What are the options for ESMC

The Airwave secure digital communications service relied on by all blue light services in Great Britain finishes between 2016-22. Airwave invested £1.4bn in designing, building and maintaining the network, which essentially provides a ‘2.5G-like’ secure voice based service with messaging and low bit rate data.

Given the ‘Critical National Infrastructure’ nature of the system, the high costs and the requirement for extensive support of video and high bandwidth data, the challenges now faced by the Emergency Services Mobile Communications Programme (ESMCP) team in the Home Office are: ‘What do we replace Airwave/TETRA with and how can the country afford it?’

TETRA reliably delivers narrow band, voice dominant services that were purpose designed for secure, fast set-up group and emergency call working. However, times have changed and broadband data is now a requirement that the original TETRA standard arguably cannot deliver – even with the enhanced TETRA TEDS format. 

In Norway, another TETRA stronghold, the national Nodnett service, is to be upgraded with TETRA TEDS to deliver higher throughput data services and extend network life.

Meeting the data demand

Data requirements are, in any case, likely to rapidly outstrip TEDS capabilities as fire and ambulance services are increasingly ‘data dominant’ in their traffic, using data messages for mobilising and communications with mobile resources. Even the police are increasingly dependent on data services to enable more work to be performed ‘in the field’. 

The question remains – how to improve mobile data capability beyond TETRA’s capabilities whilst retaining and then updating the essential secure, reliable and resilient voice services?

The problems facing blue light communications provision in the UK are stark – the ESMCP team have declared no technology preference, have no reserved spectrum and almost no budget for any replacement services. 

Conversely, in the USA, the NTIA First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) has a declared technology preference in LTE, reserved spectrum at 700MHz and a $7bn budget to start on seven regional networks that will be built to a common standard and ultimately interconnected.

Stark choices

We suggest, given the UK’s limited budgets, that the challenges are best met not by a new dedicated ‘blue light network’ but through exploiting commonalities with other procurements and synergistic fusions with other available technologies. This is not fanciful thinking – in New Zealand, the police service has a 10-year mobile communications outsourcing agreement with Vodafone. 

While the ESMCP team ponder the blue light communications options, other parts of UK government are debating their own secure mobile communications requirements. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) intends to award contracts for nationwide Smart Meter secure communications by mid-2013, while the Ministry of Defence (MOD) reviews its 2015 options for mobility services within the Defence Core Network Services (DCNS). 

The MOD is likely to award contracts through the Public Service Network (PSN) Framework and this may be an option for ESMCP. The PSN initiative aims to subsume the Police National Network (PNN), NHS National Network (N3), MOD DFTS and other government networks. To date there has not been a specified ‘PSN Mobile’ requirement, although the six million public sector workers would represent a key target market for a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO)!

Commercial provider option

Improvements for UK bluelight communications start with introducing commercial mobile broadband data services alongside existing TETRA based voice services. A new range of LTE-based mobile broadband services is being launched on the back of the recent 4G spectrum awards and notably Telefonica (O2) acquired 2x10MHz of 800MHz spectrum with coverage obligations to deliver 2Mbps to 98% of UK population and 95% by population of England, Scotland and Wales by 2018. 

The shared use of such network infrastructure – especially in more remote areas – would offer a cost effective bearer service for many different communications needs. Routine transmission of smart meter data and rural wireless broadband traffic could be pre-empted, when necessary, by higher priority blue light communications. 

There are two UK mobile network infrastructure operators – Cornerstone (Vodafone and O2) and MBNL (EE and Three UK) – who increasingly use third party site managers such as Arqiva to deliver coverage. The consolidation of the UK’s cellular operating companies has significantly reduced system resiliency previously inherent through separate networks. 

However, an opportunity exists to create a new diverse routed fibre backhaul service with Network Rail, whose extensive GSM-R train communications system approaches a national footprint and is engineered to standards comparable to blue light systems. 

The commercial networks will require enhancement to improve their security, resilience and reliability by including diverse backhaul routing to all base stations, battery backup and reserve power at base stations and switch centres, increased spares holdings at distributed logistics centres and the introduction of multi-layer end-to-end security services.

Benefits of faster networks

The introduction of dramatically faster data services will provide the opportunity for police, fire, ambulance and other first responders to develop innovative uses of data and different methods of working. Whilst the reliability and availability of blue light data services should increase with time and investment, new suppliers will be able to enter the market bringing ‘over the top’ (OTT) services including emergency service specific applications. 

These developments are expected to mature over the next two to four years and to buy time when used alongside life-extending Airwave TETRA based voice services. 

Looking forward to the 2016-18 timeframe, there is likely to be further spectrum re-farming with the digital TV 700MHz band being cleared on a globally agreed process. This process will permit time for the development of fast setup group voice call services over LTE bearers and the emergence of toughened and secure terminals suitable for the blue light services thanks to the US FirstNet initiative. 

Clearance of the 700MHz band is being targeted specifically to the requirements of public safety and disaster recovery services worldwide and should dramatically improve the efficiencies of scale for this restricted market. The UK should also move in this direction.

Summary of options

In summary, the completion of the Airwave contract is highly unlikely to be followed by another communications system dedicated to the blue light services. For financial reasons, life extending Airwave’s voice service system, whilst augmenting it with data services delivered via a shared services model, is proposed. 

This can either leverage other major (but so far unrelated) procurements or be based on commercial mobile broadband services, suitably enhanced for security, resilience and reliability. In time, as the fruits of the US FirstNet initiative feed through and the UK clears the 700MHz band, then first responder quality voice services can be migrated onto next generation wireless bearers carrying both voice and data traffic. 

The consolidation to the two main cellular infrastructure operators offers a cost effective platform for the delivery of high grade voice and data services. Novel topologies with different communications services from remote rural to dense urban areas can offer pre-emptive rights to blue light traffic.

The transition to a new blue light communications environment is an opportunity for UK innovation. Airwave once led the world with the largest networked TETRA national infrastructure, but now the UK could lead by showing how the transformation to the next generation takes place. TETRA systems will all need to be replaced over the next 10-15 years, so why not have the UK lead the way?

About the author: Guy Kenyon is an independent communications and security consultant. He is a Chartered Engineer, FBCS and MIET. Previously with Northrop Grumman Information Systems, Guy is a special interest group champion for the Cambridge Wireless Security and Defence SIG www.cambridgewireless.co.uk

Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.