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UPDATE NAO Warns New UK 4G Emergency Services Network is “High Risk”

Thursday, September 15th, 2016 (11:12 am) - Score 2,025

The National Audit Office has warned that the Government’s move to replace the existing Airwave wireless communications network, which is used by the police, fire and other emergency services, with a 4G solution supplied by EE is “inherently high risk” and the dangers are not being taken seriously enough.

At present the existing Emergency Services Network (ESN) is run by Airwave at a cost of around £3bn and using TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) technology, which is old and delivers incredibly slow data speeds of only a few Kilobits per second. On the other hand TETRA does have excellent coverage and doesn’t suffer from as many notspots as consumer mobile technology.

By comparison the new contract (here) is worth £1.2bn and will make use of EE’s 4G network, which is expected to reach 95% of the UK’s landmass by 2020 (99.8% population coverage). The NAO’s Report notes that the TETRA network currently covers 97% of the UK’s landmass and has had excellent availability, but at present EE’s 4G network can only reach 70% of the UK’s landmass and the first ESN users are expected to go live by the end of 2017.

However EE considers that their consumer commitment of growing 4G landmass coverage to 95% is separate to the ESN and measured against consumer usage (consumers will use different devices). The network requirements and measurements are therefore also different (i.e. ESN coverage and consumer coverage are not measured in the same way). EE says that at the time ESN goes live the consumer coverage will be around 92% (landmass), which rises to 97% when using the ESN’s own measure.

A lot of EE’s planned coverage and service improvements will be come via the greater use of VoLTE and low frequency 800MHz spectrum, as well as a mix of satellite backhaul and Rapid Response Vehicles. The Rapid Response Vehicles will be used to support events or mitigate site outages, either for coverage or capacity.

So far so good, except the NAO isn’t entirely convinced that the new approach will work as intended. In particular it points to the huge technical challenge in needing to develop masses of new handheld and vehicle-mounted devices, as well as push-to-talk software for ‘radio-like’ communications (these aspects aren’t EE’s responsibility) and software that can give emergency services personnel priority over commercial 4G users (this part is EE’s responsibility).

Amyas Morse, Head of the NAO, warned:

“The need to save money and get out of a difficult commercial relationship has led the government to try and move to an approach that is not yet used nationwide anywhere in the world. The programme remains inherently high risk and while steps have been taken to manage these risks we are concerned that these are under-rated in the Home Office and elsewhere.

The programme needs to put in place more independent testing and assurance regimes for its technical solution and urgently improve its approach to engaging with the emergency services.”

The NAO states that delivery of the programme against these technical challenges is “by no means certain” and, “while total failure seems unlikely, there remains a risk that the programme will not be able to overcome these challenges for the cost or timetable proposed in the full business case, or to the satisfaction of users.

Interestingly the programme is not intending to force the emergency services to transition to ESN but has instead assured them that they can stay on Airwave until ESN is “at least as good as Airwave“. The NAO warns that “defining this is complex and leaves room for disagreement, particularly over where is covered by the ESN service.”

Apparently the Emergency Services themselves have also raised concern about the “ambitious” delivery timetable, which would see the new network be ready by 2020. “Emergency services personnel … told us that the transition period from September 2017 to December 2019 already gave them limited opportunity to plan or learn lessons from each other,” said the report.

As part of this it’s important to remember that the communication systems used by our emergency services can literally make the difference between life and death for members of the public, thus it’s crucial to get the network right. Any concerns raised by the NAO thus need to be taken very seriously.

UPDATE 3:55pm

Updated our article to make a few corrections to EE’s role and expectations above, plus here’s what EE itself says.

An EE Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

“As the report suggests, Emergency Services Network is a state of the art technology programme that will allow Britain’s police, fire and ambulance services to benefit from a world leading communications network.

We’re proud to be a part of this programme, and we’re confident in delivering our commitments so that the lives of Britain’s Emergency Services workers will be improved, not put at risk.

Failing to replace the current, outdated systems will prevent Britain’s Emergency Services from becoming safer, more efficient, and more effective, and risks leaving them behind as technology advances around them.”

Leave a Comment
5 Responses
  1. chris conder says:

    Considering that many areas of the UK have no 2G signal yet it could be 20 years before 4G ever gets decent coverage. Its all part of the superfarce.

    1. Chris says:

      Well, where I live there is patchy Vodafone and extremely patchy O2. There is no EE anywhere. There is no 4G. Better hope I don’t have an accident.

      C.

    2. Ignitionnet says:

      Not aware of any country beyond perhaps city states that has 100% mobile coverage.

      Can’t expect companies to build a cell tower for a farm or a small row of houses. Livestock aren’t famed for their contributions to mobile company ARPU.

    3. Chris says:

      I live in a parish of 600 people so not just the odd farm. Still, I agree not very profitable. Does not make a good emergency services solution though.

  2. bob says:

    What TETRA coverage looks like at the moment:- https://cloudrf.com/UK%20TETRA%20coverage

    NO 4G operator is close to this and there are still gaps in TETRA coverage.

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