The new Emergency Services Network is a predictable mess

The National Audit office has delivered a scathing assessment of the UK’s latest public project failure.

The delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) is yet another waste of public funds, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). Designed to replace the legacy Airwave system run by Motorola with a new ESN using EE’s 4G network, the whole thing was delayed last year due to reasons and the NAO has just got around to working out what this is costing Joe Public. Here’s the summary table from the NAO report.

NAO ESN summary

“The success of the Emergency Services Network is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe,” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO. “The Home Office needs a comprehensive plan with a realistic timetable that properly considers risks and uncertainties. It has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order.”

How likely is that? The NAO seems pessimistic, stating that the revised target date is likely to slip, which would result in even more expenses. The NAO notes that EE seems to have raised its game since it last checked in on the project, but basic bits of technology such as the ability to communicate with aircraft are still not up to scratch. The following statements from the NAO announcement show just how unimpressed it is with how this project is being handled.

“The NAO does not think the Home Office has demonstrated that it understands the challenges emergency services face in introducing ESN, such as incurring extra costs by having to switch,” said the announcement. “Emergency services do not yet know how much money they will need to invest in infrastructure to improve the coverage or to make control rooms compatible. Some worry that this could place further financial pressure on other services they provide.

“There are also a number of commercial risks to ESN. The Home Office is currently renegotiating the programme’s main contracts with Motorola and EE, but these are behind schedule. Motorola needs to be carefully managed as it is both a main supplier to ESN and the owner of Airwave. It could therefore benefit financially from further delays if Airwave is extended. The Home Office is also yet to agree who will be responsible for running the ESN service once it is launched.

“The Home Office does not currently have the capability it needs to integrate and test ESN, which comprises multiple pieces of technology that must be made to work together. The Home Office is planning to let a new contract to provide programme advisory and delivery services in 2019.

“The Home Office expects ESN to be cheaper than Airwave in the long run, but the savings will not outweigh the costs until at least 2029. This is already seven years later than originally intended. The Home Office believes that ESN will bring £1.5 billion in financial and economic benefits by 2037. The largest economic benefit (£643 million) is  associated with increases in police productivity. Police representatives told the NAO that they had not agreed these figures with the Home Office.

“The NAO recommends that the Home Office test its overall programme plan to determine whether the new schedule for launching ESN and shutting down Airwave is achievable. The Home Office should also develop a contingency plan that sets out what it will do if the technology it is relying on does not work.”

The sad thing is that this is all entirely predictable and the only time UK public sector technology projects are surprising is when they deliver on time and on budget.

UK government congratulates itself on contributing £25m to the 5G cause

A year after launching its Digital Strategy, the UK government has picked six 5G projects to receive a share of a £25 million pot of public money.

The winning projects seem to be mainly public/private partnerships that have come up with bright ideas for testing potential applications of 5G whenever we get around to rolling out the infrastructure. This hand-out is part of a general cunning plan for boosting the general 5G effort in the UK, which seems to be as much political virtue-signalling as it is constructive action.

£25 million is a fairly token amount in the great scheme of things, for the government to be crowing about, but then again it is better than nothing. It keeps banging on about a £1 billion total commitment from the Digital Strategy but if they’ve only doshed out 2.5% of that a year down the line then, at this rate, it will take 40 years to complete.

“One year on from the Digital Strategy, we are delivering on our commitments to create a Britain fit for the future, with a thriving digital economy that works for everyone,” said Margot James, Minister of State for Digital and the Creative Industries. “The ground-breaking projects announced today will help to unlock 5G and ensure the benefits of this new technology are felt across the economy and wider society.”

The release goes on to list all the awesome things the UK government is doing to make sure the country is a little bit better at 5G than it would otherwise have been. Here are some highlights:

  • Delivered more than 2.5 million free digital skills training opportunities with industry as part of the Digital Skills Partnership, with almost half a million new pledges made;
  • Reached its target for 95% of premises to have access to superfast broadband by the end of 2017;
  • Confirmed a £21m investment in Tech Nation to establish regional hubs throughout the country, widening access to Tech City’s training, mentoring and development programmes;
  • Announced £84m to boost the skills of 8,000 computer science teachers to make sure every secondary school has a qualified computer science teacher by 2022.
  • Introduced and updated the 5G strategy to deliver high quality coverage where people live, work and travel including setting out actions to ensure that mainline rail routes, major roads and connectivity ‘hotspots’ are 5G-ready.

Don’t get us wrong, there are many worthwhile initiatives here, although it’s rather alarming that we’re still so far short of having even one computer science teacher per school. But it’s also easy to fell sceptical when the government appears to make such a big effort to claim responsibility for things in which it seems to have had a minimal role.

Also, as you can see below, the winning projects only seem to have had £23.8 million allocated to them. Where’s the other £1.2 mil, and if it’s looking for a home maybe the government can invest it in much-needed telecoms trade journalism. Now that really would make a difference. Anyway, here are the six winners.

5G RuralFirst: Rural Coverage and Dynamic Spectrum Access Testbed and Trial

Lead organisation: Cisco; Grant: £4.3m

Cisco and lead partner University of Strathclyde will deliver testbeds and trials to exploit 5G benefits for rural communities and industries like agriculture, broadcasting, and utilities, to address the challenges of and build the business case for 5G rural deployment.

5G Smart Tourism

Lead organisation: West of England Combined Authority; Grant: £5.0m

This testbed will focus on delivering enhanced visual experiences for tourists using Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technology in major attractions in Bath and Bristol, including the Roman Baths and Millennium Square. Content and technology developments will be provided by the BBC and Aardman with support from the University of Bristol’s Smart Internet Lab. It will demonstrate self-provision of 5G and Wi-Fi and innovative mmWave backhaul, and will also address safety issues by providing emergency service capacity through network splicing.

Worcestershire 5G Consortium – Testbed and Trials

Lead organisation: Worcestershire Local Enterprise Partnership; Grant: £4.8m

It will focus on ways to increase industrial productivity through preventative and assisted maintenance using robotics, big data analytics and AR over 5G. It will also have a cyber security aspect, with QinetiQ providing assurances on the ‘security by design’ of 5G and IoT technology. Entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to test 5G capabilities in a new commercial tech accelerator located at the Malvern Hills Science Park.

Liverpool 5G Testbed

Lead organisation: Sensor City; Grant: £3.5m

Funded for one year in the first instance, the project will see high value technologies including low-cost open source 5G networks, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and IoT deployed across deprived communities in the Liverpool City Region test bed. The consortium will use this technology to reduce the digital divide, while measuring the impact on patient monitoring and support, management of loneliness in older adults, aid to independents living in the home and the facilitation of communication between hospitals and the community.

AutoAir: 5G Testbed for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles

Lead organisation: Airspan Communications; Grant: £4.1m

AutoAir will aim to make 5G technologies available for the validation and development of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) at the UK’s premiere vehicle proving ground at Millbrook. Fast travel speeds complicate cell-tower handoff, and autonomous vehicles will require more network bandwidth than is available currently. It will also investigate how these 5G connectivity solutions could be transferable to both road and rail transportation.

The project is based on the accelerated development of 5G small cells operating in both licensed Sub 6 GHz and mmWave bands on a shared ‘neutral host’ platform which allows multiple public and private 5G operators to simultaneously use the same infrastructure using network slicing.

5G Rural Integrated Testbed (5GRIT)

Lead organisation: Quickline Communications; Grant: £2.1m

The aim is to ultimately make high quality connectivity available across Cumbria, Northumberland, North Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Inverness-shire, Perthshire and Monmouthshire. Here the consortium will develop 5G-ready AR apps for tourists and investigate how high-bandwidth wireless connectivity can increase food production in farming, including through use of AR and an unmanned aerial system.