Armed British Police offices pass number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K. (Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg)

U.K. Emergency Services Risk `Catastrophic' Comms Failure

(Bloomberg) -- The ability of U.K. emergency services to communicate during a terrorist attack or other disaster faces a “potentially catastrophic” blow unless ministers reach a deal with Motorola Solutions Inc. and Vodafone Group Plc to ensure continuity of their existing service, a panel of lawmakers warned.

The program to replace the existing radio-based system used by police, fire and ambulance services with one employing 4G mobile-data technology faces a nine-month delay, the cross-party Public Accounts Committee said in a report published Friday. That means the government needs to renew contracts with Motorola to extend the current service until September 2020, when the new system is due to be ready, the panel said. 

The lawmakers heard evidence from Motorola that Vodafone will stop providing a key piece of infrastructure needed to run the old system, Airwave, after March 2020. While ministers have signed contracts with Motorola and BT Group Plc’s mobile carrier EE to deliver the new system, called the Emergency Services Network, that leaves a hiatus between the radio-based network losing capacity and the new system becoming operational.

“The potential consequences of a six-month gap in emergency service communications are unthinkable,” Committee Chairwoman Meg Hillier said. “Government needs to tackle this now or the result will be quite simply a tragedy in waiting.”

In an email, Airwave owner Motorola said it’s committed to a smooth transition. The company said it’s working with the Home Office and Vodafone to find technical options to extend Airwave beyond March 2020, and will deliver a proposal to the government in June. “None of this impacts our Lot 2 delivery of the ESN for which we are on track,” the company said.

Vodafone said it has been in detailed discussions with the Home Office and Motorola. 

“We are actively working with all relevant parties to find an alternative solution to the old legacy fixed network used to link Airwave masts and to ensure continuation of service if the roll out of ESN misses its target date,” Vodafone said.

The Home Office said that keeping people safe is a “priority,” and signaled confidence that a fix will be found.

“We won’t take any risks with public safety,” Minister for Policing and the Fire Service Brandon Lewis said in a statement. “There will be no gap in the emergency services’ communications provision.”