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Home Office seeks advice on Police Radio omnishambles

Disastrous procurement promises less than services currently have

The Home Office has announced a new twist in the sorry tale of the Emergency Services Network saga and is asking suppliers to consult on a procurement framework that started two years ago.

The government department has published a Prior Information Notice (PIN) for a tender to replace the Airwave communications equipment used by the fire, police and ambulance services.

The omnishambles, which we highlighted in January, has seen mobile networks promising to deliver technology which doesn’t exist to a timescale which is massively over-optimistic, to replace an ageing system which doesn’t do everything the police want – but which does many things the planned replacement systems won’t be able to do and does voice very, very much better than could be envisaged with a 4G system.

It’s no wonder that the Home Office wants to consult: it needs to find a way out of the mess it has created. Whatever happens, it’s pretty certain nothing will be ready to the government timescale – it would need to already be in testing if that were to happen.

The PIN talks about “Extended Area Services”. This sounds like a revitalisation of the Lot 4 of the initial Emergency Services Network procurement process. This lot was cancelled when the mobile phone networks promised they would have great mobile phone coverage through the Not Spots deal. It now seems that the Home Office has had second thoughts about that. Perhaps it has been reading The Register.

The notice says:

This PIN relates to the revised scope of this Lot 4; ESMCP has determined that EAS would comprise contracts with suppliers who would:

1. Search for and acquire suitable telecommunication sites, to design infrastructure to build on these sites, to obtain all applicable approvals and consents and to construct the infrastructure.

2. Provide the network to link the telecommunications mast to the MS Suppliers network. This could be done by a fibre, microwave or satellite.

3. Manage and maintain the infrastructure.

It might also be an insurance policy in case the one surviving bidder for Lot 3 – which is EE – pulls out.

Even if the mobile coverage was as good as the 99 per cent by landmass of the Airwave network, it wouldn’t extend into London Underground. Airwave runs a parallel network to the London Underground Connect project, along the same leaky feeders but using separated switching. This was originally deemed to be politically impossible under the PPP funding of Connect, but after the July 7 bombings, when London Underground was admonished for its poor communications (Connect was a three-year project which took 17 years), a way to support Airwave was found.

Getting cellular coverage for the police in the underground would have to be seen as being an exceptionally long-term project.

The Fire Service has recently renewed its contract with Airwave for the next five years. Each of the 43 police forces will negotiate separately with Airwave. John Lewis, COO of Airwave, recently told The Register that the company saw its future in providing applications and a back end to emergency services after a move from Tetra to 4G. While Airwave has an MVNO deal, he didn’t see that as a way forward, nor was he interested in bidding for spectrum.

He expects, in the long term, mobile services from the existing mobile networks to supplant Airwave. What happens with Airwave may change as Sky News has reported rumours that the bank Larzards has been appointed to sell Airwave. A source told The Register that Motorola Solutions is very keen to complete the deal.

Companies interested in taking part in the consultation will need to apply through the standard government procurement system and sign an NDA. ®

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