back to article Capita hops on UK's years-late, billions-over-budget Emergency Services Network to keep legacy system alive

Capita has won a contract to ensure existing Airwave emergency radios can work with the UK's Emergency Services Network (ESN), should the 4G pipe dream ever get switched on. The ESN scheme is meant to provide fully featured voice and data communications for blue-light services across the UK. But bungling by the Home Office …

  1. ma1010

    The actual question is

    Yeah, but you said they're using Capita. You want to ask "What could go Right?" That's a much shorter list than the "What could go wrong?" one.

    I feel for anyone in the UK who needs emergency services.

    1. Danny 14

      Re: The actual question is

      Capita has an astounding business plan. Bid really really low for a government contract. Run it badly but not quite badly enough to be yoinked. When you run out of money for the contract just go over budget and demand more.

      Seems to work really well for them.

      1. BebopWeBop

        Re: The actual question is

        You forget the bit about employing lots of ex-civil servants, cabinet ministers and MPs.

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: The actual question is

      "I feel for anyone in the UK who needs emergency services."

      It's ok, most of them carry personal mobile phones to cover when the official tech doesn't work.

      1. Delta Oscar

        Re: The actual question is

        'using their own phones.....' Brings back memories of BOWMAN - Better Off With Map And Nokia....

    3. Lotaresco

      Re: The actual question is

      I worked on delivery of Airwave systems back at the turn of the millennium. The "teething problems" were legendary but it has settled down into being usable and most of the emergency service seem to like or at least tolerate the terminals with the capability to work over long distance that VHF never had. The feature all of them appreciate is the emergency button.

      I still haven't seen any proposal how that feature would be implemented on ESN using personal/business mobiles. Several police officers I spoke to are concerned about losing push-button emergency calls. I would be if I were in their position with attacks on police officers now being relatively common. They aren't super heroes.

  2. Gio Ciampa

    EE only?

    Of course if we had a proper "National Grid" of mobile bandwidth availablility (which the telcos could rent by the mega/giga/terabyte of use)

    a) we'd not be tied to one provider for critical systems like this

    b) the system would provide some handy income into the Treasury

    (been I while since I had this rant...)

    1. JetSetJim

      Re: EE only?

      What, a publicly owned utility? Never, you commie bastard! Such concepts can only lead to the downfall of civilisation as we know it!

    2. myithingwontcharge

      Re: EE only?

      Actually you'd find that a) You would be tied to one network with no chance of any backup or alternative.

    3. MatthewSt

      Re: EE only?

      They could do something to Open up the Reach of landline services too. I think it'll work out just fine, and there won't be any possibility of creating an organisation that's seemingly beholden to no one and impossible to communicate with

      1. Kane
        Thumb Up

        Re: EE only?

        I see what you did there!

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: EE only?

      A start might have been to use the current mobile networks and insist that the emergency services had full roaming capacity - something available overseas but not at home. The saved money could then be spent putting masts to cover the current dead spots.

      Of course, that alone doesn't address the broadcast (open channel) requirements but I'd be surprised if nobody could develop a suitable group calling scheme. With 5G now being rolled out, the general public will probably have better communications than whatever ESN we end up with.

      Specialist handsets will always cost more per unit, and usually be less flexible. I have a "pro-grade" DSLR camera (and a selection of pro-grade lenses) but, for >90% of photographs, a modern phone gives just as good a result (often better because the phone is almost always to hand). The lens/sensor arrangement in, say, an iPhone is of a quality that could only be dreamed about for a separate camera a few years ago.

    5. NeilPost Silver badge

      Re: EE only?

      Surely the real question is why the fuck can’t Motorola Solutions - which now own Airwave - run/integrate it ???

      Despite the recent history, they are still a very large telecoms company.

  3. Gti Jazz Blue

    EE Data

    The article states:

    The system will run on EE's 4G network, giving police, ambulance and fire services priority

    I agree that the Emergency Services Should get priority - but it does beg the question, if there is a major incident close-by does that mean that ordinary EE subscribers will suddenly find themselves devoid of any Data Services? Queue mass exodus of EE users that rely on their Data Services.

    1. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: EE Data

      I think it's stupid in this day and age to deal with only one vendor.

      They're the government. They could literally pass a legislation: As a condition of your 4G/5G operating licence you MUST provide... whatever... on all cell towers, no matter the network.

      The extra cost would be reflected in a lower price at the spectrum auction, but I bet it's not £3bn lower.

      Then nobody gets a network that's "picked on" in an emergency, the emergency workers get guaranteed access wherever it's theoretically available, and the telecoms operators know exactly what's happening and there are no favourites taking backhanders.

      Of course... the latter reason is exactly why things aren't operated in that fashion.

      1. Commswonk

        Re: EE Data

        As a condition of your 4G/5G operating licence you MUST provide... whatever... on all cell towers, no matter the network. <snip>

        and the telecoms operators know exactly what's happening and there are no favourites taking backhanders.

        Of course... the latter reason is exactly why things aren't operated in that fashion.

        I strongly suspect not. If there are multiple providers providing coverage at any given location then if there is a problem of some sort it might be very hard to determine which service provider's equipment / system is at fault, making both reporting the problem and getting it fixed complex and costly.

        For something like an emergency services network, which since the introduction of TETRA has provided seamless coverage throughout the UK, there are strong arguments for having a single provider. Multiple providers result in multiple interfaces between providers all over the country with all manner of problems likely to arise.

        Not a good idea.

        1. Delbert Grady

          Re: EE Data

          As for the UK perhaps having multiple providers, i guess that wouldn't be too smart, it would just need the spec rigid and strictly adhered to, a countrywide emergency services radio network was do-able on analogue systems, (MOULD anyone) but no-one serious will use analogue anymore, no privacy, no data, no GPS no ID etc etc

          All digital comms are many times more complicated than analogue and with even with open standards like P25 and TETRA (and less mission-critical focussed systems like DMR) we still see vendors like to tweak their particular flavour - presumably as a way to lock you in to their flavour of the 'standard' by adding additions to keep you as their 'dealer' - vendor lock in, if they're allowed to.

          One of the biggest tech problems on 9/11 i believe, was comms interoperability, with several repeaters becoming n/a and with a proportion of comms infrastructure suddenly becoming knackered up a bit, the differences between vendors became apparent.

          I think the UK should keep TETRA and improve their implementation of it, it's far from perfect, but it's a pretty good system, sure the sets are low power and lthus imited range - requiring vastly heavier and more complex infrastructure.

          TETRA is very secure STILL, sounds good and portable & mobile terminals currently aren't too pricey, unless they hear you're from the Government and then prices seem to magically rise - as is a case often levelled at one main manafacturer in the US, Yes infrastructure is already in place, and sure, data is terribly slow, but many blue-light users fall back to cell phones anyway..

          It's taxpayers money, and alledgedly tax-payers they are trying to protect, but i fear the conversation between Men in suits in Whitehall and Men in suits in say, Illinois or somewhere may be frought :)

          I was going to make a point somewhere in here, but i dozed off whilst typing it .. this uneasy alliance has been done to death over the years..

      2. JetSetJim

        Re: EE Data

        > They could literally pass a legislation: As a condition of your 4G/5G operating licence you MUST provide... whatever... on all cell towers, no matter the network.

        That might actually be quite a bit harder - the phones will have to manage candidate neighbour lists that can then grow quite long, meaning it'll have to hunt through more cells & frequencies when it gets close to edge of coverage. Things like the p2p & hopped calls might also be harder, as the phones would have to radiate in all candidate bands/sub-frequencies for a source to find a "next hop".

        Performance might take a hit in some use-cases, which I doubt would be popular! There may be clever stuff to mitigate it, but I wouldn't hold my breath!

    2. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

      Re: EE Data

      if there is a major incident close-by does that mean that ordinary EE subscribers will suddenly find themselves devoid of any Data Services?

      'twas ever thus for any network... see

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    ^They're the government. They could literally pass a legislation: As a condition of your 4G/5G operating licence you MUST provide... whatever... on all cell towers, no matter the network.^

    Except that's socialism. And we roundly rejected that in 2019.

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Poe's law applies, so have a downvote just in case you're serious.

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Capita is aboard the failboat now!

    So I suppose that the plan is to create a man-made black hole of failure by piling into the Emergency Services Network every party for whom mediocrity is an aspiration. At which point Britain is swallowed up by blissful oblivion, and the need to ever finish the Emergency Services Network is obviated.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So if it currently costs 1.7m per day how much extra now crapita are involved?

    ESN is voice and data. Airwave is voice. What is there to integrate? Is this just another clever way of sploffing taxpayer money up the crapita wall?

    1. ClockworkOwl

      Oddly, thats around £3Bn over 5 years...

    2. Commswonk

      ESN is voice and data. Airwave is voice. What is there to integrate?

      The voice bit, so that wide area speech communication is maintained when (say) one force area has migrated to ESN while adjacent areas remain on Airwave pending later migration.

      The previous VHF/UHF systems did not provide that capability, and the change to TETRA (Airwave) enabled it. Taking it away again for anything more than an hour or two might have a serious impact on emergency service operations.

      It is also worth noting that Airwave does provide data comms, it's just that it is rather slow. IIRC the police don't use it much, if at all, while the ambo services do. Not sure about the fire service; their most critical comms is on the fireground which (again IIRC) doesn't use a trunked system anyway.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Most fire services use Airwave for short data messaging to truck mounted MDTs, with ESN on the far horizon there has been a move to commercial sims for 4g data but keeping Airwave as the critical bearer for mobilising messages.

        Incident comms is all UHF handheld radios with some already moved to digital and others that have bought dual mode analog/digital for cross border compatibility.

        ESN data is now a thing, trials have been done in Durham & Darlington and Dorset & Wiltshire for a couple of different use cases. Home office are pushing early adopters now to actually start using it for what it is intended to do.

        It is loads of extra work for already stretched people and budgets, there is transition funding available to support the work, but it needs to be claimed and justified - more work.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Airwave is voice AND DATA

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Airwave is voice and data

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Optional

        Fair enough but why integrate a system into another system when the first system is no longer going to be used? Common sense says you just set up the new system and any integration should have been part of the original scope anyway.

        1. phuzz Silver badge

          Re: Optional

          "why integrate a system into another system when the first system is no longer going to be used"

          There's not going to be one day where they switch off AirWave, and everyone starts using ESN. It's going to be a gradual process, probably with small groups switching over piecemeal (and probably some switching back, and the usual hold-outs refusing to touch the new system until their managers physically take it off them etc. etc.). The upshot of this is that both systems are going to have to run alongside each other for a period of time, and looking at the process so far, that period of time is probably going to be measured in years, if not decades.

          "Common sense says you just[....]"

          This is a government project, what is this 'common sense' of which you speak?

  7. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge


    ... ok whch politician's best friend/wife/child/BDSM partner is on the board of crapita?

    1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

      Re: Crapita

      All of them...

    2. ToddRundgrensUtopia

      Re: Crapita

      It's not the MPs it's always in the hands of the shit thick civil servants, who see nothing wrong with scrapping and starting again, no matter ho much progress has been made. Otherwise it could be Priti's fault I suppose.

      1. BebopWeBop

        Re: Crapita

        Correction. It is not just the MPs

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Airwave walkie-talkies costs about £1.7m per day to run"

    that's a bit of an disingenous statement, Airwave is so _very_much_more than 'walkie talkies'

    - and 1.7m daily ? - citation please

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      In this NAO report, they state:

      "The Home Office estimates that the total cost of providing Airwave is £1.7 million per day whereas a completed ESN would cost £0.7 million per day (paragraphs 1.14, 1.19, Figure 5 and Figure 8)."

      But I'm not entirely sure what document they're referring to.

  9. John70

    Crapita are now getting their nose in the trough.

    Might as well scrap the project and save billions...

  10. Denarius

    Is Home Office Fit for Purpose?

    One wonders if body issuing requirements is needing replacement, rather than contract companies

  11. Zippy´s Sausage Factory

    Given how long it takes to do this sort of thing, I expect it to be announced as mission accomplished and fully operational the day before a different vendor announces they're turning off the lights on their 4G service because nobody uses it any more.

    (Can we have a world-weary cynicism icon please? I seem to need one these days.)

  12. BebopWeBop

    Where there is shit, there is Crapita.

  13. The Vociferous Time Waster


    Is it wise to give Crapita anything given that they are circling the train with a share price falling through the floor?

  14. wyatt

    They're now more doomed at the HO with Capita on board than they were before, you'd think someone would read El Reg there?

    Interesting that you say UKESN is run over 4G, it's a VoLTE system so 'should' be able to go over which ever flavour 'G' is available at the time. With 5 becoming more prevalent, I hope the handsets are compatible but I doubt it at this stage. They're also locked to EE as this is the SIM card that they're using, EE having bid for the specific lot to provide the network. Nothing to stop them sticking in a different SIM and jumping on a different network, however correct routing of the data into the ESN network would be needed.

  15. steviebuk Silver badge

    That's great

    Try using EE at Royal Sussex hospital in Brighton and you'll be fucked. There is little to no signal.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: That's great

      The 3ES are doing coverage testing now, it's called Assure and is supposed to identify areas of concern regarding poor coverage before the system is adopted.

      It is dependent on the resources of whichever area's emergency service to fit devices to vehicles for BAU or targeted testing and by the end of the year it will be up to the chiefs of each service to accept and commit to using ESN.

      The stick in the background is that the last users on Airwave may become liable for the costs of using it if everyone else has moved to ESN.

      Although individual service pay Airwave for their airtime and device maintenance this is mostly covered by HO grants that have been in place since the FiReControl fiasco.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Good luck

    Good luck to the good eggs in capita, share price worryingly low, might not last the day. Hope we all find jobs.

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