PAC weighs in on threat to emergency services, ESN transition now expected to conclude in September 2020
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

The Public Accounts Committee has published a report warning that Vodafone’s plan to retire the Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) service that the Airwave TETRA network requires to function in March 2020, “"strikes a major, potentially catastrophic blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe", given that the UK’s emergency services are now not expected to complete their transition on the Emergency Services Network (ESN) until September 2020. However, the tone of the report strongly contrasts with recent comments made by Steve Whatson, the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme’s (ESMCP) deputy director.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: "The potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable. Government needs to tackle this now or the result will be quite simply a tragedy in waiting.

“Addressing this and other serious concerns about ESN raised by our Committee today and in January are significant challenges for the new management at the Home Office."

The Home Office told the PAC in February that it was due to meet with Motorola Solutions and Vodafone to discuss options, that it was confident the issue would be resolved and that Motorola Solutions remained contractually obliged to supply Airwave for a fixed price.

While speaking to Land Mobile at the BAPCO Show at Telford in late March, Whatson (pictured below) said that this meeting had taken place. “…We’ve met with Vodafone and Motorola [Solutions]. They’ve proposed a number of options to resolve the problem and we’re just now waiting for them to come back with the details and then we can make a decision of which one we go with. I think as a risk or issue, it’s sliding rapidly down, because we’ll have a solution… Technically there are quite [a few] options, it’s just finding the right technical [and] economic option, given that… we want it to run for a little bit longer but we don’t want 10 years out of it….”

“…I’m still absolutely baffled as to why the PAC thought it worth holding a complete recall hearing over that. You could look through the programme given the size of it and you’d find loads of issues. Every month we could go back for another little chat with them. I don’t know why that one triggered so much interest…"

Whatson also highlighted the fact that Vodafone is heavily involved in the programme. It won a five-year contract valued at £15.2 million to be the direct network service provider that will deliver Public Services Network (PSN) infrastructure to link all three emergency services’ control rooms to the central ESN system.

In response to the PAC report, Brandon Lewis, Minister for Policing and the Fire Service said: “We are clear that we won't take any risks with public safety and there will be no gap in the emergency services’ communications provision. The existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to the Emergency Services Network (ESN) is completed.

“Keeping people safe is our priority which is why we are delivering the world-leading ESN to support our police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives".

In a statement, Motorola Solutions said: “We are committed to a smooth transition of the emergency services from Airwave to the Emergency Services Network (ESN). Airwave is not being switched off early. We identified the need to upgrade the legacy core transmission network provided by Vodafone to ensure that Airwave can continue beyond its original operational end-date of March 2020. We are working with the Home Office and Vodafone to identify viable technical options to extend the service and will be proposing our recommendation in June 2017 to the Home Office. None of this impacts our Lot 2 delivery of the ESN for which we are on track.”

The PAC has said that the “little slippage” in delivering the ESN programme that the Home Office told it about has become a delay of nine months, with the transition period for ESN now running to September 2020. Motorola Solutions will need to know by the end of 2018, which regions will need the Airwave service after the end of 2019 and the Home Office will have to identify these “just six months into the 27-month transition period. The Home Office told the PAC that it is still firming up its transition plans, but expects these to be complete long before the end of 2018.

The PAC also notes that under the current transition timetable, London’s emergency services will start to transition to ESN in November 2017, but the business case for extending ESN coverage to the London Underground will not be complete until June or July, “which would mean going from business case to roll-out in just six months.” However, the Home Office has said that there is now more flexibility to change transition timetables and that it will discuss the optimum time to transition with the Metropolitan Police Service.

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