The Emergency Services Network (ESN), the government’s flagship project is floundering. In a tense session in front of the Public Accounts Committee, managers admitted that they had laid-off 70 members of staff, with further plans to lay off another 130.
The ESN will see the national radio infrastructure, Airwave, replaced with a £1.2 billion EE-run 4G network. But it has been plagued by problems, behind schedule and over budget.
Permanent Secretary at the Home Office Philip Rutnam told MPs that they were in the process of reviewing the project and redesigning the team, deciding it could operate with a smaller workforce.
During the committee’s session MPs expressed concerns about the project’s future. MPs pressed the officials on whether the review had all the data necessary to complete, how well briefed the department’s ministers were and what the new timetable would look like.
This, after sources have reported the government is contemplating a complete or partial shutdown.
This is a complex project which will provide the emergency services with the most advanced communications system of its kind anywhere in the world.
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.- Home Office Spokesperson
The ESN project was supposed to replace the Motorola-owned Airwave radio service with a £1.2 billion 4G ESN which will be run by EE. It would also kit out emergency services with 4G-enabled devices ahead of Airwave being switched off by the end of 2019.
According to widespread reports the government is considering the option of an incremental roll-out. Which includes a data-only option where the emergency services retain Airwave for voice and then use 4G for data only.
This would include a contractual commitment to continue running Airwave until all criteria for a total shutdown has been met.
Airwave has been considered a huge success since it came on air in 2010. According to the National Audit Office the services has had a 99.9% availability during its lifetime. But it is extremely expensive, costing £1,300 per handheld or vehicle-mounted device per year and its data capabilities are notoriously poor.
In contrast when ESN is fully operational the cost of such devices falls to £800 per year. But inside sources have questioned whether the 4G network will be able to provide the level of coverage of Airwave.
One contact working in the emergency services commented, “Airwaves provides a very good voice coverage…nobody has a lot of faith that a 4G network was going to be able to provide similar voice coverage”.
The source added, “From the information received, the new 4G devices were looking to be more expensive and more fragile.”
Meanwhile, Mr Rutnam told the Committee the team will be down to 140 members, probably by the end of the year. But could not guarantee delivery of the review by next month.