Still no in-service date for Emergency Services Network

The Home Office has spent almost £2bn on a new communications network for emergency services since 2015 but still cannot say when it will be operational despite repeated delays, the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

The Emergency Services Network (ESN) is intended to replace Airwave, the system currently used by emergency services in Great Britain to communicate.

All of the UK’s emergency services and over 300 public safety organisations communicate using Airwave and its coverage is superior to any of the publicly available networks. But it runs on a 2G connection, which limits its functionality.

The 4G connection provided by ESN will allow for live video streaming from officers on the scene and quick transfer of data relevant to ongoing incidents.

According to an NAO report, by March 2023, the Home Office will have spent just under £2bn on ESN, and a further £2.9bn to maintain Airwave.

Eight years after proposals for ESN first emerged and having agreed Motorola will no longer work on the network after 2023, the Home Office does not currently know when it will be ready or how much it will cost.  

In 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) opened an investigation into Motorola over concerns about the impact of the dual role of the firm as the owner of Airwave and as a key supplier in the roll-out of ESN.

This was after the Home Office considered that Motorola’s Airwave profits were excessive and had concerns about its incentives and ability to complete ESN within the time available.

The CMA has provisionally estimated that, without a price control, Motorola could make profits of £1.1bn between 2020 and 2026 from Airwave.

Motorola told the Home Office that it may not continue as a supplier when its contract ended in 2024 to remove the risk that the CMA would force it to sell the network.

In December, the Home Office agreed to end the contract with Motorola early and pay it £45m which included £27m to settle disputes on top of the £300m paid to the firm since 2015.

The Home Office said it does not expect to use the critical software or systems that it has paid Motorola for and plans to award a new contract to replace the firm despite the fact that this will create “further delays and uncertainty”.

This is partly because other suppliers’ work developing elements of ESN has been paused or they are unable to progress until the Home Office has replaced Motorola.

However, EE has nearly completed its work to establish the main network for ESN and the Home Office plans to award it a new contract, without competition, to avoid delaying the programme further. 

Individual police forces will make their own decision about when to stop using Airwave and move to ESN.

The Home Office is now developing a new business case for approval in 2024, which will set out a revised timetable and costing, alongside a strategic case for continuing the programme.

The timetable for completion has been pushed back to 2026 at the earliest and is still uncertain despite the fact that maintaining Airwave into the 2030s is estimated to cost at least £250m a year. 

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “After eight years and almost £2bn, it is extremely worrying that the Home Office does not now know when the Emergency Services Network will be ready or what it will cost.

“Home Office is in the process of letting new contracts to put the programme on a sounder footing. It must now also put in place a realistic timetable and robust contractual and governance arrangements to address the significant risks this programme still faces and avoid any further waste of taxpayers’ money.”

A Motorola Solutions spokesman said the company will continue to support ESN through “transitional services” until the end of 2023.

“Motorola Solutions is committed to the essential Airwave network, which is relied upon by the 300,000 emergency services personnel who protect communities across the UK every day,” the spokesman said.

“As the NAO recognises, the Airwave network operates at the highest levels of reliability and coverage.”

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