Essex Crime Commissioner would “pause” police communications project until 5G works

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The head of police budgeting in Essex has said he would wait until 5G works have been completed before spending any more money replacing the current police radio system.

Essex Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner Roger Hirst was speaking just 24 hours before reports emerged that the US told the government it would be “madness” to allow Chinese tech company Huawei to play any part of building the UK’s 5G mobile network, over fears it would compromise the nation’s security.

A replacement for Airwave – Britain’s emergency services communication system –  is set to go over budget by at least £3.1billion, a spending watchdog has warned.

The new Emergency Services Network service should eventually be cheaper and work better.

And with Airwave also taking up a large section of the UK’s radio spectrum, the sale of frequencies in that spectrum could raise more than £2billion, Mr Hirst added.

But Mr Hirst said he would be mindful to pause the project, which has been complicated further following concerns raised in the US over the potential of Huawei to build the UK’s 5G network.

He said: “The financial implications are significant. We will have to continue to invest in Airwave and, as our head of policing support services said, we have been around every car boot sale and bought all the spare and used Airwave handsets, we are now having to order new ones. We are having to invest more to make it work.

“Ultimately I dare say we will end up with a new emergency services communication network which works very well on mobile.

“I remain of the opinion that will wait until we have functioning 5G.

“That of course involves something to do with our trade negotiations with the Americans because the basic provider of 5G is a Chinese company and the Americans aren’t too keen and may see our trade negotiations with them as a soft way in for the Chinese to penetrate the US market.”

Officials believe the new system to replace Airwave could save £200million a year by sharing existing commercial mobile networks

But a National Audit Office report earlier in the year slammed the project and its management for delays and increased costs.

Mr Hirst said: “We are getting to the time when 5G is looking viable. I suspect that my original assessment is remarkably close to the truth that when we get 5G this will work, but the 4G technology has too many blank spots.

“It still does not work properly underground and it still does not work in remote areas with serious topography. There are still worrying holes in Essex which is flat as a pancake and fairly well populated.

“When it works we’ll love it but until it works we won’t have it.”

The Home Office has already delayed switching off the existing system by three years to 2022.

Mr Hirst added: “We are about to go into the bit where the spend diverges.

“That divergent spend means the break even point has been deferred from 2024 to 2027 because Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme is cheaper to operate than Airwave.

“If I were a Home Secretary looking at this programme and looking at that fact that so far it has only cost as much to run as the old one, I might just put it on pause until 5G comes along, save the £3.1billion and spend it later.

“The counter pressure to that is Airwave uses a chunk of radio spectrum and that radio spectrum is worth at least £2billion to the Treasury. So the Treasury are dead keen to have this work.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter

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