The Home Office has hit yet another stumbling block on its Emergency Services Network (ESN) project following the departure of supplier Motorola Solutions. Without a new supplier coming on board until April 2024, the government department has been unable to confirm to the National Audit Office (NAO) when the 4G LTE network will be active. This is despite already spending £2bn on the project since 2015.
In its latest report, the NAO says that as well as spending £2bn on ESN since the start of the project, it has spent £2.9bn on maintaining the Airwave network, which is still being used by the 108 police, fire and ambulance services in England, Scotland and Wales.
The departure of Motorola Solutions, which also owns Airwave, came when the Home Office wrote to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in 2021 expressing concerns over Airwave’s “excessive profits” and Motorola Solutions’ incentives to complete ESN. The American-based company indicated that it might leave the project by 2024 and in December 2022 both agreed to terminate the contract early. Motorola Solutions agreed on a settlement with the Home Office of £45m, which included £27m to settle outstanding milestones and disputes.
However, while the NAO says that the early departure of Motorola Solutions has “addressed recognised issues” it has resulted in the Home Office using taxpayer money for “software and systems it will not use”. NAO has also said that even with Motorola Solutions not being involved in the ESN project, it still might not succeed.
ESN has been and remains a high-risk project
The ESN project began in 2015 when the Home Office awarded contracts to suppliers EE Ltd and Motorola Solutions to create the next-generation emergency services network. But the project has been plagued with delays, a reset and extra costs to the taxpayer.
The network would serve to replace the existing Airwave network, used by the emergency services when out in the field and to contact control rooms. Using mobile data and costing less, the Home Office expected ESN to fully replace Airwave – which uses the TETRA network – by December 2019.
According to NAO, its 2016 report assessed the programme to be high risk because of the “commercial approach taken, the ambitious technology, the timetable and the uncertainty about users accepting ESN”. “It also found that the Home office was trying to adopt an approach not used at a national scale in other countries,” NAO says. This carried a “significant” implementation risk.
It also found that Motorola Solutions’ purchase of Airwave in 2016 had created commercial risks due to Motorola’s role in ESN. At the time of the acquisition, a CMA inquiry found that the merger would result in a “substantial lessening of competition within a market or markets” in the UK.
Deadline scrapped a number of times
The government department originally believed that the emergency services would start transitioning away from Airwave and onto the new network by September 2017. However, in February 2017 the Home Office reported that the completion of ESN had been delayed by nine months. By September 2018, the programme had been ‘reset’.
A report by the Public Accounts Select Committee in July 2019 explained that the reset involved “extending the timetable, adopting an incremental delivery approach, with ESN delivered in phases rather than all at once”. It also said that a “key piece of technology” would be replaced and that main contracts with EE and Motorola would be renegotiated. A new deadline was set for December 2022 and the expected cost of £9.3bn, which was an increase of £3.1bn.
A further report by NAO in 2019 found that a high risk remained, even after the reset, and that the Home Office should “carefully manage the risk associated with Motorola’s dual roles”.
Two years later, the Home Office wrote to CMA as it considered Motorola’s Airwave profits were “excessive and disincentivised it from completing its ESN contract”, says NAO. This started a chain reaction of events with Motorola implying that it would not extend the ESN contract after December 2024 and the Home Office seeking a new supplier.
ESN being completed after 2029 is worth putting money on
According to CMA’s investigation, ESN currently has a potential finish date of 2029, however, one analyst doesn’t believe this will happen.
“We know for sure that the provisional December 2026 deadline for a full transition from Airwave will not happen,” said Rob Stoneman, service director, UK public sector, Global Data. “In fact, this has been known internally since at least this time last year.”
Stoneman believes the 2019 timescale is also “optimistic” as it was given before Motorola formally left its contract, saying he’d put money on the transition being later.
“Ultimately, they can’t proceed with testing ESN Beta and then Version 1.0 – this is needed to undertake the transition and is estimated to take two years – until a new supplier is in and they figure out the mission-critical push-to-talk functionality,” he continued. “The appointment is not expected to be until early 2024 and Motorola will maintain a 12-month transitional arrangement to cover the gap.”
Additionally, the public sector analyst doesn’t think the Home Office will be in a rush to meet an arbitrary deadline as he says one of the main reasons given for the delays and reset is “inadequate user testing before the development of ESN Beta”.
Home Office pledges to provide ‘better value’ for UK taxpayers
However, in a statement to Tech Monitor, a Home Office spokesperson said that ESN remains the way forward for Britain’s emergency services, and will transform the way they work.
“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. “While much of the core network has already been built, we are committed to addressing the delays and working closely with our partners to provide better value for money for the taxpayer, following Motorola’s decision to leave the programme.
“We thank the National Audit Office for their report and are now working at pace to implement all their recommendations.”
Airwave’s contract has been extended to deliver critical communications from 2023 to 2026, the Home Office has confirmed, and it will not be switched off unless it is safe to do so.