Emergency Services Network under spotlight again

The National Audit Office has published a new report looking at progress with delivering the Emergency Services Network (ESN). It finds that despite the programme to deliver the new emergency services network to replace Airwave costing £2bn so far, the Home Office still does not know when ESN will be ready or what it will cost. NAO boss, Gareth Davies, says this is ‘extremely worrying’.

The Airwave network allows police, fire and ambulance services from across England, Scotland and Wales to communicate between the field and control rooms. The Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) was established to oversee the replacement of the Airwave network and provide a modern mobile data network.

In June 2021, the Home Office estimated the total ESMCP lifetime spend to be £11bn, including the cost of running ESN and Airwave until replaced by ESN. The Home Office is updating its forecast which will increase.

The NAO published its first report into ESMCP in 2016 and found it to be high risk in terms of its commercial approach, ambitious technology and timetable as well as uncertainty about user acceptance. Motorola purchased Airwave in February 2016 and this created ‘commercial risks given Motorola’s role in ESN.’ A further NAO report in 2019 ‘reiterated that the Home Office should carefully manage the risk associated with Motorola’s dual roles.’

Having spent £2.9bn to maintain Airwave since 2015 and agreed that Motorola will no longer be involved with ESN from the end of this year, the Home Office is yet to award a contract to replace the company’s role in the programme. In October 2022, the Competition and Markets Authority published a provisional report which included placing financial ‘charge control’ on the revenue that Motorola could earn from Airwave over the next six years. The final report on this from the regulator will be published next month.

The NAO report says that the Home Office has taken some tough decisions. “These affect the programme’s risks and uncertainties, but the Home Office cannot yet be certain of the impact of its actions. It now has more confidence in the programme leadership, which has improved the programme’s relationship with users that is critical to ESN being accepted. However, ongoing uncertainty risks putting this new-found confidence at risk.”

To avoid this ongoing uncertainty, the report cautions the Home Office to avoid repeating past mistakes about unrealistic timeframes and ‘make sure that it has taken the time it needs to fix the problems and not waste money, or reset the programme again.’

The timetable for turning off Airwave has faced significant delays. In 2021, the Home Office extended it for a further five years and the NAO report confirms that the end date for Airwave will now be even later than 2026.


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