Upgrading emergency service communications Contents

1Delivering the Emergency Services Network

1.On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we took evidence from the Home Office (the Department) the Department of Health and the National Technology Adviser about the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (the programme).1 We also took evidence from two representatives from fire and rescue services and the suppliers of the main programme contracts, Motorola and EE.

2.The 105 police, fire and rescue and ambulance services (the emergency services) in Great Britain currently communicate using the Airwave system. The contracts to provide Airwave are held by Airwave Solutions Limited, acquired by Motorola Solutions in 2016, and expire in 2019. In 2011, the Government set up the programme to look at options to replace Airwave. The programme is part of the Home Office but is co-funded by the Department of Health and the Scottish and Welsh Governments. The chosen option to replace Airwave is the Emergency Services Network (ESN). This replaces dedicated radio-based infrastructure with 4G mobile-data technology that will operate across a network shared with EE’s other customers. Such an approach should save money by avoiding the capital costs of building a new dedicated network, while providing better mobile-data capabilities than Airwave.2

3.In December 2015, the programme signed contracts with Motorola and EE to deliver the main components of ESN. Emergency services are scheduled to start using ESN in September 2017 with regions switching over by the end of December 2019. By this time, £1.2 billion will have been spent developing the system and a further £1.4 billion running down Airwave. After December 2019 the Airwave service will be switched off and the current ESN contracts will continue until 2023 at the latest. The Department predicts that a further £2.6 billion will be spent operating ESN between 2020 and 2032.3

4.The programme’s 2015 full business case established milestone dates for delivering ESN (Figure 1).4 It allowed 21 months for designing, building and testing ESN, then a further 30 months for all emergency services to transition to ESN from Airwave. Milestone dates changed subsequently with the main contracts awarded in December 2015, two months later than planned.5 However, at the same time, the end date for the programme was brought forward reducing the time available for emergency services to transition to the new service to 27 months.6 The National Audit Office report estimated that the programme was between five and ten months delayed.7 Emergency services representatives supported this estimate, telling us they were less than 50% confident that the current timetable for rolling out ESN would be achieved.8

Figure 1—milestone dates for delivering ESN

Full business case

(August 2015)

Main contract award

(December 2015)


(August 2016)

Target date for:

Main contract award

October 2015

December 2015

December 2015

Detailed design complete

March 2016

May 2016

August 2016

Build and testing of ESN complete, transition starts

July 2017

September 2017

September 2017

Transition complete

January 2020

March 2020

December 2019

Time allowed for:

Design, build and testing ESN

21 months

21 months

21 months


30 months

30 months

27 months

Source: C&AG report Figure 11

5.The current transition timetable allows 12 months for most regions to transition to ESN (Figure 2).9 Regions who transition to the new system first will have a period of contingency and parallel-running of systems and will have time to see if ESN works properly for an extended period.10 Regions that are currently scheduled to transition to ESN later will have a much shorter period of dual running and, on current plans, the South West region will have no contingency or parallel running period at all. The Department told us the current transition plan reflected the desire to have some sequencing in the roll-out which would allow lessons to be learned and avoid a big bang approach. The Department also suggested that regions that wanted longer periods of contingency and parallel running could start transition earlier if they wished.11 The Department noted that if users did not want to compress the transition timetable further through early transition then it would look to extend Airwave to allow for a longer transition period. The Department stated that “we are not going to put pressure on them. They have to be comfortable that the plan is viable and that they that will be comfortable turning off Airwave at the end”.12

6.The Department confirmed that ESN needs to be at least as good as Airwave and the emergency services would not be forced to use a system that does not meet their requirements.13 The emergency services told us that an extended period of testing of the end-to-end network and a period of trouble-free running, where they did not need to keep switching back to Airwave, would give them confidence in ESN.14 It was not clear, however, what would happen if the system met the performance levels established by the Department but was still deemed not ready by emergency services.15 We have seen previous examples of local services resisting the roll-out of a national system because they did not believe it fit for purpose, for example with the national programme for IT in the health service.16 The Department told us that in the event of any reluctance to move onto ESN it would try and determine the grounds for delay with users, but that if most emergency services agreed the system worked then ultimately the final decision around whether to mandate use of ESN would rest with the Home Office.17

Figure 2—Transition activity by region and month, as at August 2016


1.Transition plans we reviewed showed the South West region starting transition in April 2019 and finishing in January 2020 (without contingency). With the ESN completion date being brought forward to December 2019 we have brought forward its start date one month to allow the minimum 10 months programme officials believe is required.

2.We have used regions to illustrate the level of transition activity for simplicity. Regions are not of identical size but more accurate measures do not materially impact the pattern shown above.

Source: C&AG’s report, Figure 12

7.The current Airwave contracts expire in December 2019. Emergency services communications are a critical national service and the safety of personnel and the public must be ensured during the transition period. Should ESN not be fully functional by the end of December 2019, the only viable contingency option would be to extend the current Airwave contracts. The National Audit Office reported that a nationwide, 12 month extension of Airwave could cost an estimated £475 million. The Department told us that when Motorola bought Airwave it negotiated the option to extend Airwave by region and by month, for a fixed price. The Department considered that “essentially, the risk is a financial risk rather than an operational one. If the roll-out timetable were to slip to the right, we would run Airwave for longer and we would be in parallel for longer. We probably wouldn’t be countrywide […] there are significant costs but the ones identified [by the National Audit Office] are essentially a full-year cost if the entire programme slipped everywhere for a year and that is not what we would expect. It is essentially a financial risk”.18

8.The Department confirmed that there would “be a little slippage”19 against the current transition timetable and that “if the users, very understandably, do not want to compress [the transition] then there would need to be a certain amount of limited extension of Airwave”.20 The Department and Motorola told us, however, there was not yet a detailed plan for how contingency arrangements would be triggered, or how they would operate, and the Department had not yet communicated to Motorola whether it expected to require Airwave extensions or in which regions. Motorola informed us that it would require 12 month’s notification (by December 2018) of any required contract extensions to ensure that it had staff in place past the planned switch-off date for Airwave. Timely communication of information about roll-out plans and contingency arrangements by the Department were also identified by emergency services representatives as key to their own transition plans, to allow them to do early assurance testing, rather than squeeze timescales later on.21

9.The Department confirmed it had not budgeted for contingency as it did not know its budgetary settlement beyond 2020. It also told us that the cost of any extensions would be funded from the main policing budget. The Department emphasised that the cost of any delay would be borne across the police, rather than incurred directly by regions facing a delayed transition to ensure there was no financial disadvantage to any region affected. The Department noted that while there would be costs involved if Airwave had to be extended there would also be savings as the suppliers of the new system would not be paid if it was not working satisfactorily. For EE, if coverage requirements were not met, it would not be given its core payment. Similarly for Motorola, the Department stated it would not be paid until the service was delivered. It is not clear, however, how easy it would be to identify the party responsible for any delay since, unlike with Airwave, there is no single prime contractor to be held to account. However, the Department was confident that the absence of a prime contractor did not increase this risk since any prime contractor would have a similar relationship to its sub-contractors as the Department has currently with the ESN suppliers.22

10.ESN is one of only two systems in the world where emergency services will share a network with the public. The other, South Korea, starts from a considerably higher base since it has 97% national 4G mobile data coverage. South Korea also plans to reserve part of its spectrum for emergency services users, rather than have them share with the public. Other countries are pursuing alternative solutions either fully or partly based on older terrestrial trunked radio (TETRA) technology and dedicated networks, like Airwave. The Department agreed, in an ideal world, it would not want to be first to adopt unproven technology. But the Department considered that the other options it had for replacing Airwave, such as a hybrid system that uses radio for voice communications and 4G mobile for data, were “equally risky” and that it had to consider a wide range of financial, operational, technological and legal factors when making its decision.23

11.The Department accepted that ESN was a high-risk programme. One of the biggest risks is ensuring coverage across Great Britain, in remote areas and in hard to reach places like the London Underground. EE coverage, currently at 74% of Great Britain, will need to be at 97% by September 2017, when transition is scheduled to start. EE was “100% confident” that it could deliver the necessary levels of coverage by that time.24 The Department also told us that using 4G mobile data technology instead of radio technology opened up more options for plugging gaps in coverage, such as by using temporary masts. Discussions were still ongoing, however, between the Department and Transport for London on how best to extend coverage into the London Underground. The Department noted that it hoped to make an announcement in the next couple of months about how underground coverage would be delivered.25

12.The programme also faces a number of other technical challenges. The new system will operate across a commercial 4G network requiring new software to allow emergency services users priority over commercial customers. EE told us it had completed system testing to prove the prioritisation technology would work and that during an emergency its network would be able to prioritise all 300,000 emergency service users if necessary. Devices with the appropriate levels of robustness, voice and dual-mode capabilities are also under development. It is important these devices have “push to talk” capability so that users have to press only one button to contact their colleagues. The Department told us it had prototype devices and was confident that there would be a good selection for users to choose from by next year. In addition, the new system will require end-to-end integration. A wide range of stakeholders emphasised the need for the system to be robustly tested. Motorola told us that in terms of its involvement in integrating ESN it understood the need to test the system at scale and in real conditions. The Department confirmed, however, that it would bear overall integration risk in line with Government best practice which now encourages the disaggregation of contracts. The Department conceded this meant there was no single “throat to choke” in the event of any problems.26

13.The National Technology Advisor told us that the strength of the programme team had allowed the Government to have “much more faith in the programme” than they might otherwise. The programme’s Senior Responsible Owner set up the programme in February 2011 and had remained in post since then. The Programme Director meanwhile has been in post since 2013 and staff turnover throughout the life of the programme has been low. The Department told us it had staff who were very committed to the project and that this made a huge difference. The stability of the ESN programme team contrasts favourably with other high-profile programmes we have examined, such as e-borders, where lack of continuity in senior posts presented a considerable challenge to successful delivery.27

1 C&AG’s Report, Upgrading emergency service communications: the Emergency Services Network, Session 2016–17, HC 627, 15 September 2016

2 C&AG’s Report, paras 1, 2, 3 and 1.11

3 C&AG’s Report, paras 4, 1.13, Key Dates and Figure 6

4 C&AG’s Report, para 2.17

5 C&AG’s Report, Figure 11

6 C&AG’s Report, Figure 11

7 C&AG’s Report, para 2.22

9 C&AG’s Report, para 2.20

16 Committee of Public Accounts, The National Programme for IT in the NHS: an update on the delivery of detailed care records systems, Forty-fifth Report of Session 2010–12, HC 1070, 18 July 2011, paras 15–18

27 Qq214, 223, C&AG’s Report, para 3.2 and Figure 13

19 January 2017