Decision to use relatively untried system to replace UK’s police, fire and ambulance emergency network puts country at “significant implementation risk”
This risk is made more serious by the fact the emergency network is, by definition, a system that can mean the difference between life or death, the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.
Its just-published study on the decision and what it means for the country, Upgrading emergency service communications: the Emergency Services Network, paints an intriguing picture of where we are with helping our emergency services safely communicate.
The Airwave legacy
The UK is currently on a system called Airwave, which is used by over 400 public organisations on nearly 330,000 devices.
In its favour, Airwave covers 97% of the UK landmass and was available 99.9% of the entire 2010-16 time frame. But the system is expensive; a handset costs north of £1,300, and it’s not great at handling data. These are some of the factors that prompted a decision to shift to a cheaper 4G based system, ESN (Emergency Services Network) in 2010, a decision also resulting from a deteriorating relationship with the supplier.
When up and running, especially from 2020 on, using ESN instead of Airwave means the taxpayer will save money, as much as a projected £3.6bn over the 17 years after 'go live' – around £500 per device annually, compared to Airwave.
However, the project is already five months behind deadline – and if that creeps up to 12 months, that’s a £475 million loss.
But project delay is the least of the auditor’s concerns. These actually centre on the need for ESN to rely on a commercial 4G mobile network, that of EE - a big part of the basis for the better commercials.
The problem: no-one else has managed to port their entire emergency network on to 4G, with only South Korea attempting anything similar. That means, in NAO's view, that, “ESN is inherently high risk”.
To make matters worse, the study says, there are “significant technical challenges” the programme needs to overcome. These include a need to increase the coverage and resilience of EE’s 4G network so that it at least matches Airwave, as well as developing ESN-ready handheld and vehicle mounted devices - as no devices currently exist.
Overall, NAO thinks ESN is “the right direction strategically” and that the benefits of ESN “should be substantial” – but fears the business case is “overly optimistic” in its valuation of these, and that we’ll all have to see £1.2bn spent on it before any hope of payback.
On the bright side, ESN has an “energetic, delivery-focused culture” that has helped it retain staff and manage issues as they have emerged. But management of its key risks needs to improve if the team can deliver ESN successfully, including: the programme’s approach to technical assurance and testing; user engagement and more clarity on the contingency arrangements for extending Airwave.
A final question mark hangs over whether the services themselves use ESN, as it is not mandated to switch until the functionality of the successor system equals that of Airwave – a get-out clause that NAO worries is “complex and leaves room for disagreement”.
“The need to save money and get out of a difficult commercial relationship has led the government to try and move to an approach that is not yet used nationwide anywhere in the world,” said NAO head Amyas Morse.
“The programme remains inherently high risk, and while steps have been taken to manage these risks we are concerned that these are underated in the Home Office and elsewhere.
“The programme needs to put in place more independent testing and assurance regimes for its technical solution and urgently improve its approach to engaging with the emergency services.”