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Delays and Cost Overruns Threaten New 4G Emergency Services Network

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017 (12:18 pm) - Score 859
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A report from the Public Accounts Committee has warned that EE’s new 4G based UK Emergency Services Network (ESN) “seems unlikely” to meet its target date for delivery and the Government has allegedly failed to budget for such an outcome or put in place a detailed contingency plan.

Back in 2015 the Home Office decided to save money by appointing Mobile operator EE to be the main provider for a new £1.2bn Emergency Services Network (ESN), which was previously run by Airwave at a cost of around £3bn and using TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) technology. This is designed to cater for the communications needs of police, fire, ambulance and related emergency services.

The TETRA network was very slow (dialup speeds) and expensive, but it also delivered some exceptionally wide coverage (97% of the UK’s landmass) and matching that was always going to require a lot of work (here). Never the less EE is confident that it can reach the 97% target (equivalent to the existing coverage provided by Airwave) via their cheaper 4G network by September 2017, with the transition due to finish by December 2019.

However the PAC appears to disagree and suggests that the new ESN “may require more testing and assurance work” than has been allowed for in the current timetable, which is necessary in order to “make sure it works under pressure in a live environment.” A particular concern reflects its ability, or lack thereof, to cover the London Underground (Tube) and other underground systems.

Furthermore the PAC noted that the current Airwave contracts expire in December 2019 and the “only contingency if ESN is not functional by then is to extend them“, which could cost an estimated £475 million for a year’s delay nationwide.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the PAC, said:

“The stakes in this programme are extremely high. 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.

Questions continue to hang over the technology, not least how it will operate on underground rail systems in London and elsewhere—high-risk environments that present unique challenges in emergencies. These must be addressed urgently.

It is encouraging 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. However, we are disappointed that detailed contingency plans have not been budgeted for or drawn up in the event that, as now seems likely, implementation over-runs.

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 new system is a radical departure from existing ESN solutions and is not yet in use nationwide anywhere in the world, although other countries might well follow the United Kingdom if it’s shown to work. At this point it’s important to note that the ESN will have its own separate setup alongside EE’s commercial 4G network (example).

Meanwhile the Home Office has been quick to remind of the significant cost savings involved (assuming the transition is completed in time) and a spokesperson added that the time-scales “are ambitious because we want to get the most from technology that will help save lives, but we are clear that no risks will be taken with public safety and the existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to ESN is completed.”

Summary of the PAC’s Recommendations

* The Department 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. It must take responsibility for convincing services to switch to ESN but also be clear at what point it will mandate the switchover. We expect the Department to report to us on progress by September 2017.

* The Department should budget for the cost of an extended timeframe and put in place arrangements for Airwave contract extensions as required. The Department should update us on these provisions by September 2017.

* The Department should put in place adequate and independent testing of the technology required for ESN to make sure it works under pressure in a live environment. The Department must also address the real security concerns about communications on the London Underground and other underground systems and update the Committee on the outcome.

* The Department should review its tender arrangements to ensure it does not rule out potential bidders too quickly, to avoid future single supplier situations.

* The Department should, working with Ofcom, ensure other network operators have sufficient and timely information to enable them to make use of the ESN infrastructure and should report back to this committee in 2017 on take-up. For devices, the Department should engage with suppliers and ensure that specifications are standardised and do not favour any individual supplier.

Finally, it’s noted that the Government has negotiated a fixed price with Airwave’s new owner, Motorola, to extend Airwave if needed on a regional and monthly basis but detailed contingency plans to manage any such extensions have not been prepared. These are crucial as Motorola requires notification by December 2018 at the latest in order to make the preparations needed to run the Airwave service past December 2019.

The Department, which has not yet agreed budgetary provisions for any delay, confirmed that the cost of delay would not be borne by individual regions as any additional payments would be made centrally from the grant to the police. The cost of any delay caused by a supplier should be recovered from the responsible party but, with the Department acting as prime contractor, identifying those responsible will not be straightforward.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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