MPs raise concerns over ESN contingency plans

Witnesses from the Home Office, EE and Motorola Solutions were questioned by MPs earlier this month on the progress of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme, and the deployment of the Emergency Services Network (ESN).

The ESN will replace the Airwave TETRA communication system that is currently being used by the UK’s emergency services.

The Public Accounts Committee session touched on all aspects of the project, with many lines of enquiry prompted by a recent Audit Office report. An overarching concern was the level of contingency should any aspect of the project not be ready by the planned December 2019 Airwave cut-off date.

Discussing the financial burden and notice period required should an extension be necessary, Vincent Kennedy, VP and general manager at Motorola Solutions UK, told the committee that a fixed price had been agreed on a “per region per month basis”.

“If needed we would keep the last regions going until they were on the EE network – it’s possible to at least sequence the dismantling in a way that you could leave a couple of regions going over a few months,” he said. “However, it would have to be [just] that order of magnitude.

“An unplanned long extension is not impossible, but it would be very difficult because you’ve got landlords that want their sites back, and you’d have to give notice well in advance. We have a plan – I know how I can terminate the network but still keep some regions running.” He added that Motorola Solutions will need to know in writing by the end of December 2018 if there is to be an extension.

The witnesses were also asked what would happen if public safety organisations aren’t happy with functionality but the Home Office and its partners are. Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill suggested that there would be dialogue between the various parties involved. He said that while emergency services chiefs can decide not to go live, the discussion would take place collectively.

“We have chief constables represented on the programme board,” he said. “The NPCC [National Police Chiefs Council] has an effective mechanism with police and crime commissioners for making collective decisions.”

He said this issue in particular revolves around individual and collective responsibility. “We’re not going to proceed unless we have a consensus. If someone were behaving completely unreasonably we’d have to work that through with them.”

Speaking of the progress that is being made on the project in terms of coverage, EE’s managing director, ESN Simon Frumkin said he is “100 per cent confident” the company will deliver on its remit, but dropped to “very confident” that it could be deliver the coverage by September 2017. He cited the four percentage point increase in its geographical coverage since the National Audit Office report was published, and also stated that EE has completed systems testing in relation to emergency services prioritisation.

Motorola Solutions’ Kennedy also discussed potential latency issues, saying that while TETRA-comparable effectiveness can be proved in a lab, field testing still needs to be done. “We have a testing regime all through the spring and summer of 2017,” he said. “We hope to be ready for operational trials [that] autumn. They will take months.”

Following the event Dr Nigel Brown, lead for resilient ICT at the Cabinet Office, spoke of the potential public safety benefits resulting from the switchover to the Emergency Services Network, specifically savings resulting from the project. He said: "There’s a huge community out there that’s going to wake up and smell the efficiency coffee.”

He added that unlike in the past, where Airwave didn’t fully leverage TETRA’s data capabilities - and feature development took place within a closed community - the switch to LTE means that it will benefit from an open development platform. This will leverage the expertise to be found in the consumer and commercial app development sector.

He added that the future of public safety communications is all about relying on multiple suppliers for the provision of goods and services, and that this is understood by the vendor community as a whole. He noted that while Motorola Solutions is having to develop a non-standard based solution for ESN, it is contracted to convert it over to work on the latest 3GPP standard on handover.

Brown made his comments while speaking with Land Mobile at the FCS Business Radio 2016 event.