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Emergency services face £170m bill for ‘expensive’ Airwave system that doesn’t provide data services and will eventually become obsolete

Britain’s emergency services have had to pay more than £170 million to run the Airwave system for critical communications because of delays to the replacement network, an influential parliamentary committee has found.

The Public Accounts Committee said the existing system, which although reliable, “is expensive, does not provide modern data services and will eventually become obsolete”.

The Home Office started the programme to deliver the new Emergency Services Network in 2015 and expected to turn off Airwave by 2019. But the programme has been hit by delays, including the departure of key supplier Motorola in 2021, leaving the department unable to say when ESN will be ready.

The committee of MPs looked into how much delays had cost the emergency services, which have had to pay for additional Airwave devices as a result.

The committee said: “ESN transitional costs for the ambulance service amount to £9.5m, while the fire service said it had spent £6m preparing for transition, and £2m on early versions of ESN which now had to be replaced. Police forces estimate that Airwave devices cost £125m since 2018, and expect to spend another £25m by 2026. Forces had spent a further £5m on transition teams.

“Further costs are inevitable, as current systems will be obsolete in 2028 and may need replacing again before ESN is ready.”

The committee said Motorola, the owner of Airwave, had been paid some £140m without the taxpayer getting full value, and added that only limited further progress could be made before the Home Office found a new supplier. The government department intends for ESN to use technology that is “as off-the-shelf as it can be”, the committee added.

The Competition and Markets Authority has proposed a price cap on Airwave, which will make the system less expensive to run. But the committee warned Airwave “will still require investment to replace potentially obsolescent infrastructure and technology, and to ensure it keeps operating at its current good performance level”.

Andrew McNamara, channel sales manager at Mobile Tornado, said: “The Public Accounts Committee’s report into the Emergency Services Network has performed a valuable service on behalf of UK taxpayers.

“As one of the MPs on the committee pointed out, a lot has changed since 2015 and the world and technology are in very different places.

“If Whitehall adopted a more pragmatic approach to procurement, emergency services would be able to benefit from advanced push-to-talk over cellular technologies available now from within the UK at a fraction of the cost and timescale.”