Government 'unlikely' to scrap delayed 4G ESN

The £1 billion 4G-powered Emergency Services Network (ESN) could be rolled out in phases or scrapped entirely due to continued delays, however TechRadar Pro understands the latter course of action is unlikely.

The ESN is due to go live at the end of 2019, giving police forces, firefighters and ambulance crews access to 4G applications that can improve service. By then, it is expected that more than 330,000 users will have moved over from the old TETRA system.

However 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.

Emergency Services Network

According to a document seen by The Register the Home Office has put forward two courses of action. The incremental rollout would see ESN used for data applications, while the existing Airwave-powered radio service would be extended past the 2019 cut off data to power voice applications.

“This a complex project which will provide the emergency services with the most advanced communications system of its kind anywhere in the world,” said a Home Office spokesperson. “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. We will have a clearer picture of delivery timescales once the ongoing review of the Programme is complete”.

The Home Office has previously stated that it had contingency plans in place should ESN not be ready by the end of 2019 and is adamant there will be no switch-off the Airwave system until it is confident that it safe to do so.

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.

A source close to the operator told TechRadar Pro that it was confident the incremental rollout option would be accepted and that the Home Office was obligated to outline what would happen if the project was scrapped. Indeed, it is understood that the Home Office is strongly recommending that the ESN is delivered in phases, with Airwave used alongside it for the time being.

Indeed, Motorola has already said it expects the airwave contract to be extended for at least another five years. However the cost of scrapping ESN would be significant given the amount of work carried out, while the long-term use of Airwave would require the upgrade and maintenance of sites across the UK.

If and when it is launched, the ESN will be the first system of its kind in the world.

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.