The perpetually delayed and massively over-budget 4G Emergency Services Network (ESN) may not replace the existing Airwave system until 2025.
The Home Office had intended for the ESN to go live in September 2017, providing police forces, firefighters and ambulance crews with critical communications and access to mobile applications that would improve public safety.
On top of that, it was expected that the ESN, powered by EE’s 4G infrastructure, would deliver significant cost savings over the analogue radio-based Airwave.
The Home Office had originally wanted to switch off Airwave in late 2019 but repeated delays led to a ‘reset’ of the project, with rollout introduced in phases.
In 2019, it was confirmed that the government had reached an agreement with Motorola Solutions to maintain and upgrade Airwave until at least the end of 2022 and that the project was £3 billion over budget.
At the time, the National Audit Office expressed doubts over that timeline because of the Home Office’s previous record of delays – doubts that have come to fruition.
The Home Office has confirmed the 2022 target will be missed and that Airwave will not be switched off until at least 2024 when the transition to a push-to-talk system based on the ESN is near completion.
Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee, Home Office Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft admitted the project had had its difficulties but believed it was now on track.
“The absolute latest that we could turn Airwave off is 2025, and what we are seeking to do is to accelerate that date, so that we can turn it off by the beginning of 2024,” he said. “If we could turn it off even sooner than that, then obviously we can, but I don’t want to give a date which then doesn’t get met.”
The ESN had originally intended to be the world’s first LTE-based nationwide public safety system, however repeated delays mean that similar platforms have launched in other systems. Some have even suggested the ESN be scrapped.
However, this is not viewed as an option because of the cost savings that are possible. The project is expected to save £200 million a year, while every extension of the Airwave contract adds around £500 million in annual costs.
Meanwhile, EE, which won the contract to construct new sites and to develop a new core for the ESN, has nearly completed its work. So far, the operator has built 1,000 new masts, upgraded 19,000 existing locations, and is deploying long-range 800MHz spectrum to deliver widespread coverage. The new core will mean the network will be able to prioritise ESN traffic when required.