Samsung gets 2-year contract extensions to provide rugged handsets for UK's troubled Emergency Services Network

Fiasco replacing fire, police and ambulance comms already costing £550m for each year of delay


Updated The UK government has extended its contract with Samsung to provide LTE handsets for the much-troubled rollout of vital emergency services communications infrastructure.

A tender notice published this week reveals the South Korean conglomerate will see the value of its contract, signed in 2017, rise from £210m to a maximum of £226m. The deal, which was originally set for at least three years, with a potential to provide up to 250,000 phones, will now be extended by a further 22 months.

The Home Office, which runs the ESN procurement on behalf of emergency services, said the contract extension was necessary because of wider delays to the ESN project.

"There have been a series of unexpected and incremental delays in the wider delivery of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme [set up to create the ESN]. This has impeded Samsung's ability to deliver ESN accredited devices to the Authority for the purpose of testing (accreditation has not been possible to date on the network)," the notice says.

"Accredited and tested devices are essential to maintain the programme timescales for both economic and technical reasons," the notice adds.

The Home Office procurement team did consider different handsets — Samsung is developing special ruggedised hardware fit for emergency services use — but thought better of it.

"It is considered unlikely that an alternative replacement device could be built, procured and accredited in time to maintain the integrity of the programme," the notice says.

All this brings into question how many handsets were delivered in the four years since the contract was signed, and how much the Home Office has so far paid Samsung under the contract. The Register is waiting on the Home Office's response.

On the contract price, the tender says the Home Office has made previous changes to the original Framework Agreement to include "development services for a fee linked to the stages of development of the ruggedised device, totalling £4.9m."

The tender says: "There is no increase in price anticipated as a result of this Modification Notice", although it also puts the maximum value at £16m more than the original agreed price. We cxontacted the Home Office for more detail on the changes to the contract pricing.

Emergency Services still very much on Tetra

The Emergency Services Network (ESN) – set to replace the Tetra-based Airwave radio system currently 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, and was expected to be switched off at the end of 2019.

That date was itself postponed because of delays in the ESN project. ESN underwent a complete revision in 2018 and is now due to go live in 2026. This has left Motorola, as the provider of both the old and new network, in a position to benefit from the delays and one which it could potentially exploit.

The contract for Airwave was extended in 2020 for six years when it is due to be shuttered — an agreement Airwave admitted again recently could bag it £1.2bn in profits during the extension period. The situation is currently under investigation by UK watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority.

There are also questions over network coverage. ESN will run over EE's 4G network, which it says will prioritise emergency calls and support a "push-to-talk" function on the prescribed handsets. According to EE's website, it offers 85 per cent 4G geographic coverage in the UK, well short of the 97 per cent coverage offered by Airwave, the network it will replace. We have asked EE to comment.

ESN has also mushroomed in cost. In September last year, Home Office boss Matthew Rycroft admitted a two-year delay and £1bn in additional costs would result from the "mindset reset" of the programme, as he put it.

Joanna Davinson, then chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office, said each year of delay would result in around £550m additional costs. She has since become executive director of the UK government's Central Digital and Data Office. ®

Updated to add at 12:37 UTC, 17 December 2021:

We asked about EE's plan to raise the coverage to meet the 97 per cent of the UK covered by the Airwave/Tetra network?

The mobile carrier responded: "EE has 4G in more places than any other UK network and, through the ESN programme which supports England, Scotland and Wales, we’re supporting the Government by extending that reach into tunnels, stations, and other extended areas (EAS). The network will be available in locations where Emergency Services need to work, with temporary coverage solutions also available for emergencies or incidents."

When we asked about progress on the ESN rollout, the network said: "We are committed to rolling out the ESN as quickly as possible. We're proud to have already delivered on all of our existing contractual coverage targets for the ESN, building a new dedicated, core network for Emergency Services, and expanding coverage in rural areas with over 600 new sites and more to come.

"We have also already upgraded approximately 19, 000 of EE's existing sites ready for the ESN."

It added: "We'll continue to work collaboratively with all partners to deliver against the fully integrated plan."

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