PAC worries over ESN’s timetable, testing and future procurement competition
Parliamentary watchdog wants Home Office to reassess business case timescales, update milestones for delivery and work with the emergency services to update transition plans to ensure agreement on their deliverability
The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) examining the government’s plan to upgrade emergency services communications through the Emergency Services Network (ESN) has said it looks as if the current target date for delivering the project won’t be met.
In a report, "Upgrading emergency service communications", published today, the MPs described ESN as “an ambitious programme……using technology that is still being developed, to a challenging timetable set by the department.”
The PAC 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.
The PAC 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.
“Despite the prospect of delay the Department has not budgeted for an extended transition period or put in place detailed contingency arrangements to manage this risk. The Department did not manage to maintain competitive pressure in letting either of the two main ESN contracts and when these contracts are re-competed, the incumbent suppliers will be in a very strong position.”
The PAC’s report pointed out that ESN should save money by sharing an existing commercial 4G mobile data network instead of building a dedicated public service network. It should also provide emergency services with better mobile data capabilities. The current plan is that all emergency services transition to ESN by the end of December 2019. By then £1.9bn will have been spent developing ESN and a further £1.4bn on running down the existing Airwave radio system. The estimated cost once ESN is fully operational is a further £2.6bn between 2020 and 2032.
In its conclusions and recommendations, the PAC warned that it seems unlikely that the ambitious target date for delivering ESN will be met and any further compression of the timetable “will increase the risk to successful delivery of this critical programme. The National Audit Office estimated that the programme was between five and ten months behind target and representatives of the 105 police, fire and ambulance services in Great Britain (the emergency services) are less than 50% confident that the Emergency Services Network will be delivered on time.”
It added, “The Home Office confirmed to us that some slippage would occur. The time pressure is compounded by the need to provide emergency services with sufficient assurance that ESN is at least as good as Airwave. However, the time available for the region by region transition to the new system has been cut from 30 to 27 months, leaving many regions with little time for contingency and parallel running of ESN with Airwave, with the South West region, the worst placed, having no time for either.”
It recommended that the Home Office should reassess the business case timescales, update milestones for delivery and work with the emergency services to update transition plans so all parties agree they are deliverable. It added that it must take responsibility for convincing services to switch to ESN but also be clear at what point it will mandate the switchover. It asked the Home Office to report back on progress by September 2017. It also recommended the Home Office should budget for the cost of an extended timeframe and put in place arrangements for Airwave contract extensions as required.
In a further conclusion it warned that good communications can make the difference between life and death for both emergency services personnel and the public but the technology ESN will rely on is not yet proven.
It said, “The ESN system is intended to save money by avoiding the capital costs of building a dedicated network by running on EE’s existing commercial 4G mobile data network. But only one other country in the world, South Korea, has attempted to do this and its approach is less risky than that proposed here as dedicated mobile spectrum is available to the emergency services.
“In Great Britain, new technology to prioritise the emergency services over commercial users needs to be developed. In addition, devices with the required robustness, voice and dual-mode capabilities are being developed, while work is ongoing to expand coverage of the EE network in remote areas and the London Underground. The Department told us that it expected an announcement on the London Underground in the next couple of months but it is not clear whether this will include plans for other underground systems in the UK, such as Glasgow.
“Currently national coverage is at 74% but EE is confident that it would reach the 97% target (equivalent to the existing coverage provided by Airwave) by September 2017 and that technical options exist to close gaps in remote areas, such as the use of portable masts.”
Discussing procurement, the PAC said the Home Office did not manage to maintain competitive pressure in letting either of the two main ESN contracts. It suggested that the Home Office should review its tender arrangements to ensure it does not rule out potential bidders too quickly, to avoid future single supplier situations.
Responding to the PAC’s report, a Home Office spokesperson said: "The new Emergency Services Network will give the dedicated professionals who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives the most advanced communications system of its kind.
“Police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews will be able to do their work more effectively with ESN and the new system will deliver significant savings for the taxpayer.
“The timescales are ambitious because we want to get the most from technology that will help save lives, but we are clear that no risks will be taken with public safety and the existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to ESN is completed.”
It is understood that the emergency services will decide when ESN meets the requirements they have set, following stringent testing, with the testing of the whole network transition process from Airwave to ESN not due to commence until Spring 2018. It is also understood that the earliest emergency services organisations will transition onto ESN will be in mid-2018.
The Home Office is believed to be working with its core suppliers, Motorola and EE, to determine the best approach to testing and finalise a new transition timetable. The government is also understood to be working with Transport for London (TfL) on an implementation plan for ESN onto the London Underground.
Home Office sources said the government has “robust contingency plans” in place and has extended all Airwave contracts to December 31 2019. The department said it regularly reviews its contingency plans and cost estimates in light of the programme, including continuing the use of the existing system if required.