How a bitter £11.3bn radio row turned into a 999 emergency

‘Over-ambitious’ timeline

Despite a target to get the emergency services network live by 2019, delays quickly emerged. The National Audit Office warned the Home Office had set an “over-ambitious” timeline that had been impossible to meet. Motorola software that would allow “push to talk” functionality similar to that of walkie-talkie handsets was delayed. Other parts of the network, such as a London Underground service, had also not been completed.

The spending watchdog was scathing of the Home Office’s progress, but also warned of potential “conflict of interest” concerning Motorola’s role.

Sources close to the project say questions were privately raised over Motorola’s takeover of Airwave and its role on the emergency services network. A source says: “You look at it and ask: how can it be a supplier on both sides?”

Motorola is also being investigated by Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, for alleged price fixing of the handsets used by police and emergency services. The case remains open and Ofcom has yet to make a final ruling.

In April 2021, the Home Office, under Priti Patel, wrote to the CMA expressing concerns over Airwave’s profitability and Motorola’s apparent lack of “incentives” to replace the system.

The CMA launched an investigation into Motorola’s control of Airwave, warning it could force it to sell the business. A CMA spokesman says: “We opened this investigation because we were concerned that the market for the supply of the mobile radio network used by emergency services might not be working well, resulting in a more expensive service for customers and, ultimately, the taxpayer.”

The Home Office, meanwhile, has hit out at Motorola’s evidence. “Motorola has made submissions which contain information that the Home Office considers inaccurate, misleading, or deliberately selective,” officials wrote.

The CMA’s imminent decision on Airwave could see Motorola forced to sell it. Barford, of Enders, says: “The problem with divestiture is it could take some time to do.” Another option is price controls, which “are in some ways more straightforward”, Barford says, but notes both are “very significant interventions”.

Motorola, meanwhile, has continued to defend itself. It said: “CMA intervention could literally cost lives by taking key operational decisions out of the hands of Airwave and putting them in the hands of the Home Office,” Motorola said. “The CMA will interfere with this contract at its peril.”

Years late and billions of pounds over budget, testing on the emergency services network is now underway. In recent weeks, EE experts, Welsh air ambulance crews and fire, police and ambulance services made their way out to the remote area of Mwnt, in west Wales, to try out its kit as the 2026 deadline to shut down Airwave edges ever closer.

The longer it remains operational, the more millions are added to the bill for taxpayers and Britain’s front-line responders.


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