A replacement for how Britain’s emergency services communicate is set to go over budget by at least £3.1 billion. The delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) is also likely to be even later than expected and the government’s already increased forecast costs are highly uncertain, according to a May 10 report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
ESN is intended to replace Airwave – the system used by emergency services in the United Kingdom to communicate. In 2017, the Home Office realised 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.
The Home Office now forecasts that ESN will cost £9.3 billion, £3.1 billion (49%) more than initially planned. £1.4 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. Network services provider EE has 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 recognises that the Home Office’s reset has addressed some of the program’s issues – introducing a staged approach to the roll out, replacing a key piece of technology, strengthening its management teams and processes, and re-negotiating contracts. However, serious risks remain which the Home Office is yet to resolve.
The required technology to allow emergency services to communicate effectively using ESN is not yet ready. For example, aircraft are currently 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. 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. 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 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.
The NAO does not think the Home Office has 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. Some worry that this could place further financial pressure on other services they provide.
There are also a number of commercial risks to ESN. The Home Office is currently renegotiating the program’s main contracts with Motorola 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. 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 currently 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 in financial and economic benefits by 2037. The largest economic benefit (£643 million) is associated with increases in police productivity. Police representatives told the NAO that they had not agreed these figures with the Home Office.
The NAO recommends that the Home Office test its overall program plan to determine whether the new schedule for launching ESN and shutting down Airwave is achievable. NAO says the Home Office should also develop a contingency plan that sets out what it will do if the technology it is relying on does not work.