The government has confirmed a delay of up to five months in the implementation of its ambitious 4G Emergency Services Network (ESN), saying it has “reviewed” the programme’s schedule.
The extension follows a recent study by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that found the then-current schedule was overly ambitious.
“We are committed to rolling out ESN and completing transition to the new network as soon as possible, and when acceptable to the emergency services,” the Home Office said in a statement. “To make sure this happens, we have rigorously reviewed the programme with suppliers to make sure our plan is achievable.”
Industry journal Wireless Magazine reported the ESN’s initial transition had been pushed back from September 2017 to early 2018.
The first of 12 emergency services regions, the North West, was granted a five-month extension for design, build, test and assurance, and if the full five months is required the system would go live beginning in March 2018, the magazine reported, citing unnamed sources.
The other 11 regions are scheduled to follow at regular intervals, with the South East now due to begin its transition by April 2020, rather than December 2019 as initially planned.
The government’s contract for the current Airwave system ends on 31 December 2019, and while a contingency plan is in place it involves paying Airwave parent Motorola Solutions a fixed monthly rate amounting to £1,300 per device per year.
As a result of this steep expense, programme officials have attempted to “squeeze” the time available for services to move to ESN, the NAO said in its report last month.
The NAO found the implementation timeline was “high risk” 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.
Unlike Airwave, which uses a network fully dedicated to public-sector use, the new scheme 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.
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.
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.
As of last month the programme was already at least five months behind schedule due to delays in awarding contracts, delivering detailed designs and delivering some elements of functionality, the NAO said.
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