Competition watchdog may probe Motorola’s Airwave network for emergency services

The UK’s competition regulator is considering launching an investigation into Motorola’s dual role operating the mobile radio network for emergency services, called Airwave, as well as providing software for its replacement, the forthcoming ‘Emergency Services Network’ (ESN).

The Airwave network is used exclusively by emergency services for communications in the field. It is encrypted and secure and its exclusivity avoids possible congestion issues that can present themselves on commercial networks.

The network was established in 2000 by BT before being acquired by Motorola for £817m in 2015. But in 2014, the UK decided to replace the network entirely with the ESN, which is 4G capable – allowing for more complex data operations to be transmitted by emergency services.

While the ESN was supposed to come online by 2019, replacing Airwave, it has been beset by delays costing taxpayers nearly a £500m a year in additional funds.

With concerns that the delay could leave the UK’s emergency services with a “potentially catastrophic” six-month gap without their own communications system, the Government was forced to extend Motorola’s contract for operating the Airwave network up to 2022.

Now the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is looking into whether it should investigate Motorola’s position and incentives to deliver the ESN, given the continuing high profitability of the Airwave network.

It said it is particularly concerned that Motorola could stand to make excess profits of about £1.2bn in the period from 2020 to 2026 – a cost which will ultimately fall to the British taxpayer.

Furthermore, the CMA’s initial review of the evidence available indicates that the supply of the Airwave network in Great Britain “is not working well, resulting in significant detriment to customers and the taxpayer”.

Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: “At the moment, Motorola is the only provider of critical mobile radio network services used by our emergency service workers and is involved in both the current and future set-up. We’re worried that the company could be cashing in on its position, while taxpayers are left to foot the bill.

“The CMA is minded to launch a market investigation to dig deeper into its concerns and will now consult with a range of stakeholders, including the Government, on its plans.”

The initial contract with Motorola for ESN was originally signed partly on the expectation that the Airwave network would be shut down by 2019.

The CMA will decide on whether to launch a full investigation in September.

A Motorola Solutions spokesperson said: “We are aware that the UK Competition and Markets Authority is consulting on whether to launch a market investigation into the Airwave network.

“As a trusted technology partner to the UK market for more than 50 years, Motorola Solutions remains committed to working with the Home Office to deliver mission-critical communications. This includes the Airwave network that UK emergency services rely upon every day, and the safe transition to next-generation technologies (Emergency Services Network).”

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