Does Vodafone have ESN over a barrel?
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

The Home Office's plan to replace the Airwave TETRA network with the LTE-based Emergency Services Network could be faced with more turmoil, following the news that Motorola Solutions subcontractor Vodafone has announced its intention to switch off its part of the service by March 2020.

The information was revealed during a session of the Public Accounts Committee – to which the programme was recalled on February 1st – where the contents of a communication from Motorola Solutions highlighting the issue (which had been sent to both ESMCP and the PAC) was outlined by the committee.

Vodafone, through its purchase of Cable and Wireless in 2012, delivers the core ground based transmission network service that connects all elements of the Airwave mobile network together. As a result, Vodafone is currently acting as a subcontractor to Motorola Solutions (the owner of Airwave) and is not directly contracted to the Home Office on ESN.

Towards the end of last year, Vodafone notified Motorola Solutions that the fixed legacy system would be decommissioned in March 2020 when Airwave was due to be switched off. Land Mobile understands that Motorola Solutions is working to understand the exact impact of this development.

Under the worse case scenario, a two year programme of work would be needed to move to a different core platform, but Motorola Solutions is collaborating with all parties on options to shorten or address this. The company states that Vodafone's decision does not impact on its delivery of Lot 2 of ESN for which it is on track, instead affecting the Home Office's contingency plans for ESN, should it need Airwave's working life to be extended beyond March 2020.

According to the Home Office witnesses Mark Sedwill, permanent secretary at the Home Office; and Stephen Webb, senior responsible officer at the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP), the programme will meet with Vodafone and Motorola later this month to discuss circumstances under which the service in question can be extended. There is already a fixed agreement in place with Motorola Solutions to extend the use of Airwave if necessary on a region-by-region basis, something which according to Webb should not be required beyond September of 2020. The potential cost to the taxpayer of will be discussed at the meeting.

As reported by Land Mobile – and confirmed during the 1 February session – the proposed ESN switch-on date has recently been put back several months until early summer 2018.

In what was at times a quite fractious session, the committee related its view that the letter could potentially be read as “ultimatum” on the part of Vodafone. Committee member Richard Bacon meanwhile asked if, given the mission-critical importance of ESN, the company could be said to have them “over a barrel,” and wondered if it was possible for the government to legislate against the cut-off.

Speaking of the imminent meeting, Sedwill said: “The current situation is the result of an issue that’s arisen [with the Airwave network] which Motorola notified us of - we presume as they became aware of it - and want to work through the implications with us. I don't think it would be fair to say that they've let us down. We could end up in a series of legal conversations. We’d rather not, but if we had to we will. We aren’t at the point where we have to bring out the big guns.”

A Vodafone spokesperson said that: “As a subcontractor, Vodafone will work with Airwave (Motorola) to find an alternative solution for the Home Office in the event that they need to provide the Airwave service beyond March 2020”

Airwave is the TETRA-based wireless communications network currently used by the UK emergency services to provide mission-critical two-way radio push to talk. The Emergency Services Network, which at the very least needs to match Airwave in terms of functionality, will be LTE-enabled, with coverage provided by EE.

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