Home Office savaged for delays to 4G emergency services network


The Home Office will fail to deliver on a previously delayed replacement for its radio-based emergency services communications network 'Airwave' unless it urgently changes tack.

The delivery of a 4G-based replacement, Emergency Services Network (ESN), is unlikely to meet the new 2022 target because the department has failed to understand the challenges emergency services face, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

These centre on the extra costs that must be incurred by emergency services switching from Airway to ESN, and commercial risks with the providers of this underlying technology, Motorola and EE.

Moreover, the department has shown no evidence that it has taken on board previous warnings around the delivery of ESN; especially those raised in a previous NAO report issued before the first delay in 2017.

When the Home Office realised it could not deliver ESN as initially proposed, the department "reset" the programme in its entirety. While this led to some improvements, broader mismanagement, according to the NAO, has led to further delays and increased costs.

ESN will now cost 9.3 billion, according to Home Office figures, which is 3.1 billion more than initially planned. Of this further sum, 1.4 billion is being spent on extending Airwave for three years more than planned.

But the NAO added these costs are "highly uncertain" and that more money will be needed as the new December 2022 target is unattainable.

"The success of the Emergency Services Network is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe," said the head of the NAO Amyas Morse.

"The Home Office needs a comprehensive plan with a realistic timetable that properly considers risks and uncertainties. It has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order."

The NAO report also highlighted a potential conflict of interest with the Airwave supplier Motorola, which "needs to be carefully managed".

The Home Office is currently negotiating contracts with EE and Motorola to be the main suppliers for ESN. However, Motorola also owns the Airway network entirely. This means that Motorola could benefit financially from further delays if Airwave is extended.

Among broader issues is that the underlying technology behind ESN is still not ready. Aircraft, for example, cannot receive the signal needed to communicate with emergency service workers on the ground. Meanwhile, devices cannot communicate directly without a network signal. The Home Office also hasn't yet outlined in any great detail how the different elements of the technology will be integrated to work together effectively.

The NAO recommended that the Home Office test its overall programme plan to determine if a new schedule for launching ESN and shutting down Airwave can be achieved. The department should also work on contingency arrangements including a plan if the underlying technology behind ESN does not work.

"The ESN is on track to deliver an ambitious, world-leading, digital communications network for the emergency services by 2022, resulting in savings of 200 million a year," a Home Office spokesperson said.

"When fully implemented, its mobile technology and infrastructure will transform the emergency response of police officers, fire fighters and ambulance crews.

"This will result in faster and better treatment for victims, including by allowing first responders to transmit footage of crime and accident scenes back to specialists in hospitals and police stations."

Keumars Afifi-Sabet

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a writer and editor that specialises in public sector, cyber security, and cloud computing. He first joined ITPro as a staff writer in April 2018 and eventually became its Features Editor. Although a regular contributor to other tech sites in the past, these days you will find Keumars on LiveScience, where he runs its Technology section.