Home Office Reports U.K. Public-Safety LTE Network to See Further Delays
Friday, November 17, 2017 | Comments

A Home Office official said further delays to the U.K. Emergency Services Network (ESN) are likely, and more information will be available once the current review is complete and a final plan is implemented. The U.K. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee examined the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) project for a third time during a hearing 13 November.

The Home Office earlier this year announced a nine-month delay, saying the transition from the Airwave TETRA network to the ESN Long Term Evolution (LTE) network would not begin before June 2018. Philip Rutnam, permanent secretary, Home Office, this week said further delays are likely.

“We are now reviewing the timetable for the program — both schedule and cost — because since the department came to the committee last, there have been further delays,” Rutnam said. “It is clear that the program will take longer, but I am afraid I cannot give you a date now for when the program transition will begin, because we are in the midst of that review.”

Parliament member Nigel Mills asked if the Home Office has given notice to Airwave or Motorola that an Airwave service extension could be necessary. Officials said the full cost of operating both Airwave and the existing broadband services for the three emergency services is at least £360 million (US$475 million) a year.

Stephen Webb, Home Office senior responsible owner, ESMCP, said the Home Office has a contractual requirement to give Airwave notice by the end of 2018. “Obviously we are involved in some discussions and will want to look at these things in the round, looking at both ESN and the Airwave part of the solution, but we have not made any final decisions yet. That will obviously depend on the plan,” he said.

Mills asked whether the suppliers, EE and Motorola Solutions specifically, were to blame for the delays. Rutnam declined to place blame but said “our suppliers have given us contractual commitments, and we will be holding them to those contractual commitments.”

Mills then asked whether having Motorola own Airwave and be highly involved in the ESN exacerbated the program’s difficulties. “Do you have any concerns about having the same company on both sides?” Mills said. “That is not a contractual situation that we generally like to get into.”

Rutnam said there are some advantages in the relationship with Motorola, along with commercial risks. “I am clear that we need to use the advantages while managing the commercial risks,” he said. “We will be taking a very robust approach in our relationship with Motorola, for whom this is an absolutely critical program.”

“Having the same supplier providing the old solution and the new has enabled it to develop the interworking solution, which will make the transition process considerably easier than it might otherwise have been if you had two completely different suppliers,” said Webb.

Earlier this year, the Home Office received information that Vodafone plans to switch off Airwave from 31 March, 2020, as part of the original contract Vodafone had with Airwave, now owned by Motorola. The Vodafone service includes the core network connectivity for the TETRA network’s core switches, radio sites and control rooms.

Webb said a technical solution for the Vodafone issue is available, and Motorola should mostly bear the cost to implement it. Rutnam said he expects the two companies to work out a solution.

“The Home Office has a contract with Motorola, or a subsidiary of Motorola, for the provision of the Airwave service, which includes the ability on our part to require that service to be extended beyond December 2019,” Rutnam said. “… Vodafone is a supplier to Airwave. I would expect, first, to hold Motorola to account for delivery of the extension of Airwave, and to do so on the best commercial terms we can achieve … I think that we have significant leverage there, in fact. Secondly, if Motorola needs support in its negotiations with Vodafone, or if it needs to be clear from the government that we expect those two parties to agree, then we can make that clear. But I do think that they are two large, grown-up organizations that ought to be able to resolve it between themselves.”

The Home Office officials were also asked about coverage, capacity and network operation in difficult environments.

“What EE is able to demonstrate is a series of routes of prioritization that would ensure that those emergency service users always got the coverage they needed and, even in the most extreme scenarios, with relatively little impact on the wider general public,” Webb said. “Actually, this approach of doing it over a commercial network probably gives you more confidence that that would be possible than if you had a massive surge on the existing Airwave network, which is limited in its capacity and in its bandwidth.”

Rutnam outlined the plan for coverage in the London Underground public transit system, saying 18 kilometers of leaky feeder have been installed with 64 kilometers in total set to be installed by the end of the year.

Air-to-ground communications is an area where more work is required, officials said. Planes currently have TETRA Airwave coverage with airborne data links. Moving this system to LTE will happen toward the end of the transition period because first responders can continue to use the interworking solution with their existing Airwave solution while interacting with people using ESN on the ground, Webb said.

“This is something we need to finish before we shut Airwave down, rather than before we start transitioning,” he said. “We have interoperability at the moment. The Airwave equipment that they use in the planes will work with the ESN equipment on the ground through the interoperability solution. What we then need to do is put in a new ESN solution and replace the old Airwave one before we get to the point of shutting down Airwave.”

Webb also said the office expects to award its LTE device contract in coming weeks.

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