UK's LTE-based ESN still getting red marks over delays

The UK's Emergency Service Network is now on pause as the government seeks a replacement for Motorola Solutions and Kodiak.

Anne Morris, Contributing Editor, Light Reading

April 28, 2023

6 Min Read
UK's LTE-based ESN still getting red marks over delays

A little under two years ago, the UK's Emergency Services Network (ESN) was already in trouble. Well over budget and late by several years, the project has been overhauled a number of times and those responsible have been admonished on numerous occasions by oversight bodies such as the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the National Audit Office (NAO).

Fast forward to April 2023, and the situation has, remarkably, got even worse. Originally scheduled to go live in 2019, the project has now been delayed to 2026. However, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently suggested that the ESN may not be up and running until 2029. Meg Hillier, chair of PAC, said the program to date has cost around £2 billion (US$2.5 billion).

Originally heralded as a modern-day replacement of the old-style TETRA-based Airwave network provided by Motorola Solutions, and based on an LTE network from BT-owned mobile operator EE, ESN has been an ongoing source of embarrassment for the UK's Home Office.

Figure 1: The UK's emergency services network seems to be going nowhere fast.(Source: B Christopher/Alamy Stock Photo) The UK's emergency services network seems to be going nowhere fast.
(Source: B Christopher/Alamy Stock Photo)

Motorola Solutions was also a key contractor for the ESN, and was due to supply its Kodiak solution as the mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) application to enable essential voice communications over the LTE network. However, Motorola Solutions terminated its ESN contract in December 2022 with a 12-month transition period, meaning that the Home Office is now seeking a new PTT supplier. The ESN has effectively been placed on pause.

As conceded during a March 2023 PAC hearing by Sir Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the Home Office, ESN "is the biggest and hardest of all of the Home Office's programs, and we have a portfolio that is stuffed full of very difficult programs. This is the reddest of them all."

During a later PAC hearing in April, Simon Ricketts, a senior technology adviser and chair of the Independent Technical Assurance Panel at the Home Office, offered one explanation for the project's extreme tardiness: it was ahead of its time.

"The whole issue, which is why [PAC] has been wrestling with it since 2012, I believe, is that it was just premature and not feasible at the time. When it started to become feasible … it coincided with a very difficult 2021 in terms of delivery from Motorola, and then of course their decision to leave the programme. Just as progress was starting to be made, a whole piece of the programme was missing," Ricketts said.

Finding a workaround

PAC held the two ESN hearings in March and April to gather evidence from the Home Office as well as representatives of the emergency services, including fire and rescue, ambulance services and the police. The hearings provide some interesting insights into why the project continues to drag on, and how the delay is affecting the actual end-users.

As explained by Kier Pritchard, chief constable in charge of ESN at the National Police Chiefs Council, the delay has impacted the capabilities of all three emergency services to plan for the future, and has also severely dented their confidence in the deliverability and future interoperability of ESN.

A big problem is that ESN devices are not yet ready, but the services are worried about investing in "old new" Airwave devices that could quickly become obsolete. Furthermore, there are concerns about the obsolescence of aging Airwave infrastructure.

"Critical voice around mission-critical communication is vital for policing. We are crying out for a realistic plan that sets out the timeframes of what needs to be delivered and when," Pritchard said.

He also noted that "as a result of the delays between 2018 and 2022, that was 175,000 Airwave devices at a cost of £122.5 million ($153.1 million) that we needed to purchase. Our predictions from 2023 until the first Airwave shutdown at the end of 2026 is another 37,000 Airwave devices, and that is a cost of £25.9 million ($32.7 million). So they are significant. There is normally a 10-year life cycle on those with one battery replacement. We need to be confident."

Pritchard, as well as Ben Norman, deputy chief fire officer at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, and Chris Lucas, senior user at NHS Ambulance Radio Programme, indicated that they are now seeking workaround solutions, raising the concern that it might be hard to convince the emergency services to switch to ESN if and when it becomes available.

France charges ahead, with an eye on the Olympics

Given all the delays, extra costs and ever-diminishing confidence in ESN, the question was inevitably asked if the UK should just call the whole thing off.

Ricketts was quick to respond: "The panel's view and my view is that broadband-based cellular networks is the right technology – 4G, 5G, 6G. There isn't really another game in town."

He also noted that other countries are looking at alternative PTT apps to Kodiak, "and there are other apps available. Nokia has a product; Samsung has a product. The critical issue is whether that app is sophisticated enough to do what we need it to do."

While ESN may have been somewhat early to the table, Ricketts said the indications are that the technology is now credible. "We did an international review of seven other European countries, and the [United] States and [South] Korea, and concluded that everyone is now starting to move in this general broadband direction. They would, I think, rightly describe that they watched and learnt while the UK almost certainly went prematurely."

Ricketts pointed out France is working on a new system that is scheduled to be up and running in time for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Here, Ricketts is referring to the Réseau Radio du Futur (RRF), the next-generation communication system for public safety services in France. Notably, RRF is expected to be fully in line with the European BroadWay-BroadNet project, an EU-funded project for the next generation of critical communications in Europe.

Ricketts's suggestion that France might be getting ahead in the game despite the early start by the Brits certainly caused certain PAC members to bristle.

"That is potentially an extraordinary pace," said Hillier, somewhat sharply. "I am in my eleventh year of looking at [ESN], which is rather depressing. But if the French can do it, that is a challenge for the government – a little competitive edge there."

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— Anne Morris, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Anne Morris

Contributing Editor, Light Reading

Anne Morris is a freelance journalist, editor and translator. She has been working in the telecommunications sector since 1996, when she joined the London-based team of Communications Week International as copy editor. Over the years she held the editor position at Total Telecom Online and Total Tele-com Magazine, eventually leaving to go freelance in 2010. Now living in France, she writes for a number of titles and also provides research work for analyst companies.

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