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New UK 4G Emergency Services Network Faces Possible Delay

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018 (2:18 pm) - Score 2,642
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A new report claims that the Government’s £1.2bn Emergency Services Network (ESN), which will be delivered by mobile operator EE using 4G technology (supported by Motorola Solutions and KBR), could be facing a significant delay of several years before achieving completion.

At present the police, fire and other emergency services make use of the Motorola-owned Airwave network, which is believed to cost the UK around £3bn and harnesses TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) technology. The TETRA network is slow (dialup like data speeds) and expensive, but it also delivers wide voice coverage. Nevertheless in 2015 the government decided to replace it with a 4G solution, which was due to finish by December 2019.

Unfortunately it hasn’t all been plain sailing and last year the Public Accounts Committee warned that the ESN “seems unlikely” to meet its target date for delivery, with the finger of blame being pointed at challenges with achieving the desired level of coverage (e.g. how it will operate on underground rail systems and other tedious areas), software/hardware readiness and concerns about possible cost overruns (here).

Fast forward to this month and the CEO of Motorola Solutions’, Greg Brown, recently said: “We now believe the Airwave contract will be extended by five or more years” (an agreement is expected to be finalised within the next few weeks or months). Such an extension could end up costing anything from around £360m to £475m per year.

Today The Register claims to have seen an official update from the programme, which is currently under review (an official update is expected in July 2018). This predicts “significant changes to the structure and delivery [of the ESN]” and notes that the government has already started “reductions of contractor support“.

A Home Office spokesperson said:

“This a complex project which will provide the emergency services with the most advanced communications system of its kind anywhere in the world. We keep the delivery of ESN and the continued use of Airwave under constant review. We have not made any decisions about extending relevant contracts.

We will have a clearer picture of delivery timescales once the ongoing review of the Programme is complete.”

Apparently two options are now being considered. The first suggests only deploying the 4G network for data and retaining Airwave for voice, at least until the 4G side is proven ready to go it all alone. The second allegedly suggests a complete shutdown of the new ESN, at least until an unspecified future date (i.e. get the technology sorted properly first).

The new system is a radical departure from existing ESN solutions and is not yet in use nationwide anywhere else in the world. In the end going 4G for the ESN might not end up saving much money, at least not for awhile. The government has previously said that won’t make the switch until ESN is truly ready.

We should point out that the ESN will have its own separate setup alongside EE’s commercial 4G network.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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5 Responses
  1. Meadmodj

    They should have thought about that at the beginning. It is totally naive to have assumed 4G could provide 100% without other technologies.
    For example, in the same way we can revert to WIFI Calling indoors (most suppliers) where mobile signals are weaker they should be considering the same concept. TfL already have contracts for WIFI coverage on the underground. Other technologies should have been considered in the remote parts of Scotland, Wales etc where there is no outdoor 4G coverage. Where there is 4G outdoor coverage then they should use external aerials on vehicles with WIFI hubs inside the vehicle.

    Why has it taken this long to come to the simple conclusion 4G can’t meet the requirement.

    Politics and funding I assume.

    • JustAnotherFileServer

      I’m sure at some point in the future it will be said about 5G. It seems that every generation is sold as the be all and end all. This country needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

    • Meadmodj

      Indeed. 5G does not travel well, gets blocked by buildings etc and you need multiple masts. A lot of hype currently and not just from the mobile providers.

  2. Phil

    I’m not sure why the government didn’t come to some agreement or create some legislation for all the mobile phone operators to supply the service in order to be granted a licence to operate. We already see a similar agreement in place as if we have no signal from our mobile provider as a customer, we all get to automatically roam onto whichever network gets us a signal for emergency calls. It would be very easy to let the emergency services have a global roaming option I should have thought for loads of extra coverage and also redundancy. Not saying they should provide the service for free, OFCOM could have reduced or refunded all the operators some of the extortionate money they end up having to bid, or they are paid for what is used on each network. The network with the best performance gains the most then, so an incentive to continue to provide coverage. Plus it’s fairer on all networks rather than one having the monopoly and investment.

  3. 3G Infinity (now 4G going on 5G)

    Some comments on above:

    5G doesn’t travel well – depends on the frequency. 5G on 700MHz travels very well. Its not the ‘G’ more how many towers have been built and is there 100% geographical coverage including all tunnels (and that means rail as well as road).

    Roaming across mobile operators – possible. However, putting aside better data (4G) for ESN, the other aspects around Security, direct connection to Police, Fire and Ambulance control centres etc mean that 1 single operator with a hardened network is the most economical route. Survivability, support for Security Services, data centres that are protected etc are where ESN differs, along with the need for ESN to operate in a major incident without falling over.

    There are many ways to do this: Belgium has kept its Tetra network and then obtained a data only MVNO that runs alongside. Many users now have dual-mode terminals with tetra and 4G inside and get the benefits of big screens, apps etc alongside single button ‘save my life’ lone worker etc.

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