Brit plods' post-TETRA radio omnishambles comes home to roost

We won't say 'we told you so' – but we will write it

The £1.2bn emergency services contract which The Register flagged up as an omnishambles six months ago has now, as we predicted, collapsed.

After a year-long bidding process the government had whittled the tenders down to two companies: EE and O2. Now O2 has pulled out as a result of Telefonica selling the network to Three’s parent Hutchison Whampoa.

The network is supposed to start replacing the creaking Airwave TETRA radio system used by the blue light services next April.

There are huge question marks over the suitability of 4G for this with the necessary standards for device-to-device communication and control of groups still in the planning stages, and even bigger issues over equipping emergency services with mobes that rely on 4G for push-to-talk communications when 4G coverage is so patchy.

O2 released the following statement:

The potential restructuring of the UK telecoms market as a result of current M&A activity affecting several players in the industry raises questions about spectrum (both current holdings and timings of access to future spectrum), network sharing arrangements, and specifically our position in the proposed potential acquisition of O2 in the UK by Hutchison Whampoa.

We are therefore unable at this time to provide the detail and commitments required to continue into the next stage of the bidding process put forward by Government.

We have taken the decision to notify the Authority that we will immediately withdraw from the bidding process for ESN so that the Government can consider next steps before the award stage.

This leaves the government the choice between scrapping the whole procurement process and, as we predicted, extending the existing TETRA contract ... or pursing a bidding process with only one bidder.

Since that bidder is being bought by BT, it is unlikely to be the most important thing on EE’s current agenda - and while the contract may be worth hundreds of millions of pounds, that’s only a small part of the company’s turnover.

The Home Office told The Register that if the BTEE offer does not meet the requirements and budget of the emergency services, it will not pursue the process.

O2's decision to withdraw, for commercial reasons, from the procurement process to provide the UK with a new emergency services communications network is disappointing," said Mike Penning, Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Victims.

However, the process to establish a more effective, flexible and affordable network for the UK's police, fire and ambulance services will continue.

"Seven other bidders remain in the running for the main contracts and we look forward to receiving their best and final offers during in June. We hope to sign contracts later this year," Penning added.

Those seven bidders are spread across three lots. Atkins, KBR, Lockheed Martin and Mott MacDonald are competing to be the delivery partners, with HP and Motorola going head-to-head for user services. It’s now a one-horse race for the mobile services.

In February, James Brokenshire, then minister for security and immigration, said the Mobile Services lot had “produced some impressive technical bids combined with the prospect of significant cost savings for the taxpayer”.

If the emergency services are going to move from TETRA to 4G, coverage will need to be improved from being among the worst in Europe. ®


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