An inquiry has revealed deep concerns about the coverage and contracting of a new £4 billion national emergency radio system.
A Commons’ Public Accounts Committee report released this month criticised the Home Office for its handling of the proposed the Emergency Services Network, or ESN.
Plans to deploy the “not yet proven” emergency radio system by December 2019 “would not be met”, the committee said. The committee also criticised the Home Office for mishandling contracts talks for ESN and failing to plan for delays, that could cost nearly £500 million alone.
“Good communications can make the difference between life and death for both emergency services personnel and the public but the technology ESN will rely on is not yet proven.”
Across the UK, 105 ambulance, fire and police services are expected to switch from their existing Airwave Solutions radio system to ESN by December 2019.
Unlike the ageing Airwave network, ESN will operate on an existing retail 4G network rather than a dedicated emergency radio network.
However, the committee said forcing emergency services to share a network with the public had not been attempted at scale.
The approach relied on much improved network coverage across the UK, including on the London Underground, and new technology to prioritise emergency services over other network users.
“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.”
The government is expected to spend £1.2 billion developing ESN, £1.4 billion running down Airwave, and further £2.6 billion operating ESN until 2032.
The contract with Airwaves, which was bought by Motorola last year, expires in December 2019. The committee said extending this contract, which will almost certainly be necessary given expected delays, will cost an additional £475 million a year.
In 2015, Motorola and EE won the user services and networks contracts respectively for ESN.
The committee also criticised the Home Office for not maintaining “competitive pressure” while awarding the contracts and leaving the winning bidders in a “very strong position” when the contract comes up for renewal in 2023.
The committee recommended the Home Officer test the new network coverage rigorously, improve its tendering, budget and plan for an Airwave contract extension and reassess its timeline for switching to the new system.
“It must take responsibility for convincing services to switch to ESN but also be clear at what point it will mandate the switchover.”
The Home Office was told to report back to the committee by September this year.