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Wed, 21 October 2020

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Emergency services network cannot afford more delays due to Huawei ban

Emergency services network cannot afford more delays due to Huawei ban

Effective and reliable communications are essential for our emergency services, writes Lord Harris. | PA Images

3 min read

Plans to roll-out the new emergency services network (ESN) have already been pushed back to 2024 or 2025. Who knows how far over-budget it will be by the time we have a reliable communications system.

We rely on our emergency services and we need them to be able to talk to each other and to their control rooms. This is true whether it is an ambulance or a paramedic being despatched to someone.

The crew need as much information provided on the 999 call as possible and any other important information known about the person concerned, especially in case they need to radio ahead to a hospital. The same applies to fire emergencies, or incidents that require the police to be called.

Effective and reliable communications are essential for our emergency services. It’s no longer just about voice communications, data is now increasingly important too.

At present these radio links are provided by a system called Airwave on a dedicated TETRA network. However, the existing system is approaching the end of its life and the Government took the heroic decision to switch to a system based on the mobile phone network. 

Anyone who has failed to get a decent signal in remote areas, or even in busy towns and cities, might question the wisdom behind the decision for our police, fire and ambulance services to use this same system, but nonetheless that is what Ministers decided in 2014. 

Apparently, the new arrangements would be world-beating – where else have we heard that – as the UK will be the first country in the world to do it.

In 2015, the contract was awarded to EE, following all other bidders withdrawing – never a good sign. The switch to the new Emergency Services Network (ESN) was intended to begin in 2017 and be completed by 2019.

Connoisseurs of the Government’s approach to procurement matters will not be surprised to learn that things have not gone entirely to plan. In January 2017, we were told that the ESN might not be ready by the time the Airwave network was supposed to be switched off at the end of 2019. 

In September 2018, ministers announced the Airwave contract would be extended until December 2022. Not surprisingly, Airwave, now owned by Motorola Solutions - one of the main suppliers of the handsets used by emergency services personnel, demanded a high price for this to happen - £1.7 million per day or more than £600 million per year.

Earlier this summer, it was announced that Huawei equipment, already used by EE, had to be removed from UK mobile phone networks. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this are on security grounds (and I am personally pretty hawkish about this), it will inevitably lead to disruptions for the mobile network and delays in the roll-out of 5G.

Today, I am asking the Home Office what impact the Huawei decision will have on the ESN programme. Will this mean yet further delays? 

This month should have seen the new service being rolled out to 300,000 end-users in the police and other emergency services. Instead, two weeks ago the Home Office’s new permanent secretary was forced to tell the Public Accounts Committee that the final switchover date was being pushed back to 2024, or possibly even late-2025. What was going to take four years is now going to take ten.

Last year, the total ESN programme was running £3.1 billion over-budget with the total cost having risen to £9.3 billion.  

Who knows what the final bill will be before we have a communications system on which our emergency services can rely and in which we the public can have confidence.

 

Lord Harris is a Labour member of the House of Lords and co-chair of the APPG on policing and security.

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