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Government Has ‘Contingencies’ If 2019 4G Emergency Services Network Target Is Missed

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Government admits 2019 launch data is ‘ambitious’ but assures MPs it will not risk public safety to launch 4G ESN

The Home Office has rejected suggestions from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that there isn’t enough time to ensure the 4G-powered Emergency Services Network (ESN) is a safe and functional replacement for the existing TETRA system, powered by Airwave.

It is claimed the ESN will save the taxpayer £1 million a day by latching onto EE’s LTE network and will allow the emergency services to make use of 4G applications.

This could include ambulance crews sending patient data to hospitals, policemen wearing body cameras and firefighters being able to access helicopter footage.

EE 4G (3)

4G ESN

It is expected that 330,000 users will have moved to the ESN by the end of 2019, but the PAC has doubts about the current timetable and cost estimates – especially as the project has already been delayed.

It was intended that the first users could migrate from the old system in mid-2017, but this won’t happen until the middle of 2018 now at the earliest.

EE’s £1 billion contract will see it build more than 400 new 4G sites and develop a “resilient” core system to support the ESN, while long range 800MHz spectrum will be deployed at 3,500 locations. The network will be able to prioritise ESN traffic when required and the firm will introduce satellite backhaul for hard to reach areas. The tube in London will also be covered.

The PAC wants independent testing and assurances about underground coverage outside the capital. But above all, it is concerned that the ESN has never been used anywhere else in the world and that costs for a delayed launch have not been considered.

“The stakes in this programme are extremely high,” said Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC said.

“It is absolutely right that emergency services will not commit to using ESN in potentially life-or-death situations until they are convinced it works. Questions continue to hang over the technology, not least how it will operate on underground rail systems in London and elsewhere—high-risk environments that present unique challenges in emergencies.”

Contract process

The Home Office said contingency plans were in place and that all Airwave contracts had been extended until the end of 2019. It adds that these contracts could be extended after this date if necessary and won’t be in a position to test a network transition until 2018.

“The new Emergency Services Network (ESN) will give the dedicated professionals who work so hard protecting the public and saving lives the most advanced communications system of its kind,” said a spokesperson.

EE 4G (4)

“Police, fire and rescue and ambulance crews will be able to do their work more effectively with ESN and the new system will deliver significant savings for the taxpayer.

“The timescales are ambitious because we want to get the most from technology that will help save lives, but we are clear that no risks will be taken with public safety and the existing Airwave system will continue until transition on to ESN is completed.”

The committee’s report also suggested the tender process for the contracts had not been stringent enough. The main suppliers are EE and Motorola Solutions, which actually bought Airwave for £817.5 million last year.

EE had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

“It is critical for public safety and achieving value for money that the Government has a firm grasp of the implications of delays in its timetable and a costed plan to tackle them,” added Hillier. “We will expect it to demonstrate real progress in this area when it reports back to us later this year.”

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