PAC’s ESN probe likely to consider mobile operators’ access to network sites
PAC investigation will follow on from recent critical NAO report that described ESN as “inherently high risk”
A Public Accounts Committee (PAC ) investigation into the Home Office’s planned Emergency Services Network (ESN) – a 4G-based replacement for the current Airwave contract – is likely to consider the claims of rival mobile operators to the Home Office’s contracted provider, BT-owned EE, that they should be given early details of where mobile masts are to be sited.
That would enable them to take advantage of access to sites, which as part of the new emergency services network, must be opened up to EE’s competitors to help increase mobile coverage in rural areas.
The competitors, such as O2 and Vodafone, believe they are at a disadvantage because they have not been given information about where the network’s masts will be built and what size they will be. They fear that if, for example, EE installs smaller mobile masts, this would limit the number of other networks that can install equipment. It is understood that O2 has written to Matt Hancock, the minister of state responsible for digital policy at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) about the issue.
The ESN system will benefit from state aid of up to £500m – which has been cleared by the European Commission - to link mobile communications to the network. Those parts of the network that have been publicly funded will see EE’s rivals become entitled to access them. But it is unclear how or when access will be granted.
The Home Office received state-aid clearance from the European Commission in December 2015 for the new ESN, and a key condition was access to the subsidised network on equal and non-discriminatory terms to other mobile network operators.
It is understood that the subsidised infrastructure amounts to roughly 500 sites, of which a majority will be in rural areas, with an emphasis on covering the major transport routes. That means initially roads, but also possibly rail too.
The sites are believed to fall into two categories: those that are going to be built by EE and those that are going to be built by the government and used by EE for the duration of the contract.
(There is believed to be a third, smaller, category of “special coverage” sites likely to be used to cover specific areas which are so-called ‘not-spots'. For example, railway tunnels, sidings and parts of the London Underground)
EE’s rivals’ main concern is that ESN sites will be subsidised with public money i.e. the state aid clearance for up to £500m obtained by the government for the programme, and are both being acquired and built for single occupancy by EE only. They believe the government should commit that these sites will be built for multi-occupancy in order to provide effective access to the subsidised network, as required by the conditions to the state aid approval.
The mobile operators are understood to believe that there is a need to establish a process now for how site sharing and optimisation will be achieved. The operators are likely to want EE and the Home Office to inform them where the sites will be built so they can identify which ones they are likely to seek access to and provide input on “technical requirements for multi-occupancy.”
Their concern is understood to be that any failure to plan for multi-occupancy would mean that sites have to be retro-fitted, at "considerable financial cost". It has been suggested that the difference between building for multi occupancy and “retrofitting” could be a five-fold increase in costs (instead of around £10,000 per site, it could be up to £50,000)
There are some fears that retro-fitting may not be possible. It is likely that planning permission for taller masts and agreement from landlords for multi occupancy will need to be agreed and “backhaul upgraded”, which cannot be guaranteed retrospectively. If retro-fitting is not possible, it has been suggested, then this could put the government in breach of ESN state aid approval.
There are also fears that achieving “near ubiquitous geographical coverage” will largely rely on the access arrangements for the publicly funded network. In future, it is understood, there could even be a detrimental impact to the success of innovations that will require universal coverage such as connected cars, and coverage on trains. Ultimately, it could impact the rollout of 5G for mobile operators other than EE.
A Home Office spokesperson said, “The priority for the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) must be rolling it out for the benefit of the emergency services.
“ESN will help keep people safe and provide the dedicated teams who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives with the most advanced communications system of its kind anywhere in the world. We are committed to rolling out ESN and completing transition to the new network as soon as possible, and when acceptable to the emergency services.”
It is understood that the Home Office is talking to others across government about how best to put in place arrangements for meeting state aid commitments on access for other mobile network operators to the subsidised parts of the ESN.