Plans to move UK emergency services communications onto a next-generation 4G platform could be pushed back by up to 10 years according to reports, but the Home Office has insisted no final decisions have been made.
MPs on the Public Accounts Committee last month said the department’s “incompetence” in relation to contracts to take Disclosure and Barring Service checks digital called its ability to deal with the huge Emergency Services Network upgrade into question.
The new closed-communications system would allow police, fire and ambulance services to communicate securely and reliably with each other via existing digital networks, replacing the radio-based Airwave system. But, as the PAC has previously noted, it relies on technology that is “not in use on a nationwide basis anywhere else in the world”.
Technology website The Register last week said unnamed industry sources were predicting a five-to-10 year delay in the introduction of the new network, which is supposed to replace Airwave from the end of 2019. It cited an “update on the programme” that suggested the Home Office’s options were either to push ahead with a partial rollout of the scheme that maintained Airwave for voice communications and used 4G for data or to “shut down” the programme developing the Emergency Services Network.
A 2016 report from the National Audit Office suggested that each year current arrangements for Airwave were extended would come with a price tag of £475m. That report put the cost of introducing the Emergency Services Network by March 2020 at £1.2bn. After that, it said that the new system was expected to save money in comparison to Airwave.
The Home Office said it was “resolute” that the emergency services would not be expected to use the new network until they were satisfied it would support them in live operations.
“This a complex project which will provide the emergency services with the most advanced communications system of its kind anywhere in the world,” a spokesperson said.
“We keep the delivery of ESN and the continued use of Airwave under constant review. We have not made any decisions about extending relevant contracts.
“We will have a clearer picture of delivery timescales once the ongoing review of the programme is complete”.
Following the PAC report on the Disclosure and Barring Service’s digital transformation programme, which is running four years late and is projected to come in £229m over budget, committee chair Meg Hillier said there were “serious concerns” about the ESN, which is the department’s biggest project.
“These are testing times for the Home Office,” she said. “The department also faces huge challenges arising from the UK’s departure from the EU – not least, potential threats to security at the border from day one of Brexit.”
The Home Office review of the programme is expected to be published next month.