UK politicians warn of ‘catastrophic’ delay in emergency services network

Alan Burkitt-Gray
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Emergency services in UK may be left without a radio network for six months because of BT delays and Vodafone technology changes, warn MPs

A committee of UK politicians has warned that the country may be left without a network for police and other emergency services for up to six months.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), a powerful – and much feared – watchdog of the UK House of Commons has issued a report saying that the current Airwave network may cease to function in March 2020, six months before the new network, being built by BT, completes its national rollout. 

Worse, the MPs say that the planned emergency services network (ESN) may be “not only delayed but is not likely to be deliverable”, says the report (PDF)

The PAC, which remains in office until the UK’s Parliament is dissolved on 3 May, in preparation for the 8 June general election, said: “The news that part of the existing Airwave system will be taken out of service early strikes a major, potentially catastrophic, blow to the ability of our emergency services to carry out their job and keep citizens safe.”

The network is due to connect 300,000 personnel using 50,000 vehicles from 44 police forces in Britain and Northern Ireland, 50 fire and rescue services and 13 ambulance trusts. Other users will include transport agencies and utility companies.

The UK government’s Home Office – the interior ministry that oversees police and most other emergency services – “was running the planned programme to ambitiously tight deadlines which have now slipped”, says the report, published last Friday. “The department’s contingency measure to manage the transition to the new system was to extend Airwave month by month until the new system was in place.”

Airwave, based on 2G technology, is now owned by Motorola Solutions, but it uses TDM backhaul infrastructure provided by Vodafone. The government was already having to pay heavily because BT’s LTE-based ESN – under a contract awarded to EE before it became part of BT – is running late.

EE won the ESN contract, originally put at £1.2 billion, in October 2015. The plan then was to begin rolling it out from mid-2017. A January 2017 report from the PAC “concluded it was unlikely that the December 2019 target date for delivering ESN [nationwide] would be met and that the department needed to reassess its timescales”, says the latest report. 

“The Department agreed a fixed price for extending Airwave with Motorola in February 2016, as a condition for approving its purchase of Airwave. Motorola therefore has a contractual obligation to provide the Airwave service post March 2020.”

Now, the PAC reports, Vodafone has said that the TDM network will be replaced by an IP network in March 2020, leaving Airwave without backhaul infrastructure for six months before BT’s ESN takes over.

“This raised the possibility that emergency services may not be able to communicate with each other after March 2020 until transition to ESN is complete in September 2020,” says the PAC in its report.

Vodafone told Global Telecoms Business: “We have been in detailed discussions with both the Home Office and Motorola, which owns Airwave, since it became clear that the replacement Emergency Services Network (ESN) project could be delayed. We are actively working with all relevant parties to find an alternative solution to the old legacy fixed network used to link Airwave masts and ensure continuation of service if the roll out of ESN misses its target date.”

That implies a replacement of the TDM network that would be in service for just six months – or at least until BT got its ESN working reliably across the whole country.

BT/EE declined to comment when contacted by Global Telecoms Business.

One of the more problematic parts of the replacement covers London’s Underground railway network – the Tube – which is policed by the British Transport Police. However, in case of emergencies, it is seen as essential that fire, ambulance and the Metropolitan police services can keep in touch.

The PAC reports: “The department told us in November 2016 that there would be an announcement in the next couple of months on how coverage will be provided for the London Underground, but a business case for providing this coverage will not now be complete until June or July 2017.”

It warns: “The current transition timetable has London as one of the first regions to begin transitioning to the new system, in November 2017, which would mean going from business case to roll-out in just six months.” The PAC expresses some scepticism.

Whichever party wins the June UK election, the PAC’s supervision of this issue will be disrupted, as membership is likely to change and continuity will be lost.