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Extension to blue light services' Airwave network is on the cards

Folk in know confirm there's a Plan B if new net gets delayed

The Home Office has already worked out the cost of extending Blighty's radio-based emergency services network, in the increasingly-likely scenario that a move to ubiquitous 4G coverage cannot be delivered by 2020.

The £2.9bn digital radio communications Tetra (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) supplied by Airwave is currently due to be switched off at the end of 2019. In December last year EE won part of the £1.2bn Emergency Services Network contract.

By replacing the network with 4G, the blue light services will benefit from having extra data functionality such as video streaming. However, many have repeatedly observed that an extension of the Airwave contract will be necessary – not least because of delays in letting the contracts and trials having not yet begun.

Certainly the network itself cannot afford to be anything less than fully operational, otherwise lives could be put at risk.

Speaking at the Critical Communications World exhibition in Amsterdam earlier this month*, director of the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme Gordon Shipley said a Plan B is in place, just in case there are delays to the EE roll-out.

He said: "If we are not ready and the users are not ready to start transition, then we will have to stay on Airwave – and we will stay on Airwave."

He added that the UK is entitled to stay on Airwave "for as long as it takes to come off it; we have a plan and a fallback." He continued: "We know what the cost of a national extension would be on a monthly basis or a yearly basis."

The Home Office has even calculated what the cost of a regional or local extension would be, he added.

He said: "This will not go live unless we have demonstrated to our users the system works as intended and they are content to start transition."

Peter Neyroud, former chief exec of the National Police Improvement Agency who negotiated the initial Airwave contracts, said an extension was always going to happen.

He said: "The completion date was never do-able. There are too many variables that need to be sorted out."

Some of those include extending the network to the London Underground and remote areas across the country.

Neyroud added: "Most of us always said it would take at least until the middle of next decade not the end of this one. And that a sensible bridging solution would be needed."

The contract will involve the deployment of 130,000 new handheld devices as well as connectivity for 500 control rooms, 50,000 vehicles, 150 aircraft and 300,000 users, potentially

At a roundtable event organised by Land Mobile magazine in May, a number of key users outlined their concerns with the practicalities of moving to a new system. One of the challenges will be a greater number of different devices.

Terry Smith, head of business change ESMCP at the London Fire Brigade, said the current deadline is "too tight," adding: "I just don’t believe that there are sufficient people with the necessary skill sets, even if you take it down to a simple fitter for a vehicle."

Jamie Orr, ESN co-ordinator at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, said: "I’m not too worried about what ESN in the future might hold, but I have a concern about transition."

In December Motorola won the second lot in the ESN contract and will be responsible for installing and operating the new infrastructure – five days after it announced its acquisition of Airwave for £817m.

Airwave was previously pursuing legal action against the Home Office, alleging that the government had shifted the goalposts of the contract after the tender was let to EE. But two months after it was bought by Motorola, the biz dropped its action.

The Home Office said the Airwave TETRA network will remain fully operational across the UK until the end of transition to the new ESN. However, it would not respond to questions about an extension beyond the 2020 deadline. ®


* A special thank you to Sam Fenwick, editor of Land Mobile, for sharing the sound file of the event with The Register. ®

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