Emergency Services Telecomms Contract – Airwave / ESN Transition Proves Tricky

Here is another UK public sector procurement initiative that we fear is going to join the long and inglorious list of failures, fiascos and f*** - ups.

This one has been bubbling around for some years, and we have considered featuring it previously. But it is ever-so-slowly and steadily getting to the point where it will either get resolved, probably at huge cost to the public purse, or the consequences will hit the front pages as people lose their lives.

Airwave was (and is) the emergency communications system used by police, ambulance and fire service. It has been in place for years, but I remember when I worked in government it was not popular or seen as particularly effective or indeed cost effective. I can’t exactly remember why, which is just as well as it is probably classified information. But I seem to remember it did not work in some situations where you really would think it should and would. However, it gets a good review in the 2016 National Audit Office (NAO) report on this topic.  Perhaps it got better …

In 2011, the government set up the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme to look at options to replace Airwave when the contracts expired in 2020. Government’s chosen option to replace the Airwave service is known as the Emergency Services Network (ESN). According to NAO, “ESN will save money by sharing an existing commercial 4G network: the Airwave network is fully dedicated to public sector use. It will also bring better mobile-data capabilities than provided by Airwave”.

So our current Prime Minister, Theresa May, approved the purchase of this replacement system when she was Home Secretary. The programme awarded the three main contracts for the provision of ESN in 2015 to Kellogg Brown and Root, Motorola Solutions and EE Ltd. The new option was supposedly cheaper and “better” but it wasn’t long before the National Audit Office pointed out that it was also jolly risky - technically cutting-edge and the solution has never been implemented anywhere else previous to this project. NAO also questioned its functionality and the planned speed of implementation as being overly optimistic.

The new ESN system was supposed to be ready in mid-2018 but this has been pushed back to September 2020. The problem then is that Vodafone, who provide an important element of the infrastructure that Airwave requires to function, have said they will turn it off in March 2020. They are not involved in the new ESN programme, so don’t have any ongoing skin in the game. But if Airwave did fold before ESN was ready, then it would be back to the policeman’s whistle and megaphones for the boys in blue, we assume?

What is the likely outcome? We suspect a deal will be done with Vodafone, one that will be hugely profitable for that company. Government has some leverage with them because of other business with the firm, but really, it is not a very satisfactory BATNA for the government negotiators. Vodafone will understand exactly how important the continuity they can offer really is, that’s for sure. Perhaps a few veiled threats to look carefully at their interesting procurement operation in Luxembourg from a tax standpoint might bring them to the negotiating table in a more flexible mode?

What can we learn from this? It is not a common situation, but equally not that unusual either. So when you have a strategically critical contract (and supplier), any transition to a new product, service or provider has to be planned VERY carefully, and lots of risk mitigation must be built in. Assume the worst on timescales, and think about contingencies.


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