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‘White Elephant’ fiasco looms at technology chiefs warn that new digital network will not cope


£2bn police radio ‘out of date already’

Financial Mail – The Mail on Sunday, June 20 2004
By Simon Fluendy and Peter Warren

A massive scheme to replace police radio networks with high-tech hand held computers is turning into a multi-billion pound white elephant thanks to a Government blunder.

The £2 billion Airwave system, which was bought from mobile phone group mm02, is not delivering what was anticipated, say major police forces. But putting things right could add hundreds of millions of pounds to the project.

Airwave was meant to deliver secure communications between officers and controllers at 50 police forces. It was also supposed to file reports and access databases on the move.

But far from allowing rapid down-loading of data, Airwave is operating a less than a quarter of the speed of computer modems ten years ago. That means it takes 12 seconds or more to download a passport size picture to one of the few terminals equipped to receive them, according to the Police Information Technology Organisation.

MPs are already asking questions and the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee are also understood to be about to launch inquiries. Though mm02 is responsible for installing and managing the Airwave system, the company is not believed to be in the line of fire. Rather it was the original specification that was at fault.

The Home Office admitted on Friday that forces were already having to supplement the network with other equipment and radios were being replaced as obsolete even though the system is not even complete.

A secret report prepared by Northumbria Police Authority and obtained by Financial Mail says: ‘It was originally envisaged that Airwave would be the primary mechanism for carrying mobile data, but the capacity for data is much lower than expected and not suitable for all mobile services.’ The report is just one of many complaints from top officers and key technicians on the project.

‘Airwave is better than the old system for voice traffic – at least we don’t get interference from Dutch cabbies anymore’, said one police source. ‘But it is nothing like the brave new world we were hoping for.’

Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten tabled a series of parliamentary questions last week about the project, demanding to know how much costs were likely to rise and whether extra radio masts will be needed. There are 3,500 masts for Airwave, which have sparked health concerns at the Police Federation and among nearby residents. Some estimates say forces will have to double the number of masts to ensure proper data coverage. Oaten is especially concerned that if identity cards are introduced, the need for police to move digital data will rocket and costs will soar.

An mm02 spokesman said: ‘The Airwave system is delivering services that customers have asked for. Forces are delighted to have a secure and reliable communications system.’

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TETRA, Centenary House, Durrington TETRA repeater at Centenary House Durrington. Home of West Downs Divisional Police HQ, but the Airwave Project Office would never say. They knew, but it was their secret. Spot the bitter irony below: also home of trading standards, social services and education! Health is next door!

Centenary House: safety? trading standards? education?


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