UK could force Motorola to sell Airwave following competition probe
The UK's Emergency Services Network (ESN) is in a bit of a mess. Already well over budget and late by several years, the project has been overhauled a number of times and remains under close scrutiny by oversight bodies such as the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the National Audit Office (NAO).
Originally heralded as a modern-day replacement of the old-style TETRA-based Airwave network, and based on a shiny new LTE network from BT-owned EE, ESN now looks like an ongoing source of embarrassment for the UK's Home Office.
It had seemed that the situation could not get any worse. Then in June 2021, a PAC hearing of Home Office evidence confirmed that the project had been delayed even further – to 2026. It was originally supposed to go live in 2019.
Furthermore, questions are now being raised about the role of Motorola Solutions, which owns Airwave and is a key supplier for ESN. Kodiak, the push-to-talk unit of Motorola Solutions, is also providing the mission-critical PTT (MCPTT) application to enable essential mission-critical voice communications over the LTE network.
The UK government, the NAO and PAC have expressed concerns regarding Motorola's position and incentives to deliver ESN, given the continuing high profitability of the Airwave network. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it is particularly concerned that Motorola could stand to make excess profits of about £1.2 billion (US$1.4 billion) in the period from 2020 to 2026 because of the extension of the Airwave contract.
The CMA said it is consulting on whether or not to launch a probe into Motorola and explore its dual role with Airwave and ESN. The regulator has identified two potential solutions that may, in principle, be available should a market investigation confirm its initial concerns: regulate Motorola's rate of return in relation to the Airwave network, or require Motorola to sell the Airwave network. The consultation will run until September 2, 2021.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: "At the moment, Motorola is the only provider of critical mobile radio network services used by our emergency service workers and is involved in both the current and future set-up. We're worried that the company could be cashing in on its position, while taxpayers are left to foot the bill."
Motorola Solutions sent this statement:
"We are aware that the UK Competition and Markets Authority is consulting on whether to launch a market investigation into the Airwave network. As a trusted technology partner to the UK market for more than 50 years, Motorola Solutions remains committed to working with the Home Office to deliver mission-critical communications. This includes the Airwave network that UK emergency services rely upon every day, and the safe transition to next-generation technologies (Emergency Services Network)."
At the PAC hearing in June, Charu Gorasia, director general, capabilities and resources at the Home Office, told PAC that the government pays about £450 million per year for Airwave. Gorasia said the "whole-life cost of the programme now stands at £11.2 billion" – that's £5 billion more than the £6.2 billion estimated in 2015.
Gorasia added that the "net present social value of the latest full business case is still very positive, at £773 million."
In a letter following the hearing, Matthew Rycroft, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office since March 2020, explained that the projected cost of the delay in the program is £650 million, made up of extending the Airwave contract (£450 million), lost benefits (£60 million), and ESN program running costs forecast at £140 million. He also slightly amended the whole-life cost of the project to £11.3 billion through to 2036/2037.
Meg Hillier, a member of parliament (MP) and chair of PAC, has become a regular critic of ESN's progress in recent years. At the hearing in June, she gave Rycroft a further grilling and demanded to know why the project had been pushed back again from 2025 to 2026.
"We have … been told repeatedly that 2025 was the absolute cut-off date for Airwave. How are you squaring a 2026 delivery with Airwave going in 2025?" she asked.
Hillier also said the June hearing was at least the 14th time that the Home Office had appeared before PAC to justify the latest ESN snafu. "We do not expect things to keep going so badly wrong time after time," she said.
Hillier also questioned Motorola's role: "Motorola has got a foot in both camps and is doing rather well out of this delay," she said.
Rycroft said he had been in talks with the chief executive of Motorola. "We need to ensure that they are putting their very best people on to this program to ensure that no one could make the allegation that you have hinted at, which is that they are seeking to go slower than they might because they are making money out of delay. It is really important that they demonstrate that that is not the case."
Rycroft said the Airwave system will be obsolete by around 2030, meaning that a move has to be made at some point this decade.
ESN progress to date
Rycroft told PAC that 70% of the ESN project has been implemented so far. He said new ESN handsets are currently being used by immigration enforcement, "and some ambulance services are using it as well."
Included in the remaining 30% is the Kodiak MCPTT application: ESN Beta followed by ESN Version 1.0. According to the government, ESN Version 1.0 is set to deliver all the public safety features and functionality required by the emergency services and first-responder community to start mass transition to ESN from Airwave.
Last September, it was reported that Samsung had provided 1,000 ESN Direct 1 handsets and was set to deliver 5,000 Direct 2 handsets. Davinson said at the time that the Direct 2 version of the ESN solution "actually includes most of the core capabilities that ESN requires," such as a working network, the Samsung device and SIM card to prioritize emergency services. The final core release, Prime, was scheduled for the second quarter of 2021.
EE, meanwhile, indicates on its website that it has built 600 new sites for emergency services coverage, "with more to come." It has also upgraded 19,000 of its existing sites for the ESN.
When asked by MP and PAC deputy chair Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown if he is "absolutely sure that this thing is going to work everywhere," Rycroft's response was less than encouraging, although he did indicate that ESN should be better than Airwave, eventually.
"I cannot give you that absolute assurance. What I can tell you is that it will work in significantly more places than the current system does, and that that alone will save lives — probably hundreds per year. That is a very significant rationale for continuing at pace with this program," Rycroft said.
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— Anne Morris, contributing editor, special to Light Reading