The plan for a new emergency-services communications network relies on an approach as yet untested anywhere in the world, the NAO warns
The UK’s planned communications network for emergency services uses an untested approach that is “inherently high risk”, according to an assessment of the project by the National Audit Office (NAO), which warned the Home Office does not appear to understand the challenges that lie ahead.
The plan to implement the Emergency Services Network (ESN) beginning next year is over-ambitious given that a number of major technical difficulties remain to be resolved – including the lack of sufficient coverage and the absence of any existing devices that could work with the proposed scheme, the NAO said in a new study.
“A lack of independent telecoms expertise on the programme board and an ambitious and potentially unrealistic timeframe for delivery concern me,” said Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, in a statement. “The Home Office cannot afford to get this wrong.”
The ESN is the proposed successor to the existing nationwide network, called Airwave, which uses a network fully dedicated to public-sector use.
The new scheme, by contrast, is intended to reuse commercial 4G bandwidth provided by EE, an approach that is “the most advanced in the world”, with only South Korea seeking to deploy something similar, the NAO said in its study, ESN’s first independent assessment.
Difficulties with the approach include the need for new software to provide push-to-talk functionality and protocols to prioritise public sector traffic over commercial transmissions – including, for instance, the heavy traffic generated by gamers flocking to play Pokemon Go.
New, purpose-built handheld and vehicle-mounted devices also need to be built, while EE’s 4G network needs to be extended from 70 percent coverage of the UK’s landmass as of July 2016 to 97 percent, and to be made more resilient.
Meanwhile, the programme is at least five months behind schedule due to delays in awarding contracts, delivering detailed designs and delivering some elements of functionality.
But instead of extending the project’s intended implementation time, programme officials have attempted to “squeeze” the time available for services to move to ESN, the NAO said.
That is in part because the government has been reluctant to extend the existing Airwave contract, which costs £1,300 per device per year, beyond its current cut-off of 2019, the NAO argued.
The government has insisted users can adopt the new system when they believe it is ready, but the NAO argued the government has not sufficiently judged just how averse to risk the emergency services are.
“The emergency services… talked to us about plans to independently test ESN coverage because they were not convinced by the programme’s plans,” the NAO. “By contrast, technology was not one of the top three risks raised with us by programme staff.”
Analysts Kable, which provided international comparison work for the study, said ensuring the resilience of a relatively untested network would prove a challenge.
“The challenge for the UK… is to ensure that network reach is maintained, as it is here where agency response is most critical,” Kable said in a report attached to the NAO’s study. “Both commercial and dedicated public safety network infrastructure can be affected by unforeseen events, particularly in rural locations.”
It said emergency services “may disrupt the national project if they do not believe the programme is best for local residents”.
The Home Office responded that emergency services would be given the choice to migrate following “stringent” testing and that it has “detailed” contingency plans in place following the end of the Airwave contract on 31 December, 2019.
“The timescale for ESN is deliberately ambitious because we want to maximise the benefits it will bring to the public,” the Home Office stated. “We have comprehensive risk management tools in place as well as the best possible expertise to design, build, test and roll out the new network.”
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