Users of the UK government's plans to shove the emergency services on to a 4G network by March 2020 are sceptical about the programme's timetable. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, since a scheme of this scale has never before been tried anywhere else in the world.
The Emergency Services Network (ESN) – set to replace the Tetra-based Airwave radio system used by the police, fire and ambulance services – has been labelled "inherently risky" by the National Audit Office. The £2.9bn Airwave contract, which dates from 2000, will be switched off at the end of 2019.
Currently 70 per cent of the UK's landmass is covered by British mobile operator EE's 4G network. This needs to be increased to 97 per cent to match Airwave's coverage.
The contract will involve the deployment of 130,000 new handheld devices as well as connectivity for 500 control rooms, 50,000 vehicles, 150 aircraft, and 300,000 users.
Jo Beresford-Robinson, ESN area manager for the East Midlands, and Peter Aykroyd, area manager for Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, were asked how confident they were that ESN would be rolled out in time.
"If we are looking at the current timeframe, my confidence is quite low," said Robinson, adding that she was more concerned for the scheme's early adopters. "I think the later regions are more confident."
Asked if her region expects to be using it by 2018, she said: "We hope to be using it, I don't know if we expect to be using it." Aykroyd agreed. "The thing that give me the most concern is being fully able to end-to-end test it," he said.
As a contingency measure, the Home Office has agreed to continue running the Airwave contract past the deadline of 2020 if the 4G network run by EE is not ready.
In the extreme event that every region would need an extension for 12 months, the National Audit Office estimated the Home Office would have to pay Motorola £475m in extension fees.
In December, Motorola won the second lot in the ESN contract and will be responsible for installing and operating the new infrastructure – five days after it announced its acquisition of Airwave for £817m.
Stephen Webb, senior responsible officer of the ESN, was asked to what extent Motorola has "skin in the game" as it will be paid if the new contract is delivered on time, but will also be paid if the old one needs to be extended.
He said the company was committed to delivering the new contract on time, and could potentially lose more than it would make on extensions if there were delays as it would have to keep more people on and make further investments. He added that all the programme's moving parts and its multiple users were his main area of concern.
Liam Maxwell, the government's National Technology Adviser, said the most concerning area was whether Transport for London would be able to deploy 4G on the underground. When asked what keeps him up at night over the programme, he said: "[Whether]the technology will deliver, and I am confident that it will do. And the last thing that worries me is the team." He praised the skills of the current team, suggesting that the programme's success was dependent on it remaining in place.
Mark Sedwill, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, said: "This is an innovative programme, there is considerable complexity. It is high risk, there is no question about that."
International comparison work, commissioned by the NAO, found that South Korea was the country closest to deploying a similar programme.
Motorola got in touch to provide the following quote from Vincent Kennedy, Motorola veep. "We’re pleased we were able to help the Public Accounts Committee," it read. "We will continue to work with the Home Office and partners on the ESN project to ensure it is delivered successfully." ®