'Mindset reset' contributes to £1bn extra costs and another delay – 2 years this time – for Emergency Services Network

A year's delay costs £550m... so, er, no rush, eh?

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A "mindset reset" in the UK's Emergency Services Network (ESN) project is behind £1bn in additional costs and a further delay of two years, according to Home Office boss Matthew Rycroft.

Already delayed by five years and over budget by £3bn, the scheme to upgrade Britain's blue-light comms network might not be fully available before the end of 2024.

Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Home Department, told a session of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) late last week [PDF] that the delay would mean the current service, Airwave, which was due to cease at the end of 2022, will be extended another two years.

Joanna Davinson, chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office, told the public spending watchdog that this would create £550m in additional annual costs. "A year's delay across the whole of the legacy estate is in the ballpark of £550m," she said.

The project was set to go live in 2017 but went through a complete revision in 2018. It has been the subject of no less than eight PAC sessions and two National Audit Office reports.

The reason for further delay was not only due to technology, Rycroft told the PAC.

"We have had a reset and that reset is not just about technology, it's also about mindset, and the mindset reset is to put the users at the heart of this and you know that does take a little bit longer, but I think it is time well spent," he said.

Just let that sink in. After years and billions of pounds spent, the Home Office is finally considering putting users at the centre of this programme. It almost makes you proud to be British.

One of the stumbling blocks to the project, which gives emergency services priority over commercial traffic on a 4G network, is the revised business case. It was due to be published in early 2020, but now might not appear until March 2021, Davinson admitted.

She said a draft business case would be shared with the programme board and senior users. It would then go to the Cabinet Office Major Projects Review Group. "We do expect to finalise that business case… by the end of this year. March is a 'long stop' date."

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The ESN's so-called push-to-talk feature, which gives a caller direct connection to a peer without audio delays, relies on software called Kodiak, which was bought by ESN supplier Motorola. An NAO report said in 2019 that the system required development and would "not meet user requirements until 2020 at the earliest".

Kodiak version 10, which includes all the necessary functionality, is in testing and will be made available in Q2 next year, Davinson said.

Rycroft added that Kodiak would be kept up to date with future generations of mobile networks. "Unlike the current Airwave system, as future standards change from 4G to 5G, 6G and 7G, this technology will have automatic upgrades built into it," he told the committee.

Another stumbling block for the networking – its operation on the London Underground – would be addressed "towards the end of 2022," Davinson claimed. ®

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