Transition from Airwave to ESN Likely Won’t Happen Until 2026, U.K. Official Says
Friday, June 18, 2021 | Comments
A U.K. Home Office official said that the next-generation Emergency Services Network will likely not be delivered until 2026 during a hearing before the U.K. Public Accounts Committee. The Home Office had previously said the transition would likely happen in 2025.

Because of that delay, the Airwave network, which currently provides critical radio communications for U.K. emergency services, will continue to operate until at least 2026, said Matthew Rycroft, Home Office permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft. In May, Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown said that the company expected that the U.K. government would extend its contract for Airwave services.

Rycroft initially communicated the delay to the Public Accounts Committee through a letter prior to the hearing.

“Of course, we want to ensure that we are not paying for both the current Airwave system and the future system for a day longer than necessary, so we are determined to implement this as fast as we can,” Rycroft said. “However, we have also learned that if we seek to do that without the users — the emergency services themselves — being involved in the program, that is a false economy … The timeline that I set out in that letter is significantly longer and slower than before, but it is one that we can have much more confidence in sticking to because for the first time, we have a timetable that the users can see is the right one.”

Accounts Committee Chair Meg Hillier challenged Rycroft on that point, noting that users had expressed concerns about the project in the past because of the previous delays.

“Except that one of the reasons that the users began to be less enamored of the project is that, as it got delayed, they didn’t trust it to deliver,” she said. “… You are parading it as a success, but isn’t it a sign of previous failures that people on the ground — the police, ambulances, firefighters and so on — were not included properly in discussions then about the practical realities?”

Rycroft said that he thinks the program is now working well with user groups and keeping them involved in the process.

“From where we are now, the right thing to do is to have the users on the inside, working with us collaboratively,” he said. “They are encouraging us to get on with this, and that is what we want to do as well as. We are already delivering parts of this program; 70% of it has already been delivered, and the masts are already going up.”

Rycroft said that it is important to keep the ESN moving along as the Airwave technology will likely be obsolete by 2030.

Hillier questioned Rycroft on how the Home Office knows that it is on the correct path with the ESN project following so many delays and other issues.

“Because we have taken time with this one [the timeline] to do a full business case with the future users and suppliers to have some very robust conversations with users and suppliers and to come up with a plan that everyone can see is the right one,” Rycroft said. “There will be further bumps in the road, inevitably — it is a complex program — but there is contingency built into that timetable, which we are determined to meet.”

Charu Gorasia, director general, capabilities and resources for the Home Office, said that with the new projected timeline, the whole life cost of the program is now expected to be 11.2 billion pounds. That is about an increase of 1.2 billion pounds from the last time the Home Office offered a number, she said.

“That reminds us that, before COVID, that was a lot of money,” Hillier said. “In comparison with COVID, it seems to pale, but it is significant. We have heard that users are on board. How of that cost will they have to pay?”

Gorasia said that the Home Office is working with the emergency services and assessing their costs for the program.

“If there are significant additional costs, we would like to make sure that we are covering all of those,” she said. “At the moment, we have not heard that there are significant additional costs that the three emergency services will incur. As they come to us and give us new estimates, we are very happy to review them as part of finalizing the full business case.”

The Public Accounts Committee also asked the Home Office to address Motorola’s role as both the provider of the Airwave network and a provider for the ESN.

“Motorola has got a foot in both camps and is doing rather well out of this delay,” she said. “How much money will Motorola make as a result of the delay to 2026?”

Gorasia said she did not know exact figures for Motorola, but said that the Home Office is paying 450 million pounds per year. Operating the ESN will cost the country about 250 million pounds per year, she said.

“If I can jump in in relation to Motorola, that is a conversation that I have had with the chief executive of Motorola and that others on the team have with others in Motorola very regularly,” Rycroft said. “We need to ensure that they are putting their very best people on to this program to ensure that no one could make the allegation that you have hinted at, which is that they are seeking to go slower than they might because they are making money out of the delay. It is really important they demonstrate that that is not the case.”

Gorasia said that as deadline have passed without completion, the Home Office has begun taking steps to make sure things move along on schedule. For example, the Home Office introduced stage gate approvals for the vendors on the project where funding for the next lot is only released if they meet certain milestones.

“It is a new process that I instigated about seven months ago when I saw that the milestones in some of the major programs had started slipping,” she said. “Now even if we get the full settlement in the spending round for the entire program, which we normally don’t on annual settlements at the moment, I don’t release the funding until every milestone along the way is met.”

In terms of the final business case, Gorasia said that it has gone through internal governance within the Home Office, and will now go through a major projects review group (MPRG) in July. Once that process is complete, the business case will be set in stone, she said.

Rycroft noted that there is still a lot of work remaining on the project but expressed hope that it was on the right path.

“Again, I would not want to pretend that we are nearly there,” he said. “We are not. That is why my letter was very clear that this will go on until the end of 2026. But, we are making progress, and we will keep you updated with significant milestones.”

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