recommendations are that the Home Office should:
* Reassess the business case timescales, update milestones for delivery and work with emergency services to update transition plans so all parties agree they are deliverable
* Budget for the cost of an extended timeframe and put in place arrangements for Airwave contract extensions as required
* Put in place adequate and independent testing of the ESN system
* Review its tender arrangements to ensure it does not rule out potential bidders too quickly, to avoid future single supplier situations
* Work with Ofcom to ensure other network operators have sufficient and timely information to enable them to make use of the ESN infrastructure