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New 4G Emergency Services Network Faces Another 2 Year Delay

Wednesday, Sep 16th, 2020 (8:21 am) - Score 6,329
ee 4g rapid response vehicle and fire crew uk

The Permanent Secretary for the UK Home Office, Matthew Rycroft, has informed the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the new 4G based Emergency Services Network (ESN) is now unlikely to completely take over from the existing platform until early 2024 or late 2025. Previously it was due by December 2022.

At present the emergency services (police, fire etc.) interface via the Motorola-owned Airwave network, which is believed to cost the UK around £3bn and harnesses the TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) network technology. However, TETRA is slow (dialup / ISDN like data speeds but it could go a bit faster with upgrades) and expensive, although it does deliver excellent voice coverage (c.97% geographic reach).

The high cost of Airwave is often highlighted as one of the main reasons why the government, in 2015, decided to replace it with 4G (the first country to do so). The Home Office originally expected that emergency services could start using this ESN in September 2017, allowing Airwave to be replaced by December 2019, but a report last year revealed that the new network was £3.1bn over budget and wouldn’t be ready until December 2022 (here).

Mobile operator EE (BT) holds the main 4G based (mobile broadband) network contract, but the ESN covers a variety of different areas with other suppliers that have also been delayed (e.g. handsets, software etc.). We should add that EE’s contract does not include all aspects of ESN coverage (e.g. the Home Office is responsible for commissioning 292 masts to be built in areas not covered by the market and those are delayed too).

NOTE: The ESN has its own separate setup alongside EE’s commercial 4G network. The two should not be confused, but some of the extra masts being built under the ESN could help all operators to grow their mobile coverage (depending upon deals reached).

The latest PAC meeting revealed that EE’s mast-build side of the ESN should actually be in place “certainly by the end of the year – we are actually targeting the end of October [2020],” although getting other aspects like the London Underground coverage sorted still requires “a lot more work“.

Matthew Rycroft said:

“We have had a reset, and the reset is not just about technology. It is also about mindset, and the mindset reset is to put the users at the heart of this. That does take a little bit longer, but I think it is time well spent in order to get a programme that they can support, and so that’s what we are doing.

In terms of the dates, the absolute latest that we could turn Airwave off is 2025, and what we are seeking to do is to accelerate that date so that we can turn it off by the beginning of 2024. If we could turn it off even sooner than that, then obviously we can, but I don’t want to give a date which then doesn’t get met.”

The big issue with keeping Airwave going for longer, past 2022, is that for each year they do that it adds an extra cost of around £550 million (i.e. c.2 years of additional delay could add another c.£1.1bn to the cost) and most of that will go to Motorola. We should add that Motorola has also acquired Kodiak, which is the ESN supplier responsible for the new network’s 4G (LTE) push-to-talk solution. Awkward.

Rycroft added that “even if there is further delay into 2025 the net present value of this programme will be positive. We have to go ahead with this because it is going to be a better product and, in the long run, cheaper year on year than the existing system.” Last year’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO) suggested that it would be July 2029 before the financial benefits outweigh its costs, but this may now take even longer.

Credits to Urgent Comms for spotting last week’s meeting (PDF).

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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18 Responses
  1. Avatar photo UK says:

    As usually UK are always behind. Rubbish country we ever lived.

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      In fairness, the UK was the first country to try this, but whether that’s a positive or a negative now..

    2. Avatar photo 5G_Infinity says:

      Unwelcome and incorrect. Many other countries are doing this, eg US with Firstnet, Finland, Australia, Belgium, etc and with different approaches, some are running Tetra alongside 4G.

      Either way, transitioning ESN onto 4G is a good thing, because it shares the same radio network with EE’s commercial service, therefore a move to 5G will be made much easier and could be done seamlessly.

  2. Avatar photo Tim says:

    They should just use a SIM that can roam between all 4 MNO’s… don’t need to build a whole new network.

    1. Avatar photo Alex says:

      Great idea. Then criminals will only commit crime in the areas where there’s no network coverage at all!

    2. Avatar photo Chris says:

      but what about the areas that have no signal at all on any network?

  3. Avatar photo Michael V says:

    I partly agree with Tim. As when we make a call to emergency service, if we lose signal on our home network it will roam onto another operators network. The Emergency responders should have that ability now, but I do believe an ESN should be built so they can have reliable video calling in addition to voice. Two Operators should have been given the licence to build it not just one Operator.

  4. Avatar photo Jack says:

    Roaming SIM’s with guaranteed priority, an ESN MVNO so they have full control. But also building new masts to extend the coverage, then allowing other operators to use the new masts generating revenue.

    Roaming SIM’s are already a thing in the UK thanks to A&A and others.

    1. Avatar photo 5G_Infinity says:

      MVNO is not possible as ESN requires its own physical 4G Core separated from the main EE 4G Core for security reasons.

  5. Avatar photo DC says:

    I think you are over simplifying the needs of the emergency services. Instant connection through to operators is vital to the emergency services not having to wait for a call to connect. Sure you could do it over a LTE / 5G data connection but it would have to be established all the time.

    100% coverage through out the UK is not a wish it’s a must have. That includes stadiums, underground transit systems, rural locations. That’s not something you can have with a MVNO.

  6. Avatar photo NE555 says:

    “until early 2024 or late 2025”

    Is that the wrong way round?

  7. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

    I don’t think the entire 4g UK network is mature enough to provide the quality of service that’s needed for this. It may have been if the carriers had futureproofed their installs and pipe bandwidth’s but they all did it on the cheap, which is why we’re so behind the rest of the world.

    4g/5g it don’t matter which. They’ll never do the speeds they are actually capable of here in the UK because the carriers simply won’t spend that heavily to futureproof the investment, simply because 6g will be on top of them before that happens.

    Its a continual game of catch up with all of them being as bad as one another, whilst selling the “great new thing” when they all have no intention of delivering on the tech promises.

  8. Avatar photo Mark says:

    Didn’t TETRA have the ability to use the vehicle whichever emergency service as a beacon/ repeater, to boost the signal in difficult areas? Does the new system have this.

  9. Avatar photo André says:

    The way this is going I wonder if it’ll ever see the light of day or if it’ll go the way of the ill-fated National Programme for IT in the NHS.
    That one died with a whimper after many billions were spent over a decade in seemingly very little.

    1. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

      Like we’ll inevitably get with HS2?

  10. Avatar photo Nick Roberts says:

    Leap-frogging specifications and cost escalation on Defence Requirements seems like its well handled in comparison.

    An HMG telecomms policy which incorporated a guarenteed utilisation by the Emergency Services of a given generation of technology and undertook to supply the Emergency Services with at least a top-of-the-line previous generation of technology would surely generate the required investment intially to ensure that the thru-time transition from first line commercial technology to second (Public Service) use would be easy.

  11. Avatar photo j karna says:

    Is this third-world country capable of getting anything right?

Comments are closed

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