Delays to 4G ESN costing police £330m a year

Police Forces across England and Wales are spending a combined £330 million a year to extend the life of old equipment due to delays in implementing the 4G-powered Emergency Services Network (ESN).

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) noted that the project is now 18 months behind schedule, leaving forces reliant on updating the TETRA-powered Airwave radio system.

The ESN forms part of a wider £1.3 billion programme to replace aging IT systems within the police, with the new £1 billion network expected to deliver 80 per cent of the expected savings.

ESN delays

In addition to being considerably cheaper to run than Airwave, the ESN will allow police forces, firefighters and ambulance crews to access data-rich applications that can improve service.

The ESN is due to go live at the end of 2019 with more than 330,000 users. However, the project has been subject to frequent delays and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has frequently expressed concerns that there isn’t enough time to ensure that ESN is a safe and functional replacement for TETRA.

It was thought the first users could migrate as early as 2017 but this deadline was missed, and the target has been described as too ambitious. The concern is that without time for sufficient testing, public safety could be put at risk.

The Home Office has stated it has contingency plans in place and is adamant there will be no switch-off of the Airwave system until it is confident that it is safe to do so. Motorola has already said it expects to the Airwave contract to be extended for at least another five years.

TechRadar Pro understands that this is till the case and that Airwave will not be switched off until the Home Office is satisfied there is no risk whatsoever to public safety. Meanwhile, the ESN programme has gone under a review since the last PAC hearing, the results of which will be revealed by the Home Office in due course.

It had even been suggested that ESN could be scrapped, although a more realistic course of action is an incremental rollout of ESN, with the Airwave system extended past 2019 to power voice applications.

EE won a £1 billion contract to build more than 400 new sites and to develop a core system to support the ESN, while long range 800MHz spectrum will be deployed at 3,500 locations. The network will be able to prioritise ESN traffic when required and the firm will introduce satellite backhaul for hard to reach areas. The tube in London will also be covered.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.