ESN: Challenges have led to anticipated delay
Written by: Land Mobile | Published:

Representatives from the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) have delivered its latest ESN progress update to the UK parliamentary Public Accounts Committee.

Home Office permanent secretary Philip Rutnam (pictured), and Stephen Webb, senior responsible owner ESMCP, answered questions on a range of topics including device procurement and revised costings in the light of the deployment’s shifting timescale. It is the third such parliamentary session since the ESN core contracts were awarded in 2015.

Proceedings began with Rutnam discussing the Home Office’s ongoing inability to give a start date for transition to the new network following the previous indication of a likely delay. This is something, he said, which would become clearer by the end of the programme’s current review of the project, but he anticipated it would be longer than the originally estimated nine months.

Giving the reasons for this, Rutnam said: “As time has gone on, we’ve learnt more about the challenges of the software design, and the relationship with our suppliers has evolved. We’ve [therefore] come to see the need for a new approach to schedule and cost.”

Responding to a subsequent question around who was to blame for the change of timescale, he continued by saying that the important thing now was to move forward in a constructive spirit while still taking a “robust” approach when it comes to the responsibilities of suppliers.

Moving on to the cost of any delay – and therefore extension to the use of Airwave – Rutnam said that the majority would be borne by the Home Office as the lead client. Any additional investment in the TETRA network prior to ESN transition meanwhile, will fall to the supplier itself, something which has already been reflected in the original capital outlay prior to deployment more than ten years ago.

Asked about the possible need to update legacy handsets prior to ESN finally being rolled out, Rutnam stated that individual emergency services would have to provide the money for this themselves. He said: “It is part of their costs of doing business. If we weren’t [moving to broadband] they’d need to bear the cost of Airwave for the indefinite future. The programme will ultimately provide big gains in functionality, and significant savings.”

Speaking about ESN devices, the programme said that the procurement contracts should be awarded “in a couple of weeks”, after which costings will become clearer.

The most recent appearance by ESMCP in front of the Public Accounts Committee took place in April, in part prompted by news that Airwave supplier Vodafone was planning to retire its time division multiplexing (TDM) service in March 2020. At the time, transition to ESN was expected to finish around September of that year, leaving a potentially catastrophic six-month period without a UK-wide emergency services communication system.

Asked about how the promised meetings with Vodafone on this issue had gone, Webb said that both technical and commercial discussions were progressing well. The witnesses continued by voicing the expectation for Motorola and Vodafone to resolve the issue themselves, and stating that a solution had already been arranged involving IP (internet protocol). “In technical terms,” said Webb, “I’m very confident that Airwave can be extended nationwide for as long as we need it.”

Moving on to practical issues around the use of the network itself, the committee then asked if ESMCP could guarantee that it would provide the requisite service in ‘difficult’ environments. Giving the example of coverage in “surge situations” such as terrorist incidents, Rutnam stated that tests had already been carried out “with very satisfactory results”.

Webb elaborated on this by stating that he would also be confident if greater capacity were ever required across multiple sites simultaneously. This optimism, he said, is due to the relatively small number of emergency services personnel making use of what is, in essence, a massive commercial broadband network.

ESMCP is scheduled to appear before the Public Accounts Committee again in January next year, following the completion of the aforementioned project review. It is anticipated that the revised date for the start of transition will be announced before the end of this year.

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