UK Emergency Services Network fiasco — have we crossed the Rubicon?

  • David Hilliard, CEO of Mentor Europe, asserts “it’s time to take a different approach” to the now eight years late and £2bn over-budget Emergency Services Network
  • Parliamentary Accounts Committee scathing of botched implementation, yet gives Home Office free rein to “crack on”.
  • Remedies from Hilliard include operating Airwave and 4G/5G networks in parallel; repairing relationship with Motorola; and reassigning programme management to EE

Just “cracking on”

Should the UK government’s Home Office just “crack on” with squandering billions on a programme many suspect the country’s emergency services will never accept?

The Emergency Services Network (ESN) is now eight years late, with £11bn (€12.8bn) already been spent, and the programme £2bn over budget. There is no delivery date in sight, and the latest report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is scathing, while still giving the Home Office free rein to “crack on” with a flawed strategy.

Yet there are practical options to deliver an emergency services communications network fit for purpose.

So how did we end up with this basket case?

We need to go back to 2009 when the seeds of this failure were sown, when the government was trying to score political points by slashing public expenditure.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude spotted an opportunity to cut costs by renegotiating the contract with Airwave, the existing emergency services communications network owned by the Macquarie Group. Macquarie refused to play ball, so, in 2011, the government decided to “act tough” and announced it would replace Airwave with a brand-new system called ESN.

The government claimed that Airwave’s TETRA technology was becoming obsolete and the emergency services would benefit from improved communications, including video and data, at lower cost if they utilised the UK’s new commercial 4G network capability.

This was a blatant politically motivated decision that no one wanted, especially the emergency services:

  • Airwave’s TETRA technology was far from obsolete — it still flourishes today.
  • The main stakeholders — the emergency services — were comfortable with Airwave’s 99.9% availability.
  • There was no credible data from the Home Office about ESN cost savings, nor how these savings would compare to the costs of a “technology-refreshed” Airwave system.

Nevertheless, driven by the Home Office, the ESN programme to replace Airwave was scheduled to complete by 2019.

So where are we now?

After six years of planning and eight years of botched implementation, the latest July 2023 PAC report — representing the 14th time the PAC has looked at this debacle — is scathing. Its conclusions are:

  • ESN is holed below the waterline and unsalvageable in its present form.
  • There is still no coherent plan to deliver the ESN.
  • The Home Office is out of its depth and lacks the systems integration and programme management skills to deliver a project of this magnitude.

The Home Office cannot prove to the emergency services that the ESN will be good enough to replace Airwave.

Crucially, 4G/5G technology still cannot deliver “device-to-device” communication that enables frontline emergency service workers to talk to each other in life-and-death emergencies when the wider network is unreachable in rural locations or deep inside buildings.

The Home Office’s management of Motorola has been abysmal.

Astonishingly, it allowed Motorola, one of three key suppliers, to buy the Airwave network in 2015. Motorola then became a service provider and a supplier — a clear conflict of interest.

Motorola has since left the programme following a dispute with the Home Office over Airwave’s operating costs. There is still no credible handset provider in place.

ESN delays have left individual emergency services organisations high and dry with no choice but to deploy costly interim data and video solutions. There is still no convincing delivery date that allows the emergency services to plan ahead.

Yet the PAC has given its blessing to the Home Office, which, in the words of Matthew Rycroft (permanent Under-Secretary of State), intends to “crack on” regardless with the ESN. Nobody accountable has the intestinal fortitude to do the obvious thing.

The history of this programme leads to one conclusion: ESN, in its current form, is undeliverable. It’s crying out for a new approach.

Contrary to the Home Office team’s cavalier approach, there is a workable way to deliver a fit-for-purpose emergency services network.

The UK should run Airwave and 4G/5G networks side by side…

Recognising that device-to-device communication is not available using 4G/5G mission-critical technology, the Home Office has proposed a “Remote Speaker Microphone” workaround. This requires frontline emergency service workers to carry both a 4G/5G smartphone for ESN voice/data/video and an additional handset for local device-to-device communication.

Operationally, this will be a nightmare for emergency teams, which will have to switch between devices.

At Mentor Europe, we recommend retaining Airwave alongside 4G/5G technology. Then, integrate the two core networks using established international standards.

Other countries have successfully achieved this. The USA uses 4G/5G technology to complement its Land Mobile Radio (Airwave equivalent), providing the best from both platforms.

In a frontline scenario, emergency workers only need a ruggedized Airwave handset to participate in talk groups across Airwave and the 4G/5G network. And where no network coverage is available, they can still communicate directly with each other using Airwave’s device-to-device voice services.

Also explore how your business can take advantage of the 5G opportunity.

…patch things up with Motorola…

The poor management of Motorola by the Home Office and the vendor’s subsequent decision to leave ESN indicates the extent of bad feelings between the two parties.

Yet Motorola is one of the world’s leading 4G/5G mission-critical technology vendors. Its products and services are used extensively by many global telcos. For example, Motorola and Samsung are the lead technology vendors for US’s FirstNet interoperable public safety broadband network.

The value of a fit-for-purpose emergency services communications network should override bruised egos. We should be looking to work with best-in-class providers wherever possible. The UK government should arrange a sensible agreement with Motorola for both continued use of Airwave, and to allow it to provide the mobile device technology for the ESN.

…and transfer programme management and governance to EE

The Home Office’s incompetence in managing systems integration and large complex mission-critical programmes is hardly surprising. These are specialist functions that require expertise from seasoned professionals.

The UK government should outsource these responsibilities to EE, which is well positioned in the ESN programme and has the necessary skills and experience. It can build on its current involvement in creating a highly resilient, dedicated core network for emergency services.

AT&T currently performs this role for FirstNet in the USA.

Crunch time

A “carry on regardless approach” is doomed to fail and will compromise our emergency services’ ability to orchestrate an effective response, should anything such as a Manchester Arena or London 7/7 event occur again.

This is a reckless risk the Home Office should not even contemplate taking.

The Home Office may have “crossed the Rubicon”, but there is a way back if the fractured vanities at Westminster can allow the private sector to use better qualified people to plan and execute the programme properly.

Also find out how the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) issues red card to Home Office’s ESN programme.

About the author

David Hilliard is Founder of Mentor Europe, execution specialists in strategic program execution. David’s article first appeared on Telco Titans on August 11th 2023.