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£2B in UK taxpayer cash later, and still no Emergency Services Network

And not even a tentative date for a system go-live either

By the end of this month, the UK Home Office will have spent just under £2 billion ($2.4 billion) on a new critical communications network for the country's police, fire and ambulance services – with nothing to show for it, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

Even worse, the multi-year project has fallen further behind schedule and the Home Office cannot say when the replacement system will be operational, according to the spending watchdog.

The Emergency Services Network (ESN) program first kicked off in 2015 – the idea being that it would fully replace the existing near-indestructible Airwave units and system, which uses the Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) network; would "cost less"; and would provide users with access to modern mobile data. ESN was supposed to move critical emergency services off of the tried and tested TETRA (which, among other things, you can access ubiquitously across the London Underground) and onto LTE radio comms – with some obvious modifications and associated features like the push-to-talk ESN Direct.

Originally the plan was to switch off Airwave by September 2017, and to kit out emergency services with 4G-enabled devices ahead of this date. But delay followed delay.

In 2019, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the department had "still not got a grip on whether it can deliver the programme" and "still does not have an integrated plan for how and when each emergency service will deploy ESN."


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The further £2.9 billion ($3.43 billion) spent to maintain Airwave, naturally, was a necessary cost under the circumstances. Airwave network operator Motorola, however, came under intense scrutiny as both the maintainer of the old system and the winning bidder for key services in the new ESN contract.

The UK's Competition and Markets Authority started a probe into the matter in 2021, with the PAC already noting in 2019 that Motorola's involvement in both the new and old contract had led "to perverse incentives" and put "the department in a weak negotiating position." Motorola has denied conflict of interest and said last year that "Airwave, over its life, is a much better deal for the UK taxpayer than the Home Office originally agreed."

By 2020, a "mindset reset" pushed back the ESN a further £1 billion and two years, according to Home Office boss Matthew Rycroft.

Early termination

in January, eight years after the first proposals for a new system to replace the outdated Airwave platform were unveiled, the Home Office and Motorola Solutions agreed to end their work on the ESN contract in December 2023.

The Home Office, meanwhile, does not currently know when ESN will be ready or how much it will ultimately cost.

As for the Home Office finding a new supplier to complete work on the ESN program? The NAO said this "will not happen before April 2024," adding that "although replacing Motorola may have been necessary, it does not guarantee that the programme will succeed."

The watchdog recommended the Home Office "make clear to users the value of ESN" particularly as Airwave meets their expectations and many have their own data solutions. And no more "resets" either – they should continually revise to provide a reliable timetable and avoid setting unrealistic time frames, it said.

The Home Office, meanwhile, maintains that "much" of ESN's "core" has been built, telling The Register: "The Emergency Services Network will provide first responders with better technology and faster access to life-saving data in emergency situations, helping to keep the public safe.

"While much of the core network has already been built, we are committed to addressing the delays and working closely with our partners to provide better value for money for the taxpayer, following Motorola's decision to leave the programme."

It added: "We thank the National Audit Office for their report and are now working at pace to implement all their recommendations."

As a side note, sci-fi and fantasy fans might be interested to note that the Airwave is the only device which can withstand interference by "magic" in the fictional world of the Rivers of London, a series penned by former Doctor Who writer Ben Aaronovitch. The fantasy novels' lead character, PC Peter Grant (also an apprentice wizard) observes early on in his battles with pre-Roman Celtic gods and goddesses – as well as some newer ones – that his trusty Airwave handset will always survive whereas smartphone chipsets (while battery connected) turn to dust near any magical event.

We understand that the Airwave contract has been extended until 2026 to ensure the emergency services have the core services they need to protect the public and keep them safe until ESN is deployed. We think 2026 is an ambitious timeframe, as, after all, Airwave can only be switched off when it is safe to do so.

British taxpayers who are having a good day and want it ruined can download the report here. ®

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