MP Meg Hillier, the former chairman of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, has vowed to call in the Home Office over a £40 million proposal to buy new hardware for the Emergency Services Network – a move necessary because handsets developed under an earlier £221 million tender can’t be used fully, as the network’s not ready.
The comments to Computer Business Review came after the Home Office said that it was considering fresh procurement for the desperately mismanaged project, which is already significantly delayed and more than £3 billion over-budget. (It follows July’s £220 million contract extension to EE for its work on the ESN.)
The long-awaited ESN is due to replace the current Motorola-owned Airwave system – a radio-based network – with a dedicated 4G network that will include Sim cards for emergency services that have priority over commercial users.
Civil servants have been chipping away at contracts in a bid to get the project back on track, with the head of the Civil Service, Sir Mark Sedwill, telling MPs last year: “Because of the structure of the PFI contract that Airwave had… at the end of the PFI contract [they would] have been in a position to charge us anything they wished.”
Hiller told us this week: “This is a shocking indictment of how not to run a project… We would expect to be calling back the Home Office on this issue. I’m hoping to chair the committee again. [IF so] we will make it one of our early call-backs.”
Emergency Services Network Devices: What’s the Problem Now, Exactly?
In 2017, Samsung won a contract worth up to £221 million to help develop and supply emergency services buyers with ruggedised handheld devices to run on the ESN.
However, the market notice this week admits that the devices, due to “immaturity of the standards and the lack of support in current devices and networks”, are simply not useable with the network in its current state.
As a result an “alternative solution’ is required.
This would see the development of an “interim D2D/RSM [device-to-device remote speaker microphone] solution… expected to consist of a device, which will supplement the ESN device’s functionality as an integrated unit.”
The proposal is the latest hiccup for the project, which has already been plagued by interoperability issues, delays and poor management. In 2017, oral evidence to the PAC revealed that the ESN project was approximately £3.1 billion over-budget. The National Audit Office estimates that the total cost of the project could now run to £9.3 billion.
When the network is finally operational Samsung’s devices will uses 3GPP Proximity Services (ProSe) technology to enable device-to-device communications, however since the network is not ready they cannot communicate directly in this manner. The Home Office’s latest market exercise is an attempt to assess the feasibility of creating a microphone that can, independently of ESN infrastructure, be used with Samsung’s kit.
The Home Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Emergency Services Network Devices Problems: “There’s Been No Real Tests of Data”
The ESN project aims to replace the current Motorola Airwave system, which is being used by 107 police, fire and ambulance services across the UK.
The ESN can facilitate modern communication such as data services as it also taps into the existing 4G mobile networks belonging to EE. The network will give emergency services priority over other network traffic and work in areas of poor connectivity, but the entire project has been plagued with delays.
MP Meg Hillier noted to Computer Business Review that so far very limited testing has been done on the network: “The early testing they’ve done is simply to check if the GPS. signal works, no real tests of data…There hasn’t been a wholesale test, and now I can see this (the recent Public Information Notice) really rather underlines why.”
The Problem for Frontline Staff
One of the problems being created by the delay of the ESN is that the equipment currently being used by emergency service staff and first responders is starting to degrade as they wait for the network to be fully operational. Many frontline staff are using hardware, such as Airwave Tetra radio terminals, that have been on the go since 2005. Often the standard approach to radios that fail is to replace them with spares from stock, as it is difficult and expensive to repair this equipment.
As a result emergency services and agencies need an influx of new hardware to replace old faulty Airwaves equipment. Last year London’s Deputy Mayor Sophie Linden recommended the approval of funding for the “purchase of Tetra radios to replace the current end of life and out of warranty police radios at a cost of £24.3 million.”
That came on top of a further £28 million in a contract to Sepura Ltd to supply Terminals, ancillaries and services till 2024.
MP Meg Hillier notes that this is a major issue for frontline services across the UK that have to budget and plan hardware needs in the long-term.
She told us: “They’ve got handsets that are not working that well.
“Do they spend money fixing them to make them last another couple of years, replacing parts or do they wait for the new stuff? They waited and waited and waited for the new stuff and hasn’t come. So they don’t trust it anymore. So they’ve (the Home Office) lost a huge amount of end user trust in this process…the more you fail, the less confidence they have, the less likely they are to buy in.”