It has been a year since EE won a government contract to help build a new £1 billion emergency services network (ESN) in the UK.
The award (unlike its implementation, to judge from recent media reports) proved relatively straightforward. EE was in fact the only remaining bidder when the tender was settled after O2 dropped out.
Upon being awarded the contract, Olaf Swantee – then the CEO of EE – said it was “immensely proud to be selected to deliver this new vital network”, and set a target to begin replacing the existing Tetra infrastructure, operated by Airwave Solutions, from mid-2017.
A year on, however, and this looks ambitious, while questions are being raised as to whether EE could even come to regret its own involvement.
For one, the project was recently subject to some negative headlines.
Some UK MPs have branded the network, which will replace the existing two-way radio system used by the country’s fire, ambulance and police departments, as “inherently high risk” because the technology is untried anywhere else.
There are also questions about a conflict of interest with Motorola Solutions, EE’s technology partner, which decided to buy Airwave just before the tender was finalised.
ESN is now reported to be five months behind schedule and EE, along with the home office and its partners, were forced to defend the plan last month in front of MPs representing the Public Accounts Committee, the UK’s spending watchdog.
The operator is indeed in the firing line, but Chris Pennell, lead analyst at Ovum, is sympathetic, suggesting it is facing a number of issues that it simply cannot address.
Beyond EE’s responsibility
“The switch over (from Tetra to ESN) relies on many moving parts, many of which are outside of EE’s control,” he said. “While EE will be held accountable for delays in improving coverage, agencies are also struggling and there are some fundamental questions that have not even been finalised.”
A major concern is also Motorola’s involvement. It has been accused of potential conflicts of interests given it now owns the company that operates the existing network.
Pennell conceded it “does not look good” for Motorola to be signing new contracts for Airwave-based solutions, “but at the end of the day, there is a need for these services that cannot go unmet”.
A delay in ESN is also going to be costly for the government.
It could end up costing as much as £475 million to keep Airwave’s system running if it is delayed by a year.
So, could this growing scrutiny lead to the project being scrapped altogether?
“This is very unlikely,” added Pennell. “The existing Tetra network, while good for voice, cannot support the increasing demand for data services. This issue has led to many first responders having to carry multiple devices.”
Motorola denies any claims of “perverse incentives,” and the right noises are still coming out of EE.
Tom Bennett, group director of technology services at EE, last month said the company is “pleased with progress so far”.
“We’ve hit all our milestones. We’ve done the demonstration of the technology in the labs and I look forward to achieving operational trials next year.”
While EE is no doubt maintaining it is keeping up its end of the bargain, it is also notably keeping something of a distance from the project.
Its press relations department told Mobile World Live on more than one occasion this year the project should not be branded as its own, but as a government initiative with EE involved as a partner.
Pennell believes the impact on EE’s reputation, should the widely expected delay occur, will depend on how it manages and communicates the situation and its future involvement in such projects.
He isn’t overly concerned. “As history has shown, while in the short term issues such as these can tarnish the brand, in the long term, I am not sure it will prohibit or deter EE from other businesses in the public sector,” suggests the Ovum man.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.