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Ten questions for the PAC to get answers on for ESN

David Bicknell Published 13 November 2017

The Public Accounts Committee will this afternoon grill senior Home Office officials about progress on the Emergency Service Network. What are the key questions it should ask?


This afternoon, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) will conduct its latest investigation into the Home Office’s Emergency Services Network (ESN), a technical ambitious project to institute a new communication system for blue-light services.

The PAN plans to grill Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam and Stephen Webb, the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) for the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) on how the project is progressing.

ESN, a voice and broadband date service based on enhancing a 4G LTE network with around 19000 sites will eventually take over from the Airwave private network which has around 3800 sites. ESN is intended to deliver integrated critical voice and data with network priority for the emergency services. It is intended to match Airwave’s nationwide coverage and improve public safety with enhanced functionality.

But the project is running significantly behind schedule, at least nine months, at the last count. Geographic rollout was scheduled to begin in the North-West this autumn, but the date has been put back until the middle of 2018.

A critical PAC report published in April this year concluded that:

  • The government has not put in place contingency plans for delay

In the report, the committee warned that a plan to take part of the existing communications system out of service early "strikes a major, potentially catastrophic blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe".

The committee concluded in a report on the programme in January that it was unlikely the original December 2019 target date for delivering ESN would be met and that the Home Office needed to reassess its timescales.

It also concluded the department had not budgeted for delays, nor put in place detailed contingency plans to manage them.

  • Extending Airwave contracts for nine months might not be possible

The PAC suggested that extending the Airwave contracts, the Home Office’s ‘sole mitigation’ against delay in putting the new system in place, might not be possible.

In January, it said, Motorola informed the committee that Vodafone, a key supplier to Airwave, will from March 2020 stop providing an important piece of infrastructure that Airwave requires to function, essentially turning it off.

This raised the possibility, the PAC suggested, that the emergency services may not be able to communicate with each other after March 2020 until transition to ESN is complete in September 2020.

  • "Significant and imminent risk" of providing underground coverage

Among its other conclusions the Committee highlighted the "significant and imminent risk" to the ESN programme of providing emergency communications underground.

It called on Transport for London and the Home Office to work together urgently to ensure there will be effective network coverage to enable this.

The warning over Underground was supplemented by a recent meeting between the Greater London Authority Oversight Committee (GLA), the Home Office and London’s emergency services to discuss ESN. Representatives included the Home Office, Transport for London (TfL), the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, the Metropolitan Police Service, the London Fire Brigade, the London Ambulance Service, the Ambulance Radio Programme, and the British Transport Police.

In its subsequent letter to Sadiq Khan, the GLA Oversight Committee pointed to National Audit Office (NAO) figures suggesting a 12 month nationwide delay in the time taken to transition from Airwave to ESN will cost £475m, around approximately £1.3m each day.

In its letter, the committee recommended that the Mayor monitors progress of the ESN at a national level, to ensure that the current delays do not put the safety of Londoners at risk, and that a suitable solution for London is developed.

The letter stressed, “It is essential that the ESN is not a step backwards in communications technology. In theory, the ESN should allow the emergency services to use their radios above and below ground, but this is contingent on 4G being extended across the London Underground, including the tunnels. Several commentators have looked at this issue. The Public Accounts Committee flagged it as a “significant and imminent risk”.

“And in our meeting, the committee heard that the ESN is a “very complicated programme, as you would imagine. The reason we have not had 4G in tunnels is a good one. It has always been technically challenging and this project is technically challenging as a result.”

The letter continued, “Providing further detail, TfL’s chief technology officer told us: Our aim is to try to get the stations ready by January 2019 and as much of it done as possible by January 2019, with the aim to complete the rest of the tunnels in the months after that. I have to be honest and say that that is a very challenging timescale… If I were to reword your question and say, ‘Are we absolutely confident that all of this can be done for January 2019?’ the answer is no, we are not confident that this can be done for January 2019.”

The PAC report called on the Home Office to "urgently engage" with Motorola and Vodafone on the options for resolving the Airwave issue and to provide it with regular updates on progress and estimates of any additional costs to the taxpayer, which today’s hearing seems to be about.

So what are the questions that the PAC needs to get answers to?

How late is the project?

The most recent estimates suggest that the last official recognition of delays at around nine months.  But that is likely to have slipped. So how late is the project now?

What is the new timeline for ESN?

The Home Office has hinted at providing a new timeline for ESN rollout. But hasn’t specifically said it would provide one. The Home Office has indicated that it will give an update on progress towards creating ESN at the end of the year.

But it has shied away from publicly promising a new timeline for the project. Why the secrecy? When will a new timetable be published?

What steps are being taken to bring the project back on track?

Government Computing has heard a rumour that the Home Office is taking several steps to bring the project back on track. This may involve the hiring of new resources to cut the delays, or at least stop the project falling further behind schedule. What steps are being taken?

What is the latest figure on 4G coverage?

The last NAO report last September suggested that EE’s existing 4G network needs to be increased to match Airwave’s coverage. It said EE is currently increasing the coverage of its 4G network to meet contractual and wider operating requirements. The NAO said on a comparable basis the coverage of EE’s network was 70% in July 2016 whereas Airwave’s was measured

at 97% in December 2015. So what is EE’s level of coverage now?

If certain geographic areas are forced to use a combination of Airwave & ESN, what will the cost implications be?

What contingency plans are being put in place from a contractual point of view re Airwave?

This goes to the heart of the PAC and NAO’s concerns over the fallback position on ESN. It is unthinkable that commercial, contractual backstops are not being put in place to cover for ESN delays.

What steps are being taken to ensure standards are being introduced, tested and then implemented in relation to ESN and what impact will this have on choice of suppliers and costs?

LTE Mission Critical (MC) Standards are being progressed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) as quickly as they can. However, suppliers say, this will take time. The initial basic standards for MCPTT were introduced in Release 13 – these involved introducing basic features into LTE that are essential for emergency services, Push-To-Talk functionality, Group Calls & PRoSE (Direct coms between subscribers with no network).

However more advanced standards are still being discussed and are promised in Release 14 (late 2017) and Release 15 in 2018 (to include MCDATA & MCVIDEO).

But even once standards are ratified, suppliers say, there is a delay before manufacturers can develop, test and release products to meet those standards. So the problem for ESN is that it will need solutions before these standards are available. Some suppliers suggest that there are already signs that project is accepting vendor specific functionality which, they fear, will inevitably lead to ESN being proprietary, limiting equipment sourcing options and potentially being expensive to acquire and support.

The original philosophy for ESN was to reduce costs. However with the initial release ruggedized devices for MC Users looking to be expensive, with limited choice due to functionality options and potential high support costs – and even the possibility of them needing to run both Airwave & ESN simultaneously – there is a real danger that costs in the medium term will be extremely high.

Some vendors believe LTE will only be “Mission Critical Ready” in four to five years’ time, which is too late for ESN. One supplier said there was “deep concern” that the Home Office will have no alternative but to either compromise on public safety communications or throw money at the problem in the short term to overcome some major functionality shortfalls.

What is the progress towards getting 4G coverage on the London Underground?

When TfL’s chief technology officer has said, ‘Are we absolutely confident that all of this can be done for January 2019?’ the answer is no, we are not confident that this can be done for January 2019,” where does that leave the timescale for ESN rollout on the Underground in London?

What steps are being taken to keep forces up to date on ESN plans?

Police forces and blue light services have budgeted for ESN rollout. You can see references to ESN in a string of budgetary figures in police force contract registers. But conversations with forces in recent months have raised questions of whether they are being kept fully up-to-date on potential changes to geographic rollout timetables.

One supplier asked, “Can they guarantee that the UK Emergency Services will not lose any of their existing functionality during transition, or after switch-over from Airwave to ESN? If there is any functionality loss, can ESN confirm details and impact on users as the user should be aware early in advance of switch-over?

What lessons have been learned from the Grenfell disaster in terms of communications priority for the emergency services, when clearly the public also have to be able to make communications to families?

Reports of the Grenfell fire tragedy have raised instances of communications problems for the emergency services in the tower, presumably even using the tried and tested Airwave system. So if there are problems in extreme circumstances with the existing system, how will those issues be solved in rolling out a new system that will necessarily be untried and untested in such extreme ‘live’ conditions?

The emergency services are supposed to have priority of 4G services during emergency situations. But as the Grenfell fire showed, the public - and in this case, the residents – also need to be able to make calls (In the case of Grenfell, it was necessary calls to their families). What safeguards are being put in place to ensure that members of the public as well the emergency services, will also be able to make calls? Will that only be by using 2G or 3G services?

In short, what are the lessons from Grenfell for ESN?

What steps are being taken by the PAC to ensure that emergency services’ safety is an overriding factor in ESN – and not just the budget?

On her website, in a post on ESN , Meg Hillier in a note to Home Secretary Amber Rudd, said, “Under the original plans, the Home Office was clear that it would not mandate regions to join the system but that they would only do so when they were satisfied that it would work effectively locally. Are you now considering mandating regions to sign up?”

As ESN falls behind schedule, is there a risk of emergency services personnel’s safety coming secondary to the cost to the public purse of a failing ESN project, with the temptation to cut corners on safety and issue police force and emergency services usage mandates to get the project out?



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