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UK police to spend tens of millions on legacy comms network kit

More evidence of where that half-a-billion-a-year cost of Emergency Services Network delay is going

The UK's police service is set to spend up to £50 million ($62.7 million) buying hardware and software for a legacy communication network that was planned to become obsolete in 2019.

The Home Office had planned to replace the Airwave secure emergency communication system, which launched in 2000, with a more advanced Emergency Services Network by the close of the decade. However, the legacy network has seen its life extended as its replacement was beset with delays. The ESN is expected to go live in 2026.

In a procurement notice, the Police Digital Service (PDS) said it was looking for up to three suppliers of Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) Encryption Algorithm 2 (TEA2) compatible radio devices – including handheld, desktop, and mobile terminals – as well as software, accessories, services, and maintenance for use on the UK Airwave system.

The notice said the resulting awarded contracts, starting in September, are set to run for four years, with the option to extend for an additional 12 months.

The procurement demonstrates the additional costs the UK government is incurring on the old system three years after it was supposed to be decommissioned. The initial plan was to begin the transfer to the ESN in September 2017.

The ESN is designed to give emergency services priority over commercial traffic on a 4G network. Its 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.

But the National Audit Office (NAO) said in 2019 that the system required development and would "not meet user requirements until 2020 at the earliest." At the time, the public spending watchdog warned the project would be three years late and £3 billion ($3.76 billion) over budget.

A year later, civil servants responsible for the project appeared before Parliament's Public Accounts Committee. Home Office boss Matthew Rycroft said a "mindset reset" in 2018 was behind £1 billion ($1.25 billion) in additional costs and a further delay of two years.

Joanna Davinson, who was then chief digital, data and technology officer at the Home Office, told MPs the additional delay would create hundreds of millions of pounds in additional annual costs. "A year's delay across the whole of the legacy estate is in the ballpark of £550 million ($690 million)," she said.

The latest procurement might show where some of that money is going at least.

Meanwhile, the ESN project is also under investigation for its commercial relationships. Motorola has become the focus of a Competition and Markets Authority investigation as it has an interest in both Airwave and ESN. In October last year, the CMA launched a probe into concerns that Motorola Solutions is abusing its position following evidence and responses gathered under the consultation phase.

The "dual role" of Motorola Solutions, which bought Airwave in 2016, means the company "has an incentive to delay or shape the roll-out of the ESN to its advantage, given the significant profits it currently receives from operating the Airwave network," the regulator said.

In evidence submitted to the regulator, the Home Office said Motorola had "very significantly benefited" from the delay to ESN because it also profits from the extension of Airwave.

Motorola Solutions holds that the market investigation is not warranted. "Motorola believes that after a careful investigation the Group will conclude there is no credible evidence to support the finding of an adverse effect on competition in the reference market caused by Airwave or Motorola and that, as a result, no remedies will be required in that regard," it said in a statement. ®

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