A much-anticipated report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has highlighted fears that the UK’s new Emergency Services Network (ESN) will not be ready for its scheduled start date of 31 December 2019. Contracts for the old Airwave network may have to be extended, which would cost the taxpayer up to £475m a year nationwide if all current users had to extend.
While the report, Upgrading Emergency Services Communications (25 January 2017) 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 TETRA two-way radio network Airwave, but the last of these contracts expire at the end of 2019, by which time ESN would have to be tested and installed. The PAC report says that the Home Office (the sponsoring department for ESN) had not budgeted for any delay, and has no detailed contingency plans in place.
PAC said: ‘The Home Office confirmed to us that some slippage would occur.’ In October 2016, Wireless revealed that the HO had quietly extended the transition timetable by an additional five months - see full story here.
The Committee noted that the HO ‘told us it would not force emergency services to switch to ESN unless they were happy with it. We have observed previously that convincing local bodies to use new services can be a difficult process and believe it will be challenging to get all emergency services to collectively agree ESN is ready so that Airwave can be turned off as planned in 2019’.
Despite the prospect of delays, PAC expressed concern that the HO has not budgeted for an extended transition period or put in place detailed contingency arrangement to manage the risk. While the HO has negotiated a fixed price with Airwave (now owned by Motorola Solutions) to extend the service if needed on a regional and monthly basis, it noted that detailed contingency plans to manage any extension have not been prepared.
The PAC argues it is crucial this is done as Motorola requires notification by December 2018 at the latest in order to make the preparations needed to run Airwave beyond December 2019. Any additional costs to continue Airwave will be bourne by central Government and not the emergency services.
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 continued: ‘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 concluded: ‘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.'
Untried technology risk
The PAC also expressed concern over the fact that the technology ESN will rely on is not yet proven. Crucial mission critical functionalities common to professional mobile radio (PMR) systems such as the TETRA radio standard used by Airwave, have not been fully incorporated into 4G LTE used by EE, although specifications are being slowly addressed by the 3GPP standards organisation.
New technologies also need to be developed and thoroughly tested to prioritise emergency service traffic over that of EE’s 28 million consumer subscribers. EE also has to extend its geographic coverage from 74% currently to 97% (Airwave’s footprint) by September this year. The operator has insisted it will achieve this target (although this may include mobile base stations to infill not spots in remote areas.
The HO admitted to the Committee that bringing together all the different elements to form an end-to-end system and scaling up these solutions and testing them adequately will be very challenging. It said that the ‘need for robust testing was a particular concern raised by a number of stakeholders across industry and the emergency services’.
Lack of competition
PAC was also unhappy that the HO did not manage to maintain competitive pressure in letting either of the two main ESN contracts. This refers to the fact that in the final stage of the competition the HO only had one bidder for each of the two main contracts; Motorola Solutions for the Lot 2 User Services; and EE for the Lot 3 Mobile Services.
PAC added that is ‘concerned that the incumbent suppliers will be in a very strong position when the ESN contracts are recompeted’ (after five years). It noted that EE is being paid to roll out its network across GB and into remote areas with 250 new sites funded directly by the HO.
‘The low numbers of public users in remote areas may mean that competing network operators will have limited incentive to invest, placing them at a disadvantage to EE when the contract is re-let,’ PAC concluded.
To comply with state-aid rules, other network operators will be able to use the masts in remote areas. However, the other operators maintain that they have not been given details of the location and specification of proposed ESN sites and that no framework has been established for sharing masts.
An announcement on the solution to provide coverage on the London Underground is expected in the ‘next couple of months, but it is not clear whether this will include plans for other underground systems in the UK, such as Glasgow’.
The ESN system is due to be rolled out one region 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 28 million EE customers, the ESN system has to be proven to be functional, reliable and resilient, and as part of the programme.
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.
The Wireless article on the National Audit Office report from September 2016 into ESN can be found here.
The PAC report can be found here.