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PAC grills Home Office chiefs over ESN

David Bicknell Published 02 February 2017

Vodafone letter highlights how its plans to decommission legacy fixed network used to link Airwave masts once Emergency Services Network goes live may be impacted by delays on the project


Vodafone has explained the extent of its likely ongoing involvement in the Emergency Services Network (ESN) to be used by the emergency services starting in mid-2018, after the planned decommissioning of some its equipment was raised during a House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing yesterday.

The hearing discussed evidence from the Home Office’s permanent secretary Mark Sedwill and Stephen Webb, the senior responsible officer for the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme, Home Office about the ESN project.

It emerged that Sedwill had written to the PAC on January 27 to confirm information that the PAC had separately received  saying that, according to PAC chair Meg Hillier, “Vodafone will be switching off ‘Airwave’ from March 31 2020, which is a pretty critical issue for the programme that you’re responsible for.”

Airwave is the existing emergency services communications system which is due to be replaced by sharing an existing commercial 4G mobile data network instead of building a new, dedicated public service network.

Sedwill elaborated on the communication, telling Hillier, ”We were notified about this by Motorola on January 16, which is about the same time that they wrote to the committee. And we have been working over the last couple of weeks and we’ll work over the next few weeks to work out the exact implications…..we have a meeting over the next three weeks with Motorola and Vodafone to be able to work through all of those options and then determine how material an issue this is.

“This meeting is a meeting at which we would expect them to bring some propositions for us to address with them….we will need to investigate all the options for mitigating this, both technical options, financial options etc…in order to be able to work through all those options and be able to determine how material an issue this is.”

Discussing the communication with the Home Office and the committee, a Vodafone spokesperson said, “We informed Airwave that the legacy fixed network used to link their masts would be decommissioned once the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) went live. The decision is part of our major modernisation programme to move to a high-speed, high-capacity fixed network infrastructure. Unfortunately the replacement ESN project appears to be delayed under the new supplier. In the event that the Airwave service needs to continue beyond March 2020, we will work with Airwave to find an alternative solution.”

Vodafone’s statement referred to delays on the ESN project on which the committee is beginning to take a strong line, as evidenced by its recent report, which described ESN as “an ambitious programme……using technology that is still being developed, to a challenging timetable set by the department.”

The PAC said in its report that it looks as if the current target date for delivering the project won’t be met. It also suggested that emergency services will not use ESN until they are firmly convinced that it works, which may therefore require more testing and assurance work than the current December 2019 delivery date allows for. It also warned that incumbent suppliers in two of the main ESN contracts are likely to be in a prime commercial position when contracts are re-competed.

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