Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. Can anyone else join? Can anyone else who is not an emergency service join and take up the offer with Airwave?
  (Mr Gieve) No, there is a limit under the terms of the licence that the DTI run. There is a list on page 17 of the people we think qualify at present. That can be expanded if the DTI agree, but this is essentially a public service emergency service frequency and it is being reserved for that.

  81. We have that tied up then.
  (Mr Gieve) Yes.
  (Mr Webb) It is in the process of being extended; there are discussions with gas and water and these sorts of other utilities.

  82. Because they are emergency standby services.
  (Mr Webb) For the emergency aspect of that.

  83. So it can go to water, gas, electricity.
  (Mr Webb) For their emergency services.

  84. Can it go to private ambulances as well?
  (Mr Webb) If they are registered as part of the emergency service.

  85. So it is flexible.
  (Mr Webb) To people providing emergency services.
  (Mr Gieve) Not very flexible. If you look at the list on page 17, I think you would agree that all of those are emergency services.

  86. But they can be added to. I am not familiar with the term "call dropping". What is it and how big a problem is it?
  (Mr Asque) The issue here is that when somebody uses their radio, especially early on when people were using their radio as part of the pilot, or as the system was being installed, on quite a number of occasions for one reason or another they would not immediately get through. This was given the name "call dropping". In practice there are many technical reasons with the network being implemented why that has happened. A lot of work has happened in the pilot to identify these issues and to solve them one by one. There are several issues behind this generic title. When the user does not get through, they do not get through and that is all they want to know. They do not want to know all the technical details behind that of course, but in fact there was a whole raft of technical detail which led to these sorts of things —

  87. They have not been sorted yet, have they?
  (Mr Asque)—which one by one are being solved and there are no unknown issues now. All the issues have been addressed.

  88. One of the advantages you have is that we have never seen this in operation. I have never seen a dummy of it but I have seen some of the proposals where we were going to use police officers in police cars and through this system be able to download stuff to the onboard computer and upgrade stuff on the car computer system and transmit that to the station, thereby saving the officers time to go back to the station. They could type that or even, God forbid, dictate their reports, which could be typed up on a central computer system and there would be very little need to go back to the station apart from the start and finish of the shift. This technology will drive the officers' timetables and keep them up to date on a minute by minute basis. Is that still the aim?
  (Mr Asque) That is broadly the intention. It is a very flexible system and there are lots of phases of developments. At the moment the system is being rolled out and the intention is simply to replace the previous generation of voice communications and slowly add on these additional facilities ranging from small bits of data to very large amounts of data. It is a progressive implementation.

  89. When we have gone through these next three years and we have invested this extra £500 million in the system, we then get to a crunch point. We either pick up the bill again for the next five years or the chief constables will come and explain to us that since they have to fund this over a 19-year cycle they cannot pay for that and the police officers. You have to convince them that the new technology means a more efficient use of their police officers so they will not require those police officers. Can you tell me how you are going to do that and tell me what I can say to my constituents as well?
  (Mr Gieve) The last spending review set our budget for the years to 2003-04. We set aside up to £500 million to meet the costs of Airwave during that three-year period. We are currently engaged in the next spending review, which will roll that forward for another two years, so we do not know yet what the total police budget will be. We have not yet decided how much we shall give out in specific grants for particular technologies and how much we shall give out in a general unhypothecated amount. There are necessary uncertainties about exactly what the position will be in three years' or more time. I should just like to say that we have done this development and we are continuing to run this project with the full co-operation of the police authorities and ACPO, both of whom are on the programme board, in fact a police chief was actually chair of the project board when the contract was signed. It is not the case that they are saying they will only take it if we force it on them. They are very keen to have Airwave and their main concern is whether it is coming in early enough.

  Mr Jenkins: Anything for free.

Mr Williams

  90. I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of the police having the most up-to-date and relevant equipment available to them at reasonable cost. I can remember three years ago the Deputy Director of the FBI complaining that the international drug cartels and the international crime operators had better technology even than he had available to him at that stage. More and more of the crime that matters to the public is nationally and internationally based. So we have to look at a wider perspective than just the Bobby on the beat and the local burglar. I start off supportive of the general proposition, particularly as we previously went through the situation where the Met decided to computerise and forgot to arrange for each division's computers to talk to the next division's computers. I can understand the need for interoperability. What I do find difficult to understand, reading the report, is why this project is based on 19 years. Why 19 years, why not 20 years, why not 15 years or indeed with the rapid rate of change in technology, why not fewer than 10 years?
  (Mr Webb) The project is actually based on 15 years but the 19 years allows for the two-year run-in and the two-year run-out. The service is being provided to each of the forces for a block 15 years. We went for 15 years because having examined the other options that seemed reasonable. Included in the project cost is an allowance for technology upgrades during that period, but the rationale of going for the version of technology we went for, was the fact that we understood a pretty stable development path, enhancement path as far as that was concerned. To address one of the issues you raised about security, the system itself comes as standard with encryption. Therefore all radios provide a level of encryption. It is a very good level of encryption and has already in service identified the fact that it has been recognised by the criminal fraternity that the messages are now encrypted.

  91. Looking as a layman at the incredible rate of change just in our mobile phones over the last five years, the rate of technological change in this area seems to be accelerating if anything. What is the nature of the guarantee you have on technological upgrade? What is your criterion going to be as to whether you are getting the most up-to-date equipment? Who judges under the contract?
  (Mr Webb) The contract is run and monitored by PITO, in fact we are constantly examining what is being used by forces and what technology is available. We would have to work closely with both the Police Service and the supplier of the service to ensure that we were getting up-to-date technology. With all of these areas, obviously we would want to ensure that there was going to be some business benefit in terms of introducing new technology. What we do not want to do is to be in a situation where we are just introducing the technology for its own sake. We would be examining that constantly throughout that 15-year period.

  92. It is a very unforeseeable area, is it not? The risk cost of technological progression must be very considerable.
  (Mr Webb) They are and in fact that is always the case in terms of watching what is happening with technology and ensuring that you maintain to current standards and to current developments in technology in the domestic sector. We would have to monitor that constantly and ensure that there was an upgrade path.

  93. Looking over a 15-year period and looking at the rate of change and looking at the risk element in that, how are you able to come to the conclusion that the rate of return is 17%?
  (Mr Webb) In that 17% a fair degree of risk was built in. Bear in mind that it is the responsibility of O2 to deliver the technology upgrade, therefore recognising that was part of the risk they built into that assessment.

  94. Looking at page 12 and the services it says Menu Exclusive Services "The guaranteed handheld coverage . . . will meet only some of the force's need for this service . . . To meet its requirements for guaranteed handheld coverage, the force will purchase this additional coverage directly from O2". What protection do they have, since they are a captive market, that the prices they will be charged for the extra facility will be reasonable and competitive?
  (Mr Webb) Those charges are guaranteed within the contract.

  95. They are guaranteed within the contract indefinitely, right through the life of the contract?
  (Mr Webb) Yes.

  96. Does the same apply in the diagram below which says some forces require to operate inside buildings and again they can purchase guaranteed in-building penetration of Airwave from O2?
  (Mr Webb) That is right.

  97. That is also covered.
  (Mr Webb) That is right.

  98. We are not in a situation where we could be held over a barrel by O2.
  (Mr Webb) No. We are providing a general service here but it was recognised that in a number of areas police forces may wish, where they operate in large shopping centres or in airports or underground areas, to have additional coverage and that was provided for them.

  99. What is built into the contract to ensure not only that those costs are fair in relation to the cost which goes on Airwave, but also are value for money in terms of what in this evolving technology and evolving market could be available to carry out these add-on functions from other suppliers. Is there any protection about the marketplace developing and O2 not developing as fast as these suppliers?
  (Mr Webb) The current programme is one of extending the Airwave coverage into these areas, assuming that is what the police force wants, to have a level of coverage within buildings with their existing hand-held radio equipment, therefore the assumption is that they would want to use the same technology everywhere. They would not wish a terminal for one requirement and a totally different one if they are going into a building. They would want to use the same terminal for everything.

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