The Public Accounts Committee has estimated that unexpected charges may eliminate five years’ worth of the new network’s supposed price benefits
The Home Office has admitted that the proposed cost savings on a new nationwide communications network for emergency services have been “delayed” by the project’s cost overruns.
The government has been working to replace the existing Tetra-based Airwave system used by the UK’s emergency services with the delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN), which is planned to use existing 4G networks.
The shift to a standards-based system has been put forward as saving taxpayers £200 million a year, or roughly £500 per device per year.
But the Home Office disclosed in a parliamentary evidence session earlier this month that its latest plan to extend the existing Airwave system for three years while the ESN is gradually rolled out would cost taxpayers £1.1bn.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which has been strongly critical of the government’s “high risk” approach to the development of the new network, estimated the extra costs would effectively erase five years’ worth of the ESN’s expected cost savings.
This week, at an evidence session before the Greater London Authority (GLA) Oversight Committee, Stephen Webb, the Home Office civil servant overseeing the ESN development programme, confirmed that the network’s savings “have been delayed”, The Register reported.
Webb did not offer further details.
Airwave has been in place since 2010, meaning that if ESN is in place for a similar length of time, and effectively offers no cost savings for its first five years, as the PAC argues, the actual savings it offers over its lifespan could be sharply limited.
ESN programme director Bryan Clark told the session that the government has until December to formally inform Motorola, which operates Airwave, of its announced plans to extend the existing network for a further three years.
Motorola’s current contract ends at the end of December next year, and the government is obliged to give one year’s notice if it wishes to change the shutoff date, Clark said.
While he said that as yet the extension exists only as an “option” held by the government, he also emphasised that there currently is no other option in place than to extend Airwave’s use.
“It is worth pointing out that there is no alternative available beyond December next year, and so if we don’t extend then, we won’t have an emergency services network in play,” he said, Computer Weekly reported.
Clark said the Home Office had “seriously” considered options including shutting down the ESN project during a review earlier this year, but decided instead to push ahead with a phased approach.
Clark said if the project could be completed, it was “clearly the right thing to do” and that the advantages of doing so were “significant”.
He said the project aimed to deliver the first ESN push-to-talk application within a month and that another version of the application would be in operation in the US before the end of the year.
The PAC has criticised the government for deciding to develop technology for the network that is in use nowhere else in the world, and Clark acknowledged that the fact that the programme is “technically ambitious” has contributed to the “uncertainty” surrounding it.