Emergency-services agencies in the United Kingdom (UK) are expected to stop using the Airwave TETRA LMR system in 2024 or 2025, when the transition to an LTE push-to-talk solution on the much-delayed Emergency Services Network (ESN) is scheduled for completion, officials for the UK Home Office said last week.
“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,” Rycroft said during a Sept. 10 hearing before the Public Accounts Committee of the UK Parliament, which was webcast. “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.”
Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described the ESN initiative to date as “another government failure” and expressed frustration about the new timetable for the project cited by Rycroft.
Home Office officials told the Public Accounts Committee in June 2019 that it had included a contingency budget to extend the Airwave system through 2023. At that time, the UK’s National Audit Office released a report that the ESN project would be £3.1 billion—or $3.999 billion, based on current exchange rates—over its original budget.
Most of this money will go to Motorola Solutions, which owns the Airwave TETRA network.
In addition to providing the incumbent TETRA service through Airwave, Motorola Solutions also owns Kodiak, the carrier-integrated LTE push-to-talk solution that UK Home Office officials are relying on to replace the TETRA PTT service provided by Airwave. In the U.S., Kodiak software powers the cellular push-to-talk services offered by carrier giants AT&T and Verizon.
Davinson said the terrestrial LTE network portion of the ESN—being built by cellular carrier EE—is almost complete.
Davinson also expressed optimism about the hardened Samsung LTE device that is being used for the ESN, describing it as “a really good product.” About 1,000 of these handsets are being trialed through the ESN Direct 2 offering, which uses version 9 of the Kodiak software. Plans call for 5,000 more devices to be distributed in April for testing of a new version of Kodiak-based PTT called Prime for a nine months of trials that would extend through 2021, she said.
“Then there is a road map beyond that, where we will go to successive versions of Kodiak as and when they are released. One of the things that we do have in our contract with Kodiak is that they have an obligation—where the 3GPP standard moves, then within 18 months that standard has to be reflected within the Kodiak software. So that gives us the confidence that it will evolve.”IWCE’s Urgent Communications
Davinson said she believe that such PTT trials will greatly enhance acceptance of the ESN within the UK public-safety community—something that has been a problem to date. While the additional delays in the ESN project are not ideal, Home Office officials now are more confident in the new deployment roadmap and timeline, she said.
“What are we doing with the user community? One of the challenges has been that until we have got a real working solution, of course there is skepticism in the user community, because they cannot see, touch and feel something … Over the course of the next few months, we are working with a number of fire and rescue services and with a number of police services. They will have these devices, and we will be working with them to test it in the run-up to them delivering the core, final release, which is called Prime, roundabout Q2 next year.”
Citing the many delays and budget overages associated with the ESN, some in the UK have questioned whether the UK nationwide public-safety broadband is worth completing. Rycroft repeatedly insisted that the ESN project can be finished and provide first responders with communications capabilities that were envisioned initially.
“There is no alternative; or rather, any alternative would be worse than sticking with this program and ensuring that the emergency services have the sort of network and the sort of equipment that they need,” Rycroft said. “The position of the Home Office is that this will succeed; it must succeed; the emergency services need it.
One touchy subject within the UK has been whether the public-safety agencies or the Home Office ultimately will decide when first responders must switch from Airwave to the ESN. Rycroft said that the Home Office continues to want to let public-safety agencies decide when to make the technology migration but offered a significant caveat during a verbal exchange with Hillier.
Hillier noted the important distinction.
Rycroft said he believes that there will be point when public-safety entities will have abandon Airwave, even if they don’t necessarily want to make the transition.
“In the end, I am sure there will not be universally high levels of enthusiasm for this change; I don’t think you find that for any change in any organization anywhere. So, there will come a point where people will need to look very carefully at their own finances— at the … disincentives for not coming across and literally getting with the program.”
But that timeline has not been met, and other public-safety LTE systems—the FirstNet system in the U.S. and the SafeNet system in South Korea—have gained real-world usage more rapidly. However, those non-ESN systems are not specifically designed to replace LMR communications, which public-safety officials have acknowledged is very difficult challenge for an LTE system, for a variety of reasons.