Home Office to delay 4G emergency service network by another three years

The Home Office has announced its cumbersome project to overhaul the Emergency Services Network (ESN) with a 4G network has been set back by another few years.

After negotiating a month-by-month contract with Motorola to keep its aging digital radio network Airwave alive, the Home Office has signed a new contract to extend this partnership through to 2022. Alongside this damning signature, the Motorola Solutions ESN agreement will be extended by 30 months through the end of 2024, to allow for a new phased implementation of EE’s 4G ESN. Just to put things in perspective, the initial plan was to have the network up and running by mid-2017.

“We are proud to support the Home Office on its new delivery approach for ESN while at the same time ensuring public safety users have the Airwave communications network they need,” said Kelly Mark, EVP of services and software at Motorola Solutions. “We have been working closely with the Home Office to ensure that our services are aligned with this new phased deployment and timeline for ESN.”

The new incremental approach means police, fire and rescue services, ambulance services and other users will be able to use data services over the network from early next year, with voice capabilities at some undefined point in the future. Of course, this is the sort of efficiency and accuracy many have come to expect from the UK government.

Keeping track of what is going on with the ESN is a tricky task; the rollout plan has changed more times than a teenagers mood.

Back when the initiative was initially launched, the plan was to give the emergency services the communications capability to match and exceed what they enjoy as private individuals. When the final contracts were issued to Motorola, to provide the public safety applications and user services, and EE, to provide an enhanced radio access service with nationwide coverage, the project was timetabled for completion by mid-2017. At the time, Mike Penning, Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice & Victims, boasted the new network would save the government £1 million a day.

The ESN is to be built on EE’s commercial network, the largest 4G mobile network in the UK with the emergency services and other bodies to benefit from a dedicated core network designed to ensure priority use of the EE commercial network. The network will provide geographical coverage along major and minor roads, and special coverage locations; selected buildings, road tunnels and the London Underground for example, as well as 12 miles out to sea covering UK territorial waters and air-to-ground communications in England, Scotland and Wales. Some of the new features will include live video from body worn cameras transmitted from crime scenes or high definition images to allow hospital consultants to make remote diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

After a scathing review from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), this deployment date was pushed back to end-2019, and then a further nine months to September 2020. The party line is now the programme will save £200 million per year, considerably less than the initial promise from Penning. Perhaps such delays should have been expected from the beginning. Aside from this being a government initiative, the National Audit Office warned in September 2016 progress was five months behind schedule, not leaving enough time for the relevant users to effective test the network and learn from other authorities.

This is of course not the first time a government project has spiralled into incompetence. The abandoned NHS patient record system of yesteryear proved nothing but a disaster, swallowing more than £10 billion in public funds and delivering about as much satisfaction as warm milk on an August afternoon. At the time, MP Richard Bacon suggested “this saga is one of the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sector”, but this was just another in a long line of disasters which included the child support agency, leaving thousands of families without cash, chaos within the passport agency and a tax credit system which was left open to fraud.

With the latest push-back from the Home Office, the project is doing nothing but enforcing the stereotype of civil servants and the capabilities of the public sector.