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  1. Government Computing
May 10, 2023

Home Office could seek fresh Airwave extension as new Emergency Services Network delayed until 2029

The new ESN was originally meant to go live in 2017 but has been heavily delayed by a series of blunders.

By Sophia Waterfield

The Home Office is “exploring options” to extend the life of the emergency services Airwave communication network, after the adoption date for its replacement, the Emergency Services Network Mobile Communications Programme (ESNMCP) was pushed back to 2029. Airwave is currently due to be switched off in 2026 when the contract with its provider Motorola, comes to an end.

A female police emergency services officer wearing high vis using a mobile device.
Police officers and other front-line emergency service workers will have to wait longer to use the new 4G LTE network. (Photo by Shutterstock)

The Home Office had said it would complete the ESNMCP project by the end of 2026 in its most recent submission of its major projects data, but it has been revealed this date has now been moved back to 2029. The project has seen numerous delays since its original deadline of 2019, most recently with the parting of ways with Motorola, which had been due to deliver the new network.

Airwave had been due to shut down this year, and the Home Office has already awarded one extension to Motorola so that it will continue to provide the service until 2026.

A Home Office spokesperson told Tech Monitor it could seek a fresh extension, and that Airwave will not be switched off until it is safe to do so. “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,” the spokesperson said.

“The Airwave system currently has a target shutdown date of the end of 2026. We are exploring options to ensure the service remains live for as long as it is needed beyond that date.”

Former police chief takes on ESNMCP role

The inadvertent admission about the latest delay to ESNMCP came in the form of the appointment letter of Simon Parr, now the senior responsible owner for ESNMCP. The former chief constable for Cambridge has worked for the Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College and the Home Office, and was co-chair of Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Safety and Justice Forum.

Parr will have “personal responsibility” for the delivery of ESNMCP and will be “held accountable” for meeting its objectives, says the document from the Home Office and the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. The civil servant will also be able to recommend whether the programme is paused or terminated if it’s appropriate. The letter states he has been tasked with delivering the network by 2029.

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ESNMCP, formerly known as ESN, is a cross-government programme to deliver the new critical communications network for emergency services in the UK. The current Airwave network runs on TETRA Terrestrial Trunked Radio, an ETSI standard digital private mobile radio (PMR) technology.

The next-generation critical communication network will enable the use of voice, video and data across the 4G network, which will be secure and safe for emergency services to use. More than 300,000 frontline users are thought to depend on the network, with handheld devices or operating equipment in 45,000 vehicles, 66 aircraft and over 100 control rooms.

The new ESN is now over a decade late

In 2014, EE and Motorola Solutions were selected to provide the 4G LTE network and managed software respectively to have ESN up and running by September 2017, being able to transition away from the Airwave network. However, in February 2017 the Home Office reported that the project would be delayed by nine months and by 2018 the programme was “reset.”

In 2019, the Public Accounts Select Committee said that the ESN timetable would feature phases rather than a solution being delivered “all at once” and that a key piece of technology would be replaced with main contracts with EE and Motorola Solutions being renegotiated. This set the new deadline for December 2022.

However, in 2021 the Home Office wrote to the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) as it deemed Motorola’s profits following its acquisition of Airwave “excessive and disincentivised it from completing its ESN contract.” The National Audit Office (NAO) said this started a series of events with the American tech firm implying that it would not extend the ESN contract after December 2024. Motorola and Home Office have since terminated their ESNMCP contract, and a new provider is likely to be appointed in 2024.

Read more: £100m government fund launched to back enterprise AI adoption

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