New Audit Report Questions ESN Timeline, Projected Costs
Wednesday, May 15, 2019 | Comments

The delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) is likely to become operational even later than expected, and the U.K. government’s already increased forecast costs are highly uncertain, according to a report by the U.K. National Audit Office (NAO).

ESN is intended to replace Airwave, the TETRA system used by emergency services in Great Britain to communicate. In 2017, the Home Office realized that it could not deliver ESN in the way it intended and decided to “reset” the program.

“To date, the Home Office’s management of this critical program has led to delays, increased costs and poor value for taxpayers,” an NAO statement said.

The Home Office now forecasts that ESN will cost £9.3 billion (US$12 billion), £3.1 billion (US$4 billion) or 49% more than initially planned. £1.4 billion (US$1.8 billion) of this is being spent on extending Airwave. The new plan is for Airwave to be switched off in December 2022, three years later than its original date of 2019. The NAO believes that these costs are highly uncertain, and that ESN is unlikely to be ready by 2022.

Parts of the program have progressed since the NAO last reported in 2016. EE upgraded its network to enable priority emergency calls to be made by emergency services and has extended its coverage to reach 98% of the population of England, Wales and Scotland.

The NAO recognized that the Home Office’s reset addressed some of the program’s issues, introducing a staged approach to the rollout, replacing a key piece of technology, strengthening its management teams and processes, and re-negotiating contracts. However, serious risks remain, which the Home Office has yet to resolve.

The required technology to allow emergency services to communicate effectively using ESN is not yet ready. For example, aircraft are unable to receive the signal needed to communicate with those on the ground, and devices are unable to communicate directly with one another without a network signal, called direct mode. Emergency services also need to be able to make near-instant calls at the push of a button. This technology is still in development and will not meet user requirements until at least 2020, NAO said.

“The different elements of technology also need to be integrated to work effectively together, but the Home Office is yet to come up with a detailed plan of how this will be achieved,” the statement said.

The successful delivery of ESN is reliant on emergency services being satisfied it is a suitable replacement for Airwave. The Home Office has said emergency services will not have to use ESN until it is “as good in all respects” as Airwave. However, emergency services are concerned that the coverage and resilience of ESN may not match Airwave.

NAO said the Home Office has not demonstrated that it understands the challenges emergency services face in introducing ESN, such as incurring extra costs by having to switch. Emergency services do not yet know how much money they will need to invest in infrastructure to improve the coverage or to make control rooms compatible, which could place further financial pressure on other services they provide, NAO said.

There are also a number of commercial risks to ESN. The Home Office is renegotiating the program’s main contracts with Motorola Solutions and EE, but these are behind schedule.

“Motorola needs to be carefully managed, as it is both a main supplier to ESN and the owner of Airwave,” said NAO. “It could therefore benefit financially from further delays if Airwave is extended. The Home Office is also yet to agree who will be responsible for running the ESN service once it is launched.”

The Home Office does not have the capability it needs to integrate and test ESN, which comprises multiple pieces of technology that must be made to work together. The Home Office is planning to let a new contract to provide program advisory and delivery services in 2019.

The Home Office expects ESN to be cheaper than Airwave in the long run, but the savings will not outweigh the costs until at least 2029. This is already seven years later than originally intended. The Home Office believes that ESN will bring £1.5 billion (US$1.9 billion) in financial and economic benefits by 2037. The largest economic benefit — £643 million (US$827.7 million) — is associated with increases in police productivity. Police representatives told the NAO they do not agree with the Home Office figures.

The NAO recommended that the Home Office test its overall program plan to determine whether the new schedule for launching ESN and shutting down Airwave is achievable. The Home Office should also develop a contingency plan that sets out what it will do if the technology that it is relying on does not work.

“The success of the Emergency Services Network is critical to the day-to-day operations of our emergency services that keep us all safe,” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO. “The Home Office needs a comprehensive plan with a realistic timetable that properly considers risks and uncertainties. It has already been through one costly reset and is in danger of needing another unless it gets its house in order.”

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