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PAC told ESN switchover date likely to slip further

Neil Merrett Published 17 November 2016

Service providers expect additional delay from need to ensure device link up with new network; government says it is comfortable with Home Office's "high risk" approach


Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has been told that the proposed timeline to introduce the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) is likely to slip further beyond its intended switchover target of late 2019 to allow for system testing and assurance of data devices.

ESN is the government’s chosen option to replace the existing Airwave service used by key responders.  The network is intended to serve as an interoperable communication service that will make use of the existing commercial 4G network to try and save costs as part of a service overhaul in the form of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) launched in 2011.

In a committee session focused on emergency services communications, PAC chair Meg Hillier heard a number of concerns from two prominent users of the technology that about ensuring the likelihood of the network being available on time as planned, as well as addressing technology issues.

“On a technology side, there is a big issue with getting [telecoms provider] EE’s coverage up from its current 70%, although they said it was 74% today, to 97% by next September, less than a year’s time,” she said. 

Other concerns were raised over ensuring that devices used by the emergency services were able to securely link with the network or can be replaced.

Speaking on behalf of potential users for the system, Jo-Beresford Robinson, area manager for ESCMP in the East Midlands, said that a need to set out clear specifications for the type of devices capable of supporting ESN was a key factor to the likelihood of delays in full switchover to the system.

Robinson said that there was a need for emergency service providers themselves to review the specifications of devices used to support ESN access.

“I think that’s why in our view as a user organisations this programme will have to slip to the right somewhat,” she said.

Peter Aykroyd, area manager of corporate services for Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service, noted that devices were already in use in the form of a mobile data terminal that updates key information to support fire-fighters on the frontline, as well as status messaging.

Moving forward, Aykroyd argued there was a need for assurance or clarity on whether existing data devices would be able to link up with network and meet security and testing requirements, or if there was a means to allow existing equipment to tether to some form of router.

“We still haven’t got the clarity around that,” he said.

The witnesses said it was not yet known if the existing equipment may have to be written off as part of the switchover.

Robinson said that users had been told that mobile data terminals will be able to tether to the ESN.

“I think one of the issues we have is, that because ESN is 4G, within the fire and rescue services they have 2G and 3G kit, so that would become obsolete. So therefore you do need capital within your programme to upgrade,” she added.

In the main, the witness argued that fire services were keeping up with latest technology, limiting the potential impact of replacing legacy devices.

Underground challenge

Hillier also raised concerns about a previous lack of ability for emergency services to be able to communicate in areas like the London Underground when dealing with emergencies such as the bomb attacks in London on July 7, 2005. This was one of the factors that led to the implementation of the Airwave communication service that will now be replaced as part of ESMCP.

She put the concerns to Simon Frumkin, managing director of the Emergency Services Network for telecoms provider EE. 

The company last year signed a contract with the Home Office to provide mobile services for a new emergency services network (ESN), based on its Long Term Evolution (LTE) network.

Simon Frumkin said that EE had been part of discussions currently being held between TfL and the Home Office in terms over potentially adopting LTE technology in the London Underground network.  However, these talks were continuing at present.

Hillier asked that with ESN rollout that is expected to commence in under two years, was there confidence that a sufficient replacement for Airwave could be in place within the timeline?

“As I said, the main discussions are between the Home Office and TfL, it may be best for them to comment, but I know they are looking at a number of different contingencies and options to make sure there is coverage one way or the other in the underground,” Frumkin said.

Frumkin clarified that from EE’s perspective, the company would need time to deploy LTE on the underground, or failing that, the Home Office would need to provide an alternative solution in collaboration with TfL.

The company was also questioned on the likelihood of service outages at points of high usage.

Frumkin responded that EE was working to upgrade its network on a constant basis, particularly with regard to handling increased levels of data usage.

“Obviously data use is increasing exponentially, so we’re always in the process of putting more capacity into our network,” he said.

Asked to clarify if the company ever had outages in its service, Frumkin accepted this was sometimes the case, although EE was claimed to take a “targeted approach “to tackling demand hotspots and sites that faced service congestion from demand.

However, in the case of specific service congestion during periods of emergencies that may arise, he claimed that the company’s service would dynamically allow the spectrum and bandwidth to solely be used by emergency service users to reduce risk of degradation during an incident or situation.

This switchover would be handled via an automated system, according to the company representative. 

Parallel running

Vincent Kennedy, vice president and general manager of Motorola Solutions UK, which reached an agreement late last year to acquire Airwave’s operations to support its role as the provider of systems integration and public safety functionality for ESN, also spoke during the session.

Asked by the PAC if the 2019 target cut off date to replace the existing Airwave service provided enough time for service providers to adjust, Kennedy said the company’s interest in acquiring the network provider had been to control migration from the technology “more safely”.

He said this would allow Motorola to keep both systems running in parallel until ESN could safely replace existing services fully.

“Today, you can’t talk between the EE network and Airwave. We’re having to build a bridge and actually talk across because parallel running is no good if you can’t talk to the people onboard.  If you’re on one network and they are on another,” Kennedy said.

“We’re doing that and if necessary, the way the regional migration happens is in a sequence.  There are 12 regions and they start [migration] in 2017.  One of the things that could happen is the last two regions, if there was an incident or something happened could end up going a month or two into 2020.”

Kennedy argued that the company was required, in parallel to maintaining services, to design and be ready to take on management of the ESN network in 2020 with contracts set to expire together in 2019.

“So one of the commitments we gave was, if needed, in an emergency we would keep the last region going until they are on the EE network.  You have to do this as there cannot be no network in operation,” he added.

The company said it had agreed a fixed price range on a per region, per month basis, to continue to use Airwave with the Home Office expected to cover any additional coverage of the Airwave service up into 2020 if required.

PAC member MP Kevin Foster noted that the South West region did not have a contingency or parallel running period as part of the migration switchover like other areas, and asked Kennedy how successful this approach would be.

Kennedy responded that the question would be a good issue to put to Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill who was also present later during the same PAC session.

However, as representative for EE, Simon Frumkin, argued that from the perspective of coverage, the region would get the same quality service as elsewhere in the UK.

“The south west, like the rest of the country is a region we feel on track to deliver,” he said.

Home Office leadership

The session also took in the views of senior leadership figures working around the programme, including the ESN programme’s senior responsible officer Stephen Webb, who was praised by the commission for staying in the role for the lifetime of the project.

“We are pleased Mr Webb that you have been SRO for this programme, pretty much from the beginning, which is almost unique in this history of the civil service,” said Hillier.

Beyond the praise, the committee asked Webb about his confidence that ESN was on track.

He responded that based on ongoing work with suppliers supporting ESN through the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), the planned delivery of the programme would not be far off the original ambitious timescale.

“We’re currently working on some revised plans for the timescale, but I think overall, i’m very confident we will get it in very close to the timescale we previously agreed in the final business case,” Webb said.  “There will be a little slippage, I accept that.”

Webb added that there was also acceptance of certain conclusions of a critical NAO report into ESN earlier this year that said ESN represented an ambitious timescale, but claimed that there were sufficient contingencies to ensure service continuation via Airwave.

“Because we have that contingency to allow us to buy as much extension as we need, we’re going as fast as we can and if it slips we know how much it will cost,” he said. “But we want to minimise that as much as possible, partly for the savings but also the operational benefits this system promises.”

Asked to clarify key risks facing the programme, Webb stressed the main issues were logistic, rather than technical challenges. He pointed to the need for bringing together a number of separate deliverable plans within the scope of ESMCP that could individually cause wider delay. 

On the issue of coverage, Webb argued that the overwhelming majority of services delivered through ESN would come from upgrading masts that were already in place. 

“It’s fundamentally different from the original Airwave system where they had to build from scratch,” he said.  “Here, we’ll get to 93% geographical coverage with upgrading the series of mast we already have, whether it’s the ones on the EE network or some of Airwave as well in very remote areas. 

“Although there is a lot of work to be done on some of those existing masts, they are really to bridge a small gap at the end to meet that target of coverage.”

In considering the logistical challenges of the programme, Webb argued that despite significant work, the Home Office's ambitions for the programme were seen as deliverable, depending on ensuring the timing and order of work was correct.

The PAC also asked about the decision within the ESCMP tender to move on from using Airwave to a new solution. Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill said that the system was contracted and paid to be used up to 2020 and would therefore require a fresh procurement process beyond this point.

“If you look at emergency services generally, interoperable data is becoming absolutely central to the way they are going to need to operate over the next 5 to ten years,” he said. 

“We want them to be away from the base station more often and to have data as they are going to respond to a crisis.”

ESN was devised to allow for the capability for data and other information to be more freely available to individuals out on assignment.

Sedwill was also asked about the Home Office’s preference for choosing an interoperable solution, rather than creating individual networks for sharing data and voice communication separately.

Although accepting the NAO’s view that ESMCP was a “high risk programme”, he said that the separate network option had been considered as part of plans to overhaul communication between emergency services.

“Other countries have gone for an entirely separate ESN model based on 4G tablet technology that is separate from the commercial networks, but that would have required quite a lot of building from scratch of the kind we had before.  It would have been a lot more expensive and there would have been other risks associated with that,” he said.”

ESMCP was seen as the right solution based on the Home Office’s review of the cost, capability and risk, according to Sedwill.

With the PAC querying what it described as an increasingly aggressive timetable for testing and implementation, the permanent secretary said that the key programme risks from his perspective were perceived as cost related, rather than operational.

Sedwill argued that should further delays occur as anticipated, then Airwave would be used for a longer period as part of parallel operations plans.  This was expected to be at a less costly regional level, rather than country-wide.

As no settlement had been reached for ESMCP beyond 2020, which will post-date the current government’s tenure, it was not possible as yet to say what financial support may be available in the case of timeline slippages.

The PAC was also told during the session that a decision would be taken in mid-2018 as to what regions may need to extend their use of Airwave.

Government “comfortable” with ESN risks

From a management perspective, government technology officer Liam Maxwell was asked if the Home Office handling of ESN reflected existing contractual arrangements used by other departments in government and guidance on best policy for larger technology projects.

Citing similar work undertaken by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to shift from its outsourced single supplier Aspire contract to multiple providers, Maxwell said the aim for ESN was to try and ensure the best available technology for service providers.

“I think this is a good example of using the right components and the right specialists to deliver the right services.  I think putting it into one boat could very easily lead to issues,” he said.

Although the approach was not always a panacea to switch from large legacy programmes, Maxwell argued that the multiple supplier approach to ESN had been the most attractive option in regards to delivering core requirements.

“As we went through our review, and we were the challenging and support function, we were very comfortable with the way the Home Office approached this.  I have to say, we’re comfortable with the high level of risk this offers and comfortable with the high level of assurance which the Home Office has tried to place on this,” he said.

“I don’t think this is the case where people are complacent or think this is a done deal.”

Under questioning from Auditor General Sir Amyas Morse, the Home Office added that in terms of technical risks, the decision on whether to migrate on to ESN and close down Airwave would be dependent on whether serving emergency service chiefs believed the new system was at least as functional as the previous system.

 It maintained it was comfortable with the programme risks going forward.

Related articles:

PAC’s ESN probe likely to consider mobile operators’ access to network sites

Home Office revises ESN device procurement aims

Home Office insists ESN 2019 switchover on track

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